If you are given two options, take the hard one. You'll regret it if you don't

Alison Hargreaves died on K2, the 8,611m `killer mountain' in northern Pakistan. She was 33. A few days before she went missing - and just after her first, unsuccessful, assault on the summit - she spoke to fellow climber Matt Comeskey (pictured left) at K2 Base Camp, about her life, children, and fears for the future of climbing. Steve Boggan (below) introduces the taped interview (right) Alison Hargreaves: the final interview

Steve Boggan
Friday 01 September 1995 23:02

Alison Hargreaves had been dead for nine days when Matt Comeskey marched into the frontier town of Skardu, north Pakistan, with her voice in his rucksack.

Comeskey, 31, a wiry climber from New Zealand, was in a state of exhaustion and some distress. The day after Hargreaves died, he had tried to save one of K2's other victims, Jeff Lakes, a Canadian who had marched for 36 hours to reach Comeskey's tent in temperatures of -20F.

Comeskey warmed him, steadied his breathing and thought Lakes would live. The following day, he woke to find the Canadian lying next to him, dead.

By the time Comeskey reached Skardu with his climbing partners - Kim Logan and Peter Hillary, the son of Sir Edmund, the joint-first man to climb Everest - he was trying to come to terms with the deaths of Lakes, Hargreaves, the American Rob Slater, his friend and fellow New Zealander Bruce Grant, and three Spaniards: Lorenzo Ortiz, Javier Escartin and Javier Olivar.

He had also become acutely aware that he was carrying a piece of history. On 27 July, four days after a failed attempt by Hargreaves to reach K2's summit, Comeskey had conducted - and taped - an interview with her in her tent at Base Camp. It was the last recorded interview with the mother of three and, hence, the last historical record of her state of mind before her death.

The interview, obtained by the Independent and published here, is a moving account of Hargreaves's growing passion for rock-climbing as a girl, her success as a climber, her progression to professionalism and, ultimately, the disillusionment she felt with the "dishonesty" of modern climbing, fuelled by the need to scale popular mountains or combinations of mountains in order to attract sponsors.

She talks of the difficulties of being a woman climber - of the conflict between motherhood and mountaineering. "Alison agreed to do the interview because I intended to use it in a small local climbing magazine to try and encourage more women to take up climbing," said Comeskey. "She was very cheerful and in good spirits, even though, just four days earlier, she had tried to get to the top of K2 on her own, climbed above Camp 4 [at 26,000ft] and was beaten back by the weather.

"She stayed up there in the snow all night without a tent before coming back down. That was the kind of woman she was. Incredibly gutsy. There was a lot of admiration for her courage."

Perhaps her most telling revelation came when Comeskey asked whether she would like to give up climbing to spend more time with her children. Her reply suggested a disillusionment with the sport that she had never voiced publicly.

"I'm so pissed off with the way things are going in climbing," she said. "I think people have always been competitive, but people are getting so dishonest about things and it just pisses me off, basically."

Nevertheless, she said she intended to tackle Kangchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world, after completing her ascents of Everest and K2. Given the time she spent away from her children, however, she said she planned to take them to her Kangchenjunga camp.

In the interview, she describes her Everest ascent and her astonishment at the media response to it. At present, she said, she feels under more pressure than ever before, but at the same time she dismisses it: "I don't give a toss," she said. "At the end of the day, it's me that wants to do it."

Matt Comeskey: Do you just want to give me a brief outline of what you're doing?

Alison Hargreaves: No... [laughs]. Here? In here?

Oh no, just -

Like climbing? All right. Well, I started hill-walking when I was knee- high to a grasshopper - like five or six - with Mum and Dad. Mum and Dad are keen hill-walkers. So I've been doing that for ages. I'm like a part of the hills, really.

I started rock-climbing at school, when I was 13. Hilary Boardman, the widow of Peter Boardman [a climber who disappeared on Everest's north- east ridge in 1982] was a teacher there. Everyone in that school did a morning's rock-climbing. I had really looked forward to that first morning with Hilary for weeks, and it was brilliant, you know? I could sort of channel my aggression, but still use mental agility to get myself up. That was the first rock-climb. And then, when I was 17, I went to Scotland for the first time and did some winter stuff.

I thought you grew up in Scotland?

No, I grew up in Derbyshire, which is like the heart of rock-climbing in the UK. My mum used to teach at a girls' school and my father worked for British Rail - so we could travel anywhere - and mum had a lot of spare time so we went out in the hills. Right until I was 13, 14 that's what I did - tons of it.

