Everest, and now the highlife calls for Alison

Climbing/ risen star
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THE Alpine Club's lecture theatre supposedly holds 110 people. Last November almost 200 members and guests squeezed in to hear a talk by Alison Hargreaves.

This was five months before she made her astonishing ascent of Everest, reaching the summit - as she did last Saturday - alone and without oxygen cylinders, one of the outstanding feats in the history of mountaineering.

Yet, as the attendance at the Alpine Club's headquarters near the Barbican, central London, testified, she already had a high reputation among the climbing cognoscenti. In the event, the club members found her talk about her previous ascents somewhat low-key, illustrated with an indifferent selection of slides. At the same time they warmed to her modest approach, finding her, in the words of club secretary Sheila Harrison, "astonishingly normal".

The fact that Hargreaves has only now burst into the headlines helps illuminate the nature of celebrity in the outdoor world. A sturdy 5ft 4in, with endearingly fresh-faced features, Hargreaves should have been a media gift. She has two children - Tom, aged six, and Kate, four - who have been accustomed to wait for her at the foot of her climbs, and she ascended the most notorious north face of the Eiger when she was five months pregnant.

Yet until now she has been reluctant to play the media game. She is sparing with her account of her emotions and motivations. She talks less of the romance of mountaineering than its practicalities. When asked why she climbs, she is apt to deliver a terse one-liner: "Because I enjoy standing on top."

Now 33, Hargreaves was inducted into the mountains at the age of six. Her parents - both Oxford maths graduates - took her walking near their home in Derbyshire and during holidays in Scotland and the Lakes. She became hooked on climbing at 13: "Any opportunity I had to go rock climbing, I took." She too was due to study mathematics at Oxford, but renounced academia for climbing. "It took over. I really desperately wanted to go climbing all the time."

At 21 she made her first venture to the Alps and soon racked up an impressive series of first British women's ascents. In 1988 she married a Yorkshire climber, Jim Ballard, who is 16 years older than her and had been running a climbing shop. He gave up work and became her supporter and househusband so that she could climb full-time. They lived first in Derbyshire, later moving to Spean Bridge near Fort William, Scotland.

In 1993 she made a bravura series of ascents in the Alps, climbing six north faces within two months. She climbed them alone, when the risks are multiplied because there is no partner on your rope to hold a possible fall, although for Hargreaves - pragmatic as ever - this was mainly a matter of convenience. "It was just practical for me to go off and climb while my husband was looking after the little ones. It just seemed to suit."

By then Hargreaves was thinking of Everest. The prize for the first British women's ascent had been taken in May 1993 by Rebecca Stephens, a former journalist with media contacts and companions experienced at finding sponsors. Heavily backed by the courier company DHL, Stephens made a gutsy ascent by the traditional South Col route, forged on the triumphal British first ascent of 1953 and followed by most climbers since.

Hargreaves set herself a more ambitious objective: an ascent by the north- east ridge, where the British pioneers had failed six times during the 1920s and '30s. She further stacked the odds against herself by renouncing supplementary oxygen and by attempting the even more audacious feat of climbing alone.

Hargreaves first hoped to attempt the ridge last autumn but could not find a sponsor. She eventually received the backing of an eclectic group including manufacturers Sprayway, Polisox, Ferrino, Jordans, and the Nevis Range Ski Centre.

Even so, says her husband,there was nothing to spare. This time, because Tom had started at school, he and the children stayed at home in Spean Bridge. "She left just enough in the bank account for food and rent until she was due back."

After flying to Lhasa, Hargreaves reached base camp on the Rongbuk Glacier in mid-April and spent the rest of the month acclimatising and ferrying her equipment and supplies up the mountain. She was ready to wait until June for clear weather but it came far earlier than expected. She left advanced base at 6,400 metres on 11 May and camped that night at 7,700 metres. The next night she set up a final camp at 8,300 metres - 550 metres below the summit.

Although overnight temperatures plunged to around minus 30 centigrade, 13 May dawned miraculously fine. Hargreaves decided to make a lightweight dash for the summit, carrying only a flask of water, two cameras and a radio. She set off at 4.40am and watchers from base camp saw her disappear into the shadows as she tackled the two crucial obstacles on the ridge, the First and Second Steps.

She emerged into the sunlight each time and around 11am approached the summit's pyramid. This, she said afterwards, was the most worrying moment of the ascent, as the snow was sugary and unstable. Once she had climbed it, and could see the final summit cone, she burst into tears - "because I knew I was going to make it". She reached the summit at 12.08pm and radioed back to base camp: "To Tom and Kate, my two children. I am on top of the world and I love them dearly."

Hargreaves waited 45 minutes before starting back down. She took great care on the descent - "I knew the euphoria would be gone" - and spent the night in Camp One. She reached base camp the next day, apparently with no after-effects from the lack of oxygen at high altitude.

She returns to Scotland this week, but plans to return to the Himalayas to attempt K2, the world's second highest mountain, next month. If all goes well she would like to climb Kanchenjunga - the third highest mountain - in the autumn.

In a rare moment of introspection last year Hargreaves revealed she feels she has "something to prove". She added: "It would be nice to be totally happy with what you've got. But I'm going to be one of those people never content with my life. I'll probably live my life aiming for something new."

At least, says her husband, success on Everest has brought one significant change. Media bids of up to six figures have been flooding in and David Frost wants her on his show. Pakistan Airlines is offering free flights for her next trips and other potential sponsors are vying for her attention.