Louise Jury and Charles Arthur chart the achievements of the woman who claimed to 'have an ego as big as Everest'.

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The Independent Online
Alison Hargreaves has already claimed her place in climbing legend. If anyone can "do a Houdini" and survive K2, she is the one, her husband, Jim Ballard, said yesterday. Her fierce ambition and commitment has notched up a roll call of mountaineering successes.

While she is acclaimed by colleagues for her climbing skills, her position as one of the few world-class women in the field has grabbed the public imagination. She has two children - Tom, six, and Kate, four - and makes great profiteroles, her husband once said.

But her mountaineering ability is greater. In 1988, she was six months pregnant with Tom when she became the first woman to scale the north face of the Eiger. She was clambering around the Highlands when her waters broke. In 1993, she climbed solo the six classic north faces of the Alps in a single season, a feat which she later described in her book A Hard Day's Summer.

But her sights were set on the world's three highest peaks: Everest, K2 and Kanchenjunga. On the back of her successful Alpine season, she made her first attempt on Everest last year. For the first 18,000 feet, the children went too. But she turned back in bad conditions only a few hundred feet from the top - a decision which won praise from mountaineers, who value the ability to weigh up dangers and take difficult decisions despite extremes of physical and mental exhaustion.

Undeterred, she returned this year. In May, she became the first woman to climb Everest solo and without oxygen, taking the most arduous North Ridge route. "It was a very emotional experience for me. It had all been such hard work," she said of reaching the summit.

She returned home to a heroine's welcome - but within two weeks, after spending time with her husband and children, was heading for K2, a far more difficult and dangerous challenge.

Her life as the greatest female mountaineer in Britain, and arguably the world, began when she started rock-climbing at 14 in the Peak District. She graduated to Scottish winter climbing in 1979 and the Alps in 1983. Mountaineering became her life. The family sold their home and lived in an old car for months to fund her first adventures. As her reputation grew, she earned a living by lecturing and writing. Yet she still found time for Jim, 15 years her senior, and their children. To Ms Hargreaves, the Scottish mountains near her home at Spean Bridge, Fort William, were little more than a gentle warm-up, treks she often carried out with her husband and children at her side. She described "bearing two healthy, lively children" as her finest achievement.

She once said: "I've got an ego as big as Mount Everest. I am not generally superstitious, but I make a point of never saying goodbye, just au revoir."