When I was 14 we went to Austria and just tramped round the Austrian hills, and that was fantastic. We jumped on the sleeper to come home, and I really didn't want to leave. I rolled up the couchette blind at night and peered out and there were these fantastic, mega limestone rocky walls, and I just burst into tears. I felt that was home and I wanted to stay there. So, when I first went to Scotland, I'd already hill-walked and stuff. At school I was spending lots of time with a girlfriend called Bev, and we hitch-hiked all over the country and used to just go rock- climbing all the time at weekends.

So you were doing extra climbing outside school?

Yes, totally off my own bat. In the summer every evening I would go out, and every weekend was spent canoeing or climbing or both. I did a lot of things at the same time. Hilary eventually said that if I wanted to be really good at either of them I was going to have to give one up because I didn't have time to do both. At the time I was about 15 - you're pretty worried about what you look like at 15 as a girl - and I was building up big, brawny shoulders from canoeing. The other thing is, the rivers in the UK were pretty dirty then and I was capsizing and getting sick.

So you left school. What did you do then?

I come from a very academic background. Both my parents went to Oxford University - they both read maths there, my sister read maths there and my brother, too, went to university. Everybody expected me to just follow them. But I'd discovered climbing, you see. That was my problem: I discovered it too early on. And I was pretty passionate about it, so I didn't feel I could handle going down to Oxford. The idea of going down south away from the rocks was like... no way, you know? I decided that maybe I would be prepared to go to Manchester or Sheffield and read geology - get sent somewhere to study the rocks. But in the end I didn't: I decided to set up a business - a very small business - manufacturing bits and bobs. It helped me going on climbing trips and that sort of thing. It would be about 1980, and it was just the start of the big interest in women's rock- climbing in the UK. There were lots of women's meets and I was invited to go - and so I just spent a lot of time climbing.

What business were you in?

I made stuff like chalk bags [climbing equipment]... the usual kind of things.

When did you start alpine climbing?

One of the first times I went to the Alps was in 1983. I was 21 and I'll never forget the guy I went with. He's one of those guys who could just be in a tent all day long: he could just lie there and probably doze a bit, sleep a bit, maybe do a bit of reading. He's so laid-back he's bloody horizontal, you know? And I'm the sort of person who was hyper, hyper keen just to get to the Alps. We drove all night to get to Chamonix; then, first thing in the morning, I said: "Look, it's three o'clock. What time do the teleferiques [cable cars] finish?" He said: "About half past four." "Oh - we've got time to get the last teleferique." He said: "Oh, bloody hell. We've only just arrived." But Chamonix was fantastic because the weather was perfect for 10 days, and we just did not stop. We did so many climbs. Nothing desperately hard, but a lot of classic routes and that was a really good introduction.

So at what point did you consider yourself a professional?

It was only a couple of years after that I started doing lectures. We went to the Alps in 1984 - we went out in May to try the Matterhorn again, again we went to Chamonix and the weather was fantastic for two days and we went to do a thing called the Super Couloir with a hell of a lot of tackle. It was quite a technical route and surprised a lot of people. Then we went back to Zermatt and did the north face of the Matterhorn; back to Chamonix and did the north face of Courtes; the north face of the Triolet... two or three quite big routes very close together. So I'd done quite a lot compared with the other English women climbers, and I started to get a couple of lectures pretty early on. But I wasn't a professional mountaineer.

Who were the other British mountaineers climbing at the time?

Brede Arkless. She's been climbing since I was little, really. I can't really think of any British women who have been out for a long time. The only woman I know who's been around all the time I've been around and not dropped out is Catherine Destivelle. I went on an international meet in the early 1980s and she came out to the UK. There were tons of women on that, and none of them are climbing any more, apart from Catherine and I.

Why do you think that is?

Lots of reasons. I think women climb before they get married - before they have boyfriends and babies. Then they lose interest, you know? Having children is very fulfilling and a lot of people don't feel the need for anything else. The other thing is, you can't have a job and have babies and climb. There isn't time in life. There is no time. For me that was a conscious decision. Just going back to that question about going professional, I actually wanted children and I also wanted to carry on with the climbing, so I knew if I was going to do both then the climbing had to be limited. If I was professional, I wouldn't want to spend my weekends climbing because then when would I spend time with children? If I spent weekends with children, then what happens to the climbing?

So there might come a point when you stop climbing and devote your time to the children?

I am, actually... just because I'm so pissed off with the way things are going in climbing. People have always been competitive, which I think is fine. But people are getting so dishonest about things and it pisses me off.

You're talking about the 8,000m game.

