Get the inside knowledge: IFMGA Mountain Guide Caroline George offers some beta on route-finding, gear, and tackling the cruxes of Chamonix's classic AD alpine route, Cosmiques Arete.
DANGER: There has been significant rock fall on Cosmiques Arete. Seek advice before tackling the route.
When I first started alpine climbing Cosmiques Arete was at the top of my tick-list. And later, when I started taking friends in the mountains, I told them this was the line to climb! Now, as a guide, I never tire of following this perfect arete, with one foot on the steep north face dropping steeply away to Chamonix 2,000m below, and the other on the sunny side high above the Midi plateau, looking out to the Aiguille Verte, the Grandes Jorasses, the Dent du Geant, the border to Italy beyond, Mont Blanc du Tacul and all the way to Mont Blanc.
The quick access to the ridge and the relatively easy level is what makes this ridge so popular – sometimes, overly popular. It’s good to avoid Cosmiques in the summertime and on weekends, as lots of people who don’t know how to move efficiently along a ridge can create bottlenecks on the crux sections of the climb.
Accessing the ridge
But back to the quick access: riding the Aiguille du Midi lift to 3,842m is an already thrilling experience. Built in 1955, this was then the world's highest cable car. The view from the windows over the North Face of the Aiguille du Midi is spectacular.
From here, descend the sometimes knife-edge ridge from the top of the Aiguille du Midi to access to the Midi Plateau. In itself, it's a good way to sharpen your skills at down-climbing in crampons with the exposure of the north face lapping at your feet.
The hike across the Midi Plateau is much more mellow, and will give you time to take in the view and watch a few climbers enjoying the perfect orange granite of the South Face of the Aiguille du Midi. Pass the Cosmiques Hut and then start climbing back up to the start of the ridge proper; a break by the old Abri Simond shelter is usually in order first.
Starting the climb
Depending on conditions, remove your crampons or keep them on. The ridge hereafter is either an easy snow climb with a few easy rock moves earlier in the season; or if the snow has melted away, a more demanding climb. When in doubt as to where the route goes, follow the rock that is most scratched by crampons. It's hard to get lost!
The first section stays mostly close to the ridgeline. When you reach the first sub-summit, you have to do two abseils, or a down-climb and abseil. The anchors are fixed but the rappels are 25m long so make sure you pack at least a 50m single rope.
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From the bottom of the last rappel, contour and then climb the backside of a big and obvious gendarme. This is one of the cruxes of the route as the climbing is a little bit technical. To move people along, local guides drilled perfectly placed holes to fit your crampons into: one foot on the right, backstop the left foot, lean over and grab the backside of a flake and mantel on the small platform. Up and left are a pin and bolt to belay your partner.
Next, you down-climb a few metres using perfect vertical cracks to balance your way down, before climbing up a steeper mixed or snow pitch, depending on the season, to get back on the ridge proper.
But not for long. Look for an obvious slanting corner to the right and keep traversing while contouring another small gendarme. There the route traverses the south face for quite a way, but there many horns along the way to protect your party. Another little descent followed by a snow climb will have you contouring the last majestic gendarme on the ridge.
From here you might get to watch a strong crack climber try to free climb Digital Crack, the highest 8a in the world, which was first climbed by Thierry Renault and Alain Ghersen. But stay focused here as the crux is coming up next. If you’re there on a busy day, you can sit here for a long time, watching people do their best to climb this 5m section.
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Again, you’ll find holes drilled into the rock to place your crampons into. The beta here is: once you’re standing on the flake below the crack, put your left foot into the hole on the right. I know: a weird move, but one that will get you into the right sequence! I bet George and Maxwell Finch, who made the first ascent in 1911, pre-cable car, would turn in their graves if they knew the climb had been remodeled that way.
The crack is positive and solid. you can belay your partner at a set of bolts just above the crack or run a long pitch to the platform above (no anchors there). From the platform, the climb takes on a more serious feel as you traverse into the north face, climbing up a set of often iced-up chimneys to finally reach the top of the ridge, where you're usually greeted by lots of tourist who are so excited to take a picture of a now true alpinist with Mont Blanc in the background, and who will be even more excited to see you join them after climbing the steep metal ladder to the viewing platform!
The Cosmiques Ridge is a classic. It's one of the most aesthetic ridges out there with perfect orange granite mixed in with snow and ice; and one that demands a full range of skills: mixed climbing, rock climbing, route finding, proper use of the rope for maximum safety and efficiency, abseiling and gear placements.
On that note, you don’t need to bring a big rack but a Black Diamond no 0.5, 0.75 and no 1 will go a long way on this ridge. Early season in particular it is harder to use horns on the ridge for protection as they are buried, so err on the side of caution. Enjoy!
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