(by Allister Gerrard, February 2013)
An ascent of the Cosmiques Arête, Chamonix in March 2012, with Padraic Gibbons and friends. The Cosmiques Arête is a three star classic route, graded AD, one of the finest routes of the grade in the Western Alps.
The Cosmiques Arête or also known as the ‘Cosmiques ridge’ or Arête des Cosmiques, is a three star classic route, graded II / AD, 4a (4c Crux, short).
While away in Chamonix for the first week in March 2012. I stayed with fellow Irish Mountaineering Club Padraic Gibbons, an accomplished all round climber himself. We teamed up with two of Pindaric’s friends in Cham’ as it I quickly picked up the local slang, fellow Irish man, adventurer, the talented & youthful, Jack Doyle & South African’s sweet Cherie Maine. All at least part or full time in Cham’ and experienced Alpinists & skiers themselves. We climbed in two parties of two, with Jack & Padraic lead taking the leads, having previously climbed the route numerous times.
The Arête des Cosmiques route is enjoyed by those new to Alpine climbing & the more experienced, due to its ease of accessibility, diversity and being only a half day out and making a good training & acclimatization route for more challenging routes & summits that may be planned ahead.
Leave lots of time to get to the midi cable car station & started. There is parking, getting a ticket, joining the queuing system which can take more than 30 minutes. Traveling up on the two cable cars, approximately 30 minutes. Gearing up, walking down the slope, flaking out the rope etc, walking to the route, too hot, take off some layers etc. Get the photo’s, you’re in the Alps, Alpine Climbing…..Time is gold, it is easy to see how the minutes can disappear. On a good day the scenery is spectacular and is awesome just going up for a look which is what most cable car passengers probably do. Even on our way to the station we passed under the infamous & impressive Dru or Les Drus.
The Cosmiques Arête route, a committing climb, when the quickest escape is to finish it, with mixed winter climbing, easy snow on a wide ridge most of the time, with a few short narrow sections moving together, throwing ropes around big rocks, exposure not so bad. Mind you, we were roped all the time for the in good weather with breathtaking views that will try constantly to distract you, with not enough time to enjoy, you could spend the day gazing, taking in the likes of the Grand Jorasses, the Petite Verte, the Mont Blanc trio, Col du Midi to Mont Blanc du Tacul, upper Vallee Blanche, the glaciers and crevasses slithering down to the tiny dots of Chamonix town below…. but with us starting the route at 1.30pm, time is precious. The last cable car in leaves at 4.20pm when today, in winter!
The start for the Cosmiques Arête is at the Aiguille du Midi cable car station (3795m), Chamonix, at the foot of Mont Blanc, France. The guide book giving 45 minutes approach from the Midi. 2-4 hour ascent of the ridge, with a height gain of 268m, from the col du Midi.
In the top cable car station we put our crampons on and descended the North East Ridge, usually exposed in summer, in winter it has a roped hand rail for skiers descending via the Vallee Blanche. Having descended the ridge to a platform we roped up and continued in pairs southward along the base of the Cosmiques Arête, passing the start of some other climbs, S Couloir I PD, Cosmiques Icefall III 5.
As we approached the start, we could see the Cosmiques hut, the scene of starts for summer assaults for the three Monts route to Mont Blanc summit itself. We made a short stop just below the ruins the abandoned Cosmiques laboratory, before moving onto the ridge.
Starting and making our way up the right side of the ridge crest over easy ground, I found the snow compacted in places by previous steps, which otherwise the snow seemed soft. The compacted snow foot prints were also good for secure axe placements, of which we all carried only one. We brought only one climbing axe each, two axes I would have found more of a nuisance (except for at one point which I missed having the two axes). As more often you have to put away the axes to climb with your hands. If the sun is shining in winter, the rock is fine for climbing without gloves for a few moves and probably a lot easier without gloves. We moved together for a lot of it, mostly during the first half of the route.
With a few short sections of climbing thrown in with the snow slopes we moved around the first tower/ Gendarme (3731m) and made it to the first abseil, with bolted chains. The abseil drops down traversing across to narrow ledges. We did not use a prussic for the first abseils, as we felt it would make it harder to traverse. The first abseil leads quickly to the second.
