Big Wall Climbing: The Realities of Vertical Camping

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When Kevin Jorgeson and Tommy Caldwell’s Dawn Wall climb thrust them into the world media spotlight, millions of non-climbers tried to wrap their heads around the idea of climbing—and living on—a big wall. What if they drop something? How do they sleep on those little platforms? Where do they poop?

Several realities and truths about sleeping on a shelf in the sky make it very different from most people’s daily lives. For instance, if you drop a piece of toast in your kitchen, that’s too bad (especially if it lands butter-side down), but you can pick it up, clean up the mess, and make a new piece of toast. If you accidentally drop your cellphone off a portaledge hundreds of feet off the ground (as Tommy Caldwell did during the Dawn Wall climb), it’s gone. And hopefully it doesn’t hit anyone on its way down. This goes for everything: your toothbrush, pillow, sleeping bag, spoon, water bottle and your bottle of sunscreen. So you’re careful, or you pay the consequences.

Of course, to be fair, in the event of a dropped toothbrush during the Dawn Wall climb, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson could probably make a phone call and get a new toothbrush delivered by someone willing to jug the fixed lines up to their camp. But 99.9 percent of big-wall climbing parties do not have the same luxury.

If you hang out on the shuttle buses in Zion National Park or in the meadow below El Capitan, you’ll probably hear someone say something along the lines of: “I would be terrified to sleep on that little nylon ledge up there.” If you’ve never climbed, yes, it would be terrifying. If you passed out at a bar and woke up in the morning on a portaledge at the top of the 10th pitch of an El Cap route, you would imagine you were in some sort of nightmare. But, as a bus driver in Zion once said over the intercom, the climbers up there often say they sleep better on portaledges a couple hundred feet up a wall than they do at home.

After you’ve spent the better part of your day climbing up that wall and clipped into hanging belays, you’re pretty used to the exposure. Sitting on a portaledge at the end of the day is a comfort. Setting the ledge up can be a little painful, and if you have a fly set up over the ledge, managing condensation can be tedious, but the sleeping part is fairly satisfying. You’re tied into a rope (you sleep in your harness), so you can’t fall off the wall unless you somehow slip out of your harness in your sleep. Theoretically, it’s safer than sleeping in a top bunk, where you’re unprotected if you roll out of bed and fall to the floor.

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As far as the bathroom situation goes, you won’t find a flush toilet, or even a place to hide, for the most part. The reality is, at some point during your climb, you’re going to be very close to your climbing partner while he or she poops. Where do you poop? Thankfully, in bags, and not out into space, where your flying excrement might hit other climbers on its way to the ground, hundreds or thousands of feet below. You poop into a bag, just like you do on Mount Rainier, and then you put the sealed bag into a “poop tube,” or PVC pipe with caps on both ends, which you haul up the climb with you. When you pee, you try to aim far out into space (women climbers can use a special pee funnel, available on REI.com), where it turns into vapor. Never pee into a crack in the rock, where it will fester and gross out future parties who might need to use the crack to climb the route.

On a wall, especially in Yosemite and Zion, you might feel like a bit of a rock star, especially since you’ll appear in the vacation photos of hundreds of park visitors who can watch the faraway ant-like bodies of you and your partner as you progress up your climb with glacial speed. When it’s time to use the bathroom, you’ll have the opposite feeling, realizing you might be in someone’s binocular lenses as you lean out over your portaledge to delicately fill a poop bag.

We do strange things in the outdoors sometimes: digging a hole to bury our waste, tunneling through snow to make a cave to sleep in, taping our hands so we can shove them into sandstone cracks. Sleeping on a portaledge is just another one of these things—although much more visible, and maybe a bit more elevated.

Photography by Matt Van Biene - @mattvanbiene.

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