Yet adventure packed itineraries, great food and company was just what I had dreamt of and thankfully, Switzerland was going to be anything other than an ordinary holiday…
As an adventure photographer, alpinist and mountaineer with two alpine trips previously under my belt, it was a delight to be invited as a writer and photographer to write for My Outdoors on my first press trip to Switzerland - a place I’d salivated over with pictures of verdant alpine meadows, swirling cloud inversions and buckets of fondue cheese. Our base was the postcard perfect Saas Fee village with its impossibly steep sided mountains. From climbing up the ice-cream smooth scoop peak of Allalinhorn, to hanging off a zipline on a Tyrolean above a breath-taking alpine gorge and admiring the spectacular landscape from a bio-spa -come-youth hostel, the trip was going to pique an adventure-hungry climber.
2021 was an important year for climbing,, notably the anniversary of Lucy Walker’s 150-year anniversary of the first female ascent of the Matterhorn. With intentions post PR trip to stay on in the Valais region and join a meet organised by the Alpine club to pursue other technical 4000m peaks inspired by the anniversary, there were already excited whispers of plans to climb some stiff alpine peaks in an even steeper adjacent valley of Zermatt - wait, you’ve guessed it- with even more height gain. Allalinhorn thus became an essential peak for me to gain some preparation for altitude and easing into the challenging mountain environment.
A head start: Intro to the Saas Valley – a run, swim and scoot down the valley followed by a welcome meal at Arvu Stuba, Saas Fee.
Logistics of the trip meant I arrived in Saas Fee with pretty much a whole day to myself before the rest of the group arrived, a day to get a head start on acclatising and a chance to take a first look at my surroundings.
The Swiss know how to do good hospitality – and as Caroline the receptionist at Sunstar Hotels said, it was worth giving everything a go - even if it involved unexpected forms of descent, like going down a mountain on a giant scooter! After a slight change to the itinerary, she assured me I would have a great day to explore the valley before she printed off my Sasstal card and set me on my way. A short walk to the bus station and soon I was boarding the (free with the Sasstal Card) Postbus to Sass Almugell, wondering what I had signed up for… surely the scooters wouldn’t be anything too dangerous right?
With the Sasstal card, logistics were made ‘Swiss smooth’, meaning I could use the pass on the day of arrival and departure on the mountain railways. It meant my trip got off to a roaring start – and soon I was scanning my pass to board the Hohsaas cable car to whisk myself up from the valley floor to the heart of the Sass valley. The card ensured I was able to get the Hohsaas lift for free - exiting at 3101m to appreciate the glacial landscape as my head spun, lightheaded from the sudden ascent in 45 minutes. The cable car swooped up past a gorgeous swiss landscape - traditional wooden houses on mushroom shaped stilts to prevent mice from ruining grain stores, a painterly alpine palette of dark green larch forests, meadows peppered with pastel colours, faint mule paths and pale footpaths.
Steep crags hanging over the rapidly disappearing village of Sass Almugell indicated that the mountains were very much less than a stone throw away from civilisation. Up towards Kreuzboden (2400m), the colours shifted again, this time picking up ruddy browns of the scorched earth before the colours seemed to fade out and pick up the muddied colours of the dark grey scree, taupe greys and glacial blue of the Hohlaubgletscher below Weissmeiss. It was a great introduction to acclimatising to the altitude- all great practice ahead of the 4000m peak I would be doing the day after.
Exiting the second lift, I did a gentle run back down to Kreuzboden, watching the crowds of tourists disappear as I ran past the looming red tooth of Jegihorn and sweeping southern line of Lagginhorn. It wasn’t anything record breaking, just a gentle acclimatisation, and a reminder to keep breathing in the thin, dusty air. Stopping by the Kreuzboden lake, passing loose scatty stones, the whole of the Mischabel range greeted us in its fantastical visage, much like seeing a cartoon of a mountain landscape in a spa. It felt surreal, the mountain view appreciated in between intakes of breath as I took a brief, exhilarating swim in the very chilled, perfectly still glacial lake.
