TAC 27 May-Jul96

TAC 27 Index

TV Review: Inside Story - Alison's Last Mountain

BBC1, 9/2/96

The pitfalls of writing about dead climbers and walkers are obvious: bad taste, unnecessarily upsetting friends and relatives, totemising the fatality by tacking your own beliefs and opinions onto it. Hence when first watching this programme (marking the return to the K2 area of the late Alison Hargreaves' partner and children), your Editor had no real thoughts beyond merely observing the grief from a discreet distance. But Hargreaves' death, like her life before it, had been pushed into the public arena, and the decision by Jim Ballard to take up the BBC option so soon after the event begged various questions. Also, your Editor was of an age with Hargreaves, and brought up less than ten Derbyshire miles away. Not so much a case of paths perhaps-having-crossed; more curiosity that two folk - each very driven - could both love the hill so much yet be so different in ability and motivations.

Before getting down to the nitty-gritty, a couple of points: disclaimers if you like. No matter what one makes of her climbing ability, her media-milking and her partner's ensuing actions, Hargreaves' death was, without debate, a terrible tragedy, a loss both to the climbing world and, more significantly, to her friends and family. Also, this magazine is very much a walkers' rag: climbing has only rarely intruded, and your Editor is about as able on rock as he is at playing football. This viewpoint might however serve well to analyse the programme's contents, since many hillgoers must share the feeling that climbing - even the extreme stuff we have here - is vaguely connected with their weekend strolls up Beinn a'Ghlo or wherever.

Basics first. The programme looked good, as was almost inevitable given its starting and finishing in Lochaber, spending the rest of the time in the Karakoram and being peopled by two cute kids - Tom and Kate - and their telegenically intriguing father. The storyline was simple: Hargreaves had been killed while descending K2 on 13/8/95, and on 22/9/95 the remaining family members set off back there, partly at the behest of the BBC, partly via an invitation from the Pakistani authorities, partly to bring the grieving process full circle. The format cut repeatedly between this trek and camcorder footage of Hargreaves herself on K2.

For all that the trip was largely geared around the kids, it was Ballard who drew in the viewer most. The word "dispassionate" appeared in virtually every TV reviewer's column the following day, and scarcely ever can a grief have been so oddly observed. One moment embodied this: Ballard at Islamabad, sorting through Hargreaves' recovered equipment and personal effects in the manner of a old biddie raking through a jumble sale, not at all visibly disturbed by such things as videos, jewellery, diaries, etc. Here, more than anywhere in the programme, you were left feeling that Ballard's way of coping was, for the time being at least, to immerse himself in the mediafication of his dead partner as a way of bringing in enough income to keep house and home together. Hence these belongings, rather than being final sad mementos of a relationship, were merely the adman's buzzword: product. (Elsewhere, the amount of product placement was giddying: even at home bathing the kids Ballard wore a Sprayway fleece!)

It would be wrong however to suggest Ballard's demeanour as anything other than genuine. Harder to swallow were some of his statements about Hargreaves herself: "Genius"; "For the first time other climbers were forced to admit that the best climber around was a woman"; "When she died she was the first woman ever to be the best climber in the world". As already stated, this writer knows little about topline (as opposed to toprope) climbing; but this rang untrue. Certainly Hargreaves was in the front rank, but the best...? Surely the "woman climber" argument is being used both ways here. There's a useful comparison in the world of chess, where Judit Polgar, one of three prodigious Hungarian sisters, is now far and away the strongest female player ever. Yet there's surely no way she'd want to be proclaimed "the world's best chess player" until she beat Kasparov, Karpov, Kramnik or whoever to formally claim the title. Of course there's no actual title in climbing, but most likely Hargreaves was no higher than Polgar currently is, ie eighth-ranked.

