ANYONE familiar with comedian Harry Enfield will remember his 1990s 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.
Of course, my gender doesn’t make me any less capable than the next person. But I do wonder how much I’ve been conditioned to believe adventure sports are, well, a little too off limits for me.
My high-rise assault course is preparation for an even more elevated adventure: attempting to master my first 4,000m peak.
A land made for mountaineering, Switzerland has several thousand summits, with 48 soaring over 4,000 meters. The highest concentration (18) can be found in the scenic Saas Valley, part of the peak perfect Valais canton.
Throughout history, hundreds of explorers have made their name by conquering treacherous slopes and scaling pinnacles: Edward Whymper, Jacques Balmat to name a couple. Typical of the times, very few women attempted climbs. Dressed in a billowing skirt, British aristocrat Lucy Walker made her name in the summer of 1871 when she became the first woman to reach the top of the Matterhorn.
It was a landmark moment for female mountaineering, but more than 150 years later, there are still very few women engaged in the sport? of Switzerland’s 1556 mountain guides, only 3 percent are women.
To even out the imbalance, 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 this year, 80 women broke a world record by forming the longest women-only rope team during 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.
But at a point in my mid-life where I’m willing to give anything a go, I convince myself the true spirit of adventure is more about mental determination than physical skill.
Another spur is the scenery: set in an amphitheater of snow-streaked, sky-scraping mountains, the Saas Valley is as breath-taking as it’s giddy, high-altitude peaks.
Saas-Fee, a small car-free village where crumbling larch wood cow sheds neighbor cozy restaurants and flashy sports stores, is my base for the next few days. It’s the jumping off point for multiple activities: bouldering, mountain biking and summer skiing. I’m also told, rather ominously, that climate change and the emergence of more glacial lakes could make wild swimming more popular in years to come.
Joining a team of four more women, my goal is to climb the Allalinhorn, one of the area’s most accessible 4,000m peaks – a sight visible from almost any point in the valley (on a clear day).
Leading us is mountaineering guide Elsie Trichot, who became obsessed with the sport after climbing Mont Blanc with her father. Although tiny in stature, she’s extremely tough and admits her husband wooed her with a penknife instead of a wedding ring.
Despite having recently given birth, she’s buzzing with an unnerving amount of energy when we meet.
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 woolen hat, sturdy boots (UGGs most certainly won’t cut it ) and sawtooth crampons for gripping the ice.
“Accidents are an accumulation of bad decisions,” she says, revealing most rescue call-outs are for ill-prepared hikers with too much bravado and too little caution.
“Training to be a mountain guide involves learning how to deal with problems and how to make decisions.”
After hopping on to the MetroAlpin (the world’s highest funicular) at Felskinn, we start our ascent at the Mittelallalin station. Below us, gray moraine fields crumble away and we emerge into a landscape of soft snow with gleeful skiers hurtling down runs.
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.
Linking our carabiners to a rope, we walk in single file, keeping a safe distance between each other. Progress is initially frustratingly slow. 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 oddly at eye level. On our jagged horizon, glaciers shine with a metallic luster.
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 the 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.
Luckily, my fellow female climbers are sympathetic and offer only assistance rather than smart remarks. Would a male team have been the same? I’m not so sure. Or, maybe, I’d have been too embarrassed to ask for help.
That evening, over a celebratory pot of gooey raclette, we discuss the advantages of scaling our first 4,000m peak with a group of women. Along with the obvious confidence boost and 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 become meaningless. Up there, a true spirit of adventure knows no boundaries.
I leave Saas Fee much clearer about my limits, and I know they extend far further than I think.
HOW TO PLAN YOUR TRIP
For more information on the destination, visit saas-fee.ch.
Switzerland Tourism has designed several 100 percent women tours, including mountaineering, hiking and mountain biking. Visit myswitzerland.com/en-ch/experiences/100-women