Mountaineering & Expeditions

My First 4,000 Metre Climb | Taking Part In A World Record Mountain Ascent

A story of 80 adventurous women tackling the mountainous terrain of Saas-Fee

Featured image credit: Caroline Fink

The cable car glides smoothly through the air in silence. Inside it smells like a new car, with plush leather seats and floor to ceiling wrap-around windows. It’s a panoramic view, designed to show off the commanding hooked peak of the Matterhorn – one of the most famous peaks in Switzerland (and, arguably, the world). I have my back to it though. The cable car is the last of three rides, taking us as high up from the valley as we can before we start our climb. Through cat-4 sunglasses, I stare up at the mountains.

Breithorn: a steep, grey, fragmented glacier rising into a snowy white pyramid, the top illuminated in sunlight. The cable car hangs directly over the glacier and you can stare straight down into the jaws of its crevasses. It looks hot outside. Not a perfect blue sky day, but plenty of it – good alpine ascent weather. Scouring the view, face close to the window, I search for any clues of what the day might bring. It’s the clouds that make me uneasy, hanging like spaceships over the high peaks. Perhaps this won’t be the dead-cert alternative we’re expecting.

“A crash course in hut to hut touring ended up having far more emphasis on schnapps than skills development”

Alpinism is quite new to me. One post-uni alpine tour on the Austrian-Italian border was all I’d ever done. And what I’d hoped would be a crash course in hut to hut touring ended up having far more emphasis on schnapps than skills development. But, as tasters go, it was enough. Standing at 3,467m on the last day, warm in a baselayer with a massive view across hundreds of snow-carved slopes and summits, I’d decided I wanted to do more. Then, upon returning to the UK, I’d proceeded to spend all my holidays in Scotland instead. Slogging up slushy slopes, battling horizontal hail and pacing blindly into white out. Winter was a familiar beast, but the summer alpine high life was entirely foreign. Reliable snow conditions and good weather? Still, if I knew anything it’s that when snow, ice and mountains mix, plans change.

Until yesterday evening we’d all had our eyes on Allalinhorn, an imposing 4,027m peak looming over Saas-Fee. You could stand on our hotel balcony and stare it down, imagining yourself on its slopes, tracing a line with your eyes across the glacier. You see, this wasn’t just my first attempt at climbing a 4,000m mountain. It was a world record attempt, organised by Switzerland Tourism. 80 women from across the world, including a female guide for each rope team, had come to Saas-Fee to attempt the summit. There was a full range of experience: from alpine ninja to ‘first-time wearing crampons’.

Training on the glacier. Credit: Switzerland Tourism
Guides on Allalinhorn. Credit: Switzerland Tourism

The day before our climb, we had a training session on Längfluh glacier in the shadow of Allalinhorn. This was a chance to get to know our rope teams and guide, as well as practise the skills we’d need – or learn them fresh. The glacier provided a low-risk but realistic training ground. We journeyed back and forth, practising wearing crampons on all sorts of terrain, moving together on a rope and crossing crevasses. Even when you know it’s only a small jump, the gaping ice cracks either side is still off-putting – grey slopes leading down into who knows where. By midday, a great dark cloud descended over the ridge behind us and gently began to sleet. We headed back to the valley.

While we were warming up on Längfluh, a team of four guides climbed Allalinhorn to scope out our intended route. What was meant to be a straightforward ascent turned out to be a bit of an epic, with more time spent hanging in a void than anyone wanted. Standing in the salad queue at dinner, I chatted with one of the four, a former Mont Blanc Mountain Rescuer turned mountain guide. You could tell she’d been part of the summit team. Hair in slight disarray, swept about by high mountain winds. Face slightly more than tanned, with the telltale curves of a sunglasses line. And, a wild grin in her eyes that I knew all too well. Today, the mountain presented a challenge. We sparred, it tested me and I passed. 

“Today, the mountain presented a challenge. We sparred, it tested me and I passed”

“It was sketchy,” she said. “Fine with one or two clients – get up quickly and get down quickly. But with 80…”

Warm days and overcast nights meant soft snow up high. We needed hard snow bridges to safely cross the glacier, and under a serac, to reach the summit of Allalinhorn and make it home again. With 80 people, some who’d barely seen snow before, it would be too risky and too slow to climb. We needed to look elsewhere.

