Staying curious - and moving mountains
Four ladies on tour through the 4000m peaks of the Monte Rosa Massif
By Anna Arnert - deuter Global Sports Marketing Manager, Alpine
Pippi Longstocking was my hero when I was growing up. And now at 45, she still is. I feel it’s best not to take ourselves too seriously, but to stay curious, and occasionally push beyond our comfort zone. So that we keep our minds sharp and seize opportunities that present themselves. Continue to challenge ourselves and experience new things. It’s all about will power.
And so, I find myself poring over my father’s old mountaineering maps at the kitchen table again one evening. My fingers tracing along the Valais ranges. Along the famous 4,000-metre (13,123ft) peaks – there are 41 of them. As I take a sip of hot tea, the aroma of mountain herbs wafts up and I’m transported to a mountain hut again. Slowly, quietly, a little voice pipes up in my head… “What if…?”it says. Me: “No. Not possible... Or is it?”. The voice: “Maybe not all of them, but you could make a start.” My thoughts wander. I’m standing on the summit of Allalinhorn, the air is thin, the sun shines from a deep blue sky, and all around me the snow-covered peaks of Alphubel, Rimpfischhorn, Adlerhorn and Fluchthorn. A little further back, Switzerland’s highest peak, the mighty Dom. And on the horizon, the iconic Matterhorn. Down below, Saas Fee village and the network of trails that lead to the summit through a maze of crevasses. It’s like I’m there. And that’s when I decide. Ten 4,000ers in five days. It’s doable. With a bit of boldness, the right team, and the right preparation. Me: “You’re crazy.” The voice (channeling Pippi): “Two times 3 makes four widewidewitt, and three makes nine, …” It’s too late.
Getting there and pre-trip preparations – or “Help! What do I pack?”
It’s 30 July 2022. I step off the train to a warm welcome from my three partners in crime. The excitement is so palpable it’s like we’ve already summitted. It is just under a year since I casually dropped my crazy idea of this mountain tour at the end of one of our marketing meetings to enthusiastic responses all round. “Yeah! Great idea! Especially for the launch of our new waterproof Durascent climbing pack. Who have you got in mind?” “Ummm… us?”, I tentatively reply. But I catch myself and quickly regain my confidence: “We are going to do it. An all-girl team. We’re not pros, but we’re fit and active in the mountains. We can do it. And we’ll inspire others to turn their dreams and aspirations into reality.” No sooner said than done. Well, nearly. There were still a few logistics to sort out, some training to take care of, and quite a few hours of travel before being able to set off from Saas Fee today. But that’s now behind us too. Ahead of us, we have two days of acclimatization, and paring down our gear to make sure we bring the bare minimum – the latter proving the harder of the two tasks. Five days in the same pair of trousers? Two tops, or just one? And how many pairs of underwear do you need at 4,000 meters? Our solution: Always take one item less than you think, so you’ve still got space for the hardware – seeing as that’s pretty important.
Day 1: Acclimatization, Allalinhorn, old-lady-four-thousanders and chocolate cake
It’s 2 August, and after hiking up to the Britannia Hut and spending a few lazy hours in the picturesque village of Saas Fee, we finally set off towards Allalinhorn at 6am. To be honest, we thought it might not happen, given the prognosis. A winter with minimal precipitation and a super-hot summer means the crevasses are wider and more of them are exposed. The usual routes are mostly unusable now, with snow bridges over crevasses all but gone or too unstable. After thoroughly researching the latest conditions and talking with local mountain guides, our team, plus our guides Susi and Michi, decide to give it a try. And so, at 6:15 we step into the cable car that will take us to Mittelallalin. Soon after, we are entering the ice world of the Fee Glacier – or rather whatever’s left of it after the heat. It is bare, with very deep crevasses. It’s a sorry sight. And it’s even sadder to see that in some places it’s being ploughed to make pistes for the summer training regimes of professional skiers. Of course, we are also part of this mountain tourism and its questionable sustainability credentials for this day and age. We’re plagued by these thoughts not just during the climb today, but throughout the tour. After struggling through two cruxes on the way up to the Feejoch col, the climb up the west face is a joy by comparison. A short time later we are already at the summit of the ’old-lady-4,000er’. This derogatory nickname for the mountain doesn’t do it justice. For us, in that moment, it’s the most beautiful mountain summit we could imagine. We’re not here to compare summit difficulty grades, or personal bests. We’d hardly be the right people to judge that anyway. We all come from very different backgrounds, but we do share a common objective. And another of these is getting back down to the valley safely. Full of vigor, pride and gratitude, we are back down in just a couple of hours and reward ourselves with a big slice of chocolate cake and a coffee, before moving on to Herbriggen, and the start of the actual tour.
