A British husband and wife team from Radley, Oxfordshire recently completed all 52 of the 4000m principal summits in the Alps - going by the list of 52 principal summits listed in the back of Martin Moran's book The 4000m Peaks of the Alps. Elizabeth 'Liz' Bedford completed the challenge in August last year, but husband Chris Bedford still had a few peaks left to tick off. This summer, Chris finally summited Les Droites, most likely making the pair the first British husband and wife team to complete the list.
How many Brits have summitted all 52? Liz commented: 'We've had the figure 17 quoted at us, me being 17 and Chris 18 but have no hard data to back that up. We also think one other woman, Kate Ross has done them all, prior to me completing them.'
Chris Bedford is 52, teaches chemistry and geology and is Head of Geology at Radley College. Liz Bedford is 48 and a Director of Students at the School of St. Helen and St. Katherine in Abingdon. I sent this intrepid couple some questions about their challenges, which they dutifully answered in between their adventurous climbing and cycling jaunts around France.
What are your backgrounds in climbing and mountaineering, and how did the 4000'er challenge come about?
Chris: I had a pretty traditional introduction to mountaineering - family holidays to the Lake District, scrambling up things like Striding Edge, Sharp Edge, and Jack's Rake were always much more fun than slogging uphill. I got really into rock climbing at a northern university, being well placed for that sort of thing and after a summer club trip to Chamonix, I was hooked.
Completing the 4000ers was Liz's fault - sorry, great idea - as I was happy just climbing any nice-looking peaks by moderately straightforward routes. I think it was when her hand was broken by a rockfall on the Grepon in 2005 that we started to look at any routes we could get up easily, many of which are on 4000m peaks. Then of course we ended up with just a few to go, so we thought it would be fun to do them all. We never started climbing in the Alps with the idea of 'doing the 4000ers' whatsoever, it was just something that came along.
Liz: I've been climbing in the Alps since 1990 - my first peak was the Petit Aiguille Verte with two of my brother's friends, we had too much gear, placed too much protection and were way too slow - no stereotype fulfilled there then! I got to that point via Bronze Duke of Edinburgh and Venture Scouts, both of which gave me a love of being self sufficient in wilder places, my college hillwalking club in Durham and then winter climbing with friends in Scotland.
The desire to complete the 4000ers did indeed arise out of injuring my hand on the Grepon, doing too much time scouring guidebooks and then realising that I had only a few (about 12 I think) left, many of which were easy enough to do with one hand in plaster. So, in some senses you could say the challenge started in 2005. Even so, we have spent a lot of time climbing other fantastic routes on lower peaks in the intervening years since 2005. Only really in 2014 did it become a real focus as I just wanted to finish and move on.
When and where did you start and when did you complete the challenge?
Chris: My first 4000er was nothing like as ambitious as Liz's - the Lagginhorn, normal route, July 1999, in a snowstorm. Last one: Les Droites, South spur, 19th July 2016.
Liz: My first 4000m peak was Piz Bernina - the Biancograt in 1993, my second a few days later was the Hornli ridge on the Matterhorn, neither were good choices, especially the Matterhorn as our lack of ability in descent was painfully obvious - it was dark by the time we were down. My last peak was in August 2015, it was the Aiguille Blanche de Peuterey. We've done many 4000m peaks several times because they have more than one fun route on them e.g. Rotgrat on the Alphubel and then ascending the normal way on skis. The poor Allalinhorn has seen me on its summit 5 times, winter and summer. It only has 6 routes up it...I might be planning the 6th this summer.
Which ascents stood out for you - were there any that you had to attempt more than once, or had difficulty succeeding on?
Liz: Triftigrat on the Breithorn - just pure fun. Lauteraarhorn - great to be somewhere so wild - it reminded me of the first adventures I had in my teens going to wilder places. Sharing the Matterhorn traverse with Chris, seeing his climbing mojo return.
