Twenty six years later… a repeat ascent of the Cosmiques Arête.
Winter climbing is like eating eggs. Just as scrambling an egg turns the raw ingredient into one of nature’s miracle foods, so, taking away the people, airbrushing the track, and adding a dump of snow turns one of the Alps’ great motorway snarl ups into a classic day out.
The Cosmiques Arête may be known to most as a practice zone for climbing rope French knitting, a testing ground for overtaking skills, or possibly as the access for routes on the NW face of the Midi. I first climbed it one summer twenty six years ago with Mark, labouring under a rucksack filled with gear from days spent camping in the Vallée Blanche. I don’t remember much, except our packs were heavy, and at the top Phil cracked open one of those stubby French beers he’d been saving for a special occasion.
This time, things are a little different. A good dump of snow on Sunday, and a fair forecast for Tuesday, made Monday the walking in day. With my lack of skiing ability, a trip to Twinner in St Gervais for snowshoes solved the walking in conundrum.
Having climbed in the alpine summer, I had heard much of the skiers’ roped path down the Midi arête to the Vallée Blanche. At last, I got to try it. For sure it is more secure than summer, but flailing around in metre high powder wasn’t quite the waltzing down in bright sunshine with a glass of glühwein in my hand I had imagined. Visibility was pretty poor too, and trusting my life to Mark’s navigation as I do, I was still relieved when the clag cleared long enough to take a bearing on the Cosmiques Hut. Only a small discussion ensued, as Mark tried to persuade me I was looking at the ‘old hut’.
Flailing our way across the valley, it was exceptionally pleasing to be the only people out (actually, a French guide did manage to cross our path, and he was grumpy because there was no one to be grumpy at). Our path soon diverged from the lonely single ski trail coming from who knows where, and we put in a new track to the hut. I’d always wondered who laid new paths, and now here we were putting one in. A few days later travelling the same ground our track was a beaten path. How satisfying.
At the hut, we shared a dormitory with three British women training for the PdG, a ski race from Zermat to Verbier. Like whippet puppies, they were playful, enthusiastic and thin as chives. Full of high spirits, their kit was superlight, and they spoke of skiing roped together across glaciers through the night. It sounded such fun that Mark is tempted to put a team together next year for the Trophée du Muveran, the PdG’s laid back cousin.
A delicious dinner and beer set us up for a slightly altitudinous night and a lie in before seven a.m. breakfast.
Next morning, my favourite French expression was hauled out: “Le Soleil Brille”, the sky was blue and the Vallée Blanche deserted as we contemplated our day’s plan.
Dawn over the Vallée Blanche
A possible objective, the Chèré Couloir, looked a long way away with only snow shoes for transport, and a couple of parties were poking around at the bottom already. So our alternative objective – the Cosmiques Arête – was a go. Chatting with French guide Olivier Pujol while we faffed with snow shoes outside the door, he said that with all the fresh snow it would probably take longer than the Chèré Couloir.
He said goodbye with a flourishful jump turn from the hut porch and in a few turns was out of sight. An all round true gent, he was a pleasure to meet.
Putting in a track on the Cosmiques arête is probably not something many people do. It must have a strong claim to the most climbed route in the Mont Blanc massif with summer snarl ups a dawn till dusk occurrence. But for us the sun was shining, the snow was deep and soft and powdery and Mark was hiding successfully his little sadness at being strapped to crampons not skis.
The climb goes up the left hand ridge
Taken a day later, the climb starts below the speed flyers.
The bottom of the route was higher than head height in powder
Labouring up the first pitch
Mark swam his way up the first fifty metres, while I enjoyed the view and laughed at his antics. Brief relief appeared when a couple of climbers came tripping up the route behind us. Hooray, we thought, breaking trail is fun for a while, but nice to have some tracks to follow. Short lived though, as they abseiled down the NW face at the turn off for the Burnier Vogler Couloir.
Leaving their reassuring tracks and heading back into the powdery pinnacles was the highlight. With no track and one of the guide book’s better days for obfuscation, Mark headed onto a pinnacle to see what was what.
View back down the route from the ‘manky tat’ pinnacle
At this point, retreat was still an option, though not an attractive one, down climbing through deep snow and a long walk back up the Midi arête. A bit of manky tat the only sign of human presence, things looked uncertain. But like string in the minotaur’s lair, the manky tat lead to a shiny bolt and from there we could see the next rappel station. Time to commit.
The rest of the route unfolded without drama. Who knows how or why, but there was a track from the bottom of the second abseil, giving signs of human pre existence and dissolving some of the adventure.
Looking back, Triangle du Tacul in the background
The occasional detour was remedied: somehow I managed to convey route information from the far end of a 60 metre rope even while a helicopter carried out a rescue overhead, and this despite Mark’s fixation on following mystery tracks into a difficult and icy chimney. Mark extricated himself from this dead-end and unlocked the slabby move to get back onto the arête.
Helicopter rescue (the slab is on the right side of the photo)
Scrambling our way up the last few sections Mark casually said, “I haven’t asked the time because there’s nothing we can do about it, but I wonder if we’ll be in time for the last lift down?” At which point, I honed my focus onto being speedy. Bivying in the Midi station after an ascent of the Cosmiques Arête would be a hard one to live down. As a result, we don’t have the money shot of us triumphant standing on the Cosmiques Arête with Mont Blanc in the background.
Cosmiques Arête, with Mont Blanc in the background, but without us
Except, thanks to the wonders of the internet, this is what it would have looked liked…