An arête is a thin, almost knife-like, ridge of rock which is typically formed when two glaciers erode parallel U-shaped valleys. The arête is a thin ridge of rock that is left separating the two valleys. Arêtes can also form when two glacial cirques erode headwards towards one another, although frequently this results in a saddle-shaped pass, called a col. The edge is then sharpened by freeze-thaw weathering. The word "arête" is actually French for fishbone; similar features in the Alps are described with the German equivalent term Grat or Kamm (comb).
Where three or more cirques meet, a pyramidal peak is created.
The location of a cleaver is often an important factor in the choice among routes for glacier flow. For example, following a cleaver up or down a mountain may avoid travelling on or under an unstable glacial, snow, or rock area. This is usually the case on those summer routes to the summit whose lower portions are on the south face of Mount Rainier: climbers traverse the "flats" of Ingraham Glacier, but ascend Disappointment Cleaver and follow its ridgeline rather than ascending the headwall either of that glacier or (on the other side of the cleaver) of Emmons Glacier.