aIn the spring of 1995 Alison Hargreaves stood on the summit of Everest. At the age of 33 she had entered the history books as the first woman to climb solo to the top of the world with no supplementary oxygen, in perfect style and with no assistance. By the autumn she was dead, blown from the summit ridge of K2, the second highest mountain in the world.

After the accident, powerful images of Hargreaves with her young children dominated the front pages of the newspapers for days. Gradually her family's hopes for a miraculous survival faded and the realisation she would not be coming home sank in. During her brief months of stardom she had encouraged and courted publicity and the nation's media had responded in full. She was young and pretty and she was risking her life on the world's highest mountains. It was a potent mixture of sex

and death.

While her success on Everest attracted generally encouraging media coverage, especially in Scotland where Hargreaves and her family were now living, it was not universal. The London-based columnist Nigella Lawson wrote: ''There are those who feel that they are truly alive only when they are risking death. Something is wrong with people who feel a pathological need to escape from the everyday here and nowness of life. I have no time for people who risk their life in a vainglorious attempt to be praised for courage. Everywhere there are people in real danger, who live - though not for long - in famine, with terminal cancer, at war. If the Alison Hargreaves of this world really value life so little maybe we should not worry on their behalf if they lose it.'' When this possibility became a reality, the images of Everest conqueror Alison Hargreaves with her proud and happy children metamorphosed

into symbols of one person's selfishness and obsessive ambition. While the mountaineering world recognised her achievement and accepted she had taken a calculated risk, elements of the media made her look like the ''mother from hell''.

After her death, the influential liberal commentator Polly Toynbee wrote: ''Danger for its own sake seems to me no better than drug-taking as a social activity. What is interesting about Alison Hargreaves is that she behaved like a man. She put danger first and her family a poor second. Equality means, I am afraid, men behaving as well as women, while women sometimes behave as badly as men.''

Hargreaves' achievements became buried under a storm of debate over motherhood, ambition and the nature of risk in sport and society. Four years later, if people remember anything about her it is probably not her name or her achievements; it is more likely to be just the memory of the obsessed young woman mountaineer who recklessly sought danger for its own sake and got killed, leaving two little

children motherless.

Biographers Ed Douglas and David Rose feel it's a legacy which does little justice to her world-class achievements. It also fails to take into account many of the facts which shaped her turbulent family life and motivated her, both as a mother and a professional mountaineer and as the family bread-winner. ''The criticism which followed Alison's death was very upsetting for people who knew her and knew that it wasn't remotely true,'' explains Ed Douglas. ''She was a fantastic mother, adored her children and hated being away from them, but there were very difficult circumstances. She had to make a living and only had one qualification: she was a

good climber.''

As a climber and journalist Douglas is aware of how society views voluntary risk, especially when taken by women, and the powerful forces which motivate mountaineers, but he was still surprised by the reaction of influential liberal writers like Toynbee. ''There were some very powerful issues at work here and to simply dismiss her as behaving like a man or doing something that was akin to drug-taking was very harsh and wounding. Alison's achievements were not regarded as part of women doing something admirable or impressive, pushing back boundaries of what women were capable of, illustrating that they were just as good as men at some things. Instead, she was disowned, which was very surprising. At the time it struck me as banal not even to begin to inquire into her motivation

and attitudes.''

Risk-taking in women is an interesting phenomenon

and one where there appears to have been little research. The social norm is woman as nurturer and man as risk-taker but, as Douglas points out, it doesn't seem to work like that. It is clear to him that Hargreaves was someone who was liberated, happy, energetic and successful doing something that carried an element of risk. And why shouldn't women be able to express themselves in that way?

To understand some of Alison Hargreaves' own motivations and attitudes, Douglas and Rose went back to her early days in the Derbyshire Peak District where she grew up. Born into a family of intellectual high-achievers, Hargreaves soon developed the common enough desire to achieve something with her life and win appreciation, fame and recognition.

Family holidays to the mountains of Scotland, North Wales and the Lake District introduced her to the outdoors and she was soon rock-climbing on her local cliffs.

''I think Alison was mesmerised by the climbing world when she was young and couldn't imagine anything better than to be thought well of by the climbing community,'' Douglas continues. ''She picked up all those un-thought-out images the climbing world has about itself: anarchic, devil may care, living life to the full, media hating, suburbia despising, all that stuff.''