After taking time to chill on the hammocks, I was still in disbelief of my mountain surroundings. Yet my day was to take a rather adventurous turn when I went via the Kreuzboden lift to collect the Giant scooter, a simple aluminium framed mode of transport with thick, rolling wheels. The lift man, who was arranging the rental, took a form of identification off me – assured me that my identification would make itself safely down to the bottom and be returned to me upon receipt of the returned scooter, and waved me on my way. ‘Not this way’ - he pointed at the lift station board, down a rather hairy looking zig zag. ‘Follow the main vehicle track!’ A brief hour later, having balanced a foot teetering on the board, as the scooter started to pull itself rapidly down the hill. The spirit of adventure was really awakened as I used my bodyweight to counterbalance against the rough gravel terrain, the odd pothole and the narrow switchbacks. Taking it slow (with the squeaky brakes seemingly doing little to slow my speed down), I managed to descend rapidly back down to the valley lift station, exhilarated by the somewhat wild adventure. A run, swim, and scoot - a perfect way to gain some altitude and get up past 3000m.
A hearty meal was the perfect way to cap the day, at a traditional Swiss restaurant and a chance to meet the other journalists all part of the 4000er trip before we tucked into some hearty, seasoned meats presented on a plate and consumed with gusto. Three delicious courses later, an utterance about possessing ‘hollow legs and a hunger for more adventures not satiated by the carb-heavy metal - it was time to pack my bag for the 4000m peak ascent, where the real adventure awaited.
Day 1: Allalinhorn – via a quick commute to the glacier and glacial inspired spa
What would it be like to climb your first 4000m alpine peak – with a group of women you’ve never climbed with before? Turns out it was a brilliant (and rather efficient) way of alpine acclimatisation starting at 3,457m above sea level, and a speedy reintroduction to glacial travel in the Swiss Alps.
Make no mistake - Allalinhorn was no pushover peak – but as one of the Alpine 4000ers visible from the centre of Saas Fee, which required no overnight stay. The actual mountain ascent – 581m of it - felt very doable in a short space of time; our team, making the ascent with the luxury of having a guide, to form one of the all-female teams to complete the peak as part of the ongoing ‘100% women challenge’ to get a female team on all 48 of Switzerland's 4000m peaks.
From the hanging snowy seracs to the scree studded ice, there were still objective dangers present – and yet with a guide, it was easy to not have to ‘worry’ with the head of an alpine leader and to enjoy the process of acclimatisation and being back out in the mountains. The last time I had walked in glacial terrain had been in July 2018 – so it was a welcome relief to be back out in the mountains under the expertise of Elsie Trichot; taking in coils, preparing figure of eights for us to clip ourselves into and managing the various glacial dangers.
The underground train rattled upwards, a set of vertical stairs stacked like a concertina shaped lunchbox, seemed to be hovering on some of the steepest rails I’d ever seen. Doors shut, buttons pressed, - it slowly rattled upwards out of the platform, before gaining some speed, the lights passing so quickly past the windows that it appeared like the flashes of a pulsating techno club, the grungy ambience only interrupted by a passing light-beam as we swayed in time to this unique mountain uplift.
We were on the highest funicular railway in the world, about to commute to the glacier and begin our ascent of Allalinhorn, 4,027m. With it being underground, it also happened to be the highest subway in the world. Zooming up from 2,980m from Felskinn to the Mitteallalin station at a dizzying 3,456m, we left behind crumbling grey moraine fields and turquoise blue glacial lakes formed due to receding Fee glacier. The tunnel we had travelled through – all 1,749m of it – was the very epitome of Swiss pride in their attitudes to an efficient transport system. Seemingly defying gravity, the metro train got us from the last of the cable car sections to our destination, its speedy efficiency as prompt as its very first debut when launched in 1984. There was quite simply, enough tech to satisfy any engineer geek as we commuted to the glacier in the swiss style, both efficiently and on time.
We arrived at the top station, where groups of people gathered, the air of expectation and excitement palpable. Visible in the distance our snow topped mound was obscured by the excited babble of Olympic youth ski teams with AirPods in their ears, stomping to the wooden benches in plastic ski boots, as nervous-looking alpinists straightened their harnesses, and the light scraping sound of crampons and climbing hardware filled the air. Our group gathered outside, blinking in the sunshine as we emerged above the cloud line, the golden tipped peaks of the Mischabel mountain range to our right whilst we looked ahead at our objective – the snowy gabbro dome of Allalinhorn up ahead.
