Alison Hargreaves

Approximate Reading Time: 3 minutes

In the winter of 1994, had I bothered to glance a few years into the future I would have seen myself atop some alpine peak, perhaps even on some Himalayan summit, the shackles of expectation long thrown off, released and flying in a world of my own making and, importantly, of my own desires.

I was studying Law at university, or to be more precise I was at university to study law. In truth, immature and unused to the freedom this life afforded and uncomprehending of the kind of responsibility it entailed, my social life took over and nights out took on a significance far greater than my studies.

I was young, nothing could go wrong. In the future, were I to glance at it, I would climb mountains and enjoy the wilderness and ‘be successful’, whatever that meant.

On a cold and rainy Derby day, on my way home from afternoon beers I walked past a bookshop - the name of which escapes me now - and saw in the window that Alison Hargreaves, that placid looking, rosy-cheeked creature who lit up the pages of the magazines I read with tales of her exceptional climbing feats, was coming to sign her book on climbing the six great north faces of the alps, solo:

A Hard Days Summer
  1. The Shroud on the Grandes Jorasses
  2. The Schmid route on the Matterhorn
  3. A New Variationofn the Lauper Face of The Eiger
  4. The Cassin route on Piz Badile
  5. The Allain route on the Dru
  6. The Comici route on Cima Grande

Unmissable. Probably by simply meeting this person I would gain experience. Unfortunately I was working at the weekend, trying to put together some money for next year’s summer holiday in the Alps so I asked the bookshop if they could keep me a copy. I didn’t meet Hargreaves, but I opened my copy of A Hard Day’s Summer to see her scribbled signature and a smiley face.

I immediately flicked through to the photo pages and to my surprise she had a family. Two small children. A husband. At the age of 19 you don’t think about these things. At the time it surprised me that she might have a life outside the margins of the pages I had read.


Some of her blood-stained clothing was found, a body was seen. The world observed.

One year later after completing an ascent of the world’s most dangerous mountain, K2, Alison Hargreaves, the most accomplished of mountaineers, perished. She summited in seemingly fine weather judging from her radio reports but then things changed. Alongside 5 other members of the expedition she was caught in a violent storm and it is assumed blown off the mountain. It has been reported that the winds rose to nearly 150 miles per hour, shredding tents, rendering any form of voluntary human movement impossible.

Some of her blood-stained clothing was found, a body was seen. The world observed.

She was the first woman to climb K2 without supplemental oxygen. She was the first woman to climb all six great Alpine north faces in one summer. She had soloed Mount Everest. She knew what she was doing. But She was a mother.

The subsequent furore in the press focussed on exactly this last point. To anyone who has never taken part in any dangerous sport it is often incomprehensible that a person would do anything that might permanently take them away from their family. In truth a lot of the media frenzy surrounding her death was purely because Hargreaves was a woman. Did the five men that died alongside her have young children and a spouse? Probably. Did it matter as much? Seemingly not.

I am not writing this to bring up the whole argument which is inevitably one that divides and appears to have no middle ground. In any case I was 20 when this happened. I was young, nothing could go wrong.

I was just embarking on a road trip to the Pyrenees and the Cote d’Azure. Over the coming 5 weeks we would do a few walks in the Pyrenees, stand on a couple of modest summits and soak up some Mediterranean sun. I talked wisely with my friends about how much sympathy we felt for her, her family and how enraged we were with the conclusions the mainstream media jumped to. But we also talked about just how dangerous the mountains can be as we spent less and less time climbing and the ideal of spending our lives in the mountains waned with the realisation that we actually had to work to live.

I read her book, which is no great literary achievement, but is however, a remarkable mountaineering one and inspiring. To my 19 year old self Alison Hargreaves came to symbolise some kind of freedom. A freedom none of us in the end really has. I am really sorry I didn’t meet her in person, just to shake hands as she signed my book might have given me more inspiration to get out there more often, to climb more, to devote more time to the mountains without guilt.

She climbed the North Face of the Eiger whilst pregnant with her son Tom who has gone onto become the first man to solo the six great north faces of the Alps, in winter. Indeed both her children are accomplished climbers.