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Alison Jane Hargreaves, 1962-1995


Alison Jane Hargreaves had shot to prominence as one of the world’s greatest mountaineers in just a few years, but hers was no casual encounter. Born in Derbyshire in 1962, she acquired a deep and abiding love of the mountains. Introduced by her mother and father in childhood and by her teacher Hilary Collins at school, she clambered over the winter ice on the Kinder Downfall in the Peak District or walked the Welsh three thousanders. She was also a very determined young woman. On her 18th birthday she came down to breakfast with her bag packed and announced that she was moving in with Jim Ballard, whom she later married. Tom was born in 1988 (after the Eiger climb) and Kate in 1991. Jim also climbed and sold mountaineering equipment but acknowledged her superiority at the sport, so during her recent absences on the mountains he had accepted the role reversal of being responsible for Tom and Kate.

During the summer of 1993, the family packed into their old Land Rover for Alison to tackle the six Alpine North Faces. After some very intensive training, her first big route was up The Shroud, the continuous ice climb to the left of the Walker Spur on the North Face of the Grandes Jorasses. Climbing solo without the need to rope up, she could travel very fast and overtook a competent pair of French climbers. Her actual climbing time on the six faces totaled less than 24 hours, which intrigued the French media. There was some criticism that The Shroud avoided the most serious parts of the Grandes Jorasses. To answer her critics, with some razzmatazz she tackled the much more demanding Croz Spur in wintry conditions in a single day, November 10, after being dropped by helicopter at the foot of the face.

After having to turn back on Everest in 1994, she got her second chance in May 1995. Alison undertook an “unsupported” attempt, carrying all her own gear and without the benefit of bottled oxygen, something that previously had only been achieved by Reinhold Messner. On the top, just after noon, she radioed, “To Tom and Kate, my two children. I am on top of the world and I love you dearly.” She took great care on the descent, reaching Base Camp the next day with no apparent after-effects from the lack of oxygen.

After only a brief interlude in the U.K. with her family, where she was feted as a media personality, she was back in the mountains bound for K2. This peak in the Karakoram Range of northern Pakistan has a savage reputation. “I have weighed the risks,” said Alison, “and I believe they are worth taking.” After initial forays on the mountain for acclimatization, Alison and her American partner, Rob Slater, with Bruce Grant and three very experienced Spaniards, set out from Camp 4 at 7400 meters on 13th August. They reached the summit in three pairs between 6:30 and 7 p.m. Over the radio one of the Spanish climbers, Oritz, observed that it was a windless evening, although there was great concern about a front approaching from the north. The storm hit at about 8 p.m. while they must still have been on the exposed upper part of the Abruzzi Ridge. It seems that Alison may literally have been blown off the ridge from about 8500 meters to where her body was found at about 7400 meters. The fate and precise location of the other five will not be known until others attempt the climb next year or later.

I had very much hoped that Alison would have been able to complete her Himalayan Trio with an ascent of Kangchenjunga, but it was not to be. For all of us who climb, the mountains have brought wonderful experiences that, for me and perhaps Alison also, could not be better summarized than in the words of Alfred Mummery. Almost exactly a century ago, in August 1895, Mummery, like Alison, was lost on one of the world’s great 8000- meter peaks, Nanga Parbat. “Mountaineering,” he said, “roused a passion within me that has grown with the years, and has to no small extent molded my life and thought. It has led me into regions of such fairy beauty that the wonders of Xanadu seem commonplace beside them; it has brought me friends who may be relied on in fair weather and foul; and it has stored my mind with memories that are treasures, corruptible neither by moth nor rust, sickness nor old age. It is true that the great ridges sometimes demand their sacrifice, but the mountaineer would hardly forego his worship though he knew himself to be the destined victim. But happily to most of us the great brown slabs bending over into immeasurable space, the lines and curves of the wind-molded cornice, the delicate undulations of the fissured snow, are old and trusted friends, ever luring us to health and fun and laughter, and enabling us to bid a sturdy defiance to all the ills that time and life oppose.” Alison, we mourn your loss, but equally, we celebrate your marvelous achievements. We hope your children, Tom and Kate, will continue to grow in stature and learn to appreciate in the fullness of time what a very special mother you were.

George Band