While Jim Ballard's book is a moving tribute to his wife's achievements and his children, Jane Scott finds it is also a painstaking rebuttal of the `armchair critics' who seem so much to goad him

LATE in the night, after Alison Hargreaves had soloed the first of the six classic faces of the Alps, her husband Jim Ballard filled buckets with warm water (the campsite showers were broken).

He ``poured them over her, before dressing her in every piece of fleece we had and slotting her into a sleeping bag. She was the young girl again, tired and needing to be looked after''.

Jim Ballard, it seems, was made to be a father. There is much slotting of children into sleeping bags throughout One and Two Halves to K2, his account of the journey made with his son and daughter to see ``mum's last mountain'', heightened scenes taking place in the cocoon of the tent.

Until K2 and the storm which killed her last August, the children had followed their mother nearly everywhere she was climbing. They lived under canvas. ``We developed a way of sleeping in these wild places that we called the `sandwich technique'. Alison and I would take opposite ends so that the children always knew whichever way they turned either mum or dad would be there if they woke up in the night. We found that Kate would always gravitate to my side no matter where she started off and Tom would always end up by his mother's side. Now that Alison was no longer there, Tom had to take a more responsible big-brother role and became the new back-stop for Kate.''

If you tried to put a template over the family life of Alison Hargreaves, it wouldn't fit. There is little an average family would recognise, even in the inverted roles of homemaker and breadwinner.

If Hargreaves was away climbing - absence that only really occurred in her last months - Ballard would drop Tom, then six, at school, leave Kate, four, at nursery, and spend the morning at the Fort William climbing wall. In the afternoon he would take Kate skiing. Before the final year and the unparalleled conquests of Everest and K2, solo and without oxygen, the family travelled together, spending months at a time at the foot of mountains. Before moving to Spean Bridge last year - a house where Hargreaves spent only a few hours - the family had no permanent home.

They were unorthodox, something Britain had a hard job coming to terms with after Hargreaves's death. The country gloried in the fact that she was a woman, climbing these mountains, castigated her for being a mother when she died on them. Journalists illogically took against Ballard when, for days on end after the announcement, he held open house at Nevis Range, giving interviews, posing for pictures, freely offering what they usually have to work so hard for.

Of course, what Ballard didn't offer was grief, and this was the most unorthodox thing of all. Unable to sleep after the news first came through, he sat down and drafted a press release. Invited to appear on talk shows he could ``fit in only two'' before leaving on the K2 trip. He takes a pedagogical approach to Hargreaves's death, and while the book is a moving tribute to his wife's achievements and his beautiful, bright children, it is also a painstaking rebuttal of the ``armchair critics'' who seem so much to goad him.

Ballard is a facilitator. The first time he saw Hargreaves was from behind the counter of his mountaineering shop in Derbyshire. She came to work for him, moving in when she was 18, and while he ran the shop, she spent the day on the hills, running and rock-climbing. When she was able to earn her living at it, he ran the home, looked after the children.

His admiration for her talent is immense; it must stand, perhaps, for an expression of love. There were some particularly nasty stories in the papers last year about the state of the marriage but it is true that Hargreaves and Ballard walk through this book as a family, rather than as a couple and so, even when he argues against grief by evoking ``her talent against nature'', the mountains reclaiming her for their own, her spirit free in the untamed wastes, it is harder to understand because we start from a position of ignorance, uncertain as to their relationship.

And arguments like these are unconvincing, if you don't share their passion. Mountaineering is a selfish sport; even in a team, you do it on your own; that view from the top is yours alone, and because it's time-consuming and dangerous, it is hard on families. Alison's own diary of the K2 trip fails to resolve the dilemma.

``I've been here six weeks now and had a few tries...... the weather each time has shut me down - it is obviously not to be. Tom goes back to school soon - I'd like some time with him. They're young and time flies by - I want - I feel I should be with them.

``Maybe I've failed here. I've worked hard but somehow it's not come together. Yesterday I was in tears coming down the strip - exhausted, mentally and physically.

``It eats away at me - wanting the children and wanting K2 - I feel like I'm being pulled in two. Maybe they'd be happier if mum was around but maybe summiting K2 would help me make a better future for them. Long term having me back safe and sound is surely more important?''

Ballard champions Hargreaves's choice of profession throughout the book, pointing out that male climbers who happen to be fathers don't encounter such opposition, quoting the talk-show guest who said women are more than merely grow bags, emphasising that climbing was what his wife was born to do.

Of his own challenge, he only once admits to having doubts about the K2 journey, when Tom goes down with a stomach complaint, although the number of times he justifies taking the children on such an arduous, dangerous trek belies this certainty. Ballard's odyssey, of course, raised all the issues of parental responsibility thrown up by his wife's career, spiced by his seemingly ghoulish willingness to let the children be photographed and filmed (although this, perhaps, comes from his desire to better inform, to tell the world what Hargreaves stood for). Never doubt that he has a huge and quiet love for his children, expressed as it may be through Alison's need for them, rather than his own.

In the end, one can only say that they led their lives as they felt they had to; and which of our family lives would bear as much scrutiny?

``Alison never came home. Instead, I brought our children to her so she could see them one last time. She had spent time with them in some of the most beautiful and wildest places on God's earth. She had seen them growing up where every child should have the opportunity to grow up - in the wide open spaces, in freedom, having adventures and learning to look after themselves in a natural way. If there is anything sad at all about Alison's death, it is the fact that she can never see her children grow up. That's all.''

n.One and Two Halves to K2 by James Ballard is published by Penguin, #6.99, on August 12.

If you tried to put a template over the family life of Alison Hargreaves, it wouldn't fit