Climbing Breithorn (4164m) for a Women’s World Record

Emily Woodhouse Adventure Careers, Adventure Stories

There is nothing quite like the feeling of stepping into a five star hotel room after spending a week sleeping in a bivvy bag. That morning, I’d woken up at 4:30am, lying on a dirt ledge opposite a glacier. There were some 20km left of the Haute Route ahead of me, that I needed to finish before midday so I could get to my next engagement in time. After a first class train ride from Zermatt to Saas-Fee, it was time for a different viewpoint on Switzerland. I’d done the roughing it. Now for the classy alpine high life.

My room which, let’s be honest, was actually four rooms – lounge, bathroom, bedroom, toilet and connecting corridor – was about the size of my house. I barely knew what to do with myself. Well, that is after throwing myself on the bed, dumping my kit everywhere, having a long hot shower and eating every ounce of food I had left. So much space, all of it pristine and all of it dry and comfortable. What is a girl to do? Outside, I had a wrap around private balcony with a view directly up to the target of these next three days: Allalinhorn.

[Top image: My rope team after a successful summit. Photo by Caroline Fink]

Not the royalty, the press!

It has been a long old time since I last went on a press trip. But now with travel seemingly getting back to normal, it was time to refresh my memory. I was in Saas-Fee with Switzerland Tourism, on commission for MPora and others, to attempt a world record. The aim was pretty simple: get the most women possible climbing a 4000m mountain at once. We’d be going up in rope teams of four to six people, each with a female guide. We’d also have female photographers and videographers capturing the journey.

Yes, it was a PR stunt in many respects. But there were women in the team from countries all across the world and people of all abilities – from the mountain guides to people who had barely seen snow before and never worn crampons. Personally, I’d never climbed a 4000er before. My highest alpine peak was the Sonklarspitze (3,467 m) in the Stubai Alps that I climbed in 2015. Ironically, Mulhacen from my Spanish 3000s trip was a few metres higher (3,479 m) but they felt worlds apart.

Mingle mingle… in the basement of Hotel Walliserhof.

We all met up in the huge hall three floors below ground level in our maze of a five star hotel. There were drinks and canapes and everyone got their photo taken to put on a huge world map. I was very glad that I’d come to Switzerland early because the other UK people had got stuck and delayed. It turned out that today was the day a flight computer malfunctioned, grounding everything. I don’t like these pre-event mingling things, so I sat on the edge, put on a contented face so no one felt the need to come over to me and watched. I had a chat with one of the guides who used to be in the Mont Blanc Mountain Rescue team and met a couple of Swiss girls who’d got their place on the trip by submitting a film of themselves jumping into a frozen lake. Up for anything!

Later there was a presentation and a big buffet dinner where we met our rope team. We were missing a person so had a small team. It was me, Francesca from Italy, Laura from the local Swiss paper and Benedetta, our Italian guide.

Training day on the glacier

Me in the middle on the Längfluh glacier. Photo: Switzerland Tourism

Our first day was a training day on the glacier below Allalinhorn. We had a pretty experienced and confident team, but for many people it was a whole new experience. We all put on our crampons and harnesses, got roped up and stomped back and forth across the glacier. Benedetta tried to get me and Francesca to learn knots. I’m fairly sure what I was learning was the alpine butterfly, but she only know the Italian name for it.

Either way, we went back and forth on different steepness of ground. We practiced shortening the rope. We jumped across some actually quite deep crevasses and just generally had a play. Then we retired to the cafe at the top of the cable car for a huge bowl of pasta. And since I promised to spread the word: do not put cream in your carbonara!

This is the kind of thing I think of when I think about the Alps. Lots of people crammed into a steamy room with wooden benches. Sunburnt, windswept, eating and talking about mountains. Later, we returned to Saas-Fee and had an afternoon relaxing. Or in some cases recovering from a ridiculously late night transfer to make it in time.

The Twist

At dinner time there was a big announcement. While we had been training on the glacier, a small team of guides had gone up and summited Allalinhorn to test the route for tomorrow. People were dropping through tiny snow bridges on our little glacier, but some of the guides had gone in on their ascent too – people who’d never fallen into a crevasse before. One had a hang in the void. Caroline George, the lead guide, did a great job of explaining the hazards and risks associated with such a big group trying to summit. She said that the overcast nights meant that the moisture hadn’t come out of the snow up high – it was too soft. So with the main aim to be to get a record, we were going to switch mountain to Breithorn from Zermatt. It was a more straightforward ascent, in better conditions. The climb is actually shorter, although the top is higher (which seemed to sell most people).

No pictures of the announcement, but a mountain of pudding!

I had a chat with the Mont Blanc MR guide in the dinner queue. She had that wild expression I knew only too well, of someone who’s had an exhilarating tussle with a mountain. Slightly sunburnt, hair askew and a mad grin. “It was sketchy,” she said. “With one or two clients, fine. Go up quickly and get down quickly. But with eighty…”

Part of me was quite looking forward to a slightly sketchy attempt on the alpine peak we could see from our bedrooms. But it was obviously the right decision to change things. The main aim was to summit together and to get everyone up and down safely. Trying to do that with 80 people, especially with several novices, means a whole different ball game.

