My very first four thousand-metre peak

Moving to the car-free village of Zermatt was the plan. Because I was starting a new job at Zermatt Tourism on 4 September 2012. Then everything happened very quickly. By 8 September, I was already standing on the top of my first four thousand-metre peak. Completely surprised!

by  Tanja Hengartner

From the flatlands into the mountains

In the Rhine Valley, I was much more one of the ordinary hikers. Once in a while, I set off into the great outdoors on a modest excursion into the hills of Eastern Switzerland. But really climbing a mountain? Never in my dreams! In my new job in Zermatt, I organise meetings and incentive trips as an intern working with travel professionals. These pros look for places where groups can meet for teambuilding events. Teambuilding, for example, is when a group of people, who normally work in the same office, climb to the top of a four thousand-metre peak. Such an experience can bond the group together. On 8 September 2012, a group of travel experts wanted to learn more about the Breithorn experience. This mountain, with its unmistakable ice and snow cap, is 4,164 m high. As an intern, I was supposed to accompany them. Right in my first week on the job! Am I capable of getting to the top?

In the group across glaciers and ice

The day before, we rented climbing harnesses and crampons, which can be attached to normal hiking boots. We meet our mountain guide at the Matterhorn glacier paradise base station at 6:30 am. So this is Gianni Mazzone, Zermatt mountain guide since a few decades. The other ten people are also there: Event planners from Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

At 7:45 am, we are at 3,883 m and set off. Before, the mountain lifts took us 2,200 metres higher in one hour. We have to climb just under 300 meters more to get to the top. That should be doable.

Erster 4000er

We go slowly over the wide and barely climbing surface of the glacier. We take a short break when it becomes steep. Gianni shows us how to attach the crampons to our hiking boots. We form rope teams of three and four people each. Gianni takes the lead in front of me; I follow him at a distance of around three metres. Three others are in the same rope team with me. We set a slow but steady pace. I make sure that the rope between Gianni and me always hangs a bit but does not touch the ground. Breathing is not easy; the air is thin and the weather spectacular. I look neither left nor right and concentrate on my breathing. Somehow, it is okay, but it is hard. The longer we walk, the more I wheeze like an old mare. After about one and a half hours – despite a short break – the crisis hits me. My body screams: “I can’t go on. I am going to unhook from the rope. You can pick me up on your way down.” But I do not want to show any weakness and pull myself together. That’s the only thing that keeps me going: take deep breaths, breathe rhythmically, walk in a slow rhythm. Do not look left or right, focus only on the hiking boots with the crampons attached to them. The crampon spikes may not tear up the legs of my trousers. Concentration, walk rhythmically, do not show weakness, breathe, walk, breathe, walk.

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The last rope team in our group arrives at the peak. The effort is written on their faces.

Some completely new thoughts

Suddenly, we are at the top. The first thing we all do is breathe. Gianni congratulates me and says, “You certainly had some difficulty about a half hour from the top.” Unbelievable that he noticed that? Even though we did not talk about it? He has eyes everywhere, senses everything, sees it all. This gives me a feeling of security. Somehow, I had already perceived that at the base station.

All doubts, all uncertainties are forgotten. Slowly, a feeling of joy fills me. The first thing I do is enjoy the view. This unbelievably clear air – unimaginable for flatlanders. I begin to look around me: down towards the valley, Zermatt, then Italy and Gran Paradiso. I continue around towards France and Mont Blanc. The other rope team arrives. We congratulate each other. Everyone is impressed. But we are also cautious. We ask Gianni where we may stand to take our souvenir pictures. Gianni knows what we beginners do not know, so it is better to ask.

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We did it! Tanja (left) and the rope team arrive at the top of the Breithorn.

We sit down to eat and drink. The air is much clearer than in the valley below. It is like glass. And I admit that I have tears in my eyes. I did it. My first four thousand-metre peak!

Back in the valley, it occurs to me that all doubts disappeared up there on the peak. Other thoughts completely filled my head. The view, the vast expanse, the cosmos. But after the hype at over 4,000 meters, it is also clear to me: anyone, who has “done” the Breithorn is far from being an alpinist. I reached the top of the mountain at an altitude of 4,164 m. I can be proud of myself and I also now know that I am going to continue to climb mountains. It was not my last four thousand-metre peak.

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Everyone made it: The Breithorn, 4,164 m. Right, in the background, the mountain of mountains, the Matterhorn (4,478 m).