What happened to Alison Hargreaves on K2?

The story of British climber Tom Ballard, who has been missing on Nanga Parbat in Pakistan for ten days now, is a particularly poignant one. Twenty-four years ago his mother Alison Hargreaves also lost her life on another mountain in Pakistan, the infamous K2.

Her story hit the headlines for the wrong reasons. The media focused on the fact that she was a mother, who selfishly pursued her dream of climbing high mountains instead of looking after her family – a criticism that rarely gets levelled at male climbers, all of whom leave friends and family behind. It probably won’t get levelled at Tom Ballard, whose family now has a double tragedy to come to terms with.

K2 from the Godwin Austen Glacier (Photo: Maria Ly / Wikimedia Commons)
K2 from the Godwin Austen Glacier (Photo: Maria Ly / Wikimedia Commons)

The story of Alison Hargreaves on K2 has many familiar echoes. She perished alongside five male climbers, all of whom decided to keep climbing when others on the mountain had turned around. Why did they continue? There are many reasons why people take such extreme risks. The answers are never simple, especially to those of us who choose to live more sheltered lives.

The background to her climb may provide some clues. She and her husband, Jim Ballard, were heavily in debt. Jim had been forced to close the climbing shop that he owned in Derbyshire, which had helped to finance Alison’s previous expeditions. Unable to pay his mortgage, their house had been repossessed by the bank.

Alison had recently embarked upon a career as a professional mountaineer, and now she became the sole family breadwinner. To cement her reputation as Britain’s top female climber, she embarked on a quest to climb the world’s three highest mountains – Everest, K2 and Kangchenjunga – in a single year. It was a feat that had never been done before.

In May 1995, she climbed Everest solo and unsupported. This ascent is often compared to Reinhold Messner’s solo ascent of Everest in 1980, but the two climbs were not quite the same. When Messner climbed the North Ridge, deviating onto the North Face beneath the Second Step, it was the monsoon season and he was the only person on the mountain. Not only was his route unique, but it was the first time Everest had been climbed during the monsoon season.

By contrast, Alison climbed the standard north-side route up the North Ridge. She was supported by a commercial team up to Advance Base Camp (ABC) at 6,400m. She was never alone on the mountain – other climbers were on the same route when she was – but above ABC she had her own strict rules that she adhered to. She carried all her own equipment, digging and pitching her own camps, and used no supplementary oxygen. She refused to clip into the fixed ropes that others were using, and famously declined cups of tea offered by climbers whose tents she passed.

It was an impressive achievement, a solo ascent to all but the harshest critics, and in a different league to those of us who have climbed Everest with Sherpa support.

There were other climbers on the North Ridge of Everest when Alison Hargreaves made her solo ascent in 1995
There were other climbers on the North Ridge of Everest when Alison Hargreaves made her solo ascent in 1995

Barely a month later she was in Pakistan for the second part of her mission, to climb K2. She joined up with an American team, but like on Everest, she climbed solo and unsupported above Base Camp, without using supplementary oxygen.

The expedition was beset by bad weather, but this is normal on K2. One of her teammates, the fellow Briton Alan Hinkes, sneaked an early weather window. He reached the summit and returned home while Alison was still adopting a more cautious approach that eventually cost her.

By 6 August, she had been up to Camp 3 twice and Camp 4 once, climbing a little higher to just above 8,000m. Most of her team decided to pack up and head home, but she and expedition leader Rob Slater decided to stay and make one further attempt. Although by this time Base Camp was largely deserted, a handful of climbers from other teams also stayed for one final attempt.

They left for their summit push on 9 August. They reached Camp 3 only to discover that it had been buried by an avalanche. On most mountains, such an event can only happen as a result of a bad decision – to camp in an avalanche path. But on K2, there are no safe places to camp; avalanche risk is everywhere, one of the many reasons it is such a dangerous mountain.

They spent an hour trying to locate their tents then continued to Camp 4, which mercifully was still standing.

12 August dawned clear. It would have been a good summit day, but they were tired from their long climb the previous day. All climbers, including Alison, decided to spend a rest day in camp. Whether they would have been strong enough to reach the summit is a moot point.

Eleven climbers left Camp 4 for the summit on 13 August. Alison left at 2am. Five of the climbers turned around before reaching the Bottleneck Couloir, a notorious section on the main summit route, where climbers have to ascend beneath an enormous serac which could collapse at any moment.

Among these five more cautious climbers was Peter Hillary, the son of Edmund Hillary, the first man to climb Everest. Peter concluded that it was much too cold and he didn’t like the look of the weather. He decided to descend as far as he could and get the hell off the mountain.

It proved to be a wise decision. A system of warm moist air was coming up the valley from the south, where it was about to collide with a powerful anticyclone approaching from the northern Chinese side of the mountain.

It was 5pm when the storm reached Peter. He was descending beneath the Black Pyramid, a more technical section of loose cliffs, and suddenly he found himself fighting for his life in 80 to 100 mile an hour winds.

