The death of a mother, the pride of a child

Should a parent of two young children climb K2? Pause before condemning such a person

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When Alison Hargreaves died on K2, there were those who said that this kind of mountaineering was inappropriate for a mother of two young children. And there were others who responded sharply that such questions are never raised when a man dies in such a way. Why should a woman not enjoy the privilege of setting herself such challenges?

Our habits of thinking and feeling have an immensely ancient ancestry, and it is true that when a man dies in some dangerous enterprise we tend to think of him as a soldier; and when we think of the wife and children he left behind, the notion of the noble sacrifice he has made comes easily to hand, to help us over the hump of grief.

This is not simply a matter of male privilege. Men are supposed to die, and women are supposed to suffer - a distinction made with terrifying, atavistic clarity during those recent moments in Bosnia where the women were separated from the men and the boys. Men act, women grieve - this is the old order.

And I think it is not hard to concede that this ancient way of feeling should not keep us in its thrall. If it is the privilege of a married man with children to take soldierly risks on the slopes of K2, then it should be a woman's privilege as well. But that does leave the question whether parents of either sex should indulge themselves in this way.

I call it self-indulgence only because Alison Hargreaves herself described solo mountaineering that way in her final interview, published in this paper on Saturday. She said that she had two active children who needed a lot of time and energy devoted to them, and that this was great, but that sometimes you needed a break. "I found that solo climbing was totally opposite to looking after the kids because it's so self-indulgent. When you're with the kids they demand, demand, demand and there's no give, give, give. And of course solo climbing is totally self-indulgent. You do what you want to do."

Imagining ourselves to be entirely theoretical kids, faced with the choice between a vast number of different parental types, and blessed with a knowledge of the ways of the world, I wonder how unattractive we would find Alison Hargreaves's attitude. Of course every child wants security and aims for the benefits of exclusive mother-love. But the entirely theoretical kid I am imagining would be blessed with the foreknowledge that this aim is unrealistic. Love has to be shared. Attention has to be shared.

And then foreknowledge might warn us of another pitfall. Suppose we insisted that nothing less than total parental attention would do, would we still be as keen on this monopoly if we knew it came at a price? Suppose we could have total parental attention for the first 20 years of our life, but the price was that we went through the rest of our lives with our parents hanging round our necks?

Suppose, as it were, that mother forswore her brilliant career as an actress to devote herself entirely to us, but the price was that she stormed around the house in later life, with a cigarette dangling from her lower lip and a hefty Manhattan in her fist, shrieking: "I was brilliant. Brilliant! Visconti himself begged me - he implored me to go on stage. He said, Agatha, you could do anything - you could make Eleanora Duse look like Mary Pickford, but I said no, family comes first, I have to think of the children ..."

A lot of people have lived with some version of this kind of recrimination and many more, aware of the sacrifices their parents have made, might wish, even in the absence of recrimination, that some of these sacrifices had been less onerous. But of course there is a long way between saying that the child of the future might wish for a parent who had found fulfilment in other ways than simply being a parent and saying that this entirely theoretical child might take bereavement in its stride. Going on stage is one thing, the South Col quite another.

This interview between Matt Comeskey and Alison Hargreaves had the particular interest of being a conversation between two climbers about the main issue of interest to them, rather than those which might preoccupy a non-climber. So the two were interested in questions of the difficulty of a task rather than the danger of it.

I think the distinction is worth making. Just as I cannot tell, while watching a workman fitting the cables high up on a newly assembled crane, whether this death-defying individual is someone who seeks his thrills in this kind of job or someone for whom the danger of the job is the price you have to pay to earn a decent wage, so, from a distance, I cannot be sure that the individual climber is more addicted to danger than to difficulty.

If climbers of this kind were shown somehow to be nothing more than a bunch of suicides bent on glamourising their own deaths, if they were no more than addicts of Russian roulette, then one might well say that it would be better for them not to marry and have children. But experience in other dangerous professions suggests that they attract quite a range of different personalities.

Among war correspondents and photographers - professions which for decades now have attracted women - one will come across the same kind of mix. Some photographers will never actually become photographers, however much equipment they drape around their necks, because it is the hanging around the battlefield that draws them, and the wearing of all the schmutter, rather than the actual work. Others may well be addicted to self-dramatisation but have the intelligence to see that the best way to dramatise themselves is by excelling in their profession.

Some are quite palpably seeking death, others are plainly seeking to qualify themselves for a good job on a paper back home. It may be that they all share something - some attraction to danger - but it may be that this element is not all that strong or important. Some people, after all, do not feel themselves to be in danger, such is their confidence in their ability to survive anything.

None of this takes us quite so far as to justify a parent of two young children in climbing K2, but it might at least give us pause before condemning such a parent (of either sex). One might add that while every child dreads losing a parent, nothing gives a child greater pleasure than the thought that a parent has achieved something extraordinary. So some of that mother's achievement will be handed down.

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