Mountain tomb a fitting resting place for climbers

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The rarefied reaches of K2, with its cruel ice, barbed shale and 100mph winds, will be Alison Hargreaves's final resting place unless some climber should chance upon her body in years to come.

Like dozens before her, the 33-year-old mother-of-two will be left where she fell, preserved by the cold, possibly buried beneath layers of snow. It is a tomb of which she would approve, according to her husband, Jim Ballard, but it is a lonely place to spend eternity.

No one knows how many climbers have died and been lost on the mountain, but conservative estimates put the figure above 40. Not since 1953, when a man died during the search for an American's body, have lives been risked in recovery operations. At that height, helicopters cannot fly and men are at risk, a senior Pakistan government official said yesterday. "We're not being callous we just don't want to see K2 claiming anymore lives."

There is an implicit warning issued to expedition members before they set foot on K2, at a cost of about $10,000 (pounds 6,250) each which is paid to the Pakistani authorities. "Everyone who applies to go to K2 must get permission from the Ministry of Tourism and they are given a briefing in Islamabad before they leave," said Daniel Lak, the BBC's Pakistan correspondent, who has just returned from the mountain.

"As part of that briefing, you are told that your body will be left there if you die. Everyone [including Alison Hargreaves] usually nods implicit agreement. The few people who don't are told that the cost of any recovery will be deducted from their estate."

But a Briton, Andy McNae, who has climbed in the region several times, recently on nearby Gasherum 4, acknowledged that climbers recognised and were comfortable that their bodies would remain if they perished. "It's a personal thing, but most would say 'leave us up there'," said Mr McNae, of the British Mountaineering Council. "Obviously it's difficult for families who want to know the end of the story, but with the sheer difficulty it's not worth risking another mountaineer's life to recover their body."

Nazir Sabir, who organised Ms Hargreaves's expedition, has witnessed 36 deaths on Pakistan's five 8,000 metre-plus peaks. In 1980, his brother, Inayat Shah, died on Mount Diran; his body is still there.

"It is usually impossible to recover bodies unless expedition members are close to the dead person and not high up a mountain. There is no point risking someone's life to recover a body," Mr Sabir said. In 1991, however, his party was able to bring down the bodies of two Japanese colleagues killed in an avalanche on Mount Ulthar.

During Ms Hargreaves's ascent of Everest, she discovered the desiccated bodies of two dead mountaineers, stranded and lifeless on a ridge. It was for these and others that she left a few silk flowers at the summit.