I don’t know if I’ve ever slept well before or during a climb. In fact, if I made a Top 25 Things I Like About Climbing list, “Getting a good night’s sleep” probably wouldn’t even appear on it. Even when I’m not anxious about climbing, I’ve managed to put myself in pretty uncomfortable places.
I’ve snuggled with two other guys on a portaledge built for two a few hundred feet up a wall in Zion Canyon (not recommended), sweated out a sleepless night under the shadow of Devils Tower worrying about my maiden voyage up it the next morning (we made it up just fine), been smacked around by 70 mph winds in a tent at Camp Muir on Mount Rainier (we bailed), and have had dozens of other nights in the backcountry that reminded me how great my bed at home is (with two pillows!). But of all those uncomfortable places, I hold one place up as the most representative of my dirtbag climbing career: the Glacier Gorge bivies in Rocky Mountain National Park.
There are two ways to climb most of the better-known alpine routes in Glacier Gorge: Get up mega-early in the morning and do most of the approach hike in the dark so you can climb the route and be down before afternoon thunderstorms appear; or, walk in the day before and sleep near the base of the route. No tents are allowed in the Glacier Gorge bivy sites—you find an overhanging boulder, roll your sleeping bag out underneath it, and get “comfortable.”
On my first trip into the back of Glacier Gorge, we walked the six-mile approach in the rain, sorted out our climbing gear for the next day’s climb of the North Buttress of Pagoda Mountain, and crawled under a boulder for the night. I pulled off my wet socks to dry them inside my sleeping bag, made a pillow out of my extra layers and a stuff sack, zipped up my bag and waited to fall asleep. And, as always happens, I didn’t. I listened to hurricane-force gusts rip across The Keyboard of the Winds—the sawtooth ridge a thousand feet above the gorge—and comforted myself with the fact that the same wind wasn’t tearing at us. Chris slept soundly as I rolled from my side to my back, then the other side, then to my back, every few minutes.
Around 3am I decided to try to put on my now-dry socks, but without unzipping my sleeping bag (so I wouldn’t wake up Chris). With the limited ability to bend my limbs inside my bag, I was able to flip one of my socks over the toes of my right foot just before both groin muscles and both arch muscles in my feet seized up in horrible cramps. I writhed around for a few seconds, trying to not make any noise, mentally listing the reasons for the cramps: not enough water, high altitude, the dozens of wrong choices in life that had led me to sleeping under a boulder with my friend. The cramps subsided, I slipped my socks on, and I fell asleep for two and a half hours before our alarm went off.
Before we packed up our stuff to start the climb, I took a photo of our bivy: two sleeping bags on top of two sleeping pads, under a huge rock. Minimalist, not interfering with the mountain environment, a little chilly, a little exposed, not quite comfortable, but not quite unwelcome—about as much at home as a climber can ever feel in the mountains, I think.
Pro Tip: Cut down to the (for real) bare essentials to save weight.
Remember, you’re carrying a rope, rack, harness and shoes in addition to your normal camping gear, so make some space in your pack by being ruthless about what you bring. Take a good, hard look at your gear and think about what you can absolutely live without. Do you and your partner each need a coffee mug on an overnight trip, during which you’ll only make coffee once? Can you share a spoon? Do you really need a tent, or can you get away with just a tarp?
Brendan’s Favorite Camping Gear
- Outdoor Research Alpine Bivy
- Big Agnes Encampment 15 Sleeping Bag
- Therm-a-Rest ProLite Plus Sleeping Pad
- Jetboil Zip Cooking System
- Starbucks Via Ready Brew Instant Coffee
- GOOD TO-GO Herbed Mushroom Risotto
- GSI Outdoors Pouch Spoon
For more basecamp to climb information, visit REI.com.