Blake Herrington is an accomplished rock climber, alpinist and contributor to Alpinist, Climbing, and Rock & Ice magazines, among others. He’s established over two dozen new alpine climbs – without bolts – throughout Patagonia, British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest. When not climbing near his home in Leavenworth, Washington, Herrigton is jumping borders and hopping planes in search of new rock climbs and alpine routes.
Anyone with access to a gym and a basic understanding of rope work can learn to climb and quickly progress. The ever-rising standards of freeclimbing make that fairly obvious. But getting back down off a cliff, mountain,or attempted ski line is a skill not so easily acquired. As a rational climber I like to consider the odds, knowing when to push things, when to retreat, when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em.
On a recent trip to the Coast Mountains of British Columbia my partner and I “pushed” things on our ascent, completing the first free ascent of a route despite the late hour, incoming weather and unknown descent. So when our final pitch to the summit brought us into dense clouds and darkness, it was time to (temporarily) lay down our hands and cash in our chips – settling in for the dreaded “open bivy”.
It was not my first or coldest night spent huddling for shelter on the side of the mountain, and it likely won’t be my last. Here are a few things I’ve learned to make these nearly inevitable nights safer and easier to bear.
1. Embrace Spooning
Pride and privacy go out the window on a long route. You’re probably already sharing clothes, food, tiny belay stances, sporks, and personal insecurities with a partner, so get over yourself and huddle close. Maximizing body contact will keep you both warmer. Frantically rubbing the other persons legs and arms actually keeps you warm as well.
2. Delay, Delay, Delay
The longer you can do other active things before you settle in for the night, the longer you will stay warm. Move rocks, build yourself a “nest” with the ropes, chop out snow, re-organize the rack, have a pushup contest, move more rocks, and generally stay moving while improving your nocturnal environment.
3. Use Everything You Have
We had only a small amount of water but we supplemented this with wet, slushy snow chopped from the bottom of a snow patch and mixed into our dromedary bag. My partner curled up with feet and ankles inside our backpack. All our ropes, slings, and cords were beneath us, insulating us from the ground. I used the tape from my hand-jammie glove to tape my pant legs snug against my ankles to prevent drafts. We removed the insoles from our shoes to use as padding and warm them against our body, but on top of the ropes. We rested our heads on our rock shoes to keep them warmer. Items like the foil pouches of freeze-dried meals or a backpack frame can be useful wind blocks. Extra socks make great mittens. A chalk bag is a good pillow.
4. Use It or Lose It
In general, a forced bivy will be a long, slow, losing battle against preserving body heat. You’ll have a hard time getting even a minute of sleep if you are cold to the point of shivering. Force yourself to do a few minutes of vigorous sit-ups, push-ups, or whatever exercises you can manage in your cramped environment, and then immediately try to settle into the most comfortable position you can so you have a chance of catching a little shut-eye before your body loses all the heat it has generated.