and CHARLES ARTHUR
Alison Hargreaves, the first woman to scale Mount Everest without oxygen and unaided, was yesterday feared to have died in an avalanche in the Himalayas after scaling the world's most dangerous peak.
While details remained confused and sketchy, alarm over the fate of Ms Hargreaves, 33, and up to six other climbers grew after it was learnt they had apparently been caught in the fall just below the summit of K2 in Pakistan's Karakoram range.
Nazir Sabir, one of the organisers of the expedition, said last night that Peter Hillary, son of Everest pioneer Sir Edmund Hillary and a member of Ms Hargreaves's team, had said her body had been spotted hanging by a rope.
"He said they could see Alison's body hanging somewhere. It was out of reach," he told Independent Radio News. He added that there was "absolutely no chance at all" that she or the other six climbers, who had had to contend with atrocious conditions and winds of up to 100mph, could have survived.
Foreign Office officials in London were yesterday unable to confirm that she had been involved in an accident, said to have taken place last Sunday as the party descended from the summit.
According to Ms Hargreaves's husband, Jim Ballard, Pakistani authorities were thought to be mounting a search for the missing climbers using high- altitude helicopters. However, the hostile terrain and appalling weather will make it difficult for rescue teams and it may be some days before full details emerge.
Mr Ballard, 49, yesterday broke the news to the couple's two children, Tom, six, and Kate, four, that their mother might not return. In doing so he seemed to be preparing himself for the worst. He said she had sent the children a letter from K2 urging: "Be good for Daddy, have a lovely summer and enjoy your holiday. With lots and lots of love from Mum."
Officials at the United States embassy in Islamabad have listed US citizen Bob Slater, Ms Hargreaves's climbing companion, and others in the group as missing. They include New Zealander Bruce Grant, Canadian Jeff Lakes and up to three Spanish climbers who were engulfed by the avalanche as they came down from the 8,611m summit on the south-east ridge.
Mr Ballard said after hearing that his wife was missing: "I have been practising for this day for nearly 10 years, ever since she first started climbing in the Himalayas."
Answering questions at the Nevis Ski Range in the Highlands, where Ms Hargreaves was based between climbs, he said: "It is very unlikely that someone would be recovered from the Himalayas. The mountain will claim Alison to itself, just like it should do.
"If she is dead, she has at least died where she wanted to, and she was on her way down after becoming the one woman to climb the two highest peaks on earth without oxygen in pure style."
Quoting a Tibetan saying which was a favourite of his wife: "It is better to have lived one day as a tiger than a thousand years as a sheep."
Ms Hargreaves was not one to ignore the dangers. Before setting out for K2, she said: "Climbing is my job. It's what I do ... Everybody takes risks and for some people the risks are higher. I have weighed the risks and I believe they are worth taking."
That mental toughness, Mr Ballard said, was a quality that would enable his wife to fight her way out if there was a chance.
It is thought that after more than two months on the mountain, Ms Hargreaves regarded this as probably her last chance to reach the top on this trip. Her original partner, Alan Hinkes, made the ascent on 18 July.
Several parties set out for the summit last Sunday morning, and according to a radio message, Ms Hargreaves and Mr Slater made the peak and were coming down only to be hit by the avalanche just above Camp Four, at about 8,000m.
Fellow mountaineers yesterday acknowledged Ms Hargreaves's mountaineering feats - particularly her achievement in May when she became the second climber and the first woman to make it to the top of Everest unaided and without oxygen.
She admitted crying as she stood on the summit before radioing to her children with the words: "I'm on top of the world and I love you dearly."
To climb Everest had been her ambition, but even before reaching the summit she had set her sights on new targets. Only two weeks after returning home to Spean Bridge, Fort William, in Scotland, she was on her way to the even more dangerous K2, which has claimed more than 40 lives.
Mr Hinkes, 41, said: "I was shattered to hear what has now apparently happened. Inevitably, I can't help feeling that if she had not decided to change partners this would not have happened."
Chris Bonington, Britain's most famous mountaineer, said: "She was an outstanding person in every kind of way, she was not just the best woman climber in Britain, she was one of the best mountaineers in Britain and had contributed an immense amount to mountaineering."
Mr Bonington added: "K2 is a dangerous mountain. There is no shadow of a doubt that she went into it fully realising that. She was taking a series of calculated risks that every mountaineer takes."Reuse content