OBITUARY: Alison Hargreaves

Alison Hargreaves will be remembered in the history books as the first British woman to climb Everest without supplementary oxygen, but that bland, statistical label represents just one incident, albeit momentous, in a life devoted joyfully to mountaineering.

Hargreaves grew up in the Derbyshire town of Belper, on the edge of the Peak District. Family holidays in the mountains instilled a love of wild country and by the age of 15 she had started rock climbing, inspired by the outdoor pursuits teacher at Belper High School, Hillary Collins, wife of the outstanding mountaineer Peter Boardman. Despite promising academic results, Alison left school at 18 and rather than go to university set up a mountaineering equipment company with the man she later married, Jim Ballard. Convinced of her climbing talent from the start, he adopted a supporting role, encouraging her to fulfil her potential.

In the early Eighties it was still quite unusual to see women rockclimbing to even a moderately high standard, despite the common knowledge that technique counts far more than brute strength. Hargreaves had natural athleticism, more importantly she had the inner drive and enthusiasm to push herself and to translate her climbing skills to the big glaciated mountains of the Alps, reporting her adventures in the Alpine Journal. Already she was making her name as an outstanding British woman climber, unashamed to blow her own trumpet, unembarrassed by her own ambition. Perhaps for that reason she was always something of an outsider, never quite pukka in British climbing circles, where the prevailing ethos remains one of masculine rubbing-shoulders-in-the-pub bravado, veiled by disingenuous understatement.

America was predictably more welcoming and in 1986 the famous Utah climber Jeff Lowe invited Hargreaves to join him on an expedition to Nepal with his fellow Americans Tom Frost and Marc Twight. Suddenly, at the age of 24, Hargreaves found herself in the Himalayas with some of the world's best mountaineers, pioneering a hard, technical new route on the stunning peak of Kantega. From the 6,779m summit, she had her first view of Everest, 15 miles to the north and over 2,000m higher.

When I met Hargreaves in Chamonix later that summer, radiant with success, it was obvious that she would return to the Himalayas and that sooner or later she would have to climb Everest. First, though, there were other things on her agenda. In 1988 she became pregnant and decided wisely not to risk the life of her unborn foetus at extreme altitude in the Himalayas. Instead, she travelled to Switzerland, 51/2 months pregnant, and made the first British female ascent of the North Face of the Eiger. Later that year she gave birth to a perfectly healthy son, Tom. Two years later Kate was born.

Climbing remained a constant passion, but Hargreaves now limited herself to days out near home on the rock cliffs of her beloved Derbyshire and an occasional quick foray to the Alps. She gave the impression of being a devoted mother, who gave far more warmth, love and fun than many a busy career woman away all day in the office and, when she did embark on the next big mountain project, the family went with her. The target she set herself was to climb all the six most famous Alpine North Faces in a single summer, alone.

It was a glorious family camping holiday lasting several weeks and, as Alison celebrated in her book A Hard Day's Summer - with just a touch of poetic licence - the actual time she spent climbing on the successful ascents totalled under a day. Some people criticised her for climbing solo; those who knew her realised that she had the competence and the caution to maintain almost complete control. That caution surfaced again in October 1994 when she finally made her first attempt on Everest. Alone above the South Col at about 8,500m, going strong without any supplementary oxygen, knowing that the prize was probably attainable, she decided to turn back; her fingers and toes were turning numb and she was not prepared to risk frostbite.

Six months later she was back, this time on the North Face of the mountain, following the route pioneered by George Mallory and his companions in the 1920s. Taking advantage of warmer spring weather, she made a very rapid ascent, reaching the summit at midday, just three days after leaving advance base. Despite the presence of numerous other climbers on the mountain, she insisted resolutely on carrying all her own gear, pitching her own tent, and surviving without the aid of supplementary oxygen; and she maintained the control to make an immediate and rapid descent from the summit, returning completely unscathed.

I last spoke to Alison Hargreaves in May, just after her Everest climb. What shone through her was her obvious enjoyment of the whole experience. She was 33, at the height of her powers, riding a wave of success, looking forward to setting off again, this time on her first trip to the Karakoram range in Pakistan. There, she completed the unprecedented feat of reaching the summits of both Everest and K2 without oxygen in the same summer. She reached the summit of K2 last Sunday, but died in a blizzard on the descent. One reaches inevitably for the old platitude that "she died doing what she loved" because, in this case, it is genuinely true. Her enthusiasm remained unaffected by professional success and she managed the almost impos-sible feat of combining motherhood with high-standard mountaineering.

Alison Hargreaves, mountaineer: born 17 February 1962; married Jim Ballard (one son, one daughter); died K2, Karakoram 13 August 1995.

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