Open Country with Erica Hume Niven

In March 2010, I ripped an article out of the Daily Mail. I must have been at someone’s house because this is not a paper that I buy. I can see at least one of my friends laughing at me as they associate this paper with a certain generation and a certain radio station.

Regardless, the article was of great interest to me because it was about Alison Hargreaves; the female mountaineer who lost her life for her profession in 1995. The writer of the piece, Meg Henderson, recalled an interview with Alison Hargreaves when she read that her son Tom Ballard intended to go to the mountain where his mother died.

He did not just want to go to the mountain he wanted to climb it alone in winter. The mountain in question is K2. This, the second highest mountain in the world, is also known as the Savage Mountain. The ominous title is awarded because of its cruel hand of fate, with one in four climbers who attempt to scale it dying, it has the highest mortality rate of all the 8,000m mountains.

Hargreaves, pictured top of page, received bad press before and after she died. She was 32 and a mother of two young children when she was blown off K2 in high winds while she descended with six other climbers. All died in the storm. A seventh climber died from exposure despite reaching a lower camp.

Male climbers who have died somewhere in the world’s mountain ranges are heralded as heroes with great strength and skill. Their deaths still a tragedy but their achievements are celebrated. The negativity surrounding the death of a mother has shadowed her climbing achievements.

As well as scaling Everest solo without supplementary oxygen in 1995, she was the first climber to scale all the great north faces of the Alps in one season. Note the latter achievement made her not the first woman to do so, but the first climber. While her achievements could be rated within the climbing community, her death was discussed in relation to her womanhood.

Henderson’s interview with her before she went to K2 seemed to make thejournalist, who is also a mother, uncomfortable. Hargreaves’s answers are interpreted as cold and unfeeling. She gives the impression that she was not around to make a home or to give her children the motherly love that humanity demands they should have had.

Strangely she admitted she only had her children because an older female climber had said she would regret not having a family. Her husband supported her in all she did, it was their choice as a married couple. They are not unique, many families have the man taking the role of house-husband for many different reasons.

I am personally uncomfortable with the criticism heaped on this woman. The negativity overshadows not only her achievements but also the sadness of her death and the grief that it caused her family. Would people criticise a female soldier who was killed in the line of duty or a female police officer, even if they are mothers?

I wonder whether people view elite climbers as being on a selfish journey, a stubborn drive that is highlighted by particular domestic circumstances. What is clear is the inherent sexism behind the polemic.

Her son, Tom Ballard, is a professional climber. However, the end of the tale still leaves one uncomfortable. Tom cancelled his solo attempt of K2 behind a veil of silence. Only weeks before Tom was due to leave for Pakistan rumours reached reporters that the trip was delayed or even cancelled.

This was confirmed by Alison’s 75-year-old mother. In the months leading up to the trek the sponsors had lost contact with the family. Chris Terrill’s office (the documentary film maker who made the recent Royal Marines: Mission Afghanistan) who was booked to film the expedition was not aware of a new date. So that was the final word on Tom’s climb in honour of his mother – a rumble of criticism again ensued, then all fell silent.