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.
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.
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.
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.