Climbing: The Last Ascent of Alison Hargreaves

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, November 1995

Climbing: The Last Ascent of Alison Hargreaves

Why did the world's finest woman alpinist never come off K2?
By Greg Child

On what seemed to be a perfect August day in the Karakoram range of Pakistan, Alison Hargreaves gazed up at the summit of K2 and must have felt, for a brief moment, a rush of unadulterated luck. After all, there had been six storm-racked weeks in base camp and then a grueling four-day ascent through thinning air to this 26,000-foot spot at Camp Four, where a party including American Rob Slater was now debating the risks of a final ascent. Yes, everyone was exhausted. Yes, the weather, always full of fang and fury on the world's second-highest mountain, might snap down on them at any time. But the sky was spotless, and the summit was suddenly there like a jagged grail. The decision seemed obvious--the top was less than 12 hours away.

That evening, Hargreaves indeed summited K2 and entered the record books as the first woman to scale the planet's two highest peaks without supplemental oxygen. But as newspapers and radio stations would report a few days later, Hargreaves--considered by many to be the finest woman alpinist in history--and six others never made it down off the mountain. A storm, freakish even by Himalayan standards, steamrollered K2 that night with hurricane-force winds and subzero temperatures. And the day that had begun with so much promise deteriorated into one of mountaineering's most talked-about disasters.

For the 33-year-old Hargreaves, an outspoken mother who unlike her male colleagues in the sport was often criticized for leaving her children at home while she risked her life on big mountains, K2 was just one stop on an ambitious and well-publicized project: to be the first woman to climb the world's three highest peaks--Everest, K2, and Kanchenjunga--without supplemental oxygen. The Everest leg, last May, had gone astonishingly smoothly. The Scottish mountaineer summited with the sun shining brightly the entire time. When she flew home for a few weeks of rest, she was hailed as a national hero.

Meanwhile, Slater, her team's expedition leader and a big-wall climber from the United States, had never been above 19,000 feet, but what he lacked in credentials and celebrity he made up for with grit and an almost fanatical approach to big mountains. The 34-year-old had quit his job as a financial broker to train for K2, and before he left for Pakistan a climbing magazine quoted his glib comment: "Summit or die, either way I win." Though he and Hargreaves had never met before arriving at base camp, they seemed to hit it off immediately. As one expedition member said succinctly, "They worked well together."

And so on the morning of August 13, a week after splitting with the rest of the team, which had decided to hike back to civilization, Hargreaves and Slater linked up with four climbers from a New Zealand-Canadian team--Bruce Grant, Jeff Lakes, Kim Logan, and Peter Hillary, son of Sir Edmund, the first Westerner to climb Mount Everest. They left their tents at Camp Four for the summit via the Abruzzi Ridge.

By midmorning the climbers had ascended the gentle slope called The Shoulder and were clustered together in a steep chute known as The Bottleneck with five Spanish climbers who had started out from a slightly higher campsite--Javier Escartín, Javier Olivar, Lorenzo Ortíz, Lorenzo Ortas, and José Garces. Considered to be something of a point of no return, The Bottleneck involves an exposed, icy traverse with cliffs above and below. According to Hillary, it was at this juncture that the weather, fair for the previous four days, started to sour.

"Big altostratus clouds were moving in, and a strong wind was blowing snow," Hillary would recall later. "I saw everyone crossing the traverse. Then they disappeared in clouds."

While the rest of the climbers continued in snowy conditions, Hillary and Logan turned back, convinced that a major storm was setting in. Indeed, from a distance one would have seen that K2 had become wrapped in a gauze of clouds. Meanwhile a polar wind was gathering force to the north.

Lakes eventually turned back too. But as dusk approached, Hargreaves, now climbing with Olivar, pressed on, with Slater not far behind. At 6:45 P.M., more than 12 hours after setting out, Hargreaves and Olivar radioed Camp Four that they'd reached the summit. Oddly, it wasn't snowing on top. In fact, the conditions were reportedly splendid. "The weather was good, really exceptional," says Ortas, who took the call. "They could have descended easily in the light of the full moon."

That, of course, wasn't the case. According to Ortas, a murderous wind--reportedly blowing at 140 mph--kicked up within the hour. The Spaniards' tents were destroyed, and Ortas and Garces spent the rest of the night huddled in a single sleeping bag. It could only have been worse up higher, where Hargreaves, Olivar, Slater, Grant, Ortíz, and Escartín, all of whom had summited, were working their way down. Somebody in base camp, glassing the mountain with binoculars, reported what must have been a horrifying sight: some climbers pinned down by wind. There were no radio calls, and even now no bodies have been recovered.

One climber who ventured above The Bottleneck, Jeff Lakes, did manage to escape the maelstrom. In a harrowing, 30-hour descent into the teeth of the storm, he hiked and rappelled to Camp Two, where he was dragged into a tent by a New Zealand teammate, only to die during the night.

As with any expedition ending in disaster, the second-guessing began immediately. Had the storm really taken the climbers by surprise? Or were they blinded to the telltale signs of approaching bad weather by the intoxicating prospect of getting to the top? The answer, of course, may never be known.

But according to Garces, whom Hargreaves passed as she made her final approach to the summit, her last hour before the storm must have gone the way she'd imagined it would. The sun was setting, Garces reported, the weather was fair, and Hargreaves was climbing very strongly. Her only words to him as she went by were, "I'm going up."

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