Avoiding the Big Sleep

December 4, 2008

Reading Time: 16 minutes.

The story goes like this. There were these two climbers, sat on a high mountain ledge, safe and warm in their huge sleeping bags – tired after a long day, made longer by their heavy gear. As they sat brewing up, a raggy, old soloist appeared on a ledge nearby, smoking a pipe, lifting his hat to say hello as he sat down. The climbers were shocked and immediately took the climber to be some crazy man. He was carrying no bivi gear, yet it would be dark any minute. To their amazement, the old alpinist just sat down and removed a large piece of oiled paper from his pocket. From this he took out a piece of steak, which he ate, then very very carefully, he took the paper and wrapped it around himself and fell asleep. The night was very cold, but the old-timer never made a sound. As dawn arrived, the two climbers were woken by a rustling, and as they watched, the old climber appeared again from his paper bag, rubbing himself warm in the coldest hour. Then crumpling up the paper into a ball, he fired up his pipe, then with the match, bent down and lit the paper. The climbers sat dumbfounded, as the old man warmed himself until all the heat was gone and the ashes had blown away, at which point he lifted his hat to say good morning, and was away, leaving them both sat speechless, with another hard day of climbing with heavy sacks ahead of them.


Even if you’re not intending to bivi out, you should still have the basic gear to do so. A headtorch with a new battery and a small plastic survival bag will make the classic ‘caught out’ bivi more comfortable and safe. Don’t bother with tin foil space blankets or bags – they don’t stand up to heavy use. In my experience, the best survival bags are the small cheap plastic design that packs down to the size of a power bar (often used by cavers). This is small enough to be stowed inside your helmet. Hopefully, you’ll have the foam back mat in your rucksack to sit on, and your rucksack to stick your feet into, plus some spare clothes. This is the bare bones, but on a typical summer Alpine rock or mixed route you will survive - as long as no nasty storms brew up! If you suspect you may just have to bivi, then add a Bothy bag to this, and maybe a small gas stove and a few packets of soup, a spoon and a small pan with a lid. Bothy bags are not that popular in the US so you may need to make your own. Take a piece of foil as a windshield and don’t forget the lighters! If you’re climbing dry mountain areas some form of firelighter can give you a great fire to keep warm - and if you’re desperate you can always burn the guide book! This little lot weights basically nothing, and should keep you comfortable through a long cold night, and I know people who’ve had to bivi out on big winter routes with little more than this not only survived but also able to carry on, a crucial point if you’re far from rescue. If you definitely know you’ll be bivvying then depending on the temperature, maybe add a sleeping bag, bivi sack, mug, more food and a sleeping mat to this lot. If you climbing on a big face in winter, where spindrift and wind will be a problem, then bring a lightweight bivi tent, and perhaps a hanging stove to use inside it. I always take at least one thick insulated down of synthetic jacket to wear, as you can get very cold cooking and sorting out gear on an exposed bivi – of these the Patagonia DAS parka is many climbers favourites. Make sure every piece of gear has some kind of STRONG clip-in loop, or you WILL lose it. If your heading for a route with very few ledges, take along a cheap string hammock, it weights nothing, cost nothing, and will literally save your ass! Before you head out into the hills, check you can sit comfortably in your sleeping/bivi bag. If your over 6 ft tall, you may find your head pocking out of the bag. An extra-large bag solves this problem and gives you more room to move about, while you fight to get your inner boots off. Often the kind of sleeping mat to use is a ¾ length model, cut into three pieces and gaffer taped together so it lies flat when unfolded. Rap tape on two of the furthest corners and thread a loop of cord through this to give you two tie in points (on a side by side, sitting bivi you only need one mat, and these loops allow it to be anchored so it doesn’t blow away). If your heading for the big snowy peaks, consider taking a lightweight shovel and snow saw, making snow holes, igloos and snow pits a hell of a lot easier to build - without doubt the safest mountain bivis.


I woke feeling warm and comfortable for the first time that night, the endless spindrift and tearing wind having finally left me in peace. I felt dizzy with tiredness, ready to slip into a long, deep slumber - tightly cocooned within my warm sleeping bag. Then I heard Dicks voice screaming. “ANDY! Where are you?” I tried to answer, but my voice just rebounded around inside my bag, and when I tried to sit up, I found I couldn’t. I was buried alive under the snow. Suddenly gripped by panic, I fought my way up to the surface, finding myself suddenly, cruelly, back in the maelstrom, gasping for air, my bag full of snow, my sleeping mat buried. We dug our rucksacks out and sat on them, side by side, shivering. I looked at my watch, the green light illuminating the cold clammy confines of the bag. 11.43 pm. I crossed my arms and sat awake for the next eight hours, waiting for the dawn to come, hating the world and everything in it.