There was also slight chicanery in that whereas the oft-touted and ignorant line about "women with kids shouldn't climb" is plainly sexist tosh, Ballard here seemed to slightly hide behind that argument, using it to deflect more subtle ones. He argued - a trifle too neatly - that the kids would appreciate what she had done and would ultimately understand. Maybe so. But this is a second-best option: had she been around a while longer, the kids would hardly have dismissed her out of hand as a charlatan.

This brings us on to Hargreaves herself, the absent presence throughout the programme. Always driven, she was arguably out of control at the time of her death: Everest, back home for a couple of weeks, straight off to K2. When, female or male, you have other responsibilities awaiting you at home, this doesn't smack of totally balanced perceptions. She had perhaps become too good a climber. Clearly capable of K2, she also knew to strike while the iron was hot, then live off her (justifiable) fame. But K2 is objectively dangerous: no matter how adept you are at dodging the traffic, stand in the middle of the motorway long enough and you'll get run over. The only way to survive - apart from sheer sustained luck - would have been for her to be less good, less brazen, and hence to have retreated through fear or lack of confidence, which wasn't what she was about. If it hadn't been K2, it would most likely have been some other mountain soon thereafter. This was a programme waiting to be made, just as the obituary writers already have copy filed on any famous person with a fondness for fondling the self-destruct button.

Hargreaves was probably as good a climber as is Sally Gunnell a runner (or Linford Christie, to take the sex factor out of it). But Gunnell will never die at her Olympic extremes. Maybe the threshold lies somewhere around motorsport. For Ayrton Senna the objective factor was not avalanche but mechanical failure: he put all his experience and ability into the few seconds of his crash at Imola, but it wasn't enough and still killed him.

The word greed impinges here: not at all greed in the material/financial sense, more in gobbling up summits while she could, of wanting it all ways all at the one time. One unstated question left hanging by the programme was just how many of the undoubtedly supportive friends and family members had taken the chance to say to her, in those last frantic few weeks, what Wallace is always saying to Gromit: Steady on!

All this ultimately comes down to an individual's life-view, their assessment of risk and concept of what makes it all worthwhile: quality or quantity? Hargreaves was playing a different game from "ordinary" folk. For all that most hillgoers love the hills dearly, their absolute bottom line is to get back down to the bottom. Ballard's suggestion that Hargreaves died doing what she wanted to do and would have wished it that way is most likely true for her and for most extreme climbers, but is still difficult to comprehend.

The most soundbite-ish of all Ballard/Hargreaves statements was the vastly oversimplistic tiger / sheep image. OK, so it might be better dying at 33 than "lingering on into your 70s or 80s" - fair enough as a simple dichotomy. But doesn't this conveniently forget rather a lot of years in between? Day as tiger? 1000 years as sheep? How about, say, a few centuries as a fox? Most folk, being middlegroundish by nature, would settle for something like that.

Much of the talk in the programme had a similarly muddled air: New Age concepts of death; pick-and-mix religion. The word "spirit" featured often, as did woolly mountain-anthropomorphism: floods were the "mountain shedding tears for Alison", she had been "in a place where nature wanted to claim something back for itself", and, for the kids, a little cloud right above K2 was "your mum waving to you". Ballard usually - perhaps invariably - spoke of Hargreaves in the present tense, which sat oddly both with his own coldness and the more realistic outlook on offer elsewhere in the team. This reviewer - with a background in social work - thought the support medic Cath Collier's session with the kids very impressive: drawing and talking about Hargreaves, followed by "But she's dead, isn't she...?" Yet the fact that another regular TAC contributor found this forced and irritating highlighted there being no single, simple route through the grief such an event induces.

Ballard only became visibly troubled in the final frames: looking at K2, the kids pestering him with questions, he went quiet, in on himself. This was a good place - in both senses - to end what was a very sad programme, one disturbing in the questions it threw up. In advance there were fears of it having been made with undue haste; in the event that phrase might perhaps be better applied to the manner of living and untimely death of the climber at its heart.

TAC 27 Index