The Climb

As if getting up at 5:30am wasn’t hard enough, there were film crews at breakfast. There’s me, deliriously stumbling between cooked and continental breakfast counters, wondering what I might be able to keep down at this time in the morning. Please don’t put a large camera in my face, I can barely function as it is. We had to leave the hotel early to get to Zermatt in time for the first lift up to the mountain. If we weren’t on that lift everything would go pear shaped. I ate as much of a hearty breakfast as I could manage, put on suncream, grabbed my rucksack and left.

The minibus ride was fairly subdued. As we got near to Zermatt, I realised I knew the ridges we were driving below. I spotted the suspension bridge from my last day on the Haute Route and followed along from there. It really is amazing the places you can walk. From below, you wouldn’t believe there was a path up there. Then one of Laura’s recordings came on and the shout went up: “They’re talking about us on the radio!”

Getting Started

It was like playing a game of sardines in the middle gondola.

Spirits were up and climbing as we crossed Zermatt and started our trip up the mountain. A series of three cablecars took us to Klein Matterhorn, above the worst of Breithorn’s glacier. We were crammed into the gondola like sardines, but the atmosphere was definitely one of excitement. The sun was streaming through the huge plastic windows as we floated above the glacier. The Matterhorn, with its unlikely curved peak, commanded all attention as we got higher. I was glad I had finally seen it. A good clear day for us, some high cloud… but as I scoured the view, nearly at the final cablecar station, I couldn’t help but notice the half-spaceship shaped clouds hanging over some peaks. Maybe not as perfect as we imagined.

Out of the tunnels of Klein Matterhorn, I stepped outside… and promptly went back in again. It was freezing. Sunny sure, but very cold and windy. Francesca and I immediately stepped straight back inside to wait for the rest of our group.

The Long Red Line

Regrouping and gearing up outside Klein Matterhorn station.

In practice, the climb was actually very straightforward. Without the faff of 80 people and a world record to evidence, you could get up and down Breithorn very quickly. In fact, some people were trying to do just that – in twos or threes, deeply regretting their choices for today. However considerate we were, we still completely overran the mountain. “They should have listened to the radio!”

We took the Normal route up Breithorn – a track in the snow already carved out by many boots this season. Unlike Alalinhorn. We roped up by the cablecar, walked along a flat section and regrouped at the base of the snow slope. Crampons on, shorten rope and put on your Mammut jacket. Then slowly up the zigzags, all teams close together. We were third rope team from the front (with the legendary Caroline George leading the way). There was a lot of stopping and waiting to make sure we had a continuous line for the media coverage. But actually being in that line and looking down at the tail of red jackets winding up the slope was actually so impressive. It’s probably the closest I’ll ever get to being in one of those Mammut adverts: everyone the same, but with more personality and less Swiss precision.

Me in the big rope team. Photo: Caroline Fisk

Summit Party!!

Up the zigzags, we moved from snow to ice and back to snow as we crested onto the lip of the summit. Breithorn’s peak is long and narrow, which suits 80 people! But it was also very windy to be standing on top while the drone flew about. Honestly, I’m impressed that the drone could even fly. As for the altitude, it was only the very last section I noticed anything – and even then it was no worse than being anaemic. Just a bit more effort to move and a faster heartrate than you’d expect from the slow plod we were doing.

First couple of teams arriving onto the summit. Look at that view ahead!

After a bit of a party on the summit and a lot of photos, it was time to descend. [You can see me dancing on the summit at about 0:13 on MySwitzerland’s Instagram video.] To spice things up after all the waiting, Benedetta set off fast and even started running at one point (!) on the much gentler slopes. None of us knew it was coming and on a rope you’ve got no choice but to go with it until you fall over.

Before long, we were back in Zermatt, giving back out borrowed kit and then napping on the lawn in a small park. Summit success, day well spent – time for ice cream?

More 4000ers?

Standing on the summit of Breithorn, I looked across at the long crest of mountains out ahead of us. I wished we could go and climb those too. There is something very alluring about alpine mountaineering. Whether it’s the culture or the history, the summits themselves or the kinds of days you have in the mountains. And it’s ever so civilised, compared to the slog and battle I’ve got used to on the West Coast of Scotland. I definitely want to do more of it. As with anything, the hard thing is finding people to go with. Because although I can do many of my adventures solo, you really want someone trustworthy on the other end of your rope.

So yes, hopefully there will be more 4000ers in my life. Both in the Alps and elsewhere. For anyone who fancies it, at the time of writing no British woman has climbed all of the UIAA alpine 4000m summits list. There are 82 peaks and a select few who’ve completed them. The first Brit was only in 2016. It won’t be me (for a start I have no interest climbing the Matterhorn) but perhaps it could be you?

Fed up of my sporadic use of social media? Then you need to be in the Adventure Squad! More like a chat with a cuppa and as far from doomscrolling as possible. Or while you’re here, have a read of some of my other mountain adventures in walking, mountaineering and winter. If you’re new to the blog (hello!) you might want to start here first. I’m a female adventurer based in the UK.