Where you spend the night depends on various factors. What kind of route are you on? Is it rock or ice? Is this bivi planned or unplanned? Are you equipped for it? The perfect spot is sheltered, probably under an overhang, has a flat space to lie down, and has plenty of bomber protection nearby. The kind of bivis can see you trying to get some sleep standing in slings on a blank wall, open to the elements, or stood on a tiny ice ledge as the spindrift piles up. If you know you’re going to bivi, check the topo, or asks people who’ve done the route before for good sights. If you arrive at the only good ledge on a route with daylight left, consider climbing two more pitches then abseil back, jumaring back up in the morning (re-belay the rope at intervals so you can both jug it, and avoid rubbing over edges). Many Alpine routes have classic bivi spots, such as Death Bivouac, on the Eiger or Island in the Sky on Pacific Ocean Wall, places where hundreds have stopped and stopped for a reason. If you find yourself in a situation where there are no good ledges, first of all, look for some were where both of you can sit, and if that’s not possible, two small ledges near each other. One person can brew up, and using one of those large, lidded, insulated mugs, you can pass drinks from one climber to the other with the rope. Ice can be cut into seats, or ledges, if you have the energy, and remember nothing, is too small, as long as you can get your bum on it, and often a bit of digging, trundling and excavation can produce quite good bivi spots. The Russians are renowned for their incredibly elaborate high mountain bivis, constructing stone walls and flattening out uneven ledges with lovingly constructed patios! If you can’t find anything you either need a portaledge or a hammock or your in for a pretty grim night, standing in slings.


Feeling as cold as a corpse I drifted in and out of some kind of sleep, rapped in my gossamer thin, one season bag, made a little warmer by a light dusting of snow. Every five minutes I’d move every muscle in my body until a little warmth would return, and with it, sleep, in which I’d dream about fat sleeping bags and thick soft duvets. Then like a drowning man swimming up towards a hole in the ice, I’d wake, and repeat the process again. God how I suffered that night, but I knew as long as I kept waking up I’d be alright. But when the sky finally paled I was ready dressed and ready to go, my sleeping bag fitting into a stuff sack the size of a crisp packet. And I knew all through that long cold bivi that everything would be forgotten as soon as the sun came up.


First of all, construct a totally bomber anchor for each climber, then join these together with the rope to produce a handrail, onto which you can clip gear or yourself if you need to wander around. If you’re on a steep ice face, place as many screws as you have, as they can melt out under the constant pressure, and that extra security might help you sleep. You may need to untie, but make sure there is some hope left for each climber to clip into AND ALWAYS STAY CLIPPED IN! Try to get in a position so both climbers can use the stove and pass drinks and food to each other, and on this kind of bivvy a good hanging stove can make the difference between a warm drink or a long dry night. Try and have all your food and bits in stuff sacks so you can easily clip them into the handrail. If the bivi spot is confined and you can’t lie down, sick your feet into your rucksack clipped into your anchor, which helps to take some of the strain off your bottom. If you’re sitting on your rucksack you can make a cats cradle out of your other rope to stand in, and on really heinous bivis you may need to pass this across your stomach and chest to hold yourself on. If you don’t have any ledge at all, set up a bomber anchor and using slings for your feet, try and construct a seat out of your rucksack (clipping a sling into its haul loops and another into the bottom axe loops). You can also make a makeshift hammock if you have a bivi bag/survival bag by putting a large nut, pair of socks or piece of fruit in the foot and knee section, gathering the material around it and larks footing a sling to it on the outside, helping to raise the legs into a more comfortable position. In some cases, there may only be one spot to sit on. If so, try taking turns through the night - or sit on each other’s knees!


When you finally retire to your bed, be it a huge fluffy down pit or a thin transparent survival bag, you need to make sure you’re tied in properly. In the night, unless you’re a fantastic sleeper, you will move around and jiggle about a lot, trying to take the weight of tired bum muscles or to avoid stones that seemingly appear underneath you as you sleep. With a standard belay set up, you’re either hanging off the ledge with a slack rope or held back tight in its iron grip. The best way to set up the rope is to tie-in with a lot of slack, then using a Ropeman, Prussic or tied off belay plate, adjust the amount of tension you require. If its stormy and wet try not to have the rope running straight into your bivi bag. If the ledge is spacious hang some gear of the rope to form a loop lower than the opening of the bag to produce a drip point, or better still clip a large hex or cam to your harness and then gathering the sleeping/bivi bag around it, larks foot a sling around it from outside. This way you don’t have any leak points or wet ropes or slings coming into your dry sanctuary. Try to have everything within easy reach from your bag, taking your water bottle, inner boots (Put your leather boots in a plastic bag) inside your bag to stop them from freezing. Unless you can avoid it, try not to wear your boots inside your sleeping bag, this will ruin your feet. The best thing to do is take them off and put some dry socks on, and stick your wet socks on your hands or next to your skin to dry out. To save both climbers exposing themselves to the cold, it’s best once, in your sleeping bags, one climber does all the cooking and sorting out while the other doses - then reverse roles the following day.