He has no doubt Hargreaves was ambitious to make her name, but doing that in the back-biting, beer-swilling, male- dominated punk culture climbing world of the late 1970s and early 1980s was not going to be easy. On her eighteenth birthday, when most of her contemporaries were thinking about university or starting jobs, Hargreaves suddenly left home and moved in with Jim Ballard, a climber nearly twice her age, who ran a successful manufacturing business and some outdoor equipment shops. Her parents were shattered. ''She'd been used to this very independent life in the climbing scene where people made, or appeared to make, their own destinies,'' Douglas explains. ''She was rebelling against her parents and she saw climbing and Jim as a way to escape all that bourgeoisie. She became mistress of a very nice house of her own in a beautiful position in the Derwent Valley.''

During the eighties more and more young women started breaking in to the domestic rock-climbing scene. As Hargreaves grew older she realised she might gain respect, but she was never going to be a great rock-climber.

However, mountaineering might give her the big breakthrough she desired. And she was an excellent mountaineer. Fit, strong, dogged, fantastically well-organised, practical and, according to Douglas, ''lacking in imagination, which is always helpful'' in a risk activity such as mountaineering. From her first season in the Alps, Hargreaves set about climbing the established big-name routes. Among them was an ascent of the treacherous north face of the Eiger in 1988 when five months pregnant. ''My 'bump' didn't really affect my performance,'' she commented at the time, adding, ''I wouldn't have done anything to endanger the baby, but I was assured that it was safe enough medically. My GP is a sportsman and understands the drive within people like us to test ourselves against extremes.''

Two trips to the Himalaya in the eighties met different levels of success. The first, a prestigious American expedition resulted in a new route on the mountain Kangtega in Nepal. ''There was something very American about Alison,'' says Douglas. ''She was quite straight, enthusiastic and determined. It probably didn't go down tremendously well in Britain, but when she got to the US she met lots of people who were like her. She enjoyed climbing with Americans because they were positive and full of enthusiasm rather than hanging around campsites bitching about the way the world is.''

By the early nineties Hargreaves had suppressed some of her ambition, her infant son and daughter, Tom and Katie, occupying most of her time. But Ballard's business was in difficulties and as the business failed the family became more isolated. ''They didn't have any money, she lost the phone and the cars, and what had been this dream cottage set in this beautiful valley became a horrible place to live,'' Douglas explains. The relationship was occasionally violent and I stress occasionally, but it was more the tip of the nature of his controlling behaviour. She had become more and more limited and narrowly focused within the relationship. She didn't have many friends and she wasn't part of the climbing community in a major way. She felt trapped, that her life was passing her by and it had all gone wrong. In many ways her life was fantastically oppressive.''

With the business in trouble, Hargreaves and Ballard came up with a plan. She would spend a summer soloing the six great north faces of the Alps, they would then go to America, followed by an attempt on Everest in 1994, still to receive its first ascent by a British woman. ''When Rebecca Stephens said she was going to Everest in 1993 as part of a British expedition, Alison realised that potentially, she had blown it,'' says Douglas.

''Stephens would get the first British woman's ascent and get a boost to her career. Alison wanted to go to Everest, but Jim said they had to stick to the plan and she missed the opportunity.'' In May of 1993 Rebecca Stephens stood on Everest's 29,028-foot summit using bottled oxygen. Not long after returning to the UK, Stephens landed a job hosting the television programme Tomorrow's World.

By the time Ballard, Hargreaves and the children arrived in the Alps in 1993 the business had gone and the house had been repossessed. ''They had no stable family base, nothing. Jim wasn't doing anything and they had no money. Both of them had very traditional views of parenthood and Alison would only be out of the valley climbing for a few days. For the rest of the time she was looking after the children.'' The alpine solos received considerable acclaim among mountaineers, she wrote a book about them called A Hard Day's Summer and some sponsorship deals came her way from equipment companies. The sums involved do not appear to have been large, but they were a start.

Hargreaves had planned 1994 as her successful Everest year, but bad weather thwarted two attempts at a solo ascent on the mountain without bottled oxygen. Having never climbed above 22,000 feet, her 27,500-foot high point proved to her that she was capable of the task she had set herself. The family had come with her to Everest, but now settled back into a modest existence at Torlundy near Fort William.

