Hargreaves, Alison

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Alison Hargreaves

British mountaineer Alison Hargreaves (1962–1995) was hailed as one of the finest climbers in the world. In 1993 she was the first person to climb by herself, and in one season, the six north faces of the Alps. Two years later she made history again as the first woman, and only the second person ever, to reach the summit of Mount Everest without porters, climbing partners, or supplementary oxygen. Then, tragedy trumped triumph in August of 1995, when Hargreaves's conquering of Pakistan's fearsome K2 ended in her death during the descent from the summit.

Rocks and Rebellion

Hargreaves was born on February 17, 1962, and grew up the middle child of three in Derbyshire, England. Her mother was a teacher and her father a scientific officer, and both were mathematicians and avid hill walkers. From the time she was six, Hargreaves joined her family walking the hills of England and Scotland, and her fearlessness was soon evident. "When she was about 9 years old, we went climbing on Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Britain," her father recalled to David Ellis of People. "Suddenly, she dashed ahead of us, and we got quite worried. We found her sitting quite happily about 500 feet higher up."

Hargreaves's fascination with climbing was cemented when she was introduced to rock climbing at the age of 13. In an interview conducted by fellow climber Matt Comeskey at her K2 expedition's base camp in 1995, and quoted by Julie Smyth of the London Sunday Times, Hargreaves recounted those school days in Derbyshire. "Hilary Boardman was a teacher there. Everyone at that school did a morning's rock climbing. I had really looked forward to that first morning for weeks, and it was brilliant. I could channel my aggression, but still use mental agility to get myself up. That was the first rock climb." By the time she was 14, the diminutive (she was only 5′2″) climber was seeking out rock faces all over Britain. And although Hargreaves took the appropriate tests in high school to follow her parents' and sister's paths to Oxford University, mathematics never really stood a chance. "It took over," she told Peter Gillman of London's Sunday Times. "I desperately wanted to go climbing all the time."

Part of Hargreaves's ambition and decision was undoubtedly fueled by her relationship with amateur climber Jim Ballard. She met him while working in his climbing shop when she was 16, and although he was nearly twice her age, the two eventually fell in love. She left home to live with him at age 18, to the great disappointment of her parents, and the couple married in 1988. Unfortunately, the less-than-warm relations between husband and parents did not improve with time.

Training and Housekeeping

Having officially abandoned her academic pursuits and set up housekeeping with Ballard, Hargreaves was free to pursue her passion at will. The pair ran an outdoor equipment shop, while Hargreaves trained and climbed in her spare time. By the age of 21, she was cultivating an extraordinary stamina by running over the surrounding hillsides for two hours at a stretch. Next up were the Alps, and she then traveled to the Himalayas for the first time in 1986. The year 1988 saw her back at the Alps, where she successfully scaled the formidable north face of Switzerland's Eiger while nearly six months' pregnant with her first child, Tom. When that became widely known after Hargreaves had later achieved celebrity, some criticized her for climbing while pregnant. Her response, as quoted by Joan McFadden of the London Daily Telegraph, was both unarguable and succinct. "I was pregnant, not sick," she said.

Motherhood did change Hargreaves's workload, as she took a four-year hiatus to raise Tom and his younger sister, Kate. She kept herself otherwise occupied as chairman of the local children's playgroup during that lull, and maintained her physical condition with an early morning running regimen. But as with so many other parents, Hargreaves's career drive and ambition soon called once again.

At the Top

Mountaineering is a difficult pursuit for many reasons, but one of the most banal of these can be the most trying: money. Without independent wealth of their own, climbers must rely on sponsorships to provide for such expenses as travel and gear. And, naturally, such funding does not appear unless the climber has proved his or her mettle. Hargreaves's early career had been a financial drain on her family, and this came to a head in 1993 when, again finding no sponsor for her work, the couple sold their home, pulled up stakes, and moved to Switzerland. The family traveled and lived in an old Land Rover, so that Hargreaves could continue to climb. Their sacrifice appeared to pay off that year when she became the first person ever to scale the six north faces of the Alps—the Eiger, Matterhorn, Dru, Badile, Grandes Jorasses, and Cima Grande mountains—alone and in one season. It was a marvelous feat that did attract some sponsorship attention, and it accelerated Hargreaves's reputation in mountaineering circles. But a resulting book, A Hard Day's Summer, had disappointing sales. Despite having made history, Hargreaves had not yet reached the level of financial success that would assure her, and her family's, future.

The allure of the legendary Mount Everest became inescapable for both personal and financial reasons, and Hargreaves made her first attempt on it in 1994. Determined as she was, she aptly displayed her pragmatism by abandoning the ascent just 1,500 feet from the summit because of the threat of frostbite. Smyth quoted Hargreaves's comments on turning back: "My finger-ends had gone numb and I'd lost all feeling in my toes. It was obvious that if I kept going I'd lose my 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." Still, the disappointment was palpable, and Hargreaves resolved to try again.