Checking over the buckles of our harnesses, crampons fitted the evening before, we buckled up, tied the crampons traps in and extended out our walking pole out for the snow plod. Our tour leader for our press trip is Myriam Ziesack, and Mattias Storni from Sasstal Tourism, grins at us, as they capture the excitement in the group, from our sun-cream pasted faces to the excitable, nervous chatter from characters within the group. The bluebird skies and crisp mountain air mean it’s a perfect day for our summit attempt. We chat to our guides, Elsie Trichot and Adam George, who segment the group into three clients per guide, and we walk carefully up the ski piste past the Lycra-clad skiers that rush past in descent. Uncoiling the rope on a wide snowy ledge, the view back to the Mittleallalin station is magnificent, the scale of the mountains encircling the horizon diminishes the scale of the buildings to no bigger than a toy figurine in an enormous snowy playpark. Parties of climbers and clients moving roped together look comical even as they turn into tiny colourful ants, snaking slowly up the snowy flanks, roped up for the ordinary route via the West North-West ridge.
Writers from some of the biggest publications were in my group – writing for prestigious publications, broadsheets, and luxury travel magazines – and yet here I was, writing as a freelancer, an aspiring alpinist, trad climber and mountaineer, sat eating some of the fanciest meals in the town wondering about how soon I’d be back to eating a jet-boiled pan of pasta. Questions ranged from a source of curiosity; ‘So do you climb mountains like all the time then?’ to outraged enquiries of ‘Oh, so you're planning on doing more alpine peaks later, but without a guide? Is that even safe?’
A passionate rock climber and alpinist, IFGMA guide, Elsie Trichot conversed fluently in French as well as English, told us about her progression working as an alpine guide since 2018, recently returning to guiding post-motherhood and overcoming the limitations of a strict lockdown residing in Sion, Switzerland. Her ever-watching eye made sure she kept us at a reasonable pace, never dragging us up hill yet still attentive enough to make sure we were moving swiftly as the sun rose and reminded us of when we needed to keep the pace up whilst ascending/ descending.
As we climbed, the iconic triangular summit beckoned us. The penultimate snowy spur to the summit, which seemed so rounded and rather flattened from the top station, started to steepen as we plodded up the slope, our crampons biting into the crisp, snowy neve. It was thrilling to find ourselves moving competently, overtaking groups where others seemed a little bit out of breath and struggling with the altitude, whilst our group seemed strong. Passing the last section of scree loosely scattered on the ice, one of the group found the looser rocks and moraine a little bit more challenging; I watched her and helped her locate solid footholds and handholds, encouraging her as we climbed ever closer to Allalinhorn, the elusive first 4000m summit.
Reaching the summit, photograph of the group at 4,027m
Walking the final ridge line, it was a short snowy mountain ridge to the summit cross – and majestic views over multiple snowy peaks. The Dom, Switzerland’s most famous ‘Swiss only’ highest peak, looms in all of its 4545m stature, through to the striking side profile of the Matterhorn just visible in the distance. The sweep of snow, rock and ridge was utterly breath-taking- a summit which still managed to feel personal and special, as we gathered round at the base for our obligatory summit selfie. Our peak challenge complete, Allalinhorn marking the start of hopefully many more 4000 peaks, we remained roped up on the speedy descent down the ridge, second lunch still somewhere in our packs, and the desire to get off the mountains before the sun warmed up the snow into a soft, wet sugar snow.
Reaching the lift station in an hour and half, we sighed with relief as we packed the rope away, tapped snowy crampons and secured into our bags. The lift station beckoned us – the sun now fully lighting thing in harsh profile – and a descent into Sass Feee via underground train and cable car awaited. We thanked Elsie – her swift guiding skills, her light-hearted demeanour and her ability to get us back to the train on time – was effortlessly smooth, and we were soon back down in the valley, the peak many miles overhead.
