Why climbing a 4,000m mountain as a woman in my 40s was a game changer

Anyone who knows comedian Harry Enfield from the ’90s will remember his skit Women: Know Your Limits, a bogus public service announcement from the 1950s that put brave ladies in their place.

It’s deliberately perverse in my head as I tackle the Gorge Alpine via ferrata in Upper Valais. When I’m zooming through caves on a zip line and hurtling across a gorge on a swing rope, I’m jumping—instead of pedaling—out of my comfort zone.

Of course, my gender doesn’t make me any less capable than the next person. But I wonder how much I’ve been conditioned to believe that adventure sports are a little too off-limits for me.

My high-rise course is preparing me for an even higher adventure: trying to master my first 4,000m peak.

Switzerland is a mountaineering country with several thousand peaks, 48 ​​of which are over 4,000 meters high. The highest concentration (18) is found in the scenic Saas Valley, which is part of the top-notch canton of Valais.

Throughout history, hundreds of explorers have made their names by conquering treacherous slopes and scaling peaks: Edward Whymper, Jacques Balmat, to name a few. Typical of the time, very few women tried to climb. Dressed in a billowing skirt, British aristocrat Lucy Walker made her mark in the summer of 1871 when she became the first woman to reach the top of the Matterhorn.

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Sarah descending from the summit of the Allalinhorn over a scree slope. PA Photo/Jessie Leong.

It was a milestone for women’s mountaineering, but more than 150 years later there are still very few women dedicated to the sport. Of the 1,556 mountain guides in Switzerland, only 3 percent are women.

To correct the imbalance, Switzerland Tourism, the Swiss Alpine Club, the Swiss Mountain Guides Association and Mammut joined forces last year to launch the 100-part Women Peak Challenge, encouraging 700 women to conquer the country’s 48 highest peaks in all women’s teams to climb. In June this year, 80 women broke a world record by forming the longest all-female rope team during a summit on the Breithorn.

It triggered an avalanche of enthusiasm from women of all ages who wanted to try mountaineering for the first time – myself included. Although I’ve hiked at altitudes over 5,000m, I’ve never roped up and attached a carabiner. Also, at 44, I’m more of a mountain lamb than a sprightly spring lamb.

But at a point in my middle life when I’m willing to try anything, I convince myself that the true spirit of adventure depends more on mental determination than physical ability.

Another draw is the scenery: nestled in an amphitheater of snow-capped, sky-scraping mountains, the Saas Valley is as breathtaking as its dizzying, soaring peaks.

Saas-Fee, a small car-free village where crumbling cowsheds made of larch wood lie next to cozy restaurants and chic sports shops, is my base for the next few days. It is the starting point for numerous activities: bouldering, mountain biking and summer skiing. I was also told, rather ominously, that climate change and the emergence of more glacial lakes could make wild swimming more popular in the years to come.

My goal is to join a team of four other women to climb the Allalinhorn, one of the most accessible 4,000m peaks in the area – a sight visible from almost every point in the valley (on a clear day).

We are led by mountain guide Elsie Trichot, who became obsessed with the sport after climbing Mont Blanc with her father. Although short in stature, she is extremely tough and admits that her husband wooed her with a pocket knife instead of a wedding ring.

Although she’s only recently given birth to a child, she bursts with an unnerving energy when we meet.

The difference between hiking and mountaineering is the need for technical gear, she explains as we go through our gear list: a light windproof jacket, pants, gloves, a woolen hat, sturdy boots (UGGs certainly won’t do), and sawtooth crampons to grab of the ice.

“Accidents are an accumulation of wrong decisions,” she says, revealing that most rescue missions are designed for ill-prepared hikers with too much bravery and too little caution.

“In the mountain guide training you learn how to deal with problems and make decisions.”

After boarding the MetroAlpin (highest funicular in the world) at Felskinn, we start our ascent at the Mittelallalin station. Below us gray moraine fields are crumbling and we emerge into a landscape of soft snow with happy skiers hurtling down the slopes.

Already at 3,457 m we only have about 500 meters of altitude to climb – but at these oxygen-poor altitudes we should need about two hours for it.

We connect our carabiners with a rope and walk in single file, keeping a safe distance from each other. Progress is frustratingly slow at first. Frequent stops are required to tighten loose crampons and remove sweaty layers, much to the annoyance of Elsie, who urges us to keep moving before the snow melts and creates dangerous conditions.

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Sarah and her all-women team successfully climb the Allalinhorn. PA Photo/Jessie Leong.

Finally, after piercing the clouds, our Mountain Martinet allows us to look back. The sight – so unusual and unexpected – is almost shocking. A silky layer of cumulus swirls around our feet, reaching to the tops of the Dom (Switzerland’s highest peak) and the Matterhorn, which is now oddly at eye level. On our jagged horizon, glaciers gleam with a metallic sheen.

Reaching the actual summit, where a wooden cross frames the obligatory group selfie, is surprisingly easy. But it’s the descent that gives me the most trouble. I struggle to find a foothold in a section of loose debris and nearly lose a couple of nails as my feet buckle in the toe caps of my poorly laced boots.

Luckily, my fellow climbers are friendly and only offer help instead of clever comments. Would a men’s team have been the same? I’m not sure. Or maybe I would have been too embarrassed to ask for help.

That evening, over a celebratory pot of sticky raclette, we join a group of women to discuss the benefits of climbing our first 4,000m peak. Aside from the obvious confidence boost and camaraderie, there were the handy conveniences of being able to borrow lip balms and put on a human shield whenever someone needed a bit of snow lounging.

Most importantly, the experience was confirmation that gender and age become irrelevant in the mountains. True spirit of adventure knows no bounds up there.

I’m leaving Saas Fee much clearer about my limitations and I know that they reach much further than I think.

More info

For more information on the destination, see visitsaas-fee.ch. Switzerland Tourism has designed several 100-part women’s tours, including mountaineering, hiking and mountain biking. See myswitzerland.com/de-ch/erlebnisen/100-frauen

https://www.independent.ie/life/travel/europe/why-climbing-a-4000m-mountain-as-a-woman-in-my-40s-was-a-game-changer-41915081.html Why climbing a 4,000m mountain as a woman in my 40s was a game changer

Fry Electronics Team

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