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The last slope up to the summit was an endless zigzag: another, another, another, and just when it looked like the angle might level off, it didn’t. Last June, as Maggie Axelrod, a 21-year-old Georgetown University graduate, plugged up the final snowy flanks of the sculpted Balmhorn (12,133 feet) in the Bernese Alps, she began to realize how tired she was.
Axelrod had traveled to Switzerland in the interim before the start of medical-school responsibilities, excited for a taste of alpinism. The Balmhorn, a big but technically moderate alpine peak, is a stellar goal for someone with limited time yet alpine dreams, and its upper reaches offer incredible views of all the major peaks in the Western Alps. It is climbed in a day, but a long one.
Axelrod fell to her knees every few paces, but she was last on her rope and her team was unaware.
She began to think about how every step up creates another step down. “I’m not sure if I can make it much farther,” she finally said.
“You can do this. You are going to the summit!” said Edurne Pasaban, the Basque mountaineering great who in 2010 summited Shishapangma, becoming the first woman to climb all 14 8,000-meter peaks (see What I’ve Learned, issue 229). Pasaban was a luminary among the guides leading nearly 40 people up the Balmhorn in a celebratory ascent, part of the Gore-Tex Experience Tour (GET), to recognize another female first: Lucy Walker was on the mountain’s first ascent, over 150 years ago.
I was just up the hill, on the next rope. A tall Norwegian in my team kept breaking through the snow. I gave silent thanks for being lighter than he, and also for a Swedish teammate’s request to slow down. It had been a big day, with more to come. We’d booted up at 4:00 a.m. to climb 5,600 feet, then descend.
In 1864 Lucy Walker, Canadian-born though raised in Liverpool, England, became the first woman to participate in a major first ascent, that of the Balmhorn. Having been advised to start walking to alleviate rheumatism, she climbed with her father and brother, part of a long, productive climbing collaboration of English middle class or aristocracy and Alpine guides, in the Walkers’ case the great Melchior Anderegg of Switzerland. Also in 1864, she was the first woman to climb the Eiger, and in 1871 she edged out an American rival for the first female ascent of the Matterhorn. Until that time, the world at large had paid no attention to women’s climbing; little was even known of mountaineering, which was considered mysterious and fearsome. To that aura, add a frequent bias against her gender. According to one guidebook quoted in the book Ladies on High: “Touching the much vexed question as to whether ladies should climb, we do not hesitate to say, ‘no.’”
High above Kandersteg, a town famous for its ice and mixed climbing in the heart of a region of plunging green valleys and steep, stark peaks, we were a collection of caterpillar-like roped groups of four. I had expected our climb up the Balmhorn to be a ridge scramble, perhaps with ropes used for a few exposed sections. But after looking up information on the mountain and route, I went to our publisher, Duane Raleigh, who’d airily passed the outing my way as a female staffer, and said accusingly, “Hey, you have to have crampons and an ice axe for this!” A longtime rock climber and hiker, I hadn’t put on crampons in decades. I’ve climbed El Cap but have sampled alpine rock very little, mainly in the Bugaboos and Wind Rivers.
“Ohhh,” Duane said, waving, “there’s probably one snow slope. The rest’ll be like hiking up Sopris”—the 12,695-foot mountain looming above our small mountain town. “Come on, Alison, a woman did it in a dress!”
I thought, Shit, I was the one who told you that. Walker, a proper Victorian lady, climbed in a white print dress, and it was up to her American rival, Meta Brevoort, who grew up in a convent school in Paris, to become the first female mountaineer to wear pants.
En route to Switzerland, I weathered two days of airline snafus, making a short trip even shorter. When I at last arrived in Kandersteg, our crew took a cable car up and hiked some 90 minutes to the Berghotel Schwarenbach hut, perched at 6,758 feet below the mountain chain that culminates in the Balmhorn.
