Alison Hargreaves: One of the Greatest Climbers of All Time

ALISON HARGREAVES — 1963-1995. English.

No. 4

Some may be irritated that Hargreaves made this list. This wasn’t meant to be a “crowd pleaser.” Regardless of the standard accusations surrounding her, Hargreaves belongs among the greatest.

In 1986, on her first trip to the Himalayas, she was part of an expedition with Americans Jeff Lowe, Tom Frost and Mark Twight forming a new route on Kantega (22,241 ft./6,779 m).

Most notably, she was the first – male or female – to solo all of the great north faces in the Alps in a single season.

She climbed at local crags solo and at a moderately high grade.

She made two visits high on Mount Everest (29,035 ft./8,850 m.), the first in 1994. With the summit close in view, she made the tough choice to turn around due to increasing numbness in her limbs.
Hargreaves returned six months later in 1995, and became the first British woman to climb Everest without the use of supplemental oxygen. And she did so by climbing unaided of help from Sherpas or other climbers. This stands out because of the cultural resistance of Great Britain at the time, where pursuing such activities as a woman, even higher-grade rock climbing, was unconventional in the extreme.

Her ambition aimed to climb the three highest peaks in the world, Everest, K2 and Kangchenjunga.

She died on the descent after summiting K2 in August 1995.

The Everest ascent was her crowning climb, but it was merely the result of a culmination of style and character that had developed over more than a decade of climbing at the highest grades. Hargreaves was pioneering, demonstrated strength, independence and a large degree of spirit.

It’s true that except for her accomplishments on the Great North Faces of the Alps, she was rarely first on a global scale. Lydia Bradley, for instance, had already summited Everest without supplemental oxygen before Hargreaves. Still, Hargreaves’ climbs, in combination with the adversity from outside the climbing world, was more significant than many female climbers before and went beyond the surprise and interest of a woman wearing pants in an era of woolen skirts.

However, Hargreaves drew more attention from being a mother of two young children and a climber, than the technical feats she accomplished.

In fact, today, there is so much written about Hargreaves’ that is critical of her approach to motherhood and pursuing a life climbing that what she accomplished as an alpinist has been somewhat dimmed. In some ways, the criticisms raised were at such a high volume because she caught the attention of the mainstream media, which connected with traditional British sensibilities, which conflicted with her acceptance of risk.

In many ways, she is the penultimate model of being “mum,” and also being simultaneously independent. Her model disregarded traditional values and gender roles with abandon.

Hargreaves was repeatedly called a bad mother for endangering her life at her children. She did, after all, climb the Eiger while she was five-months pregnant. However, in leaving her children, they clearly admired her, and reports were that they were pursuing climbing after her death. Admiration can’t be said every mother.

Controversies aside, Hargreaves pursued her objectives over a relatively long career, that would likely have been much longer had her K2 expedition ended differently. In that time, what she pursued was a pure climb.

This post is part a culmination of a series of posts that considered Who Are the Greatest Climbers of All Time. If you enjoyed this post, please consider following The Suburban Mountaineer on Facebook and Twitter.

Climbing matters, even though we work nine to five.

A useful source: Venables, Stephen, “Obituary: Alison Hargreaves,” The Independent, 21 August 1995.

Click here to see who is listed at number three.


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