Climbing Above a Sea of Clouds
Words & Photography by Jessie Leong
Jessie Leong on the Women Rise Up meet, organised by the Alpine Club to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the first female ascent of the Matterhorn by British climber Lucy Walker in 1871.
Women have been climbing mountains – hard, sustained mountaineering routes – for quite some time.
Back in 1871, Punch magazine, a satirical publication, marked the much-lauded achievements of a certain British alpinist, Miss Lucy Walker, who was the first woman to climb the Matterhorn. A witty little piece culminated in the immortal line ‘No peak rise above her’. It’s now taken a more permanent form in an artwork, created by Art Valais, lifting Miss Walker’s accentuated jawline into a contemporary graffiti piece bearing those exact words now emblazoned for all to see. A plaque of Lucy Walker’s 150th anniversary joins an additional plaque outside the Matterhorn Museum, a collaboration that marks the relationship between the Alpine club and the town of Zermatt. There have even been a chocolate bar and a biscuit bearing her name.
Yet, even in 2021, it remains problematic how women – notably women alpinists who made significant first ascents 150 years ago – lack representation in the cultural sector, including how they are represented in mountaineering history. This was reflected upon in the temporary exhibition called ‘New Perspectives’, which focused on women in mountaineering, exhibited briefly at the Matterhorn Museum in the heart of Zermatt. The temporary exhibition (which really ought to have been permanent), held in one of Zermatt’s most renowned exhibition spaces, looks critically at the statistics of how women have been literally written out of history. Here’s a line from the exhibition: ‘Until the mid-20th century, society mainly values “heroic masculinity” and abstains from broaching the topic of female pioneers.’
I looked for a way to retrace the steps of these pioneers and find the values and opportunities I sought in my climbing partners. Perhaps climbing Alpine peaks such as the Breithorn (4,164m), which Lucy Walker climbed on July 8th 1865, and Zinalrothorn (4,221m), which she climbed on July 26th 1873, would provide what I sought. Grit, resilience, a desire to seek out the view from the top of the mountain, a shared connection to people and place – these were all reasons why I wanted a shared Alpine experience, a bond formed with other women climbers, all strangers I had yet to climb with.
No assumed leader, no assumed bullshit, no prescriptive grade ticking. Inspired by the first female ascent of the Matterhorn by Lucy Walker, the Women Rise Up meet would be one of many opportunities for women to meet up in an Alpine environment and climb together – as equals. We were a group of determined, ambitious climbers from the UK, France, Ukraine, Poland, Switzerland, and the US with an instant connection: we all found a slightly perverse enjoyment in spending all our holidays constantly on edge. Sharing a rope, making impulsive plans for Alpine routes with people who were effectively strangers – the energy between us was like watching a heartbeat on an ECG, a stopper knot punctuating the snow, the beat of a pulse determined to stay alive.
We felt somewhat guarded by the past 18 months of isolation, only to be thrown together to make plans to go climbing. Gathered at a dusty campsite in Randa in the shadow of the largest 4,000m peaks in the Valais canton of Switzerland, it felt completely normal to discuss Alpine objectives that had seemed fantasy weeks ago, perched eagerly on wicker outdoor seating, sipping cool beers and fizzy Apfelschorle, grouped in what we eventually decided would be our newly formed pairings. No-one decided it for us – it was just down to us to gauge for ourselves who would be a good fit for each other. Zinalrothorn, Dri Horlini, Traverse of the Breithorn, Weisshorn, maybe even Matterhorn… the energy of women climbing with women felt raw, exciting, and slightly intimidating.
My axe hits the soft snow, now the texture of a freshly churned Slush Puppie.
What is solid, what is soft, and what is in between can be determined by the instability of the snow beneath us. It’s best not to think about the very real danger of falling off at more than 4,100m above sea level. On a path barely wider than my boot, we near the 16th hour of that day, and the consequences of slipping off heighten every move and decision as we strive to stay focused. They’re easy enough climbing moves, perhaps no more difficult than British Severe grade, but a slip could be catastrophic, slipping through a gap and down the gloomy mountain face below.
The sheer exposure of the undulating ridge reaches its climactic finale, a stark contrast of opposing angles. The cliffs come to a screeching halt, one side an overhanging lip that curls with a snarl, a blunt chin jutting over the north face of the Breithorn, her gaping crevasses like a creased bosom below. Harsh lines are blurred further by the dense clouds that billow upwards and cast a softness in the diffused evening light. If it weren’t for a slight sense of urgency triggered by the fading daylight, it would be a photographer’s dream, the sky changing from golden hour to a deep pink alpenglow.
