Life Lessons from the Top of a Swiss Alp
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Life Lessons from the Top of a Swiss Alp

This content was created by Girlboss in partnership with Switzerland Tourism.

It’s a hot summer day in the Swiss Alps and I’m standing on a small platform waiting for a bus that will take me to Saas Fee, a small, car-free resort town hemmed in by snow-capped, glacier-coated mountains. All around me, everyone is kitted out like they came out of an REI catalog: Hiking poles in hand, metal spikes for mountaineering boots strapped to their oversized backpacks. Their gear is sun-faded and well-loved, their deep tans suggest a life spent atop some peak or another. And then there’s me: not-so-fresh off a transatlantic flight, dazed (is it the time difference? The altitude?) and definitely not a mountaineer. My vintage denim and impractical (but trendy!) clogs are a dead giveaway.

And yet I’m here in Switzerland to climb a mountain. And I’ll hardly be alone. I’m one of 80 women—journalists, influencers, TV personalities, athletes, a few actual climbers—from 25 countries who have gathered in the Swiss Alps to summit a 13,000-foot peak. If we succeed, we’ll become the longest all-women rope team in the world to pull this off. We’ll even set a world record. 

This initiative, called 100% Women With the World Record as the highlight, is backed by the National Swiss Tourism Board and it’s their second year. It’s a girl-powered, multinational adventure designed to get the world to sit up and pay attention.

I board the bus, which zips and loops ever higher to our destination, revealing deep mountain valleys and waterfalls along the way. I feel as though I’m headed up towards the clouds. Once I drag my silly little Away carry-on through the ski town’s narrow, up-and-down streets and settle into my chalet-inspired digs, it’s time to meet my fellow climbers.

It’s a wonderfully mixed crowd—journalists from India, a social entrepreneur from Singapore and even a famous Swiss singer-songwriter, Naomi Lareine (who sadly had to miss the ascent because it clashed with her tour dates). Everyone is giddy and a little nervous. We’re grouped into our climbing teams—four women to one guide. The guides, naturally, are also all women. The lead guide, Caroline George, is a seasoned climber (her specialty is ice climbing, which, yes, is as thrilling and terrifying as it sounds). George was tasked with the daunting logistics puzzle of figuring out how to get 80 women with mixed levels of mountain-climbing experience safely to the top of a summit that’s no wider than a sidewalk, windy as hell and can only be reached after a determined, physically demanding trek. “Think of a mantra,” she tells us that night. “When you think you’re about to quit.”

Switzerland Tourism mountain climbingThat's me, second one from the right.

The rest of the mountain guides hail from all parts of Switzerland, as well Austria and Germany. They're strong and calm, and make us feel capable and in control, even when, on the next day’s training climb to a glacier, we step over three-foot wide ice crevasses or get ourselves sunk to the waist in deceptively deep snow. Not everyone is into the idea of being called a “woman mountain guide”—fair, considering you’d never call someone a “male mountain guide.” And yet, here’s a depressing stat: in Switzerland, there are 44 registered women mountain guides, and over 2,000 men. Boys’ club is an understatement.

In competitive climbing circles, female climbers deal with outright objectification. During the 2021 Bouldering World Cup, the camera zeroed in on a female athlete’s butt and replayed it in slow motion. So there’s still work to be done.

That’s why the national Swiss Tourism Board put emphasis on inviting women who are making waves in their home countries, like Kazakhstan and Iran. One of the climbers—who’s so experienced, she’s basically an unofficial guide—is Mina Ghorbani, or Mina the Mountain Guide, as she’s known on Instagram. Ghorbani’s deep reverence for the mountains is palpable, and having her own business as a mountain guide in Iran has given Ghorbani complete financial freedom and independence. “The mountains are for everyone,” she tells me over dinner. “People should stay humble.

Nouran Salah, who hails from Egypt, hosts yoga retreats, designs furniture and is also an activist. Salah organized the first female cycling initiative in Egypt called the Cairo Cycling Geckos, and works to break down the stigma and patriarchal systems that hold Egyptian women back from things like being able to ride bicycles. Salah did this by riding her bike with fellow women through an impoverished area of Cairo. And although she’s hiked in Egypt, this opportunity was the first time Salah strapped crampons to her feet and waded through snow. 

Then there’s Itu Mehale, from South Africa, who organizes climbs that raise funds to give girls from low-income families access to menstrual products as part of her work with the Nelson Mandela Foundation. On the U.S. side, I met Marina Chislett, who formed a women’s and non-binary climbing group for all skill levels, Coalition Crag, just two months ago and has already amassed 110 memebers in the Bay Area. “I have a pinched airway, I am a slow hiker,” Chislett tells me, “but I still belong on a mountain.” Each of these women, in their own way, is making mountains more accessible and inclusive for all, and creating safe spaces for trying new things. 

After a day of practice out on a glacier, it’s time to tackle our mountain: Breithorn, which stands exactly 13,661 feet tall. We awake before dawn, nervously eat breakfast and head out to Zermatt, the idyllic resort town that will serve as our starting point for the climb. As we walk up to the gondola that will take us part of the way up (what? Did you think we were gonna do all that in one day?) a postcard-perfect view of the Matterhorn—the angled peak you’ve likely seen if you’ve ever eaten a Toblerone bar—opens up before us. 

Here, dear reader, I’ll spare you the details of sweaty trudging and heavy breathing as we approached the summit. Spoiler alert: We made it—all 80 of us—to the top. From the blustery heights, we could spot the nearby mountain peaks, and into Italy. 

Maybe I speak for everyone when I say we were too preoccupied by the sheer giddiness of accomplishment and woman-to-woman solidarity to fully take in the sights. We all did a hard, scary thing—but most of all, we did it together. As Ghorbani pointed out to me after, “It’s a little ironic that we had to tie ourselves together with literal ropes to help break us free from the chains of the patriarchy.” 

Once I return home from Switzerland, I notice that I’ve tapped into an unknown confidence within myself that borders on smugness. But, here’s the thing: Summiting an Alp, pursuing a scary life change or simply following through on something you told yourself you’d do, aren't that different. The upward grind is easier when you have someone in front to set the course and someone behind, to follow in your footsteps. Climb a mountain sometime—I highly recommend it. And if you can do it in Switzerland? All the better. 

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