Chamonix – Arete des Cosmiques

Just at the start…

The weekend climbing the Arete des Cosmiques from 14 th September to 17th September was everything I expected, while also being even more frightening than I had prepared myself for. I am feeling the need to document every single action, because I have some vague impression of it all being terribly significant in the future. I feel as if I will look back on this weekend forever, as if it will be the last time we do something like this. I’m sure it won’t be, but there  are so many more things to do and places to go. I leave for the Himalayas on 17th April 2013, I return on the 19th may and we want to go to America around 1st June. So I guess I could just tack some alpine routes straight into the back of the Himalayan routes, or maybe go and do a week of sport climbing somewhere sunny. Or a beach holiday.

On Friday, I was in a flat panic about getting to Heathrow, and had 18 kilos of luggage to carry onto the tube and then get onto the Heathrow express with. I guess most people can’t carry that any more now that we’re all used to luggage having wheels. Mine doesn’t, and I was surprised at the number of offers of help i received and somewhat stupidly refused. Clearly they all thought I was crazy to be trying to carry a bag that big. The circle line had signal failure at baker street, so I had to trek across to the baker loo line, which is a long transfer. Eventually got to paddington and slightly wanted to kill someone because it was all too heavy to beat. I found Richard at the end of the train because he thought I would have been on the circle line. I couldn’t understand why he had gone so far back, and was rather embarrassed by my complete meltdown about something as trivial as a heavy bag. Have to stop all this contradictory desire to be helped, while not wanting to seem weak, so I never explain anything. I never achieve it, as I just end up feeling misunderstood and reacting in childish frustration.

Once we had checked in – with plenty of time to spare – we wandered around the harrods outlet trying to find a top for me to wear to work on Monday. My packing plans had obviously hoped Monday would never happen. We didn’t find anything, and gave up quickly. I suggested Itsu for dinner, which was delicious. I then rather unforgivably hooked up to Richards wifi to check my emails. He looked very irritated, so I did stop relatively quickly. I must stop taking advantage of the fact he doesn’t shout at me when he gets irritated. I would hate someone to be checking their emails when I was sitting with them and supposed to be spending time together, so I should behave that way. The plane was over an hour late, so we had a few drinks before we left, and a few more on the plan.  We picked up the Daily Mail, in an ironic sort of way, but I don’t think I can quite bear to read it any more, even just to see how full of crap it is. It depresses me that so many people read such hateful propaganda. The transfer had indeed fortunately waited for us, since quite a few people had been on the same flight.  The driver was a tiny blonde girl called Jade. She seemed un-keen on sharing her life story with anyone, despite the best efforts of one of the passengers, who started every sentence with
“so Jade…”
“…do you live in Chamonix?”
“that’s so cool, so what do you do?”
“uh, mostly working”…
The poor guy really wasn’t going to be getting her phone number anytime soon.

We were one of the last to be dropped off, at Les Larches hotel, which was freshly decorated and fantastically clean. It was about 1 am by am the time we were in the room, and we had to be up at 6.30 if we wanted to catch the first cable car to Midi station at 8.30 .

In the end we didn’t get up until after 7, and took forever to leave the hotel, mainly because I kept forgetting things. We caught the cable car at about 9.30. It sure is an amazing piece of engineering, going from 1000 to 3800 metres in 15 minutes. I don’t understand how I always seem to feel a difference even at low altitude – it’s surely impossible to feel 1000 metres, but the walk from the hotel to the centre of Chamonix was about 30 minutes, and I could barely breathe with the pain of it, whatever it was that caused it. Maybe it really was the early morning fresh air and lack of coffee, but as usual it felt like a stab to the heart. Once we got to the cable car it was fine, and didn’t come back the entire time we were up there, so I guess it was just the apprehension.  We got racked up in the little underground corridor that leads straight out onto the knife edge ridge that gives access to the snow fields beyond. I discovered I had forgotten my gloves and scarf, and was massively disappointed. I had my sunglasses though, and all the other essential equipment, so it wasn’t a complete disaster, but in my head I had failed already. It was pretty freezing waiting to get going, and quite surreal being surrounded by big parties of tourists who were just there to watch us, and waited for us to step out. A French guide was explaining how the equipment worked while I was tying on. I started crying in a self pitying way, mainly because I really needed the loo, which wasn’t something I would be able to fix for at least 40 minutes. I was not particularly afraid at this point, reasoning that there were plenty of people who clearly didn’t consider this suicidal. Of course I had no idea  at this point that the ridge dropped off vertically on one side, all the way down the mountain.

I was unexpectedly excited to be opening a gate marked “pedestrians prohibited”, and wandered slowly off in front of Richard, following the very wide footsteps that had been marked out along the ridge. It was pretty hard work as the slope was very steep, and didn’t want to look directly at the drop on my left, as the lack of any visible terrain beyond the three feet width of the path suggested a straight drop. After navigating this section quite slowly, we followed the gentler snow slopes towards the starting point of the route. There were people camping in the snow along the way. I was by this time of course desperate for the loo, and gasping slightly for breath.

Unlike on previous trips, I couldn’t directly feel the altitude – the way you can’t seem to draw breath never mind how much you try, and the way you gasp and the periphery of your vision goes slightly less focused. I was only aware that it was very hard work with a heavy pack full of equipment, even though Richard had taken the rope in his. We reached the start of the route, and waited for some time while other groups set off up the boulders above us, and I scuttled off behind the shed with a sigh of relief.