I couldn’t sleep. At all. We near-dozen women lay lined up like dinner rolls in our attic dorm. If Maggie—one among others who had won photo or essay contests for the trip—and I turned at the same time, we clacked knees. Someone snored, someone coughed all night; two cell phones burbled tidings (one woman opened hers to reply). Finally, at 2:45 a.m., I got up and joined the few people already convening downstairs.
Soon we all started by headlamp in darkness and murky fog, tromping up hiking trails and loose slopes above a rushing stream. Reaching the glacier, we put on crampons for eight hours of what would be a nearly 11-hour day (more for some, less for others), with a bonus hour’s hike back down to the ca
My hair whipping and freezing stiff in the damp cold and wind, we started with zigzags up to gain the 1.5-mile Southwest Ridge, known as the Zackengrat, then clicked along in our crampons on shattered rock partially covered in snow. White frost feathers covered gray slabs.
As we contoured, in an honestly magic moment, the clouds lifted, the sun shone down, and a string of peaks appeared on the right horizon.
“That has to be the Matterhorn!” someone said, and with a thrill I easily picked out its gloriously fluted form, the top slender, tilted. I had never seen the Matterhorn.
Rock segued into softening snow, and after a ridge rest or two we began the numbing zigzags up a final, clean, arcing snow slope. I had told myself on the lower zigzags, It’s just like Highlands Bowl, a hike to high terrain at my home ski area of Aspen Highlands. But this felt more like 10 or 20 Highlands Bowls.
Then we hit the first summit. “Might as well go the rest of the way,” said the steady Graham Frost, the guide for my rope team, and we marched on another 15 or so minutes to the main summit. A cross marked its shoulder just below the top.
Across a sea of white clouds rose the pyramidal Blumisalphorn, the lower-standing Wetterhorn, the pointy, mythical Eiger, the hulking conjoined Mönch and Jungfrau, the lower hump of the Tschingelhorn. On the horizon behind us now showed the broad-chested giant of the Mont Blanc massif, the highest peak in the Alps. I’d never seen it from far away.
Of course as I tried to take pictures on my iPhone, it chose the summit moment to inform me that I was out of storage. Shit! I yanked off my glove and stabbed with a cold white finger, murdering pix from my recent college reunion, my son’s senior prom, my sons’ bike races … and, though blinded by sun and reflection, clicked off a few images. I still look at them.
Maggie would later blog that as she approached the summit she was overwhelmed, exhausted, sore, in pain “and completely overjoyed.”
On at least one of her four Eiger trips, Lucy Walker is said to have subsisted on sponge cake and champagne. She lived with her brother all her life, never marrying, and at home mostly entertained, embroidered and involved herself in charity work. Her sole sporting interest was apparently croquet. In photos she looks, frankly, rotund. But you know what? On that climb, which exhausted all of us and on which we wore high-tech layers, mountain boots and crampons—Lucy Walker at best would have had nailed boots. I kept thinking, “I don’t know how she did this in a dress.”
Fred Spicker, of the Pacific Northwest, who climbed the Balmhorn and posted a photo I studied before leaving, notes, “The size of the peaks in the Alps is the first lesson most Americans learn—the next is that there are very few total walk-ups not involving at least glacier travel. We always figured that doing any of the bigger guys was a Mount-Rainier-type effort, even with huts and lifts.”
Still, the Balmhorn is something feasible, weather permitting, even on a short trip.
Access to the Zackengrat is usually from the Berghotel Schwarenbach, reached from nearby Kandersteg by cable car and a 1.5-hour hike.
Layers, ice axe, crampons, helmet, food and at least two liters of water.
Bernese-Oberland Alpine Club Guides, available from amazon.
While the Schwarenbach is private, many huts in Switzerland are owned by the Swiss Alpine Club.
Mid-June to mid-July, for good snow on the route. It is possible to climb later, but slopes may be icy. Info on conditions is available from the local Alpine Centre.
This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 230 (November 2015).
Alison Osius is senior editor of Climbing. Her trip to Switzerland was ridiculously short, and it was worth it.