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Outside magazine, May 1995
"I think I was being quite conservative," says British alpinist Alison Hargreaves, defending a climb of the Eiger Nordwand that she made in 1988 during her sixth month of pregnancy. "I had planned a trip up Denali, but my physician said it wouldn't be wise to go above 12,000 feet--so I went to the Alps instead."
At the time, no one much cared about that Eiger climb--it wasn't on one of the mountain's most difficult routes--and since no one in the climbing community knew much about Hargreaves anyway, the pregnancy issue never raised an eyebrow. But suddenly, after more than a decade of toiling in what she calls "blissful obscurity" and on the eve of her toughest challenge yet, an attempt to become the first woman to undisputedly climb Mount Everest alone and without supplemental oxygen, this 33-year-old mother of two has something of a problem. People now care about her career, and unfortunately that means they care about her past, too. How could she have put her baby at risk, she is often asked. Her pat response: "My stomach was really quite flat. I was pregnant, not sick." (Lydia Bradey of New Zealand is believed by many to have summited Everest alone and without oxygen in 1988, but she returned without photographic proof. Since then her claim has been the subject of heated debate in the climbing community.)
Hargreaves's publicity rush started a year and a half ago, after she completed what no one, man or woman, had ever done: She soloed, in a single season, all the so-called classic north faces of the Alps. The feat thrust her into the spotlight, and in light of her previous success in the Himalayas, it proved to many in the sport that Hargreaves is an even more accomplished alpinist than France's Catherine Destivelle, whose name and likeness have saturated the climbing press for much of the past decade.
This month, Hargreaves is putting her alpine skills to greater tests on Everest, but the expedition is already taking a few hits. "I want to do Everest like Messner, totally self-contained," Hargreaves has said, referring to the Tirolean climber's solo ascent of Everest without supplemental oxygen in 1980, a feat that has never been repeated. But one point critics have raised is that Messner was utterly alone when he summited via the North Ridge. Hargreaves, who plans to follow a similar but more accessible route, undoubtedly will be walking in the footprints and camping within earshot of some of 50 or so other climbers slated to be on the north side this spring.
There are also questions about her experience at altitude. Hargreaves has been above 24,000 feet only once, during an attempt on the South Col last year. Blizzard conditions forced an early retreat. "She's the toughest person you could hope to tie in with," says American Marc Twight, who's climbed in the Himalayas with Hargreaves, "but everybody reacts to altitude differently. And Alison hasn't really been tested."
For her part, Hargreaves is trying to ignore all the talk. She says she chose the easier route for good reason. "I don't want to be away from my family the length of time it would take to repeat Messner's exact route," she says, sounding more like a cautious English mum than an international climbing star. "Of course, I thought about taking my husband and children with me to base camp, but it is rather inhospitable there."