If you’ve never being forced to perch like a gargoyle all night, cold and miserable, with a sharp granite flake sticking in your bum, then you can’t call yourself an alpinist.
Sleepless nights and hopeless bivy angst are what makes alpinism what it is, and so if you climb the sort of routes that have ‘lar de dar’ ledges big enough to lay out on then you’re simply camping, and if you climb fast enough to avoid a night under the stars then you’re just a day-tripper. The greats of alpinism didn’t get great sleeping in warm beds, no their metal was formed in the twilight world of the sleepless bivy.
A savvy alpinist will always try and sniff out the best bed for their buck, but very often, when on the steepest routes, these places to spent the night get smaller and smaller. Dreams of laying down can quickly become dreams of simply being able to sit, or even stand and sleep.
Most climbers will put up with a poor sitting bivy for a night, and except the fact that they won’t really sleep. When one bivy turns to two, a sore ass soon becomes the mother of invention, seeing most climbers spending far more time excavating a better perch, making use of slings, or a well-placed rucksack in order to get some comfort. This word comfort is relative of course, with a lack of sleep the previous night allowing for exhaustion to iron out any bumps in the comfort department.
A good example of something only an exhausted alpinist would find comfort in is the technique is clipping your helmet (via a loop of 2mm cord) to a sling attached above your perch. This allows the head to have some support and hold you upright. The downside is that there is the risk you may strangle yourself in the night, or forget you’re attached and awake to find your head magically magnetized to the mountain. Yet when things are bleak, this tiny luxury will feel as welcome as a king-sized leisure bed.
The big problem with finding a home for the night is that on steep climbs darkness generally finds you far from a decent place to kip, more often than not giving you a perch that doubles in size when you lift up one foot to check it is as small as you thought. Tiredness often makes such situations far more desperate, and the feeling of having no way to sleep, yet being too tired to carry on, is very akin to how it feels being homeless (yes I have been homeless before you ask). The ledgless bivy is always the worst, and no matter how improvisational you are, things are always pretty desperate.
Climbing lore is full of tales of bivy hell, and by far my favourite is the team on the North Face of the Droites (in the days when people had to bivy) who finding only a ledge big enough for one, were forced to bivy by taking turns sitting on each other’s knees. As for myself, I can beat even that, having once spent the night with someone sitting on my head.
The term sleep should of course only be used loosely and is best described as being like getting home from a full nights clubbing, and falling into bed knackered, dehydrated and dirty, knowing you only have 2 hours before you have to get up for work. The type of ‘sleep’ you have is the kind of ‘god I need to get to sleep’ variety, where that’s the last thing that’s going to happen. Then about 10 minutes before your alarm goes off you fall into the deepest, darkest sleep you’ve ever known, making waking as traumatic as birth. This limbo world of non-sleep is a strange drugged up world where time and space mean nothing but often punctuated by the metronome snoring of your partner - who would invariably complain that they too haven’t slept a bit either.
Speaking of birth it’s well worth pointing out that the daddy’s of bivy are dads (and mums), who have build up the same kind of sleep deprivation skills only found in those who’ve passed military escape and evasion training. These individuals can sleep anywhere, anytime, their battery’s seemingly lightning fast to charge. The reason for this is obvious, as even though they have a granite flake pushing itself up through their anorexic karrimat into their bottom, and waves of cold moving into their paper-thin sleeping bag, they know that at least the only person who’ll they’ll hear crying is their climbing partner and they can finally get a good nights sleep.