“I’m going to struggle with that crux pitch” I said, as I watched an Italian guide following his client up the rock face and wobbling on his crampon points as he went. When his foot slipped it crossed my mind that if he was finding it difficult to keep his crampons on the tiny slots cut out of the face, I was going to do more than struggle.
I started the year with a goal to do harder Alpine routes, so when the KMC organised a trip to Chamonix it was a perfect opportunity to get high and tackle more complicated terrain. My ultimate goal requires me to have all the skills I need to no longer rely on anyone else.
I love being out the snow, be it the harshest winter in Scotland or Alpine days in the sunshine. I know though that these will always lead me to a moment where I’m muttering under my breathe, or worse swearing out loud.
But for all the complaining I know that I’m capable and just need to get on with it.
Tackling alpine ridges
The Cosmiques Arête is a 350 metre ridge of climbing and scrambling. The guidebook recommends around 4 hours, but you need to factor in the 1 hour of descending the snow arête from the Aguille de Midi station and crossing the glacier, and any potential queue you might encounter on this popular route.
I’ve previously only done Alpine routes which require basic winter skills, ability to walk in crampons and front point up snow slopes. But after a winter ice climbing in Norway I was ready for routes that were more challenging.
I was excited when I led us out of the Midi station and we descended the steep snow slope. Looking down on Chamonix from 3800m is always exciting. The route to the bottom of the ridge is relatively straightforward, following the arête to its end near the Cosmiques hut.
Much of the Cosmiques Arête is nothing more than a winter scramble. We had been unlucky to be tackling the route on Saturday and hadn’t been able to get on the first cable car, so our first challenge was to overtake as many of the groups as we could. Particularly the slower guided groups.
Trying not to self sabotage
My worst trait when I’m out is self doubt. Can I really climb that route? Is my prussic really wrapped right for this abseil and will it hold me? What’s after that difficult bit and can I do it?
I find that questioning myself like this leads to a negative cycle of feeling like I can’t achieve something and lack of confidence in the skills I have. I’m not rubbish – I’ve been climbing for 2 years now and while I struggle with confidence and fear of leading, I’m perfectly capable of seconding VS routes when I put my mind to it. Even the odd HVS.
So when I arrived at the first abseil and muttered out loud that I needed my partner to check my abseil set up before he headed off, I immediately sabotaged myself. In giving a voice to my fears I made them real and also made him worry about my ability; which just made it worse. I hate people assuming I can’t do something; I hate being taken care of.
The first abseil was straight forward and despite swinging into a chimney I had no problems. But voicing my fears meant my partner insisted on abseiling the next pitch together, which didn’t impress me.
Dangling the Crux
From the bottom of the abseils we traversed round to reach the crux – an 8m slab with a thin diagonal crack, graded ay 4c. Should be easy enough, especially since there’s pre drilled pockets for crampons, and especially as someone had left a cam in the crack to pull on. But climbing a rock face in crampons at altitude was not going to go well for me. Was it lack of skills or confidence? Did I just sabotage myself as I’d said out loud that I thought I was going to struggle?
As I was dangling, struggling to get my crampon points to stay in the pockets and get my weak arms to pull me up the crack I discovered a general dislike of Alpine guides.
Yes I caused a queue. But then there was one there before we arrived.
Yes I complained and took ages. But there wasn’t any need for the French guides to be rude and abusive. (I’m generalising by saying French as the Italian guide directly behind me was encouraging and helpful).
It was also clear once I’d dragged my sorry self up the face that the guides were dragging their clients along with little regard for them and relying on other climbers to help the clients make certain moves over rocks. Their only concern was to get the route done as fast as possible, with some of the clients not even understanding to pull out gear from a route. I collected 2 cams and a sling as swag before the end of the route.
I know I’m generalising there, as we met some other guides I met during the course of the week who were amazing with their clients – but the ones I met on the Arête were not.
The final gully
The final section of the arête isn’t complicated at all, a scramble up a steep gully onto the top and up the ladder to the top of the cable car. However, the queue at the crux and it being midday meant that there was a hoard of climbers now headed up the route and guides dragging clients behind them. It made me think of the images of climbers queuing on Everest and how I never want to be in that sort of place. Its not what I want out of climbing routes.
The joy of being fatigued at the end of completing any alpine route from the Midi is that if you look sufficiently knackered you can queue jump the hoards of tourists to get back down the cable car by looking a bit tired and smiling at the staff. I can easily adopt my best pathetic-tired face if it gets me to ice cream quicker!