The hardest was the Aiguille Blanche without a doubt, an epic peak from start to finish, even with the exceptional Mark Thomas as a guide. I could have done without my crampon breaking 50m from the summit. I did my last three peaks with Mark. The Droites (arguably the biggest sandbag AD in the Alps), the Aiguille Verte (Chris had already done it and didn't fancy a repeat) and the Blanche. I have learned so much from going out with a guide and advanced my skills, opening the door to being able to climb routes such as the North Face of the Gran Paradiso. I'd never want to be guided all the time and I think you need to choose a guide very carefully who you climb well with, just like a normal climbing partner. I'd strongly recommend a day or two guided for anyone who usually climbs around the AD/AD+ level - you'll always gain from watching an expert in action and being on ground more challenging than you are used to.
Chris: The Aiguille Blanche, definitely the hardest, and it was Liz's last one. Like Liz, the Matterhorn traverse also stands out - I'd lost a lost of confidence in my climbing that summer, and it felt like a massive achievement to get back on a big mountain again.
At the top of your last peak, how did it feel to tick them all off?
Chris: My last peak was Les Droites, guided by James Thacker - a great experience being the last, but quite a relief to just 'get it done', particularly since Liz had done them all. We've done all but the Verte and Droites together...maybe ones to come back to in the future?
Liz: It took some time to absorb having finished upon completing the Aiguille Blanche, but mainly the emotions I felt were ones of relief and excitement. At the end I needed to be really focussed on one objective and although we did do lots of other climbing, that was always there in the background and it did feel limiting. Now there's no imperative, we are free to play wherever we want to and that's liberating and exciting.
After Liz had finished, did you feel pressure to complete the challenge too? What's it like climbing as husband and wife - does having such a close bond make it more or less stressful on an ascent?
Chris: Climbing with Liz is fantastic - she has amazing mountain sense, and being a geographer knows where all the crevasses will be. So I let her lead the way first thing in the morning. Being a geologist, I usually take the rocky parts...
When she had just a few peaks left, her drive to complete was amazing - and I was keen to support in whatever way possible. But once she'd done them I was definitely not going to be left out!
Liz: There wasn't any competition - I was so far ahead [😉]. When we looked I had done quite a few that Chris hadn't, so we've done those as and when along the way. I prefer to climb with Chris. I have absolute trust in his ability and I know what he is going to do and when. We compliment each other in terms of skill set and, for me, it is about sharing the experience, not the outcome.
What do you make of Ueli Steck's one-push ascent of all 82 4000m peaks on the UIAA list in 62 days?!
Chris: Someone like Ueli Steck is operating on such a different level that while it's obviously an incredible achievement to do them all in 62 days, it's quite hard to relate to. But I was definitely inspired by reading Martin Moran's book about completing the 4000ers in one summer - he and Simon Jenkins clearly had to push it through in some dreadful weather.
Liz: Ueli Steck - an amazing athlete. It's like Killian Jornet's Everest attempt, they are pushing the boundaries of the possible.
What would your advice be to someone with their sights set on this challenge?
Liz: Don't rush it, if it is all only about the 4000m peaks you are missing the point. Enjoy the journey. Make sure you build a solid platform of PD experience before grade-pushing, that way you will be able to go downhill fast when needed on more complex terrain. Every route has its day - go out with a broad tick list, snowy route, rocky routes and climb according to conditions. The mountain will still be there next year if you don't get it this year. Ultimately, money doesn't matter. You may have invested hard won time and cash into getting somewhere but it is better to lose both of those than risk your life in the face of a change of conditions e.g. Poor weather forecast. Value your life.
Chris: Don't even think about completing it...it's something that will (may?) gradually evolve into a goal. We've learnt a lot - not surprisingly - particularly (as Liz says) the idea that 'every route / mountain has it's day.' Just be patient...
What's the next big goal for you both (or are you having a rest first!)?
Chris: Different routes on the same peaks we've already done, multi-day hut to hut ski touring in the Spring (easier on the knees). But doing things with friends this summer has been fantastic, whether cycling up Mt Ventoux or repeating climbs that we've done on our own.
Liz: We've just climbed the Nollen on the Monch, and as I write Chris is packing for out next adventure on the Rothorngrat of the Zinalrothorn. This summer - as Chris mentioned - we've biked up Mt Ventoux with friends and also done the Contamine/Mazaud on Mt Blanc du Tacul for the third time with other friends and spent time climbing limestone in the Aravis.