Anyone familiar with comedian Harry Enfield will remember his skit, Women: Know Your Limits, a spoof 1950s public broadcast announcement putting daring ladies in their place.
Intentionally perverse, it plays through my mind as I tackle the Gorge Alpine via ferrata in the Upper Valais. Zooming through caves on a zip wire and careering across a canyon with a swing rope, I’m leaping – rather than stepping – out of my comfort zone.
My high-rise assault course is preparation for an even more elevated adventure – attempting to master my first 4,000m peak.
Switzerland has several thousand summits, with 48 soaring over 4,000 metres. The highest concentration (18) can be found in the scenic Saas Valley, part of the peak-perfect Valais canton.
Switzerland Tourism, the Swiss Alpine Club, Swiss Mountain Guide Association and Mammut teamed up to launch the 100% Women Peak Challenge last year, encouraging 700 women to climb the country’s highest 48 peaks in all-female teams.
In June, 80 women broke a world record by forming the longest women-only rope team on a summit of the Breithorn.
It’s triggered an avalanche of enthusiasm from women of all ages eager to try mountaineering for the first time – including me. Although I’ve hiked at high altitudes above 5,000m, I’ve never roped up and clipped on a carabiner. Plus, at 44 years old, I’m more mountain mutton than sprightly spring lamb.
Another spur is the scenery: set in an amphitheatre of snow-streaked, sky-scraping mountains, the Saas Valley is as breathtaking as its giddy, high-altitude peaks.
Saas-Fee, a small car-free village where crumbling larch wood cow sheds neighbour cosy restaurants and flashy sports stores, is my base.
Joining a team of four more women, my goal is to climb the Allalinhorn, one of the area’s most accessible 4,000m peaks.
Leading us is mountaineering guide Elsie Trichot. The difference between hiking and mountaineering is the need for technical gear, she explains, as we run through our kit list: a light wind-proof jacket, trousers, gloves, a woollen hat, sturdy boots (UGGs most certainly won’t cut it) and sawtooth crampons for gripping the ice.
After hopping on to the MetroAlpin (the world’s highest funicular) at Felskinn, we start our ascent at the Mittelallalin station.
Already at 3,457m, we only have around 500m elevation to go – but at these oxygen-thin heights, that’s likely to take us around two hours.
Frequent stops are needed to tighten loose crampons and remove sweaty layers, much to the annoyance of Elsie who urges us to keep moving before snow melts creating dangerous conditions. Finally, once we’ve pierced through 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, extending to the tips of the Dom (Switzerland’s highest peak) and the Matterhorn, now at eye level.
Reaching the actual peak, where a wooden cross forms a frame for an obligatory group selfie, is surprisingly straightforward. But it’s the descent that causes me most problems. I struggle to find a foothold in a stretch of loose scree and almost lose a few nails as my feet crumple into the toe caps of my poorly laced boots.
That evening, over a celebratory pot of gooey raclette, we discuss the advantages of scaling our first 4,000m peak. Along with the camaraderie, there were the practical conveniences of being able to borrow lip balms and forming a human screen whenever anyone needed to squat for a wee in the snow.
More than anything, though, the experience was affirmation that once in the mountains, gender and age are meaningless.
I leave Saas Fee much clearer about my limits, and they extend far further than I think.
Hundreds of explorers have made their name by conquering treacherous slopes and scaling pinnacles – but few women. Dressed in a billowing skirt, British aristocrat Lucy Walker became the first female to reach the top of the Matterhorn in the summer of 1871.
For more info, visit saas-fee.ch. Switzerland Tourism have several 100% women tours, including mountaineering, hiking and mountain biking. Visit myswitzerland.com/en-ch/experiences/100-women
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