Emergency biv strategies and gear
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).
With many types of climbing, there is an inherent risk of benightment, and most climbers will know that horrible feeling as the sun dips below the horizon and all of a sudden the top seems twice as far away and the line between you and it a hundred times more complex.
Having the right gear can make a huge difference to both the chance of benightment and benightment itself and this is the focus of this article.
Obviously, the gear you take on a climb should be dictated by the risk involved in bivouacking, plus your experience, fitness and conditions. A very fit and well-acclimatised climber tackling a route like the Super Couloir on the Tacul in good condition may climb with the same gear they would on a roadside crag, knowing they can easily reach the top, or rap down in a day. If the same climb is attempted by a less acclimatised team, in poor conditions, and with the outlook that they don’t necessarily want to rap off if things don’t go to plan (rapping at pitch 20 of a 23 pitch route is pretty frustrating), might take small bivy insurance so that if need be they can spend the night out.
The same goes for big rock climbs. Some people can climb in just a thermal top and shorts and have the same outlook as the first climber, but another team may take a few items that could swing the balance in their favour when the night appears earlier than expected!
Bivy insurance is not necessarily about actually bivvying, rather it is the knowledge that a fairly comfortable (or survivable) bivy is possible, meaning you keep moving until it’s needed, rather than running away as soon as the sun draws towards the horizon. Some climbers will be able to push on through the night in a relaxed and un-panicked manner, simply because they know that they can cope if need be, while others might have a quick sleep in the early hours to recharge their batteries.
On the subject of climbing catnaps, it’s impotent that if you choose to have a short period of sleep to try and keep it between 15 and 50 minutes, as this will provide a good level of short term recovery. Sleeping 2 hours may well prove more depilating, as the brain will slip into a deeper sleep that once awakened early will make you feel pretty rotten (15 minutes every 4 hours is the ideal).
Any climber venturing onto a route that has even the slightest chance of benightment must have at least minimum bivy insurance; namely a fully functioning (I.e. meaning fresh batteries) head torch. Without this, your options are extremely limited and may result in either being stuck (unable to even rap back down, or even climb to the same stance), or worse still result in dangerous fumbled descent, where everything will have to be carried out blindly - not good if the route is long and complicated and probably impossible unless anchors are already fixed.
This will probably in the form of a small LED head torch, which can be easily carried (on the wrist, around the neck, clipped to the back of your harness). There are several small emergency torches on the market but by far the best is the new Petzl E-lite (26g), which blows Black Diamonds Ion out of the water, making it look like a toy. I’ll be writing a full review of this amazing torch soon.
This small and lightweight piece of protection will really save your bacon if you’re forced to spend the night out in the open, and gram for gram is far superior to foil blankets and survival bags. If you’ve never used one of these bags then get one and try it out in bad conditions, I guarantee you’ll be amazed what a difference it will make. Using such a bag it’s possible for a well-dressed pair to be comfortable, even sleep, in even very cold conditions (I know of one pair who used one for a winter bivy sans sleeping bags on the Super Couloir in winter). The main problem is condensation, and so many users turn the bag inside out several times in the night. These bags are small and compact enough to be stowed in a bum bag, or hydration sack, and are really featherweight. Bright colours are also recommended so you can use them for location in an emergency (plus it will cheer you up when inside).
Having something to sit on and so insulate you from the ground is highly recommended for your comfort. If you’re climbing with a rucksack then this is simple as you can use its inbuilt padding. Two-person teams with one sack should make sure it has two layers of foam that can be split (back padding and internal removable mat).
For climbers who are climbing without a rucksack carrying a hydration pack with a piece of thin folded foam inside (can be down to 3mm), or even bubble wrap is the only option.
If you don’t have anything, then use your rope to sit on (this of course should be used with a mat as well).
Why is this important? Well if you fail to return from your climb and people get worried about you, you may end up getting rescued when you’re fine (this has happened to at least two friends of mine). Also if you’re worried about other people worrying about you then you’re more likely to turn around and head down.
Having a mobile phone can take a lot of the worry out of things for all concerned!
Always carry a little food just in case, as this will help to maintain energy levels and allow you to keep moving.
It’s vital that you feel that you have enough clothes to climb on into the dark, and sleep in semi comfortably if necessary. A climber dressed in a cotton T-shirt will soon feel very cold even on even the warmest nights. Full a fuller discussion of this topic read my article on multi-pitch clothing.
On any cold climb you should carry a compact bivy cook set, comprising of a micro gas stove, canister, pan + lid, lighter and compact food (soup, tea, smash etc). Having this will make a huge difference to morale if you’re caught out, and will also greatly increase the warmth of a bothy bag. I will cover this subject in more depth next month.
Some winter climbers venturing into the high mountains may want the extra mental and physical comfort of a sleeping bag, but the old adage about climbers who carry bivy gear will end up using it applies here, meaning super lightweight bags are the way forward. Bags light PHD’s minimus, Rab Top bag or Western Mountaineering HighLite, for example, are perfect for this kind of thing, although they will also need protecting from dampness in your bothy bag, using bags like Rab’s survival zone bivy or Black Diamond’s Winter Bivy, meaning heavier synthetic options from companies like Marmot, The North Face or Exped may be better.
Carrying these items on a long route should not slow you down, but they may help you keep moving when time is pushed. For a fuller look at bivvy techniques read my article How to avoid the big sleep.