Anyone familiar with 90s comedian Harry Enfield will remember his skit, Women: Know Your Limits, a parody 1950s public announcement putting bold women in their place.
Intentionally perverse, it crosses my mind as I tackle the via ferrata of the Alpine Gorges in Haut-Valais. Traveling through caves on a zipline and traversing a canyon on a swing rope, I’m jumping—rather than walking—out of my comfort zone.
Of course, my gender does not make me less capable than the next person. But I wonder how much I’ve been conditioned to believe that adventure sports are, well, a little too off limits for me.
My obstacle course at height is a preparation for an even higher adventure: trying to master my first 4,000m peak.
A land of mountaineering, Switzerland has several thousand peaks, 48 of which are over 4000 meters. The highest concentration (18) is found in the picturesque Saas Valley, which is part of the perfect canton of Valais.
Throughout history, hundreds of explorers have made a name for themselves by conquering dangerous slopes and scaling peaks: Edward Whymper, Jacques Balmat to name a few. Typical of the times, very few women attempted to climb. Wearing a puffy skirt, British aristocrat Lucy Walker made a name for herself in the summer of 1871 when she became the first woman to summit the Matterhorn.
It was a historic moment for women’s mountaineering, but more than 150 years later there are still very few women involved in the sport; of the 1,556 Swiss mountain guides, only 3% are women.
To even out the imbalance, Switzerland Tourism, the Swiss Alpine Club, the Swiss Association of Mountain Guides and Mammut teamed up to launch the 100pc Women Peak Challenge last year, encouraging 700 women to climb the country’s 48 highest peaks. in all women’s teams. In June this year, 80 women broke a world record by forming the longest women’s rope team at a Breithorn summit.
It sparked an avalanche of enthusiasm from women of all ages wanting to try mountaineering for the first time – myself included. Although I have hiked at elevations over 5000m, I have never roped and attached a carabiner. Besides, at 44, I’m more of a mountain sheep than a dapper spring lamb.
But at a time in my life when I’m willing to try anything, I convince myself that the true spirit of adventure is more about mental determination than physical skill.
Another spur is the landscape: Set in an amphitheater of snow-capped, sky-scraping mountains, the Saas Valley is as breathtaking as its soaring, high-altitude peaks.
Saas-Fee, a small car-free village where crumbling larch-wood stables sit alongside cozy restaurants and flashy sports shops, is my base for the next few days. It is the starting point for many activities: bouldering, mountain biking and summer skiing. I was 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 other women, my goal is to climb the Allalinhorn, one of the most accessible 4,000m peaks in the region – a sight visible from almost any point in the valley (on a clear day). ).
We run mountaineering guide Elsie Trichot, who became obsessed with the sport after climbing Mont Blanc with her father. Although short in stature, she is extremely tough and admits that her husband wooed her with a penknife instead of a wedding ring.
Although she recently gave birth, she buzzes with disconcerting energy when we meet.
The difference between hiking and mountaineering is the need for technical gear, she explains, as we run through our gear list: a lightweight windproof jacket, pants, gloves, a woolen hat, sturdy boots (UGGs certainly won’t do) and serrated crampons for gripping the ice.
“Accidents are an accumulation of bad decisions,” she says, revealing that most rescue calls are for ill-prepared hikers with too much bravado and too little caution.
“Mountain guide training is about learning how to handle problems and make decisions.”
After jumping on the MetroAlpin (the highest funicular in the world) at Felskinn, we start our ascent at Mittelallalin station. Below us, gray morainic fields crumble and we emerge into a landscape of soft snow with cheerful skiers hurtling down the slopes.
Already at 3,457m, we only have about 500m of altitude to cover, but at these oxygenated heights, it should take us about two hours.
Connecting our carabiners to a rope, we walk in single file, keeping a safe distance between us. Progress is initially frustratingly slow. Frequent stops are needed to tighten loose crampons and shed layers of sweat, much to the chagrin of Elsie who urges us to keep going before the snow melts, creating dangerous conditions.
Finally, once the clouds broke through, our mountain swift allowed 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 Dom (Switzerland’s highest peak) and the Matterhorn, now eerily at eye level. On our jagged horizon, the glaciers shine with a metallic luster.
Reaching the actual summit, where a wooden cross forms a frame for an obligatory group selfie, is surprisingly simple. But it’s the descent that gives me the most problems. I’m struggling to find footing in a stretch of loose scree and nearly lost a few nails as my feet slump into the toes of my poorly laced boots.
Luckily my fellow climbers are friendly and only offer help rather than intelligent remarks. Would a men’s team have been the same? I’m not so sure. Or maybe I would have been too embarrassed to ask for help.
That evening, over a festive pot of gooey raclette, we discuss the benefits of climbing our first 4,000m peak with a group of women. As well as the obvious confidence boost and camaraderie, there were the practical conveniences of being able to borrow lip balms and form a human screen whenever someone needed to crouch down to pee in the snow.
More than anything, however, the experience was the affirmation that once in the mountains, gender and age no longer made sense. Up there, a true spirit of adventure knows no boundaries.
I leave Saas Fee much clearer about my limits, and I know they extend much further than I think.
To find out more about the destination, visitsaas-fee.ch. Switzerland Tourism has designed several 100 pc women’s tours, including mountaineering, hiking and mountain biking. See myswitzerland.com/en-ch/experiences/100-women