On May 13, 1995, Hargreaves finally achieved acclaim by becoming the first woman, and only the second human being in history, to reach the 29,028-foot summit of Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen or companionship of any kind. Understandably jubilant about her unprecedented success, her first message was to her children: "I am on top of the world and I love you dearly," as quoted from the London Times. The sponsorship offers finally poured in, and Hargreaves came home a national heroine.

Finest of Mountaineers

Flushed with her singular success, Hargreaves quickly began making plans for the next venture. By conquering the world's remaining two highest mountains—K2 and Kangchenjunga—her thirst for adventure might be temporarily slaked and her family's security would be all but certain. She decided to attempt K2 first, and leave Kangchenjunga until the following spring in order to spend more time with her children. Toward that end, and just two weeks after returning home from what most would call the victory of a lifetime, Hargreaves set out for K2.

With a summit of approximately 28,250 feet, Pakistan's K2 is the second-highest mountain in the world. It has also acquired the dubious reputation of being the most wickedly daunting to climb. Known as the "Savage Mountain," its wildly unpredictable weather and fierce winds have routinely vanquished those who deigned to try and master its heights. As opposed to the hundreds of successful ascents of Mount Everest, there had only been 113 confirmed successes for K2, and of those, a startling 37 climbers did not survive.

Hargreaves arrived at K2's base camp in June of 1995 and promptly sent off a drawing of the mountain to her children, along with loving wishes for an enjoyable summer. Then the frustrations began. She missed good weather for the climb, after deciding to split with her intended climbing partner and join an American team. The stormy weather kept the new group at base camp for weeks; a situation that must have been particularly aggravating to Hargreaves as her original partner had taken advantage of the earlier good conditions to summit on July 17. Finally she ascended to Camp Four, from which the pinnacle was a tantalizing 12 hours away. Then, on a clear and sunny August 13, she soared into the history books once again.

What happened on that date, three months to the day after Hargreaves's historical capture of Everest, remains unclear in its entirety. What is certain is that the indefatigable British woman did indeed reach the summit of the storied K2 and enter the record books as the first woman to climb the world's two highest peaks without supplemental oxygen. What is equally beyond doubt is that a horrific storm prevented her, along with her five fellow-mountaineers, from safely descending. All were lost in K2's fury.


Hargreaves's death reverberated around the world, and much of the press soon lost sight of her incredible accomplishments in favor of exploring rumors about her home life and her fitness as a mother. Once cheered as a woman to be exalted, arguments about the state of her marriage and devotion to her children became paramount. None of this was helped by the ongoing friction between her husband and her parents, as they jockeyed to gain legal possession of her diaries and memoirs. Nonetheless, Hargreaves's achievements could not be denied and time did march on.

By 2006 Hargreaves's children were both teenagers. Her son had begun following in his mother's formidable footsteps by demonstrating both an interest in, and aptitude for, climbing. Her daughter also enjoyed the sport, but had her eye on a career as an actress. Speculation and fascination about their mother's life continued, and was renewed with the publication of such books as 2000's Regions of the Heart: The Triumph and Tragedy of Alison Hargreaves and 2005's Savage Summit: The True Stories of the First Five Women Who Climbed K2, the World's Most Feared Mountain. But perhaps the best way of understanding what drove a woman of Hargreaves's talent and determination is through her own words. Shortly after his wife's death, Ballard told Ellis, "I can hear her repeating her favorite saying, 'One day as a tiger is better than a thousand as a sheep.' That sums up Alison perfectly." And, undoubtedly, the summation of the daughter Hargreaves had left behind was equally telling. "My mother did whatever she wanted to do," Kate told McFadden. "And I'm glad she did." A fitting eulogy for an extraordinary woman.


Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland), May 13, 2005.

Daily Telegraph (London, England), October 1, 2005.

People, September 4, 1995.

Publishers Weekly, May 29, 2000.

Sports Illustrated, August 28, 1995.

Sunday Times (London, England), August 20, 1995; September 3, 1995; June 7, 1998; June 14, 1998.

Times (London, England), August 21, 1995.


"The Last Ascent of Alison Hargreaves," Outside, November 1995, http://www.xs4all.nl/∼rmvl/en/alison.html (January 2, 2006).

"Regions of the Heart," Penguin Group (New Zealand), http://www.penguin.co.nz/nf/Book/PrinterFriendly/0,,0140286748_,00.html?sym=SYN (January 2, 2006).

"Savage Summit," Curled Up, http://www.curledup.com/savagesu.htm (January 2, 2006).