04 December 2008
Note: Many of these articles are very old, and although the technical information is still relevant the equipment mentioned may not be (for example a Stormy cooker was state of that art in 1995, but not in 2021).
What’s the difference between bivyying and camping? Well, you look forward to camping, don’t you? Who looks forward to dozing off perched above a huge void with only a flake stuck up one’s backside and a poor belay as insurance against never waking up again?
It used to be the case that only the hard men (sorry there weren’t any women) that bivvied out on the sides of mountains, the reason being only that they were tough and brave enough to do so. In the old days, bivvies took place in the Alps, the Dolomites and the Greater Ranges and the most important tool at the climber’s disposal was their unbending acceptance of the cold, the storm and the night.
Times have changed, with Alpine-style big walls of all grades replacing the epic north walls of the past. These routes are increasingly being tackled by British climbers, from Africa and the Middle East to South America and the Arctic Circle - many of which require at least one bivvy.
To bivvy on a huge face is something all climbers should experience at least once. To end the day not at the bottom of a route but within it itself and to wake with the climb all around you. Once you know how to bivvy well and you have the gear to make your night a comfortable one there will be no more bivvying, only camping.
Below I’ve set out a number of top tips that will make your nights safer so that even if you are short on bivvy gear you may still sleep soundly. They are intended for the classic rock bivvy, but also apply to colder temps.
Many climbers make the mistake of either tying in too short to their anchors or too slack. Too tight means you can’t move around to grab things or find a more comfortable position. Too slack and you are constantly in danger of toppling off the edge, unsure when your rope will catch you. The answer is to have an adjustable tie-in point. First tie in with enough slack that you can move anywhere on your ledge. Next clip either a prusik or jumar into your harness via a 60cm sling (so you won’t end up lying on your jumar) and use a third to fine-tune the slack. Why not just clip in via a knot? Well, this method allows you to instantly take in the slack or move around the ledge without the possibility of taking a plunge (i.e. you’re always tight to the anchor).
Ropes act as a wick and so no matter how well sealed in you are in your bivvy bag, water will find its way in (along with spindrift if it’s snowing). The best option is to not have anything going into your bag at all. While inside your bag(s) take a very large piece of protection (smooth if possible like a Rockcentric) which will form your anchor point and clip this to your harness via a sling (you can adjust the length by tying knots in the sling if you are semi-hanging. Next push the anchor point into the fabric of your sleeping bag and bivvy bag (you will create a cold spot) and gather the material around it. Next lark’s foot a sling around the anchor point/fabric from outside the bag, thereby forming an anchor with both the anchor point and sling separated by the fabric. This technique forms a totally weatherproof anchor point.
This technique can also be used to create stormproof suspension points for bothy bags (when pitching on the sides of mountains and not in fields). If you are forced to lie down on a ledge that is too small (you feel you’ll roll-off), you can make a makeshift semi hammock (the fabric will probably rip if you really pull it hard), by lark’s footing the foot, knees and chest with this technique (without the inside anchor point and using gloves and stuff to form the captured object).
On any good bivvy you’ll have room to move around and so it’s a good time to sort out your gear. It’s vital not to drop anything so it’s important to clip all your rack and bivvy gear into something. You also need some way of moving around without fear of dropping off the ledge on to your rope. The answer is the handrail. This is strung between two anchors (one being your main anchor), with gear being clipped into this, as well as a safety sling/your rope end, allowing you to move around without fear of falling.
The best method is to tie a huge figure of eight with a bight big enough to reach across both anchors. Tie this bight to both anchors via secondary figures of eight, forming a double handrail. The upper rail should be tight and the bottom one looser. The top rail is your clip-in point and the bottom one your racking point, meaning you can move up and down the line without having to unclip to bypass anything (apart from your partner) and because it’s a loop if an anchor goes everything won’t slide off one end.
The difference between a good night and a bad night can often be down to minor and often overlooked details. Is your piss bottle nearby? Is your alarm clock somewhere where you can hear it? Do you need a drink, or your book or MP3 player in the middle of the night because you can’t sleep but they’re all out of reach? Carrying a lightweight stuff sack (complete with bombproof clip-in loop) and keeping it within reach at night is the way forward. Remember to have your camera ready as well, not only for the grim bivvy shots (the best shots a climber can get), but also the look on your partner’s face when the sun comes up in the morning.
The main thing to remember is that if at all possible never ever breathe directly into your bag. This will push the moisture within the bag far beyond its breathability - leading to a great deal of condensation. If forced to seal yourself in a bag try to leave some kind of air gap that you can breathe through. This is one reason why non-cowled bags often seem to be more breathable as you don’t have the option of breathing into the bag.
The one exception is Gore-Tex Exchange which is actually specifically designed for tents and bivvy bags. The fabric is more vapour permeable than the Nexus Gore (the old standard), which helps to increase the heat differential (and so pump out the moisture), because you can totally seal yourself in.
A cowl helps seal you in the bag without having to completely zip yourself in and is crucial for open bivvies where you need to cook (you can operate from under it while sitting). Without a cowl’s protection, spindrift and rain can get into your bag much more easily.
Mosquito net If you’re planning on summer camping out in Scotland or other bug-infested localities then this is crucial. If like me, you’d much prefer a tent for hot, bug-infested campsites then the mosquito net just adds unwanted weight, bulk and cost.
The more complex the closure system the more chance of leaks in rain, so you must balance ease of use with weatherproofness. Zips and flaps also add weight and cost. It is worth putting large pull loops on the inside of the bag to help you fight yourself out in the middle of the night.
If you’re tall make sure the bag is long enough to sit up inside. Non-breathable floors These reduce both the price and weight and have to be used in combination with full-length mats. If the bag isn’t cut right (or the mat cut down to fit the footprint of the bag) then the mat can pull down the top of the bag making the bag claustrophobic and tight. For awkward Alpine bivvies, a non-breathable can be a real problem as you may not be able to lay down and so having the mat inside just doesn’t work that well.