Editor's note: Accompanying photos, by Austin Siadak, are of a different climb, unrelated to this story.
I slept bundled up in an emergency blanket on a coiled climbing rope at the base of my first Grade IV climb in the Bugaboos. It wasn’t quite an epic—the weather was fair, my partner and I had emergency gear, and we were safely off the route. But it was 1 a.m., we’d lost the cairn trail leading back to camp, and our headlamp batteries had faded — so we bivied in the open until dawn. This experience was nothing like camping, in that I had to forgo the warmth of my sleeping bag, plush air mattress, and comfy foam pillow. But neither was it a horrific memory.
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This experience deepened my understanding that the bigger the climbs you attempt, the higher the likelihood you may have to sleep out or bivouac on a route at some point. I’m just scratching the surface of my first Grade V climbs, so this wasn’t a scary realization—sleeping on a climb actually sounds like fun.
Unlike big wall climbing—where you haul up a portaledge and purposefully sleep on the cliff, possibly multiple nights in a row—alpine climbing is about moving light and fast. So you need to limit the supplies you carry. Which, of course, affects comfort. Although a rope “bed” is not as comfy as it might sound, finding a flat location free of rocks, off of snow, and away from water sources will enhance the probability of a good night’s sleep. So will making sure you’re not sleeping with your head downhill, which could result in a raging morning headache. If you come across a large, grassy ledge on route, consider it a luxury bivy spot.
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As far as sleep quality is concerned, you’ll likely be physically exhausted from climbing all day, which should make falling asleep fairly easy. In my case, I take an over-the-counter sleep aid—which did wonders that night in the Bugaboos, as I slept soundly and something like that could be helpful for you, too. Alternatively, Benadryl does the trick for most people. But in some cases it can amp you up instead, so give it a try in advance.
If you’re planning a big climb, where there’s a chance you might end up sleeping out, here are a few more tips for making it easier on yourself.
Plan ahead: If you’re attempting your first big alpine climb or stepping it up a couple grades, it’s probably going to take you longer than you expect to finish. Period. It might be wise to plan on bivying somewhere on the route in advance, just in case. If you finish in one day, that’s great, but preparation is better than being stuck on a climb all night without proper gear. Study your topo maps in advance and mark possible bivy spots, like large grassy ledges. Sometimes topo maps actually have bivy spots labeled.
Light is right: While hauling up an air pad and a sleeping bag might sound comfortable if you’re planning to sleep on a route, this kind of thinking will definitely make for a heavy pack, which will slow you down. The alpine mantra ‘light is right’ applies to bivying as well. Think of the equipment you’re already carrying and ask yourself what other purposes it could serve. For example, coiled excess rope serves as adequate ground insulation. Even though it’s not like sleeping on a luxurious air pad, it’ll do the trick. You can roll up your rain jacket or puff coat, tie it together with a climbing sling, and use it as a pillow. The one extra thing you will need to carry? A reflective emergency blanket or designated bivy sack. This is much lighter and more compact than a sleeping bag and will keep you plenty warm without weighing down your pack. You can also empty the contents of your pack and stick your feet and legs into it for extra warmth.
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Counting calories: When planning sustenance for an alpine climb, you’re evaluating weight versus number of calories and packing the lightest weight forms of energy, oten in the form of gel packets or bars. This is where planning for a bivy, or any kind of an emergency for that matter, might not jive with your lightweight style. But think about eating all the food you bring during the climb, having to spend the night on a route, and not having anything to eat in the morning. You will likely be hungry and worse than that, low on the fuel your body needs for getting safely off the mountain. Always pack extra food in case of an emergency, and if you’re rationing, plan ahead for the next day.
Water woes: More important than food, your body needs water to function. Water weighs a lot. It’s the bane of both backpackers and climbers, but you can’t skimp on this essential resource. Make your plan for water in advance. If there’s no water on the approach, the climb itself, or the descent (which is unusual given most alpine climbs involve some snow or glacial travel) you’re going to have to hoof it. Ration your water using a hydration bladder with measurements so that you don’t drink too much or too little. Be sure to carry enough for an overnight experience. If you will encounter water at various places along your route, carry enough to reach that first point, then refill enough to get you to the next point, but always have a little extra just in case. Bring water purifying tablets or a filter for streams or lakes. If your overnight water plan involves melting snow at your bivy, you’re going to need to pack a small stove and pot. The lighter and smaller, the better. And unless your stove has a piezo, don’t forget to bring a lighter so you can actually melt the snow—snow itself doesn’t adequately hydrate you.
Alpine Checklist: Everything you need to carry in the event of an emergency or a bivy on route.
—Headlamp and extra batteries
—Bivy sack or reflective emergency blanket
—First aid kit and multitool (we hope you carry these regardless)
—Extra layer for warmth (i.e. puff coat — even in summer, nights get cold, especially at elevation)
—Rain jacket (even in dry climates, you can roll it up to use as a pillow)
—Stove and pot for melting water (if needed)
—Water purifying tablets or filter (if needed)
—Extra food (bars and gel packets are great lightweight options)
—Water (an extra liter is always recommended in any situation)
—Wag bag or toilet-on-the-go (because nature happens)
Luxury Options: For those who adamantly plan to bivy on route, here are some lightweight luxury options to enhance your experience without weighing you down too much.
—Tea or coffee bags (who doesn’t crave caffeine after a long night on the wall)
—Hydration tablets (to refuel your body and make your water taste better)
—Kindle or paperback book (for passing the time — save your headlamp battery by putting it on the red light setting while reading)
—Battery pack for charging your phone or other electronics
—Wool socks (because your feet will love nothing more after a full day crammed into climbing shoes)