K2 (8611m) and Broad Peak (8047m) from Concordia
K2 (8611m) and Broad Peak (8047m) from Concordia

The storm had also reached nearby Broad Peak, which at 8,047m was 500m lower than K2. Climbers on this mountain were already descending. They looked in horror across the valley, and could see figures on K2 still going up.

The six climbers still on K2 started reaching the summit at 6pm. Alison arrived there at 6.17. The weather was still fine, and they had no inkling of the devastation heading their way.

They turned to descend. They can’t have gone far when the storm reached them. With no fixed ropes to attach themselves to and nowhere to take shelter, they didn’t stand a chance. They were literally blown off the mountain, picked up one by one and flung down the south face. Among them were three Spaniards – Javier Escartin, Javier Olivar and Lorenzo Ortiz – New Zealander Bruce Grant, American Rob Slater, and Alison Hargreaves. Two days later a seventh climber, Canadian Jeff Lakes, died of exhaustion at Camp 2 after fighting has way down through the storm.

Teammates of the three Spanish climbers waited for them in Camp 4 through the whole of 14 August, but once it became clear their friends would not be returning, they decided to descend.

Somewhere on the slope beneath Camp 4, thousands of metres below the summit of K2, they came upon a boot which they knew belonged to Alison Hargreaves. They looked across and saw a body clad in her distinctive green clothing, lying in an inaccessible location 300 metres away. They were exhausted, and knew there was no way they could retrieve it. They continued down, leaving Britain’s greatest female mountaineer where she lay.

Alison Hargreaves was 33 years old. She left behind a 4-year-old daughter and a 6-year-old son. Had she known that 24 years later her son would lie barely a hundred a miles away across the Karakoram, then it would probably have broken her heart.

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12 thoughts on “What happened to Alison Hargreaves on K2?

  • March 6, 2019 at 7:09 pm
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    Your writing is thoughtful and beautiful.

  • March 6, 2019 at 9:46 pm
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    Poignant article. In a sport where you don’t need to look too far for tragedy, this is a particularly sad tale. A few years ago Tom announced he would attempt K2 in winter as his first 8000’er, you couldn’t help feeling his destiny seemed to lay tied in with the Karakoram. RIP and thoughts with his loved ones.

  • March 7, 2019 at 2:59 am
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    I remember when Alison lost her life in that expedition, I was only 17 at that time. I will remember her all my life. She was a great mountaineer no doubt.

  • March 7, 2019 at 8:14 am
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    As someone who loves mountains (but whose higher summit is the 3375 m Posets in Spanish Pirineos), I can’t help wondering why some people run such an enormous risk. Needless to say, that’s a moot point. It’s the same with Alex Honnold’s achievement.
    Maybe it’s something we’re wired for. Anyway, eye-opening article. I wish mother and son were still with us.

  • March 7, 2019 at 7:17 pm
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    I’m going to bring a different perspective; maybe because I’m female who knows. I also come as a hiker not a mountaineer but I’d love to start mountaineering.
    For me, the climb is the challenge and it’s nothing to do with ‘bagging mountains’ or bragging about accomplishments. For me it is solely the personal challenge and ability to push myself and to learn more about myself and achieve what I can. It’s about personal development, personal confidence and I look around at people who spend night after night on their sofas, stuffing their faces with chocolate and watching crappy TV and I think, ‘Why would you NOT want to challenge yourself?’. I don’t get it. Why would you not want to see what you’re capable of and why would you not want to push boundaries and limits and see what happens?
    So maybe for Alison it wasn’t about financial motivation maybe it was about personal success and motivation. Or maybe it was just to tell those male journalists to STFU…

  • March 8, 2019 at 5:22 am
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    I was on a winter skills course last week in Scotland and was lucky enough to have Adele Pennington doing a talk one evening.
    She spoke so enthusiastically about Alison and what she had achieved. We need these strong women showing our young females what they can achieve! Far better role models than these instafamous people!
    On a side note if you ever get to hear Adele talk about her life it’s worth it, she is an amazing strong person.
    Good stuff as usual Mark.

  • March 10, 2019 at 11:16 am
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    Tragic story but I enjoyed reading it. Thanks.

  • March 12, 2019 at 9:19 pm
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    I remember when Alison died. It was as if the whole world new and formed opinions without much background knowledge. Thank you Mark.
    Chrystabel
    .

  • March 26, 2019 at 1:10 am
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    She was brave, and it’s sad and tragic both her and her son died on the same mountain. Just to comment about one of the posts above.
    There is a world of worthwhile experiences between being a chocolate eating couch potato at times and climbing mountains.

  • May 16, 2019 at 2:59 am
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    Thank you for this article. I am fascinated by mountain climbers although I do not have the athleticism or stamina to do much more than hike in Colorado.

  • June 15, 2019 at 10:32 am
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    I feel very sad to think Alison and her devoted son Tom have both lost their lives doing what they both loved to do, I live in Derbyshire, and have also been to Fort William and bought the book Alisons Last Mountain, signed by TOM AND KATE, her lovely children, I will always treasure this book, and they will remain in my heart forever.

  • October 30, 2019 at 11:28 am
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    Catherine, it wasn’t the same mountain. Alison died on K2 and Tom died on Nanga Parbat.

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