That's the game I'm in at the moment, so that's the game I know about. I don't know about the high-standard rock-climbing game. I'm not in that at the moment. But this Himalayan game... I don't mind about the competition - it's good, healthy - but I think it's getting a bit silly. So at the moment I'm not sure whether I'll continue to be a 100 per cent professional climber.

Last night, Peter Hillary was saying that in the 1970s and 1980s everyone was going out and doing a Hargreaves. You know - the south face of this and south-west face of that. Now nobody is doing anything like that. It's almost like the 8,000m game is becoming not just about collecting peaks but about collecting sponsorship as well.

That's exactly what I was going to say. The reason people are doing it is because it means something to the general public. It means sponsors. It means you can get the money. That's why.

They're losing a bit of the spirit...

That depends on what you think the spirit is. A lot of people go to Scotland to climb the Monroes because the Monroes are the peaks, the hills over 3,000ft. I think that's great. For example, my father is 60-odd and he'll never in his life complete all the Monroes - there are 277 or something like that and he will never do it. But someone like my father goes to Scotland every year for his summer hols. He spends three weeks with my mother, they go to an area and do one or two a day and they have a great time and it gives them a purpose for the holiday.

It's exactly the same in the Himalayas. People want a purpose to be here because they want to keep climbing, and to do that you have to have the sponsorship or be well funded, but to most people being well funded means you have a long job, which means less time. So you either climb or have the money - everybody knows that battle. The thing with this 8,000m- peak thing is that suddenly it's something that lots of people can do that's new. It's like: "I can be the first Briton to do that." I'm not talking about me, because I'm not interested. But it happens to be a nice thing for the general public to see, something they can comprehend. And it's a thing sponsors can pick up. But in another five, six years all the countries will have had somebody who has done all 14 8,000m peaks and it will have lost its interest.

Do you think people will go back to climbing 8,000m peaks with their own stuff?

They probably will. For a while it's easy sponsorship money, something different for people. I'm not interested. There hasn't been a woman who's done all 14 8,000m peaks. The first woman to do all 14 - there's a good goal to aim for. But I'm not interested.

Why did you go to Everest?

I've always wanted to, since I was a kid. The thing I've always been interested in is snow and white places - it sounds silly, but at school I used to look at books on the Antarctic and I always wanted to join the British Antarctic Survey. I couldn't because I'm a girl.

But I'm fascinated by snowy places. And, obviously, being brought up in a sort of mountaineering, hill-walking background, Everest was always at the back of my mind. It was never, ever at the front of it. The first time I went to the Himalayas, in 1986 with Geoff Lowe and Tom Frost, I was really just interested in technical climbing. I remember hearing at the time that there was an all-women American expedition to climb Everest, called Snowbird, and I remember thinking: "I'm not interested in that." And then, when I got into thinking about solo climbing - this was in 1992 - I started to think I wanted to do some routes in the Alps solo. It's a long story, but basically I'd started to do a lot of solo climbing and then thought it would be great to try and do Everest totally independently, totally under my own steam, without oxygen.

So there was always the dream...

Well, right from 1992, that was the plan. In 1992 I found an expedition that was going in 1994 and worked towards it.It was called the British Mount Everest Medical Expedition. The idea was that they'd have about 60-odd doctors coming up to base camp, being monitored all the way, do research at base camp and then go out again. It was quite interesting, but basically I just bought on to that trip. I just paid my $10,000 to be an extra person. Above base camp I was independent. I carried all my own kit - my tent and food - and didn't have any sherpas working for me at all

How high did you get?

Eight-four [8,400m], without oxygen.

Why didn't you climb it?

It was very, very cold the day I did it. It was a bit like this, really [the K2 ascent]: early on the weather was good and nobody was ready, and then the weather went bad. It just shut everybody down. And then for a couple of days it picked up and I got up to the south col and slept there, and the weather was terrible so I came straight back down again. About a week later I tried to go back up to the south col, but again it was just horrific and I was crawling across the south col to get to my tent. It was really bad the next day so I didn't go anywhere. The following day, I thought: "Well, I can't stay up here any longer. I can only go up or down." So I tried to go up. I'd say I got up to about eight, eight and a half thousand, and my finger-ends had gone numb and I'd lost all feeling in my toes. It was very, very windy, and very cloudy. So I made the decision to come down. It was obvious that if I kept going I'd lose fingers and toes so I turned around and came down. I was feeling great, but I wasn't prepared to lose any digits over it.

I got back to the UK and felt very negative, very anti. I kind of felt that I had given everything I had to give. I'd done everything right, I'd carried huge loads and I was really fit - and the weather just blew me out. For a while I was a bit like, I don't really want to go back but I do want to go back, you know? So, anyway, around about Christmas time I started writing faxes off to various people I knew had got permits. They all turned me down in the end.


