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Breithorn or Bust… Part One

PlanetSKI’s intrepid Switzerland reporter, Catie Friend, has been on a women-only expedition to the summit of the Breithorn. It was part of a wider challenge for all-women teams to climb the 48 4,000+ meter mountains in Switzerland this summer. Part One.

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It was not a call I was expecting to get.

Caroline George, mountain guide and technical coordinator for the 100% Women Peak Challenge, asked if I wanted to climb the Breithorn, 4,164m, as part of a women-only group.

Er, “Yes, please”.

“When do we go?” I asked.

It was to commemorate the 150-year anniversary of Lucy Walker becoming the first woman to summit the next-door peak of the Matterhorn, above Zermatt.

The Breithorn – 4,164m – Photo Switzerland Tourism / Florence Gross

The idea is that between March and October 2021, all 48 of the Swiss 4,000m+ peaks sees an all-female team on the summit.

Currently only one peak remains: the Täschhorn at 4,490m in Zermatt’s neighbouring resort of Saas-Fee.

When it launched in March, one of the first all women teams included Chemmy Alcott, former GB ski racer.

While being pretty handy on skis going downhill she was, by her own admission, a bit out of her depth in the opposite direction.

“It was a once in a lifetime, incredible sisterhood experience that pushed me out my comfort zone in a very satisfactory way,” Chemmy told PlanetSKI.

Photo Chemmy Alcott

The aim is to encourage women to take part in what is still somewhat a predominately male environment.

To let them see that you don’t need a man with you to make mountaineering accessible, safe or fun.

And that mountaineering should be as much a woman’s domain as a man’s.

We tend to think of mountaineers as big, bearded, grizzly white men, but there is no reason why well-groomed women of all sizes, colours and races shouldn’t be doing the same activities.

And thus, the trip named “My First 4,000m Peak” comprised of 11 journalists, one Switzerland Tourism representative, two guides, a trainee guide and a photographer.

All women.

Of eight different nationalities.

Smiling despite the howling wind. Photo Switzerland Tourism / Florence Gross

On the opening evening I  shared a table with the correspondent from the BMC Summit magazine, a Dutch writer and a Japanese travel expert, who lives in Switzerland.

It transpired that far from being her first 4,000m peak, Shizu had already climbed the Matterhorn (among others), but as none of her Japanese colleagues could make it due to the pandemic, she was there to report back.

I felt apprehensive.

Shizu and Catie, tying figure of eight knots. Photo Switzerland Tourism / Florence Gross

I’m not very fit at the moment but was pretty confident that I could manage what was required of us going at “guide pace”.

The next morning we set off.

We met, suited and booted, in reception and headed to the Mammut store with our guides, Caro North, Nadine Wallner and Lou Reynolds.

Caro (Swiss) and Nadine (Austrian) are both Mammut sponsored mountain athletes.

Nadine was twice Freeride World Champion and both are super experienced climbers, skiers and mountaineers.

Lou is English, an aspirant (trainee) guide whose job it was to assist and to keep our photographer safe on the glacier.

They made us feel very welcome and informed as we picked up our ice axes, crampons, harnesses and carabiners and headed to the cablecar.

Getting on the cablecar. Photo Switzerland Tourism / Florence Gross

45-minutes later we were at Klein Matterhorn at 3,883m, looking up at the summit we had planned for the following day.

It was pretty windy,  so it was hoods up, single file and eyes on the boots in front as we traipsed down the ski slopes into Italy.

Walking down to the hut, following Caro North. Photo Switzerland Tourism / Florence Gross

Nearing the hut, we stopped and were introduced to tying a figure of eight knot into a rope and how to clip that into our harnesses.

No matter how many times you do this it is, in my experience, always worth practising again.

And again.

Plus getting someone to check your knot and that your carabiners are tightly shut.

The reason we were learning to be roped up was in order to stay safe on the glacier and then on the ridge the following day.

And here was a highlight of the morning – playing with ice axes.

More seriously known as an ice axe arrest, the ability to stop yourself from falling using your ice axe is vital on a mountain.

Lou Reynolds demonstrating ice axe arrest. Photo Switzerland Tourism / Florence Gross

An introduction to the hut, Rifugio del Guide Cervino.

With the etiquette of hut life – leaving axes and crampons outside, putting boots away and wearing the communal crocs.

And there was a good reason on why it was great to be in an all-girl group – no snoring.

Home for the night. Photo Switzerland Tourism / Florence Gross

A snooze and a very luxurious apero later, we had dinner and the stories were long and the laughs were loud.

For the first time ever I looked around and saw a mountain hut with more women than men in it.

I felt a great surge of pride and hope for future generations.

Like moths to a flame – apero! Photo Switzerland Tourism / Florence Gross

Next stop – the Breithorn at 4,164m.

Do check back later in the week for my update…

Minutes from the summit, in gale force winds, Nadine Wallner keeping us safe. Photo Switzerland Tourism / Florence Gross

Update:

See here for Catie’s second article on the ascent and summit:

Minutes from the summit, in gale force winds, Nadine Wallner keeping us safe. Photo Switzerland Tourism / Florence Gross

Fact Box:

Mountain Guides:

Caroline George, mountain guide and technical coordinator for the 100% Women Peak Challenge

Caro (Swiss) and Nadine (Austrian) are both Mammut sponsored mountain athletes Caro North, Nadine Wallner and Lou Reynolds.

Travel:

With thanks to Switzerland Tourism and Swiss train service SBB

Accommodation:

We stayed in the Hotel Derby, in the centre of Zermatt and Rifugio del Guide Cervino.

See here for more on the 100% Women Peak Challenge.

Photo Switzerland Tourism / Florence Gross

 

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