Breithorn or Bust… Part Two
26th August 2021 | Catie Friend
Last modified on August 30th, 2021
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 Two.
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.
See here for my earlier report on our preparation day:
See here for more on the 100% Women Peak Challenge.
Now it was the real deal.
Summit day dawned with a 4:30am alarm and we stumbled groggily from our fairly sleepless night in the mountain hut, Rifugio del Guide Cervino, to breakfast and tea.
We donned our crampons and started the slow trudge back up the mountain towards the Breithorn.
‘Guide pace’ is a wonderful speed to travel.
I spend much of my life trying to get from place to place as quickly as possible.
So when given “permission” to slow right down and just put one foot in front of the other, not getting too out of breath or too sweaty, I really enjoy it.
The views behind us slowed us down even further as we stopped to turn round and see what not many people are privileged to witness.
The sun coming up over the Matterhorn.
Before the sun, however, is the Alpenglow.
It’s a mythical time of the day where the world seems quiet and bathed in an ethereal blue that takes your breath away.
I hate getting out of bed, but that is worth every minute of lost sleep.
What I love after that is a good, steep slope to plod up.
It is a bizarre quirk that although my body prefers less steep, my mind is much happier when faced with something that keeps it occupied.
And steep, recently groomed, hard packed glacier slopes in crampons at 6am are perfect entertainment for my head.
Some of the party were headachey and a bit woozy with the altitude by the time we hit the glacier.
But roping up in the now very strong winds, we were given a choice of “now or never” and we all chose to batter on.
I chose to rope up with Nadine and together with Sophie, Emma, Marlous and Kathelijne we began the slow climb up the mountain.
Ice axes out and long roped became short roped for the final push to the summit as it was a steep climb followed by a ridgeline.
The wind was utterly ballistic by this stage and it was a little hairy up there.
We were exposed and buffeted.
We tucked our chins into our hoods and simply followed the boots in front.
Luckily for me, Sophie’s were a beautiful blue colour, and I just focussed on them.
About five minutes of walking plus a short 30 second stop – and repeat – was how we proceeded.
We passed another group as they came off the summit and cheered for them, but kept going into the wild gale that was threatening to overbalance us on the ridge.
Suddenly, we stopped and I heard a faint “well done” from in front of us.
We had done it.
None of us noticed until the boots in front stopped moving, so concentrated were we on keeping going.
Smiles all round, a quick stop for photos and then the very strong desire to get out of the wind and off the Breithorn.
The descent was more painful than the up for me.
Tired quads and sloppy feet meant I was slow and caught my crampons on my trousers more than once, but soon we were back on the glacier.
We paused for a group photo before fighting more wind to get back to the cablecar.
Down to Zermatt for coffee and cake.
All before 11:30am and feeling very smug about our morning’s accomplishment.
I left the group soon after, needing to get home, but I was very happy with what we had achieved.
I saw three strong, capable women do a job I had only ever experienced men doing.
They were knowledgeable, interesting, patient, calm and kind.
They kept us safe, they made us feel like we belonged up there and they showed us that it is not necessary to be with a man to go into an extreme environment such as this.
Lou had explained to me that, as a small woman, one of the few things she has to be aware of as a woman is perhaps putting in a little bit more protection on the mountain if she has a big, heavy male client.
Otherwise, they learn the same things, they face the same years-long training and I assume a 60kg male guide would also have to think carefully about how he managed a 90kg client, so really no different at all.
What was different was a better understanding of a female client.
The knowledge that it would take us three times as long to go for a pee (which several of us had to do) and the safety implications that come with that (harness round ankles for a few minutes).
For some of the smaller women, there was the joy that they were not having to take five steps for every one of a tall male guide, which is exhausting.
Perhaps for me the biggest thrill was feeling empowered.
As one of the more experienced people on the trip, I was thrilled to discover I knew more than I thought I did.
I was able to help my teammates to tie knots, to explain a little how the hut worked and how to feel comfortable on the mountain.
My experience as a woman, is that I would rarely offer to help a man with similar things.
If I did that this kind of assistance is not often welcomed by men in a traditionally male environment.
However, those amazing, strong women I was in a team with didn’t mind help from another woman and that made me feel good.
I was never once out of my comfort zone on this trip, but I learned that you don’t have to be in order to feel good about yourself, to learn from others and be inspired by a team of courageous, bold, warm and fun women.
Check out the photos below and swipe right to the short inaudible video that demonstrates just how windy it was up top.
In case you missed it, you can read Catie Friend’s first piece here Breithorn or Bust.
We stayed in the Hotel Derby, in the centre of Zermatt and the Rifugio del Guide Cervino.
See here for more on the 100% Women Peak Challenge.