In honour of International Women’s Day:
I’ve been captivated by many women, and not in the least my wife Lyn. But one woman who, having read her story, and who has remained in my mind, is the uncompromising Alison Hargreaves.
Hargreaves was born on February 17, 1962 in Derbyshire, England. The town she grew up in, Belper, was in the Peak District, a much loved climbing area. She was deeply influenced by one of her teachers, and outdoor pursuit teacher Hilary Collins. When she left high school she chose to open a mountaineering equipment store with Jim Ballard, whom she eventually married. Ballard was already a climber, and he saw Hargreave’s potential and became her mentor and coach, encouraging her and supporting her to extend herself.
Even in the early 80s it was unusual to see women rock climbers, and Hargreaves was a distinct figure on the rock climbing circuit. She had a strong inner drive and enthusiasm, and she pushed herself to achieve. And in the early 80s she had already begun to make a name for herself, conquering the Alps in Europe. In 1986 she went with a small team led by Jeff Lowe of the US to climb Kantega in the Himalayas, and she successfully summitted. Rather than return to the Himalayas while pregnant, Hargreaves instead chose to climb the north face of the Eiger and became the first British female climber to summit. After the birth of her first child, son Tom, she also gave birth a second child two years later – Kate, and Hargreaves now gave primary time to raising her children, yet venturing out to the Peak District and then across to Europe’s Alps. She set herself a goal – to climb all of the six most famous Alpine north faces, and solo in a single season. She did it, and in record times.
In 1994 she set another goal, to climb Everest, solo and without oxygen, ascending to the South Col, she turned back as she risked frostbite. She returned six months later to ascend the north face (following Mallory’s route) solo and without oxygen. Hargreaves successfully summitted and also made a safe and rapid descent.
In early 1995 she was 33, and in her climbing prime. Hargreaves had set a goal to climb the three big peaks in the Karakorum Range in Pakistan, Everest, K-2, and Kangchejunga, in sequence and unassisted in the same year. In May 95 she summitted Everest, and in August 95 she successfully summitted K-2. However, Hargreaves got caught in a severe storm descending K-2 and died. Such a tragedy.
Her story is amazing, and her success and death belie the personal struggles she faced, and the povery she and her husband Jim endured to pursue their humble business and her climbing career. The lost both their business and their home, and faced severe tensions in their relationship (which was subject to much speculation). Hargreaves faced unstinting criticism from the public in pursuing her climbing career – what sort of wife and mother would do that? What woman would put herself first? She was criticised as being driven, self-focussed, a poor mother, a bad wife, for being uncautious, egotisitical … The press and public were , at times, unrelenting in their negativity. Hargreaves ignored them.
For me she is a haunting figure of triumph even in death because she was true to her passion and her vocation. this was indeed a calling, a true vocation, and she gave herself to it, even to the risk of death. Even as I write this, her story still moves me. And if I take anything away from her example of life, it is to honour your vocation, your calling, fearlessly and unstintingly, even in the face of criticism and ridicule. My guess is that had she not died climbing, she would have died inwardly by being deprived of it, a pining away. Hargreaves achieved many of her personal goals, and achieved a deep respect in the climbing community for her ability and the successes she had. Even in tragedy, she is an inspiration, never giving up. She was uncompromising, tenacious, and yes, driven. But she achieved so much, and not in the least for herself, but also for climbers, and especialy for women. Her death does not diminish her, it is in fact a testimony to living authentically. Something we must all reflect on for our own journey.