TELEVISION Alison's Last Mountain (BBC1) Ghoulish or moving? This not-quite-inside story was both.

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
It's primarily since her death that Alison Hargreaves has been described as "mountaineer and mother". Media coverage of her demise chose to imply that this combination of roles is an oxymoron on a par with "stripper and nun". The second occupation sounds like a tut-tut to the first: a dowdy chaperone to a wayward young miss. So the rucksack she humped up the two highest peaks in the world was weighed down by more than just the pans and tent pegs that mountaineering fathers carry. She bore the burden of her own overt symbolism: a woman showing the rest of her sex the way up, literally. As they say in the Himalayas, it cramponned her style.

After Hargreaves's death, the son she bore expressed a wish to her widower Jim Ballard to see her last mountain. Never can the granting of a child's whim have seen such swift and massive mobilisation of support personnel for a trip to such a remote corner. The Inside Story programme that followed them didn't have the inside info on who stumped up for it all (no doubt the licence fee payer chipped in), but in other areas it delivered. After conquering Everest, up which she had to skirt a couple of corpses, we saw Hargreaves predicting in an interview that her attempt on K2 would be "fun". She couldn't have known that this would be akin to the Light Brigade saying their Charge would be "a gas", but as the mountain had claimed a good 50 lives before hers, you'd think she might have had an inkling.

The videotape Hargreaves recorded of her trouble-free ascent was ghoulishly intercut with the pilgrims' progress towards the scene of her death. This could have been merely a heavy-handed flashback effect, but in some sequences the clever juxtapositions took on deeper resonance. As mum clambered alone up a rock face, back home little Katie, a chip off the old block, made the tough vertical ascent into the bath. Plainly it's not just her mother's earrings, retrieved from the mountain by the Pakistani army, that she'll inherit when she grows up.

K2, the lodestar of this funereal train, remained as grimly impersonalised as its name. Why anyone would want to climb it was left unanswered: there was nothing to dispel the theory that mountaineers are motivated by a primordial death wish, but nor was there much to support it. The way is paved for another documentary.

If there was a sense of dense mist left undisturbed by this lump-throated elegy, it was also because of Ballard's sang-froid. Welcoming him, the local tourism director was the one close to sobbing - and not just because of the bad publicity coffins bring to a holiday destination. A stoical maverick, Ballard resisted the camera's probings into his craggy northern core. Movingly, his refusal to grieve in public was grounded in the belief that "few people are able to die in their crowning glory". In his own selfless inquest, he recorded a verdict of death by adventure.