Day 2: Alphorn, farfalle and a personal nemesis
From today, 3 August, we will spend the next five days traveling through the glaciated world of the Monte Rosa Massif. Along the border between Italy and Switzerland. This route is affectionally known as the ‘Spaghetti Tour’ – although none of the huts we visit serve its namesake, but instead unbelievably delicious farfalle pasta, which we actually prefer. “Farfalla” is a woman’s name in Italian and means butterfly. And that’s exactly how we feel right now – light and free – as we leave the busy Klein Matterhorn behind and head towards the Breithorn. From up here, the 4,163-meter (13,661ft) peak looks like a little hill. Even the climb is relatively quick, up to the small summit plateau where we can’t tear our eyes away from the sight of the Matterhorn standing in front of us in all its glory. As if that wasn’t impressive enough, the sound of an Alphorn behind us unexpectedly transports us to another era. But we decide not to wonder why this is happening, and simply carry the uplifting feeling it gives us on the strenuous traverse of the glacier between Breithorn, Castor and Pollux. It is a long steady march past these beautiful ephemeral sculptures and over the crevassed terrain with its bizarre shapes that send a little chill up our spine each time we look, until we reach our accommodation for the night at the Ayas Guides’ Hut. Arriving here, exhausted, we are greeted with typical Italian hospitality, delicious food and the first Spritz of the tour – which for Amy, our colleague from Colorado, is actually her first ever! But that’s not the only new experience. The hut toilets present a whole new challenge too. Or as Amy puts it, “my personal nemesis”. (Amy's note: the "toilet" is just a hole in the ground you have to squat over. At least there are doors to separate each "toilet.")
Day 3: Goosebumps, shark fins and backsides
The alarm goes off at 3am the next morning. We’re up, dressed, breakfasted, packed and ready to go within the hour. In the dark, we carefully put one foot in front of the other. Our senses heightened. The beams from our headlamps dancing about like fireflies on the snow slope behind the hut. The route finding is challenging because there are more crevasses than expected. Twice, the sound of seracs collapsing cuts through the silence of the night. Goosebumps – but definitely not from the cold. Slowly, fully focused, we work our way up to the foot of the western face of the Castor Glacier. The sun is slowly rising, casting its rays on Mont Blanc and turning it aglow. Goosebumps – this time from the beauty of it all. We split into two rope teams for this technical section. Progress is slow. We set up several belays along the way, and there’s even some ice climbing over the steep 55-degree upper section. Up on the ridge, covered in corn snow, we catch our first glimpse towards Lyskamm. But really, we only have eyes for the ridgeline: 40 cm (15in) wide at most, stretching elegantly in a shark’s fin toward the south, and the summit. The first rope team with Christina, Katharina and Michi, waves at us from the summit, but we barely notice. We’re in the zone. And all I can focus on is Amy’s backside, a good 30 cm (12in) in front of me and my sole focal point on this airy traverse. After what feels like ten minutes of holding our breath, we arrive at the summit (13,855ft). The adrenalin high kicks in, and it’s a while before we’ve calmed down enough to make our way down over the south- east ridge to the Felikjoch col, and from there down the backside to the Rifugio Quintino Sella – where we have another well-earned Spritz, of course, to round off the day.