Credit: Switzerland Tourism / Caroline Fink
Credit: Switzerland Tourism

Stepping out of the tunnels of Klein Matterhorn cable car station, below Breithorn, the wind knocked us sideways. For all the blue sky and sunshine, it was cold. We certainly weren’t in the valley any more: time to get the layers out and game faces on. All 80 of us regrouped outside for a final brief. Caroline George, the head guide, had to break through the bubble of chatter – intensifying in that blurry space between nervousness and excitement – to get everyone’s attention. Then we split into our small teams, roped up and set off.

Walking with the rope is quite an isolating experience. You’re definitely still in a group – keeping pace with the rest of a team you are physically attached to, and ensuring the rope between you stays just taut enough. Yet you’re too separate to hold a conversation, except for the odd shouted comment or joke. So I kept my hood up against the wind and concentrated on the line in front of me. Placing my feet steadily, keeping a gentle arc in the rope and, every now and again, risking a glance up at Breithorn.

“I kept my hood up against the wind and concentrated on the line in front of me”

We crossed the plateau, following a well established groove of footprints in the snow. Where the slope kicked upwards, we stopped to put on crampons. Sheltered from the wind by the mountain, I stared back towards the Matterhorn and its angular rocky tooth, almost bare of snow, while munching on a rather 2D cheese sandwich. I was finding it impossible to juggle snacking and walking, and using a pole, and not getting the rope in a tangle. It was far too much multitasking. At the rate we were going, we’d be on the summit for midday. It was definitely the moment for first lunch.

Next up, the serious ascent. We formed into one long and tight line, with shortened ropes, and began to climb. The path in the snow made tight zig zags up the slope. We followed it at a slow and methodical pace. It felt strange not to be breaking our own trail but it did mean pristine snow either side of a narrow line of footprints, not a criss-cross of messy paths. Sure there are practical reasons for following tracks across a glacier. As mountain logic goes, it pretty much amounts to ‘they didn’t fall in, so hopefully neither will we’. Also, a made path is a line of least resistance to the summit. No rush, no reason to cut corners or push ahead, it was all so civilised.

“It was somewhere between mountaineering and performance art”

Slowly but surely, we were getting closer to the top. A steady rhythm of steps and kicks, each foothold secure, a pause at the apex of every zig zag to swap hands on my pole. My rope team was very near the front of the line. At one point, as I turned, I caught a glimpse of the people behind me. There was a long tail of red trailing out behind us, weaving up the slope, jackets deliberately matching for the photographs. It was somewhere between mountaineering and performance art, a statement-making act in the Swiss mountains. 

Up on the summit. Credit: Switzerland Tourism

As we climbed, deep snow turned to a thin layer above ice. I was surprised to notice the altitude too, and I found my heartbeat drumming faster than I’d expect for a slow and steady plod. Just below the summit, we turned a corner and the wind hit us side on again. Leaning on poles to keep steady, we crested the narrow ridge and there we were. Time for a summit party. It was a bit of a squeeze, but the joy of 80 women, most of us standing on our first 4000er, was contagious. I looked out at the inviting ridgeline ahead. The first, but not the last.

“It was a bit of a squeeze, but the joy of 80 women, most of us standing on our first 4000er, was contagious”

We had some time at the top, taking photos and enjoying the view. Soon though, it was time to move on. After all, the summit is only the halfway point of a journey such as this.. A careful descent off the ridge degenerated into running, and we bounded down the slope once our crampons were off. The snow was very soft now. The long walk back across the plateau was punctuated with tugs on the rope, each time it was because someone had got their foot stuck hip-deep in a hole. Met with laughter every single time, we hauled each other out and carried on.

You May Also Like

Highest Mountains In Switzerland | Top 10

Bike Kingdom | What You Need To Know About Mountain Biking In Lenzerheide

Switzerland Paradise | Kilian Bron Explores The Alps In Must Watch Mountain Bike Edit

Sustainability and Inclusivity | How Switzerland Leads The Way On Adventure’s Biggest Issues


Newsletter Terms & Conditions

Please enter your email so we can keep you updated with news, features and the latest offers. If you are not interested you can unsubscribe at any time. We will never sell your data and you'll only get messages from us and our partners whose products and services we think you'll enjoy.

Read our full Privacy Policy as well as Terms & Conditions.