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’.
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.