SATURDAY STORY : The deaths on K2 of Alison Hargreaves and her colleagues were tragic. But she died where she wanted. Angela Lambert tells the story
Two months ago, Alison Hargreaves stood in triumph on top of Mount Everest in the Himalayas, the first woman to ascend the highest mountain in the world by "pure" climbing - that is, without oxygen and by the hardest route. She later told her children that as she stood there, she shouted: "I'm on top of the world and I love you!" The triumph and the paradox of that moment are breathtaking: two perfectly contradictory emotions were in balance - she was on top of a mountain and she did love her children.

Hargreaves returned to Britain in June to find herself famous. Despite having been a significant mountaineer for a decade, recognised within the laconic climbing world as one of its very best and unquestionably Britain's greatest woman mountaineer, it was only with the Everest ascent that she achieved public prominence. She was, on the face of it, an unlikely mountaineer. Her round, smiling face, the small body - she was 5ft 2in - made dumpy by bulky climbing gear, along with the photographs of her staunchly supportive husband and two adorable children - all this made her look deceptively like Mrs Normal. Normal she was not.

"Of course she wasn't normal," her husband told me, in tribute to her yesterday. Jim Ballard, 15 years older than Alison, is himself a climber and a noted mountain photographer. "What made Alison unique was that she was a genius in the field she chose. This explains everything else she did. I don't think you can expect her children to grasp that - indeed, the majority of the population can't. Those of us who have lived with it know that it can be a pain in the butt at times, but at the end of the day it's a privilege."

Back in Britain after conquering Everest, Alison spent a fortnight at home in Spean Bridge, near Fort William, with her family - just a fortnight, before setting off again to join an American expedition to conquer K2, the world's second-highest mountain, in the Karakoram on the Pakistan- China border. Why only two weeks at home? Alison had known well before her Everest climb that she would have to set off again almost immediately. Opportunities to climb K2 are negotiated two or three years in advance, and she had grabbed the slot she was offered. If she were to succeed she needed peak fitness; and, with a few days' acclimatisation, she knew she would still have that in the wake of Everest.

Alan Hinkes, who has been described in the last couple of days as her "climbing partner", was the only other British member of the eight-strong American expedition led by the respected US mountaineer Rob Slater. Although not "regular" partners, Hinkes and Hargreaves go back to 1987, when they first climbed together in Scotland.

Hinkes told me: "I flew out to Pakistan with her on June 11. When we got to the mountain we shared a tent at Camp 1 and Camp 2 and then separated simply because we were climbing at different rates. I ended up at Camp 3 alone, but I had all the equipment so I continued to Camp 4 and went on to the summit alone, in perfect weather, reaching it on July 17."

Hinkes descended and returned to base camp. On the way down he spent some time with Hargreaves. "She was in good spirits and was determined to stay and do the climb. She gave me her final letters to post."

There must be some suspicion that the two climbers fell out. Hinkes denies this: "She's a nice woman, and a good climber. The important thing, though, is coming back, not getting to the top. Perhaps when you're that high up you don't make the right decisions because your brain isn't getting the right amount of oxygen."

Hinkes had been on K2 twice already, and was therefore fully aware of just how dangerous the mountain was. All the mountaineers would have known that already this year three climbers had died and two had been seriously injured on K2. While lacking Everest's height, it is a peak that some highly skilled climbers will not even attempt, so harsh are the conditions. The difference between climbing Everest and K2 is, says one, "the difference between a staircase and a wall".

After Hinkes's decision to go on up to Camp 3, Alison spent the next weeks trudging up and down between the various lower camps, carrying equipment, testing her fitness and resting up on days when the weather closed in. Finally, last week, along with a Canadian, two Spaniards from a different expedition and Rob Slater, she grabbed what looked like a window of good weather, utterly determined to get to the top.

Hinkes says that when he left the area on 23 July the weather was very bad: "The monsoon was moving up. It broke on the 24th and caused horrendous conditions. The tents were flattened by snow. Last week, the other Americans bailed out - they'd had enough - leaving Rob and Alison alone."

According to Hinkes, Alison and Rob Slater must have left base camp on 9 or 10 August. "The weather had probably improved just enough, and by 13 August they would have been near the top. But they left it too late. They were at the end of the weather window and it closed in on them. They got caught out."

Hargreaves would have been attempting the summit through a steady fall of new, powdery snow. The winds - those treacherous winds that make K2 uniquely hazardous - grew stronger and faster. The combination of new snow and rising winds was lethal. At about two o'clock last Sunday afternoon, when the returning climbers were some 1,800ft below the summit, still a hard slog from Camp 4, they were engulfed by snow and swept away. The chances now of any of them being found alive are infinitesmal.

Does Hinkes think they reached the summit? "Not necessarily. There is no evidence for this. All we know is that she was last seen descending."

With hindsight, as we begin to reconstruct that final, fatal expedition, one cannot help wondering whether Alison Hargreaves - renowned as a safe climber - had indeed begun to take risks. This is strenuously denied by members of Nevis Range, her back-up team. One, Alison Hood, says: "It is absolutely not at all the case that she took risks. She was prepared to hang over and wait for more settled weather - there was no pressure on her and no deadline. She could have waited several weeks for better weather if necessary."

Jim Ballard is also emphatic: "She wasn't reckless. Nobody could ever have predicted that the weather was turning bad. Nature is more powerful than anything we can ever do."

And Hargreaves's own rejoinder is on record: "I don't think about death," she said after Everest. "I climb because I love mountains, not because I have a death-wish. Most climbers I know love living more than most normal people. When you are standing at the top of the world you feel very alive. I sometimes wonder if it would be nice to settle down and lead a normal, married life. But I'm not a normal person."

Those who are will no doubt criticise Alison Hargreaves for not being - in the wishy-washy phrase - "there for her children". You might as well criticise an opera singer for not reading bedtime stories. People find their life's fulfilment in doing what they do best. Jim Ballard understands that absolutely: "I can't imagine that I could ever come to feel angry with her. I shall hopefully bring up the children the way Alison did. She spent far more time with them between expeditions than any normal working person ever could.

"We never tried to prepare them for this. Obviously, they knew she was different. I explained to Kate and Tom last night - the most difficult thing I ever did in my life - that their mother's life was shorter than most, but it was shortened in the place of her choosing - which very few people ever have. She chose where she wanted to die."

In retrospect, her last words to her children are poignant. In slow, careful writing to make it easier for small readers to decipher, she wrote, "Be good for Daddy, have a lovely summer and enjoy your holiday, with lots + lots of love from Mum x x x." Then she drew a smiley face.

And now she's dead high up on a mountain: which is what she would have wanted. Cold comfort, perhaps, as all comfort must be to a man newly widowed and two small children whose Mummy is never going to come home again.

Jim Ballard is content that she rests in peace, but he will not let her energy die: "I'm determined that as soon as I can I'm going to take the children to K2 and tell Alison's story in the form of her biography, her message to women: that you can do whatever you want if you're prepared to try. People would say to her, 'Ooh, you are lucky', and she would say, 'Why don't you try?' "