I know some wall climbers—specializing in speed ascents—who brag how they’ve never bivied on a wall. To me, this means missing out on the best part of big-wall climbing. There is nothing like watching the sunset while perched above the world like a kid in a treehouse. But bivys can also turn bad if you’re unprepared.
If you’re climbing without a portaledge, carefully plan where you will bivy each night; be realistic about how many pitches you can climb in a day, and imagine worst-case scenarios. Depending on your skill level, it’s entirely possible that you’ll only do three to four pitches per day. Also keep in mind other parties on your route, and have a plan B in case you arrive at a cramped bivy spot that is already occupied.
When you arrive at your ledge, rig it for safe living by fixing your rope from one side to the other, clove hitching it into as many pieces as you can. Use this horizontal fixed line to help organize your gear, and to serve as a zip line that you can traverse by clipping your daisy chains onto it, via ferrata style. Once the line is rigged, both climbers can untie from the rope and use their daisies, with locking biners, as their attachment points.
Yes, you will be sleeping in your harness. If the ledge is big, you can remove your leg loops from your harness and just use the waist belt for your nighttime attachment, facilitating a better night’s sleep as well as the inevitable calls of nature.
In a storm, expect to get wet. Sleeping bags and your puffy jacket must be synthetic.
Portaledge Pros and Cons
Peanut Ledge of El Cap's Zodiac
by Martin Fickweiler
Most of the classic “first” big walls have natural rock ledges that allow them to be climbed without a portaledge in relative comfort. But these routes are crowded, and your ledge of choice may already be occupied. A portaledge gives you the option to bivy wherever you happen to end up at night, as it can be hung anywhere there is a solid anchor.
A portaledge also gives you a huge advantage in storms. Tarps and bivy sacks, regardless of quality, don’t provide nearly the protection of a portaledge with a well-fitting fly. Portaledges can literally mean the difference between life and death in a serious rain or snow storm.
The downsides of portaledges, of course, are cost and weight. Set-up and hauling can also be hassles.
Call of Nature
On a big-wall climb you’re completely self-contained—you bring your own food and water, and you pack out your waste. All of it. Human waste can make a disgusting mess out of popular routes, so keep the nasty off the rock. Urinate into the air, away from ledges, cracks, and climbers, to disperse your golden shower into tiny droplets. Never urinate in cracks behind ledges. Feces must be hauled up and carried back down, and for this you need a durable “poop tube.” The old standard is made from 4-inch PVC pipe; a dedicated dry bag is another option. There is plenty of information online—just Google “climbing poop tube.” Do your business in single-use toilet kits such as Wag Bags that can be stuffed into the poop tube. These are a bit too bulky for long walls, but they’re perfect for a night or two out.
When things go south, think “self reliance and self rescue.” Even in Yosemite, a rescue might not be possible in bad conditions, so NEVER count on it. Imagine a bad fall resulting in injury, or a gnarly, unexpected storm. How will you survive? How will you get down?
Going up on a wall without at least a Wilderness First Responder level of training is asking for trouble. If a serious injury occurs on the wall, you will be the first responder. At the very least, you should have a full first aid kit with alcohol swabs, assorted bandages, athletic tape, painkillers, latex gloves, and sticky gauze.
Carry heavy-duty rain gear for your top and bottom, in addition to warm-when-wet mid and base layers. If you are caught on a wall in a sustained storm, you will get wet, so your clothing must keep you alive and functioning in those conditions.
Non-functioning hands are a common cause of serious trouble during storm epics; bring a pair of mixed climbing–type gloves for rappelling in the rain. The hood of your rain shell must fit over your helmet. Sleeping bags should be synthetic.
The toughest decision in a storm will be deciding if you should bail or hang tight. A bad Yosemite storm can easily last three to five days, in which case waiting it out may not be an option. A weather forecast, if you can get one, will be essential in making the right decision. If you do decide to bail, bring all your gear and bivy stuff with you. If anything happens, and you don’t make it all the way down, the clothing and survival gear in the bag could save your life.
When bailing from a wall, one of the biggest challenges is your haul bag. Generally, the first person will descend with a light rack to the next anchor, then the second can either rappel with the pig or lower it down. Both options are difficult with a heavy bag, so practice each when training for your first wall. To rap with the bag, it’s best to put it on rappel, then attach yourself to the system. Make sure you have a good backup!
In Yosemite and Zion, where the walls are near the road, you may be able to yell loud enough to call for a rescue, but don’t count on it. A cell phone or radio of some sort is now considered standard gear. In Yosemite or Zion, a call to 911 will get the word to the rescue team. If you have a contact on the ground—always a good idea—a family-band radio often gets better reception.
Take care of your hands : Fingertip splits are common, so clean up with baby wipes each night, then apply hand lotion. Use antibiotic cream and bandages to treat nicks and cuts.
Don’t sleep in: Set your alarm and force yourself to get a move on in the morning. An early start is the best guarantee of making your next bivy before darkness.
Tune in: A small transistor radio can be nice for music, NPR, or weather forecasts.
Stay dry: If you are bivying without a portaledge and rain fly, make sure you have bivy sacks, plus a tarp or tent fly, even if the forecast calls for clear weather.
Tidy up: Before going to bed, coil or stack ropes, organize the rack, and stuff food and other items back into the haul bag.
Make a pillow: Use a stuff sack and puffy jacket, but make sure it’s clipped in before you bed down. I often put a cotton shirt around the stuff sack so my face isn’t pressed against nylon.
Tie it down: Make absolutely sure everything is attached well. Foam pads, especially, love to take flight from ledges, so rig yours with a clip-in loop.
Prep for trouble: Assume all hell is going to break loose at 3 a.m. Have your headlamp, rain gear, and other survival items within easy reach.
Use your rope: Fill ledge nooks and crannies to make your sleeping platform more comfortable.
South Face of Washington Column (V 5.8 C1), Yosemite National Park, California. Ten pitches with an excellent bivy ledge atop pitch three. Lots of free climbing. Downside: usually crowded.
West Face of Leaning Tower (V 5.7 C2), Yosemite. Eleven pitches. Mostly aid climbing, this technically easy wall is STEEP!
Prodigal Sun (V 5.8 C2), Angel’s Landing, Zion National Park, Utah. This is one of Zion’s easiest big walls, but don’t show up here without some experience on sandstone! Nine pitches, mostly aid, and somewhat shady.
Moonlight Buttress (V 5.8 C1), Zion. A gorgeous 10-pitch line that follows a single crack system almost bottom to top up a proud buttress. Goes free at 5.12+. Check out those finger cracks!
Glass Menagerie (IV 5.8 C2), Looking Glass, North Carolina. There are a few worthy little big-wall climbs in the Southeast; this one might be the most beginner-friendly. Seven very steep pitches. Goes free at 5.13a.
VMC Direct Direct (IV 5.9 C2), Cannon Cliff, New Hampshire. The nine-pitch route is usually done free in a day at 5.10+, but it’s big enough to teach you a lot about big walls. It’s also a bit alpine. Expect tough hauling and a lot more effort than a light-and-fast free ascent.