A relaxing, zen like experience at the Aqua Allalin in the bio-soft sauna, inhaling the sweet scent of lavender oil and pine wood in a room that soothed away our sore calf muscles and views over to the Mittaghorn catching the slow tilt of the evening light. A delicious meal back at the hotel – consumed in a mad hunger – as we all revelled in the success of our 4000m peak achievement.
A highlight of My First 4000er trip was definitely the delights sampled in the alpine gorge scrambling and zip line experience. Starting in the centre of Saas Fe at 1800m, we entered through a novelty entrance- a kind of tiny castle entrance complete with mini turret and past the signs warning us only mountain guides were allowed to enter– to find the start of the gorge experience, which involved a number of scrambling moves up and down some slabby boulders with some metal rungs and stakes. Following the smooth curve of the Feeru Vispa – the steep sided gorge with the Aqua Allalin perched above us, we slowly left the civilisation behind to find all kind of rickety wooden planks, suspension bridges and exposed ladders over the water. Using a via ferrata lanyard, harness, protective gloves and helmet, it was a fast and efficient way to cover some rock climbing and gorge scrambling terrain – and to have two super experienced mountain guides to belay us on a safety rope on our Tyrolean zip line descents. I chatted to Emilie Morard, from Valais Tourism, finding that we had a mutual love for climbing and alpinism – and made assurances to climb together, which we later did at La Maya, near Sion!
We descended down past the cliffs of Bodme, the zip lines changing in gradient and getting slightly steeper and squeals of excitement as the space below our feet rushed past. Finishing just above the crag at Feechi, with n almighty pendulum swing (gently shortroped before being launched yourself towards a cobweb of ropes netted together to grab hold of and stabilise yourself– exciting.) The final culmination of the experience included a zipline into a cave lead to a steep vertical ladder climb through a pinch in the rock, before you walk off, and realise the final excitement of the trip – an entirely see through horizontal ladder rung bridge not for the faint hearted where a free hanging abseil takes place through a gap in the bridge. For someone who has had experience setting up multiple abseils in the mountains and above the sea, nothing quite prepares you for the feeling of exposure that provokes a sense of adrenaline. Abseiling past a rushing waterfall, the tops of the trees below your feet. The grey streaked walls of the gorge created a slightly muted colour, an alpine paradise that was quite unexpected and a different panorama to one that I had previously experienced.
As a keen mountaineer, Allalinhorn had felt happily within my comfort zone, something which I would have gone back to do perhaps next time from a mountain hut – but setting up Tyrolean traverses was something that was way out of my skills experience. Elsie and Adam – our guides from the day before – were all too happy to speedily guide us along the gorge alpine, something they had already run in the morning. It was guiding under much more taxing conditions- physically pulling the Tyrolean devices and safety rope back up the cables and making sure we were happy with the number of descents and hazards throughout the gorge. As an antidote to the barren landscape of an alpine peak devoid of life, the alpine gorge was green and luscious, a place we felt curious to see what was to be revealed around the corner.
My First 4000er has been a triumph – and a firm reminder of the inspiration of Lucy Walker in her vision climbing the Matterhorn 150 years ago. As inspired by the Swiss Tourism 100% women campaign, the trip has been something that has resonated within me. To be able to not only climb with women, both in the mountains, the rocky pinnacles and in the gorges – has been an overwhelmingly positive experience to add my name and document that visibility of women leadership in the outdoors. As an adventure photographer and journalist, I felt truly proud to be part of an all-female team that all successfully summited without difficulty. The high frequency adventures - walking roped today over glacial terrain, summiting my first 4000m peak, climbing above exposed alpine gorges to trusting the metal cable suspended above our heads. The opposing yin, the ability to locate a slower pace of finding rest and relaxation in the stillness of the glacial lakes, the flow of mountain descents, the calmness of lying in a thermal spa. It was the swiss adventure that I needed – and the perfect way for me to relax.
- Switzerland has only 42 of 1556 mountain guides in Switzerland are women. Since November 2020, the Swiss Mountain Guide Association has for the first time a female president, Rita Christen.
- In the Alps 82 peaks are higher than 4000 meters. More than half of them, namely 45, are located in Valais. They form the panorama of the canton and offer a unique setting for summer and winter sports.