Day 4: The crux within a crux
5 August, and our first team decision. Yesterday afforded us a good view of today’s planned route from Castor. The route up to Il Naso looked heavily crevassed and the ice face on it was bare. The forecast is also changeable. Today’s stage is set to be long, possibly the most demanding of the tour, and could actually be the crux of the whole trip. Play it safe – that’s what we promised ourselves from the get-go. Decision made. We little ‘farfalle’ are acutely aware that this wonderful life could be over in the bat of a single wing. So we head back down into the valley and five lifts, one real Italian Cappuccino and several vertical meters later, we find ourselves at the end of today’s stage: the Mantova Hut. As we set foot in the hut, the skies open and it buckets down rain and hail. We are happy to be somewhere warm and dry, and pleased with the decision we made as a group. This is further confirmed as we watched some climbers being flown off Il Naso later that afternoon. It spurs us on to spend the rest of the afternoon practicing rappelling and self-rescue techniques using the beams of the hut. Until it’s finally time for a glass of Spritz, some more pasta and bed.
Day 5: Peak bagging, pushing boundaries and realizing dreams
Today is set to be the longest day of the tour. And also, our best opportunity for peak bagging. We feel well rested and are used to the early starts by now. Except for Christina. She’s beaten her own ‘awake time’ record. So far, she’s totted up 12 hours of sleep over four days. And today’s no different. But 2:30am is never a good time – neither for your natural biorhythms, nor for your stomach struggling to take in the required calories at such an early hour. Not long after the alarm goes off, we are heading out into the clear, starlit night and make our way gingerly over the rocky terrain behind the hut, towards the Lys Glacier. It’s a long way up to the turning to Pyramide Vincent (13,829ft). The sun appears over the ridgeline, and we climb the northwest face up to the summit in sunshine. Our first of many summit celebrations of the day. And before we know it, we’re ready to climb the next peak. Ludwigshöhe, with its snowy hump of a summit, is the southernmost 4,000er in Switzerland and lies in the shadow of Signalkuppe, and next door to the 4,432-meter-high Parrotspitze. We ‘storm’ over them both. It’s almost like peak bagging 4,000ers. Like a high-altitude frenzy. Maybe that’s the reason that despite how tired we feel, we decide to add Zumsteinspitze to the collection. And why I eventually forgive Katharina’s remarks about where I should shove the cake I offer as a reward when I suggest as much. In the end, up at 4,563 meters, we are all thrilled to celebrate our fourth peak of the day. The endorphins are now blending with the fatigue. But there is another peak ahead of us: Signalkuppe. Not only the final peak of the day, but also home to Europe’s highest mountain hut (14,941ft) – and our overnight accommodation – the Margherita Hut. With our last bit of strength, we fight our way up the slope, falling into each other’s arms – five days after we started and with eight 4,000ers under our belts. Overwhelmed with joy, we realize that dreams can come true, you can move mountains, if you just have the courage to follow them.
Day 6: Descent and conclusion
After a sleepless night – this time, for all of us – we get up before dawn. Today too, there’s a change of plans. The Monte Rosa Glacier is in poor shape, making it too challenging to navigate. And we also hear seracs crashing down from the north face of Lyskamm before the sun has even risen. So again, we opt for the safer, if longer, descent route down towards Staffal in the Aosta Valley. From there, it’s via Cervinia and the Theodul Glacier to Zermatt, and by train back to Herbriggen. We return, rather dirty, weakened, but undeniably euphoric. Driven by the curiosity of testing our mettle, in the end, we gained so much more: a sense of freedom, humbleness in the face of nature’s might, better perspective on our own lives and its transience, and gratitude for the whole experience. One thing is certain: we need to protect mountain environments so that future generations can also learn these lessons from them.
Last but not least:
A special thank you to the crew: Christina, Katharina, Amy – you are the best team I could have hoped for on this ‘Spritz tour’. Michi and Susi – your composure and patience made any difficulties we encountered seem surmountable. Julian – without you, we would only have words. Thanks to you, we have the most beautiful visual memories. deuter: without the support of the team and the company, we probably would not have been able to realize this dream ‘so quickly’. Thank you!