Well, they all said my timescale wouldn't fit in with theirs... I think a lot of them probably didn't want my abilities on the team. They didn't know my background, and thought they might be liable if something went wrong. Then this K2 trip came up. Two people had dropped out and I was having problems getting on to other trips and I wanted to do something this spring, so K2 was like the second-best deal. So I said, yeah, I'd go to K2. And then I found out that Russell Bryce had got a permit [to climb Everest].

He was prepared to accept me, but he was going in two weeks. I thought: "Oh shit!" I had only two weeks to organise myself for this trip to Tibet. Not only that, but if I had got any kit that needed freighting out it would have to go in seven days. I was just kind of chasing round.

What about sponsorship?

Well, I didn't have it. I have a business now, AJH. Any sponsorship money I get, I put it into the business, and if I go on an expedition, it's paid for by the business. I've never actually had a sponsor who's paid for an expedition as such. That's not how my sponsorship works, because being a full-time climber you need regular income. I've got kids to feed, a mortgage to pay.

And Russell took you on what basis?

We had a contract. He had a standing contract with all clients saying: "You pay x thousand dollars; this is what it includes..." You know, food here for x nights and so on. My contract was the standard client's contract with certain things crossed out - ie, oxygen and basically any support above base camp. So I had the whole back-up at the base camp, but as soon as my little foot stepped out of the door of the base camp it was: "Bye bye - you're on your own, mate."

Tell me about the climb.

Well, on the north side you've got an ice fall through to the north col, which this year was very straightforward - I was fortunate. On the south col you can't effectively do a solo ascent because if you use the ladders and everybody else's ropes you've blown your solo ascent. But on the north side I was lucky that going through the ice fall to the north col was pretty straightforward. Even though everybody else had put up fixed ropes, I could just crampon straight up.

So you didn't use any of the ropes?

No, none of the fixed ropes.

Gutsy play.

I could have used fixed ropes up to seven-five, but my timescale was putting me in front of everybody else. So even if I'd wanted to use fixed ropes after that, I would have had to wait for them. I wanted to do a totally independent ascent. I wanted to carry my own kit, my own tent, make my own bloody tent platform... goodness knows why, but I did.

I was asked the other day: "What was the hardest thing you did?" and I reckon it was digging out my own tent platform at 8,300m, because when I got to eight-three all of the tent platforms were taken by other tents. And there was a 45-degree slope of ice because it was really dry this year. I saw a very slight dip I could do something with and went across with my ice axe and started chopping away. For about three hours I chopped, and in the end all I could make was a platform about 7ft or 8ft long but about 18in wide. I couldn't physically get it any wider because I was chopping into rocks and I was on my hands and knees like a dog, scrabbling away. I reckon that was the hardest thing I did, putting that platform up. Normally that's what sherpas do for you. Normally Western people who climb Everest arrive at camp and get in the tent and go to sleep, and a lot of people don't realise that's one of the hardest things. The sherpas go up and put the tents up and come back down again. It's really hard work.

So what was it like to get to the top?

Hey, it was fantastic. Seriously, it really was. The adrenalin starts flowing. It was amazing. I had the radio with me. Fortunately, they recorded the radio messages at base camp as I radioed down, and now I can sit back and listen to them. From the south side you just suddenly take a step and you're at the summit, whereas on the north side you come up on this curving ridge and then you see it, 10-15 minutes away.

It's hard to say, but I suppose it would be about half past 10 before I got near the top and I radioed down and said: "Look, I'm definitely going to make it." You're in that frame of mind: whatever happens you're going to get there. When I radioed down I could feel the buzz at base camp. Everyone was really rooting for me, which was really nice and motivated me a little bit. Then, when I could actually see the platform, the original tripod was tucked under the summit. What happens is that when the snow falls it's pushing the summit over. It's curling over like a big meringue, and the summit tripod is actually underneath. From the south side you can't see that.

So Everest is bigger than it was?

I guess so. It thaws and melts. I suspect it balances out eventually.

What time were you on the summit?



Yeah, it was good. I was going to leave the tent about half past two and it was really cold. I could feel the ground striking up from below and decided to go back in the tent until it was a little bit warmer. I left about twenty to five. It took about seven hours.

Were you surprised by the reception when you got home?

