Alison Hargreaves Was a Pioneering Alpinist and Adventure Mom


There are more than 3,000 stories in Adventure Journal’s archives, most of which are evergreen, and occasionally we put the best of them back on the home page for new readers to see.—Ed.

Derbyshire, England has rolling green hills, formerly rich with coal, iron, and limestone. Mining remnants and stone quarries pepper the landscape, as do the burial mounds of communities thousands of years removed. The Peak District National Park, the United Kingdom’s first national park, takes up a substantial portion of the north end of the county. This is where the Pennine Hills ends and where Alison Hargreaves’ love for the mountains began. This is where one of the finest mountaineers to ever live first wondered what it would feel like to stand atop the roof of the world.

Hargreaves was born on February 17, 1962, in Derbyshire. Her mother and father, both Oxford schooled mathematicians, a teacher and scientist respectively, were avid “hill walkers” (British for hikers). Rather than sinking into the typical sulk of a child dragged into her parents’ hobby, Hargreaves fell in love with the walks and quickly wanted to expand her adventures outside. Her passion for wandering in the mountains found its meaning when, at the age of 13, Hargreaves was introduced to rock climbing. A year later, she was hunting rock faces all over England. She left home at 18 to pursue climbing full time, and her eventual husband Jim Ballard.

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Ballard and Hargreaves dove headfirst into mountain lifestyle. The couple ran an outdoor sporting goods store together, while climbing and training nonstop. In 1988, at the age of 26, Hargreaves ticked off her first of many accomplishments in the Alps while also illustrating her complete badassery. She climbed the daunting north face of the Eiger, alone a sizable feat by any mountaineer’s standards. Buttressing the accomplishment was the added difficulty of climbing while six months pregnant. Growing a human while ascending one of the scariest mountains in the world, definitely badass.

In 1993, after a brief hiatus to achieve the ultimate accomplishment of successfully raising a family (very badass), Hargreaves became the first person ever to solo all the six major north faces in the Alps in one season. That also made her the first woman to solo-climb the Croz Spur on the Grandes Jorasses and the first woman to solo-climb the north face of the Matterhorn. In early May of 1995, Hargreaves achieved greater fame in the mountaineering world when she seized Everest. She stood at the summit as the first woman, and second person ever, to scale the world’s tallest peak without supplemental oxygen or support from a Sherpa team. Very, very badass.

Two weeks after summiting Everest, Hargreaves set out to climb K2 and Kanchenjunga. In doing so she would have become the first woman to summit the world’s three tallest peaks. Unfortunately, K2 would be her life’s last mountaineering expedition. On August 13, 1995, after reaching the top of K2 to become the first ever woman to summit the world’s two tallest peaks without supplemental oxygen, Alison Hargreaves was killed in the midst of a powerful storm. The exact events of her passing are unknown but, at the time of her death, she was just the fifth British climber to reach the summit of K2 and the first woman to reach the summits of both Everest and K2.

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More than achievements and a tragic end, Hargreaves left behind a legacy of love for the mountains. Similar to her upbringing, in her children Hargreaves instilled a deep, resounding connection to the mountains and a desire to explore that relationship. The mountains remained a significant part of the lives of her son and daughter. In 2015, her son (the late Tom Ballard) became the first person to climb all six of the north faces of the Alps in a single winter. It is widely regarded as one of the greatest mountaineering accomplishments ever. Not just a mother passing on her passion, not just a mountaineer bagging peaks, Alison Hargreaves was a total and complete badass.

Note: Hargreaves son, Tom Ballard died climbing in Pakistan in March.

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