‘Nebelmeer,’ whispers my Swiss German–American expat climbing partner Moran. Her razor-sharp cheekbones, skin scorched by the harsh Föhn wind and late-summer heatwave, contrasts with her slick sun-kissed hair and cut-out sunglasses that reflect the poky spine of the Traverse of the Breithorn. In a landscape where not a soul is visible on the ridge, our thoughts keep us company in our solitude. The mantra in our heads is don’t fall. Gendarmes on the ridge are our visual markers – spires that help guide our way, but soon, on Breithorn Central, we see the gentler, rounded snowy summit of Breithorn West ahead.
‘Jessie, we need to get off this mountain, now.’ Moran had kept the rope slack until this point, her confidence simul climbing amongst exposed mountains demonstrated by her nifty footsteps and her small, efficiently packed rucksack.
Managing the crux over the committing ridge, we climb over the most sustained part of the rouge-red rock route known as the Half Traverse of the Breithorn. The day has been eventful – due to poor snow, we’d bypassed some of the ridge’s earlier difficulties by starting up a horrendously soft, goat-cheese-like slope that seemed to be a boot stomp away from collapsing, crevasses evident underfoot. Whenever viewing any mountain from below, our climbers’ egos always hold an element of naivety to think that ascent will be done once we’ve climbed over that spire. It isn’t done – the difficulties are only beginning as we wipe the sweat away from our foreheads. Having already completed a lung-busting ascent of nearby Pollux, our second 4,000m peak in as many days, we are already many hours into this climb, and the heat from the glacier is searing. Tearing at my layers I had hastily zipped up only an hour before on the ascent of Pollux, my lungs now rasp in the effort of trying to manage my fluctuating body temperature.
As a rock climber, I am used to the edges and triangles of rock in front of me, tiny holds no bigger than a milk-bottle lid. The rock has been scuffed and scarred by the ragged marks of crampon-wearing climbers before me. In our heavy boots, trusting edges of our shoes to commit on the edges of the towering Alpine spires, I feel a strong sense of connection with this person ahead of me – the way in which I have found a kindred spirit, knowing that the other person finds enjoyment in the parts of the route we’d rather not be leading, making decisions. It’s a joy to find someone in an Alpine partnership that seems to suit your skills. My partner seems to excel in moving together. Her preference is for scrambling up steep gully lines and finding purchase on neat little edges, proclaiming them to be ‘really solid, great ledges for one’s feet’ as a menacing couloir of rocks gapes below her, cloud swirling upwards.
We alternate leads – sometimes she leads, sometimes I put myself forwards. The rope entwines us, encircling, sliding its way between these imposing pinnacles. As the second, I watch as the tension wiggles like a heartbeat, held taut as it whips itself along a ridge, then relaxes its wrap around the rock and slackens on the steep undulations. She moves fluidly through these committing ridge movements. I observe her with envy, wishing that I didn’t hesitate and watch every foot placement, wishing that I didn’t worry about what would happen if I were to move more confidently, soloing, without the protection of that last piece of gear I’ve placed.
There is a rawness in knowing that one slip could lead to very real consequences, in the exposure of climbing metres from the sheer north face of the Breithorn, nothing but space below us to greet a poor decision. One could question how being in an Alpine environment forces us to question our insecurities, whether they bubble up to the surface or are quashed to be churned over in our sleep in the huts. It’s about what we can draw upon on the day, whether we feel confident enough to proceed, trying desperately not to let our own thoughts about not being good enough, not confident enough, not experienced enough determine our worries about falling off the exposed rock ridge.
Nebelmeer – a sea of clouds. A moment to preserve, to cherish not just from a viewfinder but in our minds, as we look out over a fantastical landscape rendered into tiny triangles of mountains poking out of the minimalist world. I take plenty of photographs before hastening to stow the camera away for a fast descent past the Klein Matterhorn lift station, firmly closed, and onto the Refuge de Cervino, located some distance away. We chatter away, small talk about life, her choices, her values. The cloud inversion I had praised with the click of my camera slowly chokes the mountainside into darkness as we make our way into the thick cloud, eventually covering the last vision of the ski slope and leading us to the sanctity of the mountain refuge.
It was a trip focused on following the imagined footsteps of Lucy Walker, alongside American climber Meta Brevoort, to their summit, and it revealed many things to us – not least the sheer awe of their trailblazing in the golden age of mountaineering, set against a more austere Victorian society. I wondered if the sounds and sights Lucy Walker and Meta Brevoort would have experienced might have been like our own experiences. The tap of axes against one another as we reached the summit, the laughter of finding ourselves sampling such views, the sea of clouds in front of us as the Matterhorn rose alone. Had they too experienced the welcome relief of being able to place food orders for a steaming cup of soup at 9.30pm at night, boots drying under a staircase, and knowing that they would be able to rest in a proper bed after a full day tied into the rope? Or the sharing of knowledge, gear clipped into a primitive rope harness, water, ambition – and of course relief – as they too must have replayed over the best and worst bits of their day, reflection holding praise of the other person’s achievements?
Perhaps they too would have felt like two ships sailing out into the unknown: sailing into the sea of clouds.