On International Women's Day, Anna Fleming delves into the life of Alison Hargreaves, illuminating the changing role of women in sport and society as well as the challenges of balancing work, life, family and climbing.
Alison Hargreaves was one of Britain's all-time greatest mountaineers. When few female climbers were making headlines, she undertook bold and ambitious alpine expeditions in the Himalaya. In 1995, she scaled Everest completely solo and unsupported. Two months later, she died in a storm on K2 and the press turned on her: how could a mother of two young children take such risks? Her death highlighted the double standards applied to male and female climbers.
Great article, thank you. Didn't know that she'd climbed with Mark Twight etc. but been obscured, that's a shame.
I'm curious about her being the first woman to climb Everest unsupported and without oxygen. My understanding is that Lydia Bradey summited Everest in 1988 without supplemental oxygen, but I am guessing that this is considered a supported ascent for some reason?
You’re right, it does, but I don’t think it did when I read it as otherwise I wouldn’t have raised the question. Possible I missed it.
I’m not opposed to the idea that she was first O2/unsupported, but I’m just interested in the definitions at play I guess. I can see the argument for example that Lydia Bradey may have used Spanish ‘infrastructure’ like tents on the route although I’m not sure if she did or if she carried all her own stuff etc.
Don’t mean to be splitting hairs on the wider thrust of the article or the achievements of Alison Hargreaves.
A lovely account. 'Regions of the Heart' left a deep impression on me, and I think I will return to it after reading this. Very aptly coinciding with IWD...and (if any were needed) a further illustration of the regrettable patriarchy in climbing and in life. Thank you.
Mark wrote a separate story about climbing with alison that was published in Rock and Ice or Climbing, i can't recall which, that described their ascent on Kantega. it came out right after kiss or Kill was published.
> I’m not opposed to the idea that she was first O2/unsupported, but I’m just interested in the definitions at play I guess. I can see the argument for example that Lydia Bradey may have used Spanish ‘infrastructure’ like tents on the route although I’m not sure if she did or if she carried all her own stuff etc.
> Don’t mean to be splitting hairs on the wider thrust of the article or the achievements of Alison Hargreaves.
Yes, it's a good article and I think important to reiterate these non-climbing aspects of Alison's life, which are actually far more important than climbing.
That they reared again in the life of Tom, with another tragic ending, makes those later films hard to watch. To see the inherited attitudes of Tom and the role of Ballard makes me both sad and angry.
I don't know the context of the Toynbee piece at the time but is that quote that 'savage'? Maybe. But I would have gone even further down this route and said that the shocking double standards mean that men should be held to the same 'standards' and criticism as women, shifting the perspective that it's not women doing the 'wrong' thing, but fathers doing the 'wrong' thing, even if society accepts and applauds it. A subtle change in angle.
On the definitions side of things, Alison was not solo, as there were plenty of others on the route with her (from whom she refused offers of cups of tea etc) and certainly not "completely solo" as the article says. In mountaineering there is no 'unaided' or 'unsupported' categories for this stuff - for anyone. Alison used the ladder fixed by the Chinese, and the route stamped down by Sherpas, following (if not using) the line of ropes also fixed by Sherpas.
On the south side in 1988 Lydia used the ladders, ropes, path and camps etc* of the other teams there, even if her NZ team mates didn't get very high. Her claims were doubted by many, including Elizabeth Hawley, for several reasons, most of them rubbish, though it later came to be accepted (rightfully IMO), particularly once the Spanish corrected the record on how their comments were misconstrued at the time. Hall and Ball were probably just jealous Lydia was stronger than them and were worried about getting in trouble for changing route. Those initial doubts cancelled Lydia's opportunity for any spotlight or benefits that might have come with it and created a quasi-void by 1995 in which Alison was considered by some to be the first woman to climb Everest without bottled oxygen.
*edit: minutes after writing the above, I saw a 2019 Fbook post from Lydia pop up in my newsfeed:
"...I climbed Everest once simply as a young ambitious mountaineer in 1988, and I was very alone, no oxygen (first female ascent no O2), no fixed rope above South Col 8000m (which protects you from losing your way) no climbing buddy, no weather forecasting."
> On the definitions side of things, Alison was not solo, as there were plenty of others on the route with her (from whom she refused offers of cups of tea etc) and certainly not "completely solo" as the article says.
I can't disagree. But surely she did her best? Refusing brews breaks my heart.
Re Lydia Bradey, again brave as anything. Both deserved far better.
Of course, no one is saying otherwise Mick. It was an amazing feat. In fact I'm sure she could have done much 'better', in climbing terms. Alison had the skill, mentality and physiology to do something harder at that height, if not the team and support. She was going for a marketable win, to improve her life, which is completely understandable.
> Re Lydia Bradey, again brave as anything. Both deserved far better.
Yes. I don't want to paint either as victims - and I doubt Lydia would agree to that! - but their climbing careers, and to varying extents their lives, certainly suffered due to the weakness, selfishness and jealousy of various men.
Patriarchy; hmm. I recall many of the nasty comments about Alison Hargreaves came from the matriarchy. Eg; Polly Toynbee: "Danger for its own sake seems to me no better than drug-taking as a social activity. What is interesting about Alison Hargreaves is that she behaved like a man. She put danger first and her family a poor second. Equality means, I am afraid, men behaving as well as women, while women sometimes behave as badly as men."
Eg. again Nigella Lawson: "There are those who feel that they are truly alive only when they are risking death. Something is wrong with people who feel a pathological need to escape from the everyday here and nowness of life. I have no time for people who risk their life in a vainglorious attempt to be praised for courage. Everywhere there are people in real danger, who live - though not for long - in famine, with terminal cancer, at war. If the Alison Hargreaves of this world really value life so little maybe we should not worry on their behalf if they lose it."
Two* women commentators aren't comparable to assumed gender roles which are hard wired into society, less so nowadays thankfully.
Disappointed with Toynbee, that's a very Mail-esque bit of judgmentalism. Lawson's opinion is fair enough, should anyone have any reason to give anything she says any credence. Their idea that mountaineering is all about risking death shows that they are unequipped to comment with any authority.
*I'm sure there are a great many more than two. Dorothy Grace Elder must have been on fire, she might be the worst and most callous uniformed foghorn in media when it comes to mountaineering. If she did have something to say about Alison H, I want to read it as much as I want to read Katie Hopkin's views on refugees.
Absolutely not. Her thesis was that AH was guilty of mountaineering whilst a mother - whilst completely ignoring the fact that men who died alongside her were fathers. It was blatantly sexist in a particularly judgemental way.
Oh I have absolutely no truck with her opinion beyond her right to it. Having reread her piece, I agree with you. Like I said, who cares what she has to say about it? Privileged lifestyle media equivalent of a barstool sage.