Hargreaves was born in 1962, and grew up in Belper, Derbyshire, the middle child of three. Her family were often out walking on the English hills, and aged nine she had raced ahead of them to be the first to the summit of Britain’s highest mountain, Ben Nevis. She was introduced to rock climbing aged 13, preferring to climb than to study for Oxford as her parents had done. Aged 16, while working in a climbing shop, she met amateur climber Jim Ballard, nearly twice her age. She left home two years later to live with him. The couple ran an outdoor equipment shop, while Hargreaves trained and climbed in her spare time. By her mid-20s, she had climbed in the Himalayas, but in 1988 - the year she married Jim - she was back in the Alps, notably climbing the north face of the Eiger while six months pregnant with Tom. Her second child, Kate, was born two years later.
By 1993, Alison and Jim were in so much debt they had to leave their house. They relocated to live in Switzerland, in an old Land Rover, so that Hargreaves could continue to climb. That year she became the first person ever to scale the six north faces of the Alps alone and in one season. This brought her media and sponsorship attention. She wrote a book about the feat - A Hard Day’s Summer - but it was poorly received, and money problems continued.
Hargreaves decided that her next project - for personal and financial reasons - should be Everest. She bailed on a first attempt in 1994 fearing frostbite, but a second attempt in May 1995 succeeded, making her the first woman to reach the summit alone and without supplementary oxygen (the first man was Reinhold Messner - see Death on Nanga Parbat). She quickly made further plans to conquer the second two highest mountains in the world (K2 and Kangchenjunga). After a brief trip back to see her family in the UK, she returned to the Himalayas in June to join an American team with a permit to climb K2. For weeks, stormy weather kept the team at base camp. By August, remnants of the team had joined up with members of other teams from Canada and New Zealand. Peter Hillary,
On 13 August, Hillary decided to turn back and go down, forecasting a change in weather conditions. However, Hargreaves and Spaniard Javier Olivar saw fine weather and made for the summit, reaching it at 6.45pm, making Hargreaves the first woman to conquer both Everest and K2 without supplemental oxygen or support. Four other climbers reached the summit behind them; but then all six died in a violent storm on the way down. A seventh climber that had turned back below the summit died later from the effects of exposure. The next day two other Spanish climbers, lower down, saw debris equipment, and a body in the distance, and concluded it was Hargreaves who had been blown off the mountain in the storm.
Hilary, in an interview with The Independent, noted that a bizarre chemistry had developed among the several expeditions on the mountain ‘that meant they were going for the summit no matter what’. Of Alison, in particular, he said: ‘[She] was a brilliant climber but she had tremendous commercial pressures on her and she became obsessed. When you spoke to her it was clear that climbing came first and everything else was secondary.’
Further information is available from Wikipedia, Encyclopedia.com, a Guardian interview with Jim Ballard, the BBC, or The Independent’s obituary. Alison and Jim’s son, Tom, has been in the news recently, since he became the first person to climb solo all six major north faces of the Alps in one winter - see The Telegraph, for example.
Hargreaves left behind a large volume of diary material which, apparently, were fought over by her husband on one side and her parents on the other. In any case, two journalist/climbers, David Rose and Ed Douglas were given access to them for their sympathetic biography Regions of the Heart - The Triumph and Tragedy of Alison Hargreaves (Michael Joseph, 1999).
The authors say: ‘Alison’s diaries provide a record of her life which is well in excess of a million words. For the period 1973-92, the quotations from them found here were copied by us from the originals, which were left at Meerbrook Lea when the house was repossessed in 1993 and rescued by her parents. Later diary entries were published in her own A Hard Day’s Summer (Hodder & Stoughton, 1994) and Jim Ballard’s One and two Halves to K2 (BBC Books, 1996).’
Unfortunately, their book quotes very few actual diary entries, and rarely do they come referenced with a date. The following diary-focused extracts in Regions of the Heart can all be found in the last chapter, Nemesis.
‘ ‘I’ve been missing Tom and Kate today,’ she wrote in her diary as early as 3 July, ‘probably because I have had time to think about them. I’ve half felt like not wanting really to stay and finish this “job off” - but I don’t know if or when I’ll get another chance, so I might regret it.’ ’
‘Cooney remembers her returning in tears on 11 July from one of the agonizingly short telephone calls she made on the satellite phone to her children. ‘I spoke for two and a half minutes,’ she wrote miserably in her diary.’ ’
‘ ‘I am feeling pressure back home,’ she wrote in her diary on 5 August at the height of her crisis. ‘Why I failed, what went wrong. Personally it doesn’t matter but I worry about how everyone else will see it.’ Except, of course, that how others saw her was very important indeed to her self-esteem, and for Alison failure was bitterly personal.’
‘On 5 August, with the porters ready to start carrying her equipment down the glacier next day, she wrote of how she missed the children. She’d now spent more than a hundred days of 1995 away from Tom and Kate. Yet there was still a desire for the mountain, too. ‘It eats away at me - wanting the children and wanting K2,’ she wrote. ‘I feel like I’m pulled in two. Maybe they’d be happier if Mum was around but maybe summiting K2 would help make a better future for them. Long term, having me back safe and sound is surely more important.’ ’ [It’s not clear from the authors’ text whether this last is an actual diary entry or not.]