It was just unbelievable. I got off the plane and there were three or four photographers actually within the confines of Heathrow. I hadn't realised that photographers from the main newspapers - not the tabloids - are allowed within the airport. I hadn't realised who they were, these guys coming up and taking pictures as we were walking along the corridor. But just after we went through customs and out to where the general public are, I heard a friend shout at me. He said I'd have to run because there were so many reporters. I thought: "What the hell is he on about?" I was pushing the trolley and got through the barriers and the next thing I saw was just a maze of cameras. No kidding - this huge great maze of cameras. Bloody hell! Then this guy who was with me said "Run!" and I started to run. These guys were leaping all over me and the trolley, trying to take pictures. It was just frantic.

Do you feel under a lot of pressure?

Yes, more than I have ever done. But, on the other hand, it doesn't bother me. I don't give a toss. At the end of the day it's me that wants to do this. About a week ago, when I'd just missed the summit [of K2], that was the worst for me.

There are various reasons why I didn't go to the summit. Two days after that I came down. I'm a woman; we have cycles, unfortunately, which you can't help, and it was the wrong time for me. A week ago I was feeling very low, very weepy [she makes a mock crying sound, then laughs]. I wanted to be home on the 14 August, because my son goes back to school on the 19th, which theoretically would give me four to five days before he went back to school. But I realised that if I go back on the 14th I just have to go straight to Germany because there's a trade show there that the Department of Trade and Industry want me to be at. So I wouldn't be at home anyway. Now I want to stay here and try and get the mountain done.

What was it like when you got home after climbing Everest?

I was literally getting to bed at one o'clock in the morning and getting up at four or five. It was non-stop. I've always been a busy person because I can't stand not being busy. I've always had lots of things to do, bitten off more than I could chew. I was very tired after Everest and I didn't really realise it. I could just have done with rest really, because I had four days in Kathmandu when I could have rested. There were so many expeditions around and everyone wanted to take me out to celebrate and I just didn't go to bed at night. You go down from 8,848m to whatever it is at Kathmandu and you just don't need to sleep. So when I got home I could have done with just relaxation.

I arrived in Glasgow at two in the morning and was woken up at seven for a press conference at eight that lasted all day. Right through the next 10 days there was nothing but interviews. And the other thing was that the kids were wanting attention and I wanted to see the kids. In the end I took them away for the weekend. Nobody knew where we were going: we just cleared off and went to a friend's caravan at the coast.

Do you think a woman climber needs to be tougher than a man?

I don't know. I feel that slightly... I don't know. I've always had a chip on my shoulder, I'm sure. I was at a climbing dinner once when a very well-known climber came up to me and said: "Are you a roadie?" As far as I was concerned, I was there as a bona fide climbing person and for me that was the worst thing he could have said. You know, you get a lot of hangers-on - women just there to sleep around - and that hurt really deep. I think that women in general have to work harder in a man's world to achieve recognition.

Is that why you've specialised in solo climbing?

It sounds odd, but basically what happened is that I didn't have much free time and never knew when my husband was coming home. It's pretty hard to find partners at short notice, so I started to do a lot on my own. The other reason was that we used to go away at weekends and he'd be happy to look after the kids while I went off and climbed for a couple of hours, and I just got into more and more soloing. It was as though climbing on my own was the total opposite of being with two young children. My kids are pretty active, and they need a lot of time and energy, which is great. But sometimes you need 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 kids they demand, 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.

What advice would you give to other climbers?

I guess if you like a bit of a challenge and believe you can do it, just work towards it. And if you are given two options, take the harder one because you'll regret it if you don't. At least if you take the harder one and fail you'll have tried. If you take the softer one you'll never know about the harder one. I reckon it's pretty good advice. I think it has worked for me when I think of the times there's been a choice of decisions to make.

You could have gone home, basked in the glory of what you'd done and come back next year. Why didn't you?

I don't know, really. I think it was because I'd already organised to come here. I do think seriously there was a very strong doubt that I would come. I was keen to stay at home with the kids. But in some ways you could say it was the soft option to come here - you know, to let things cool down.

You see, I left for Everest last July, so I will have been on three expeditions in 12 months, and on three separate occasions to 8,000m. I think it takes its toll. You know, if I do summit K2 I might just feel I'm on a roll and want to keep going. I've been invited on a trip this morning. George Band was the first to climb Kanch [Kangchenjunga] 40 years ago. And he's actually leading a trek up there this autumn. He asked me to go out there with him as well and try and climb it while he was there. I said: "Well, I just don't know how it's going to fit in." I came away thinking, is it worth organising? Or will I be too knackered? But if I do summit I might be very keen to get things rolling quickly.

But, obviously, kids are a big consideration if they're going to come with me to Kanch. But, again, that takes even more organisation...

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