The second abseil, again bolted, drops down to what looks a bit like a mini gorge, again traversing near the end of the abseil to a ledge with a good spike belay for a sling.
We walked along ledge a few metres and surmounted a rock step, and continued up, where there were two pegs to clip into.
Shortly after this, there were some airy exposed steps down in snow, which I found tricky with only one axe. Here I did miss the two axes on a vertical section were we had to down climb, with lots of exposure and ended up using my hand as the other axe placing inside the snow footholds of others, you improvise when you have to! This lead to another ledge which involved traversing around one of the towers, protected in the middle with a peg.
Easier ground then lead back onto the crest were we quickly reached the short rock pitch of 4b, which starts a little right on a narrow ledge. The crux has a few holes drilled into it for front points, controversially perhaps, also with one bolt for protection. Without gloves a good hand hold in a crack on the left and further up some good holds. After this we climbed up a few meters and moved out to the left side, with an airy step around a large flake.
Traversing along a narrow ledge we climbed the exit chimney which narrowed as you went up, approximately half way up the chimney we stepped out right onto a sharp flake and I throwing the right leg out high, made a pull up move back onto easier ground leading back to the ridge crest. (Footprints in the snow in the chimney indicated we could have continued up the second half of the chimney but decided at the time to bridge out right). My lack of frequent climbing meant I would remember this move for a while after, with a sore shoulder, pulled when making that move, it was either that or fall back into the chimney!
Finally we crossed the last narrow crest of the arête to the short ladder & viewing platform. If you top out here on a busy part of the day, be prepared to have your photo taken.
As Padraic topped out on the final arête approach to the Midi, Jack shouted out the last car leaves in 5 minutes. 10 minutes later, we over the railings of the Midi at 4.15pm, with a little jogging through the tunnels within the Aiguille du Midi top station, we made it with 5 minutes to spare! The consequences of missing a cable car or getting caught out after dark ain’t funny at altitude with no one around, it’s potentially serious. If we missed the last cable car, I was in favour of sleeping inside the midi, in my rucksack, with a couple of sandwiches, my uneaten lunch! Padraic was adamant we would be walking down the Vallee Blanche to Chamonix, 20km + , with a drop of 2600m in the dark in winter, if had of been another 5 minutes later for the cable car, those would have been our options. Hence our relief to have made it…..time is gold!
There were at least four parties on the Arête des Cosmiques at the same time as us, passing is possible, sure, but overcrowding I’m sure could can be dangerous and frustrating.
In winter it is possibly easier than summer, in the sense that it has snow & ice on it, which is generally ok for making steps, although one of Jack’s steps gave away at a critical moment and only for his quick instincts, ‘it was grand’ and he kept going to finish well within guide book time, well done you guys! Needless to say 45 minutes behind I tried to keep the deficit minimal as Padraic, the seasoned alpinist would have soled it he chose to in half the guide book time no doubt !
Weather, altitude & clothing on Cosmiques Arête;
Forecast for the Aiguille do midi that day was for -10 deg C, with 20kmh wind, on a clear sunny day, with some direct sun. I wore a thick base layer, a light fleece and outer shell jacket. I was a little cold on the route, feeling the cold a bit more than I should have as when I got to the base of the route I had been overheating a little on the walk in wearing a heavy fleece which I did not wear for the climb itself.
The climb is west facing and exposed to the weather. The altitude is high, I was at 2000m for a few days before and felt slightly light headed on the climb but ok. The cable car station jumps you up a massive 2800m approx. up to 3,900m approx., from 1030m at the bottom station.
It was a memorable afternoon out, with good friends. Highly recommended. Leave plenty of time, unless you plan to spend the night that bit closer to the stars.
Allister Gerrard has been a member of the Irish Mountaineering Club for over 10 years and has served as Chairperson and meets secretary of the committee. He was previously a member and leader of the Bogtrotters walking club. He holds a mountain leader award and has previously climbed Kilimanjaro, Elbrus, Alpine peaks e.g. Mont Blanc, Pollux, Grand Paradiso. He enjoys hill walking, climbing, Scottish Winter and Alpine mountaineering with friends & wife Aileen. Regularly participates in IMRA races and completed in Ireland’s first Ironman 70.3 in 2011.