The first section was easy scrambling, apart from a few points where I wasn’t quite sure how to haul myself over the rocks. I wasn’t used to the crampons on the rock surface, and never trusted my footing. We carried on up some fairly enjoyable terrain, and I kind of saw the appeal, although as usual all I was thinking about was getting back to the start and eating something nice. I usually imagine myself with a glass of mulled wine, sitting in a chalet and reading the papers, while i find a foothold (or more commonly a handhold) and inelegantly haul myself up over the next boulder. I lost some enthusiasm when we had to wait for half an hour for the first abseil. I got cold, and then had to wait even longer for the second abseil. At this point I completely lost my nerve. We had been waiting our turn for ages, and watched the Italian guide fiddling with the anchor and establishing that one of the bolts was too old. This didn’t faze me when I observed it, as he had a perfectly good arrangement set up on the other anchor. Richard tied on, and I moved forward waiting to attach myself at the same time. I had got used to this during our last alpine trip, and found it reassuring as it meant he had watched me get it right. There’s no reason why I wouldn’t, but I attach a lot of credence to the endless stories about very experienced climbers getting it wrong and dying.

It was a misunderstanding though, and instead of me being clipped in at the same time, he disappeared off the edge. I was suddenly on my own. The whole situation with the old bolt, and the difficulty of moving clipping into it without being virtually on the edge, overwhelmed me, and I started shouting and shrieking as I tried to get the right part of the bolt. There was a Swedish guide behind me, who coaxed me over the edge and reminded me I was actually supposed to be putting my weight on the rope – I had for some bizarre reason decided that I couldn’t weight the rope, so was not going anywhere.

I’m sure I shouted at Richard quite a lot, who didn’t seem to have any idea why I was making such a fuss, and had an expression on his face – as far as I could see from above – of significant irritation. That is somewhat the problem with the whole enterprise, it doesn’t really feel like my hobby any more, and I’ve lost all sense of control over proceedings, blindly trusting Richard to know where we’re going and what we’re supposed to be doing. So when he carries on along the route without providing a detailed narrative of what happens next, I completely panic because I realise I have no control over where I am, and am completely reliant on someone who has just disappeared from view. It is so far removed from what I want climbing and mountaineering to be that I then absolutely hate the whole exercise. I originally started it because the whole idea of understanding the terrain and understanding the equipment appealed to me, and the more time I spend on trips with Richard, the less I seem to understand of either. Still, they are wonderful trips in themselves, and he looks permanently like a kid in a sweet shop when he’s on a route.

After the second abseil, there was a rather interesting trail that went around a corner, along a ledge in the side of the cliff, and wound upwards towards the first of three pitched sections of rock. I didn’t really find the rock sections that difficult, given that I only seconded them, although the last one was steep and hard work. By that time I just wanted to be back home, having lost the enjoyment. I found the last pitch much harder, because I couldn’t work out how to move off the belay, so I hung around waiting for someone else to show up and tell me which way to go. I once again felt slightly like a large sack of potatoes on a conveyor belt, waiting to be rolled along. A French guide came up behind me at some point and told me which way I was supposed to go up, as I was busy trying the really steep section that dropped off the edge. It’s quite amazing how little skill I seem to have in reading a route. I can quite happily wander off onto the wrong side of an arête without thinking it looks wrong, and when I climb back down a route I have just come up, I do not recognise it and will go a completely different way – partly because having Richard there to tell me when I’ve gone wrong engenders a relaxed attitude to objective risk. It is perhaps a good thing I am going to the Himalayas on my own, although I doubt I will enjoy it much. I don’t really like being alone any more, and I’m dreading being propositioned all the time.

When we went back down to Chamonix, we spent some enjoyable time eating a croque Monsieur in a nice cafe that I think was called the gallery. It was playing live music. Richard asked me when I had been happiest. I rambled on a bit, generally concluding that 2004 and 2010 were good years. I think he said he most enjoyed the first time he came to Chamonix when he was 20. It’s funny that this year has been so difficult for me. I can’t handle my work, so regardless of my happiness with him, I can’t really say it’s a happy year. There is so much uncertainty about the future, it colours everything I think about.

I’m so anxious to capture every minute of the weekend in Chamonix because it seems so much like an occasion whose perfect enjoyment will sustain us both in years to come, when things are perhaps not so easy to arrange, and when fun is harder to come by than hopping on a plane at a moment’s notice. In particular the sun-filled trip on the funicular railway to the Mer de glace, the rather frightening descent down several step ladders to reach the glacier, and the easy fun of learning to ice climb.

After we got back from the climbing (and I rather unfortunately lost one of his ice screws), we sat on the terrace that overlooked the tourist ice grotto, and ate disconcertingly pink sausage sandwiches. He drank a small beer, I had a diet coke. We discussed the other people on the terrace, and the earlier hilarious sight of about 50 dutchmen on the ice, all wearing black with matching red helmets. It made them look rather like extras in a cheap scifi..

There was also a couple from Manchester who were amusingly chippy with each other. They were practicing clipping the ice screws, setting up anchors and some crevasse rescue using a rucksack. She kept complaining about him making out that he knew more about the techniques than she did. We found it quite amusing to listen to, him criticising her anchors from below before he had even seen them.

On the way back up to the top of the step ladders, I was so keen to avoid being caught up in the returning hoard of red helmets that I practically ran up them, and was so out of breath I could hardly even hold on.

I took a picture of Richard on the terrace, laughing in the sunlight under a white umbrella, wearing his endearingly silly spider top. He looks so perfectly content, and I like to think he looks so much happier than on any of the pictures I’ve seen of him in the past.

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