This one has been on my tick list for a long time, but I was never able to tick it for various reasons until now. It was also the first time for me on the mighty north west face of the Aiguille du Midi and my first 5.1 graded descent (Topo Neige grade).
On the previous day there had fallen about 15 cm of fresh snow on a pretty good base so we decided to give the Cosmiques couloir a try. Our intention was to go up to the start of it and have a look at the conditions but be prepared to turn around if we didn’t feel comfortable.
After a pretty late start (the lift to midi didn’t open until around 11 a.m.) we skied from the east ridge and traversed under the south face to reach the col du midi where the couloir drops into the north-west face.
There seems to be two entrances to the couloir. We choose the left one where we started with 60 meters on the rope to test the snowpack a bit and reach the point where the couloir widens slightly and becomes less rocky.
The right (east) entrance definitely seemed more popular as there were two groups setting off from that side while we were entering the left entrance. The entrance is steep, narrow and rocky (probably 50 degrees) for about 60-70 meters.
After getting off the rope we skied the first third or so of the couloir in knee deep powder. Near the middle there was a bit of traversing and finding our way through a slightly scary band of rocks.
Lower down, the snow conditions became more mixed with both powder and big patches of harder snow where the pow had sluffed away.
About two thirds down the couloir, it splits into two. We choose the right side that intersects with the “Glacier Rond”.
At this point the sun had started warming the surrounding west facing cliffs so that every now and then some snow was released, and together with sluff from skiers in the “Rond”, formed small streams of snow at the center of the couloir.
We stayed as much as possible on the more shaded and less exposed left side at the bottom.
Just below the exit from the couloir, we skied into the clouds that had started forming at the bottom of the valley. We traversed back to the middle station of the old lift in very limited visibility. At the station, we decided to follow the majority of the tracks that continued to on a slightly lower traverse. After skiing down perhaps 100 vertical meters or so, the snow started becoming quite a bit heavier and the base below the fresh snow seemed quite a bit harder and less grippy. We could also see some small avalanches in the steep terrain just above the tree line.
With the avalanche danger and the limited visibility, we decided to put the skins on our skis, backtrack, and make the higher traverse back to the midi mid station. By this point it was probably close to 3 pm, and I started feeling a bit worried that we wouldn’t make it back in time for the last gondola down.
The traverse back seemed to take forever. For the last bit which is less dangerous, I rushed ahead to try to improve our odds at getting back down on the gondola. I reached the station at 5 pm only find the place completely abandoned and locked up with a sign reading: last return 16:40, just 20 minutes earlier. Oh well…
The visibility was still terrible and with the poor snow coverage lower in the valley, we decided not to try to ski down, but instead spend the night at the Plan de l’Aiguille hut. We followed the wires of the cable car down a few hundred meters and found the hut in the fog.
We were happy to see that the hut had a winter room with beds and blankets. We still had some of our lunch left, so had it for dinner before going to sleep. We had a good night’s sleep at the hut and then skinned back up to the gondola and went down on one of the first bins in the morning. The lift operators must have realized our “situation” and let us ride down even though our day pass from the day before had expired.
Ironically, the sign from yesterday that had said “Last return: 16:40” was now replaced with another sign saying “Last return: 17:10″… Oh well…
Definitely one of the most spectacular descents I have ever done. It’s quite steep (45 degrees for 800m), but most of all it felt long. My legs were burning by the time we had reached just halfway.
With our unexpected overnight stay I was also quite happy to have both some extra food and snacks as well as some warm gloves and an extra primaloft jacket to keep me warm during the night. From now on, I will always bring climbing skins when skiing in remote places in the mountains to be able to back-track efficiently if I encounter unexpected conditions.