The following year Hargreaves was back on Everest, this time attempting it from the north in Tibet. By now she had formulated an impressive plan to climb the world's three highest mountains - Everest, K2 and Kangchenjunga - in the same year, a feat never attempted before. ''I met her on the Tibetan side of Everest in 1995 just before she went to K2,'' recalls Douglas. ''I'd known her for about eight or nine years and already written a fair amount about her, but I'd always met her in the context of trade shows or in the pub or in a non-mountain setting. At Everest she was in her element and very happy. She seemed full of life, mellow and content and without that slightly edgy, watchful demeanour she had sometimes when she was in a large social gathering of climbers.'' This time everything went to plan and Hargreaves fulfilled her ambition.

Later that spring, back in Britain at a press conference at Nevis Range near Fort William, Hargreaves announced her intention to attempt K2 in the summer. Although she clearly wanted to climb K2, Douglas doesn't think she needed to. ''She had done something really amazing in climbing Everest and she climbed it in spectacularly good style. She carried all her own equipment up the mountain and very few people do that. Only four women have climbed Everest without bottled oxygen. One ascent is still questionable and one woman died on the descent in horrible circumstances. Her achievement was world class. I don't think she needed to go to K2; she could have sorted things out from Everest. For example, we know that a major manufacturer was already interested in offering her a deal for a lot more money.

''But she had come up with this plan of doing the three highest mountains in one year, produced this brochure and told everyone she was going to K2. She had a lot of problems at home which she still wasn't sure how to sort out, but at the end of the day she was someone who got very committed to things. If she agreed to do something then she'd do it even if it started to make her look obsessive or ridiculous. She left for Pakistan and K2 as part of an expedition organised by American Rob Slater and including the British climber Alan Hinkes. On August 13, Hargreaves and five other climbers reached the summit. She became the fifth woman and fifth Briton to climb what is widely regarded by mountaineers as one of the hardest high peaks in the world. But as she descended, just over an hour after leaving the summit,

100 mph winds hit the mountain and in the ensuing storm all six climbers lost their lives.

''The tragic thing about Alison's life isn't what she went through, because lots of people go through things like that, but that she was taking back control of her life,'' says Douglas. ''She had linked up with people who had a much firmer grip on what the score was and who had helped her. She had spent more time with other mountaineers and was getting her perspective back on the climbing world. That driven intensity she had when she started climbing was changing. ''After she died people put a lot of significance on her decisions and how she was feeling. Alan Hinkes had already made the summit and there were certainly pressures from home for her to climb it as well. She wanted to get it done and return home, but she was reluctant without giving it another shot. Rob Slater and others were staying on and I think she would have felt pretty grim if they had made it and she'd gone home.''

While reproaching Lawson and Toynbee for their responses to Hargreaves, Douglas feels some of their emotions come as much from a cultural and establishment media bias against risk activities such as mountaineering, as from the ethical and moral debate about women, children and responsibility. A London-dominated media which thinks anyone who participates in a stupid, macho activity such as mountaineering must be brainless, whereas skiing is fantastically sexy and cool. But to a Frenchman, or even an American, there is very little difference between skiing in the high mountains or climbing.

In 1982, after the UK's first international women's rock-climbing meeting the climber Bonny Mason, wrote: ''On the whole the British still find independence and aggression difficult to accept in a woman. The argument that social pressures are responsible for the [small] number of women in climbing is borne out if we consider other countries. In Europe, especially France, there is a more generally accepted tradition of alpinism and many more women are active in the mountains. The greater emphasis on feminism in the USA may likewise be responsible for the high activity and levels of achievement of women there.'' The backlash which followed Alison Hargreaves' death show that after more than a decade these social pressures on women remain as strong as ever.

Douglas feels Hargreaves deserved greater recognition and respect than she received. ''It was as if Alison had become the mother from hell. There was nothing glorious about her death because getting blown off a mountain is a pretty grim way to go, but that was a potential consequence of what she did and she recognised that. People die grim deaths all the time. They get cancer and they get run over; life is not a certain thing. You have to look at the way Alison lived her life and put out of your mind that she died young. Alison's life touched on subjects like risk-taking and motherhood very powerfully and in that sense hers is a positive and inspirational story.''

l Regions Of The Heart - the triumph and tragedy of Alison Hargreaves, by David Rose and Ed Douglas, is published by Michael Joseph on August 12 at #16.99.