Before I read Regions of the Heart, I’d never heard of Alison Hargreaves. To be honest I can’t even remember where I first saw the title of the book, or what prompted me to buy it. But I am so glad I now know about this remarkable, intense woman who pioneered women’s mountaineering quietly and without a fuss. To read about someone so intensely driven is inspiring and also a little scary.
Alison Hargreaves grew up around the hills, walking with her parents and climbing with her school. She had an unremarkable childhood, with a happy home. But it was the climbing that caught a hold of her mind and her heart, and became an ambition that shaped her entire life. Working in a climbing shop, ending up living with the manager, and altering every aspect of her life in order to enable her to explore more, she achieved huge amounts in a relatively short space of time.
In the 1980s she became the first woman to climb Everest without oxygen – at 6 months pregnant with her first child. She has a score of first female ascents to her name, and all whilst supporting her family including two young children, and a controlling husband living vicariously through her to make up for his own failures. She became a successful high-altitude mountaineer, unaware of the reaction to being a woman on the hills, seeing only her chances to reach the summits.
The book, written by David Rose and Ed Douglas, is brutally honest, not hiding from the facts of her broken marriage, her self-doubts, and some bad decisions she may have made along the way. It doesn’t glamorise her life, nor does it belittle her achievements. It states the facts as they were, and pulls no punches in accounting for her actions. Taking passages from her diaries, comments from friends, family, and the media, it balances the views without bias, highlighting her successes and shortfalls.
Her story is tragic for two reasons – one, because of the sad outcome to what should have been the pinnacle of her career. And two, because she never really came into her own. Just before her fated (yet also successful) fight up K2, she had finally decided to be assertive and strike out as an independent single mother. She had spent her life surprisingly sheltered, constantly torn between living out her passion and having an obligation to others, particularly her family and husband. Just as she had reached the decision to do something for herself, the mountains finally claimed her as they had threatened to do before.
But in all this, she is an inspirational figure in British mountaineering. Her stolid determination, relentless honesty, and unfailing desire to achieve are examples of a strong mind-set, and something to be respected. Whether or not she was foolish, overambitious, and took too great risks, she was nevertheless an incredible climber and mountaineer, an unwavering mother, striving to achieve for the benefit of her family.