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A Traveler's Tale of Ambition--or Desperation--Gone Tragically Awry


When 33-year-old Alison Hargreaves and six male companions died in August 1995 descending 28,250-foot K2 in Pakistan, I was hiking in the English Lake District, where none of the peaks is much higher than 3,000 feet.

Three months before, Hargreaves had climbed 29,028-foot Mt. Everest on her own, without bottled oxygen or porters. When she died, she was two-thirds of the way to her goal of climbing the highest mountains in the world: Everest, K2 and 28,169-foot Kanchenjunga.

The news of her death was electrifying, not just because the young Englishwoman was a heroine among female climbers, who have traditionally lagged behind men in the sport, but because mountain climbing has always been part of the reason I travel. It's a way to see big-picture scenery and experience a place up close.

Then, too, climbers of Hargreaves' caliber are risk-takers by profession, although most say they prepare well for difficult summit attempts and weigh the dangers carefully.

On a smaller scale, I prepare and weigh risks when I travel. Sometimes I push on to off-the-beaten track places and other times I turn back, never knowing what I might be missing. I've sometimes wondered whether I'm too timid when I travel because seeing something wonderful and having unforgettable experiences can require pushing the envelope.

Technical climbing, with ropes and crampons, is beyond my risk limits. But I learned to love mountain hiking when I was a child and my parents started taking family vacations in the Colorado Rockies.

I didn't love it when I was 10 or 11, though, and more than once held my mother back because she had to baby-sit me. That's why she wasn't with my father and brother the summer they climbed 14,255-foot Longs Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park. Much later, after I climbed Longs myself, I asked her whether she'd resented that I'd held her back. "I'd rather be a mother than a mountain climber," she said.

Hargreaves left behind a husband, a 6-year-old son and a 4-year-old daughter when she died, prompting criticism about her ambition and irresponsibility. Women, and mothers in particular, shouldn't risk their lives climbing mountains, many said, although similar disapproval wasn't leveled at two well-known British climbers who were fathers when they died on a mountain near K2 the same week.

Ed Douglas, coauthor of "Regions of the Heart: The Triumph and Tragedy of Alison Hargreaves" (National Geographic Adventure Press, $25), told me recently that "there is definitely a double standard for men and women about risk-taking."

"The role of mothering is so fundamental to us that it's hard to think beyond that," he said.

Douglas' biography of Hargreaves, to be published next month, is partly an attempt to explain what drove a mother to risk her life on the icy face of K2, considered a more demanding climb than Everest because of its steepness and unpredictable weather. At the time, 113 people had reached the mountain's summit; 33 had died on its flanks. Only five women have made it to the top, three of whom (including Hargreaves) died on the descent.

Like Jon Krakauer's "Into Thin Air," a book about the 1996 tragedy on Everest in which eight climbers died, the story Douglas and his coauthor, David Rose, tell of Hargreaves' last days on K2 is harrowing and gruesome. The weather was bad, but seven climbers still headed up, compelled by what many call "summit fever." By the time they started down, the wind was 100 mph. It is thought that Hargreaves was simply blown off the mountain, her body landing about 5,000 feet from the top.

Mountain climbing is often called a selfish sport, and to many, the K2 expedition seemed a waste of life. Serious climbers have their own reasons for pursuing the sport, sometimes quasi-religious, sometimes venal. But the new biography suggests that Hargreaves' reasons for risking her life on K2 were more complex than most, and grew partly out of her roles as wife and mother.

Douglas thinks Hargreaves was contemplating a divorce while climbing K2, and that she unwisely pushed for the top because she needed the money that a successful ascent would earn in book contracts and sponsorships to support her children. Her husband, Jim Ballard, who declined to be interviewed for the book, had lost his climbing-equipment business in England, forcing the family to live like nomads in mobile homes, rented cottages and tents.

No one knows exactly what Hargreaves was thinking when she died, although even Douglas acknowledges that her judgment was clouded. If, as he claims, she was pressured to climb by a marriage gone awry and the impending demands of single motherhood, hers seems more a tragedy of desperation than of ambition. And the questions raised by her death don't all have to do with whether mothers (and fathers) should be mountain climbers. Better to ask how Hargreaves got herself into such a situation and why she came to see risking her life on 28,000-foot peaks as the only way out.

I've never clung to a cliff in a snowstorm. Next to that, walking alone in the Lake District or kayaking in the Gulf of California may be only marginally risky. But they are risks nonetheless, and deciding whether to undertake them is not so different from the decision Hargreaves had to make on K2.

It isn't a matter of gender, or of motherhood. I don't have children, but I have a family, and I know they'd suffer if, someday, I pushed the boundaries too far. I don't let this stop me, but it does weigh on me. In this sense, Hargreaves' story is a bracingly cautionary traveler's tale, reminding us that a little timidity may not be such a bad trait after all.

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