Scottish Mountaineer Extraordinaire
There are fourteen mountain peaks with summits above 8000 metres. Alison Hargreaves would have probably climbed them all, but she never had the chance. She was killed in a storm while descending from the second highest peak in the world, K2. But, she was on her way down, so she had, in essence, completed two-thirds of her planned conquests for the season of 1995. Her goal was the ascent of the three highest peaks in the world, in one year, without supplemental oxygen and without sherpas to carry her gear. She was well on her way, when disaster struck and killed Hargreaves and six other climbers. She was 33 years old. She had clearly lived and died in accordance with her motto;
It is better to have lived one day
as a tiger than a thousand as a sheep.
Alison Hargreaves was born on February 17, 1962, in Mickleover, a suburb of Derby. Her mother Joyce had been a mathematics teacher but wouldn't work again for several years until after the birth of Alison's sister Susan, at which point she would resume her career as a headmistress of a girl's high school. Her father John worked on computer techniques for the British Rail System, analyzing schedules, timetables, etc. He also loved the outdoors and would be a major factor in Alison's early years on the crags.
Alison's determination was apparent by the age of three, when she would allow nothing to stand in the way of her will. If a temper tantrum wouldn't suffice then "holding her breath 'til she exploded" just might. With her father and sister, mountain treks were the happiest time of her early years. In 1970 at the age of eight, while climbing Snowden with her family, they became disoriented in a mist and ended up on a "knife-edged" ridge with steep drops on either side. Alison was exhilarated, not frightened. In a demonstration of effortless ability, a year later Alison climbed Ben Nevis, Britain's highest summit at 4,406 feet. She was on her way.
In 1971, Alison's family moved to Belper, near the Peak District National Park, which would prove to be the perfect training ground for Alison's future mountain assaults. Here she would develop grace and patience which she learned were bigger keys to climbing success than strength and adrenalin. She began to sense a certain "choreography" in climbing, the feeling of a "floating, graceful dance." In the ensuing years, she purposely climbed every variant of terrain and used every technique available, to continue up the scale of difficulty necessary to reach the heights she now envisioned. She loved both the mental and physical challenge and began to seek a more difficult climb each time in order to regain the satisfaction of earlier climbs. From the Roaches, to the Quartz Icicle, to the Aiguille du Midi in the French Alps, to the north face of the Matterhorn, Alison climbed.
In 1977, Alison had her first serious fall, resulting in "down time" that would alter her life. She took a part time job at a climbing shop in the Derwent Valley, the Bivouac, the owner of which she would eventually marry and have two children. Jim Ballard would initially be a big boost to Alison's career and would push her to excel. Alison even began to manufacture a line of climbing gear, the Faces, and for a while everthing seemed fine. In the end, Allison would seek to end that relationship due to mental and physical abuse, but it never happened due to her untimely death. she would eventually be attacked in the press for leaving behind two motherless children. Friends say her determination to continue to climb as a mother was partially due to a desire to be financially able to leave that marriage with her children intact, but it never happened.
Hargreaves notoriety began to peak after she climbed the Eiger Nordwand in 1988, while six months pregnant. It continued when in 1993, she made solo ascents on the six classic north faces of the Alps: the Matterhorn, the Grandes Jorasses, the Cima Grande, the Piz Badile, the Drus, and the
Eiger, in one summer. This was another first, for anyone, man or woman. Climbers climb mountains because "it's there" but Hargreaves also wanted financial success and knew that was possible with a continuation of prestige ascents of 8000 metre peaks. And it was here that her goal became crystal clear, to ascend and summit the world's three highest peaks (Everest, K2, and Kanchenjunga) without supplemental oxygen. It would be a first.
So it was, that in the summer of 1995, she would be the first female to pull off an oxygenless solo ascent of the North Ridge of Everest. Without Oxygen or fixed ropes or sherpas to carry her gear, she reached the summit with a clear and analytical head, wishing her children well and calling it the "best day of my life." Remarkably fresh and showing no signs of fatigue or weight loss, it was clear to others, when she returned to base camp, that she was indeed, "a climbing animal and well adapted to big mountains." Now, two more this year and the phenomenal feat of three such climbs in a year, would be hers. K2 was next.
Three weeks later, Hargreaves arrived at the K2 base camp but then had to virtually remain there for six more weeks due to storms. Finally, after four days of grueling climbing, she reached camp 4 at 26,000 feet. Another climbing party, headed by American Rob Slater, was already there appraising the situation. But the sky was clear and the summit was visible and only twelve hours away. Both She and Slater would later be accused of "reckless enthusiasm"; Slater's motto for this climb was "summit or plummet." And, off to the summit, they went. Hargreaves, Slater and four climbers from a New Zealand-Canadian team headed for the Abruzzi Ridge.
In a while, they met up with five Spanish climbers at a spot considered to be sort of a point of no return, The Bottleneck, an icy traverse with cliffs above and below. It was here that the weather began to take a nasty turn. Two climbers turned back and watched as Hargreaves and the others crossed the traverse and "disappeared in clouds." A little later, another turned back, but Hargreaves, Slater and Oliver radioed camp that they had reached the summit. There was a full moon and the descent look promising; but not for long. Mother nature had kicked up a storm with a wind blowing at 140 mph. Hargreaves and comrades would not be heard from again.
Now the second-guessing began in earnest; was it blind ambition or were they "blinded to the telltale signs of the approaching storm?" One of the Spanish team that survived,Jose Garces, surmises that at least an hour before the storm, with the sun setting in the distance, Alison Hargreaves was in climbing heaven. Climbing strongly as she passed Garces, her only words were, "I'm going up." And that she did.
Only five women have reached the summit of K2. Three of the five died descending from that peak. The other two later died on other mountains. There is no woman alive today that has summited K2.
Lydia Brady of New Zealand also claims to have been the first to solo Everest unassisted and without oxygen, but she returned without photographic proof and her claim has been under scrutiny ever since.
Regions of the Heart; The Triumph and Tragedy of Alison Hargreaves; David Rose and Ed Douglas, Published by the National Geographic Society. 2000.