The thermometer read -25, a little too cold for our sleeping bags, which combined would give you less than 1000 grams of down. We put every piece of clothing we had on and laid spooned together - like two cold mountain lovers. I had 200 grams less down than Paul, and I was sure I’d be dead by morning. Maybe I was delirious with hypothermia but I suddenly figured maybe I was cold because all my clothes were stopping the down from warming up, leaving me a little like an ice cube in a flask. So gambling on my hunch I stripped off, Paul moaning as I moved what warmth my body had from his. Now I won’t kid you I was warm, but I wasn’t cold either - held in some kind of limbo between comfort and discomfort - an OK place to be considering. In the morning Paul peeled himself off the ground like a zombie, put on his skis and skied off into the sunrise - leaving me asleep, his first and last Alpine winter one-night stand.


Depending on what gear you have, your night will either be spent snoring away, warm, safe and relaxed or involve an endless night of torturous discomfort, cold and fear. If you only have a thin sleeping bag but have plenty of gas for your stove, fill up your water bottle with hot water and stick it between your thighs where your major artery is, keeping you and your feet warmer then having it rattling around in the foot section of your bag. If you suffer from cold feet take some of those shake and warm pads and stick them in your socks, giving your seven hours of warmth. A 1 litre Nalgene piss bottle is worth its weight in gold on any confined bivi - and at least one British climber has died falling of a ledge going to the toilet. Clip it between both climbers so it’s handy - and don’t get it confused with the water bottle. If your cold, but feel you need to urinate, don’t hold it in all night, as your body wastes vital energy keeping this urine at body temperature. Many people complain about condensation and ice build-up in their bivi bags, caused by moist air turning to vapour on contact with the cold outer fabric (the dew point). The best way to avoid most of this is by trying never to breathe directly into your bivi/sleeping bag. Most bivi bags can cope with the small amount of moisture your body gives off while your asleep, but once you start breathing into it, it can quickly be overloaded. If you find your face is getting cold, turn your balaclava around the wrong way, a good tip that works well for scary winter belaying as well. If your cold or have no bivi gear, sit with your legs pressed together, bent over, your chest against your knees, breathing through your nose. The prisoners of Alcatraz slept like this, but kneeling, for years at a time as they were never given blankets - a though worst remembering as you suffer away. Press tightly to your partner (it does help if they’re of the opposite sex) and consider both getting inside the same survival bag. In this kind of situation, the use of a lightweight Bothy bag can be a real lifesaver, which an adult giving of the same heat as one bar on an electric fire, you could actually stay comfortable! A piece of gear you shouldn’t leave home without.


The dry horizontal, shit splattered platform, where Royal Robins once sat and admired the view down Yosemite valley, suddenly became the focal point of a waterfall as the thunderstorm arrived unannounced. We were after a two-day ascent and were travelling light, but we had bivi bags and a portaledge flysheet, which we all hustling under, warm and relatively dry. Two French Guides sat with bin bags on their heads, naked to the elements with no waterproofs or bivi gear. What they did have was a small stove and some coffee, which they held up smiling, then scampered under the amble protection of our fly, where we spent a pleasant night drinking, swapping chocolate for jelly beans and talking about nights we’d spend in the mountains less comfortable than this. In the morning, we packed our haul bag again, then climbed on, watching others less careful than us bailing off back to dry land and dry clothes in the valley.


Have your watch clipped onto the neck baffle near your head so you hear it in the morning, and get up early enough to get off before the sun gets up. Unfortunately, some people won’t need to hear any alarms in order to wake, their eyes were frozen open, looking for the beautiful golden globe, the sign of another day, the key that releases from their torment. A large rucksack makes packing gear away on awkward bivis much easier, and personally, I never use stuff sacks, finding stuffing the bag straight into the bottom of the rucksack much easier.

Some times it’s better to carry a few more batteries, a bit more abseil tat and try to avoid a horrible bivi altogether - carrying on or rapping off. After you’ve suffered one nasty bivi, this is probably exactly what you’ll do, because you’ll never want to repeat the experience again.