Anonymous asked: You have a fascinating and erudite tumblr blog -a rare thing in the Tumblr/Instagram world. I passed this cold Canadian evening reading your posts with the start of our 8 pm COVID curfew (second lockdown). In one post you show climbing equipment hanging in a closet, and another post shows a woman and a man bivouacked on a cliff face. Would I be right to think that is you? Even if not you, I cannot fathom having the courage to do climbing even with the great mountains here.
Thank you for your kind words.
The post you’re referring to is the girl reading in a portaledge - or deployable hanging tents - hanging precariously over a mountain cliff face.
Alas that is not me in the above post. But I have done exactly that on more than one occasion. Just looking at the image brought back very fond memories for me. I got roped into doing it each time with friends who were much more experienced climbers than I was.
To be frank, if anyone claims that their favourite hobby is vertical camping, you might want to reconsider the mental health of your friend as well as your weekend plans. As far as camping styles go, vertical camping does differ from other kinds of camping and backpacking insofar as it’s not really something you just do. Instead, it’s done because it’s needed by climbers working on lengthy routes, whether they’re setting them for the first time or just trying to finish the blasted thing. So cliff camping (as it’s often known) is not an outdoor sport in the same way mountaineering, hiking, or skiing would be. Cliff camping is certainly not a hobby that one does for kicks.
Cliff camping really hit the mainstream when people saw how Yosemite’s infamous Dawn Wall was conquered. This was when Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson completed their astonishing, never-before-achieved feat of free climbing the Dawn Wall of El Capitan in 2015. There’s a great Netflix documentary of their feat.
Their climb took a staggering 19 days. They spent the whole time on the wall, climbing when the weather was cool enough and sleeping on portaledges each night. Free climbers typically work in pairs, that way if one person falls, the other can hold them up. Caldwell and Jorgeson lives depended upon each other.
Portaledges - or deployable hanging tents - might seem like a thrill-seeking activity (and it can be), but the idea has actually been around since the 1950s. During this time, rock climbers began to stay overnight on the mountains they were scaling and started looking for convenient niches in the mountainside to make their bed.
The first portaledges were used in Yosemite National Park and were non-collapsible cots or hammocks. Climbers would sit on a Navy surplus canvas chair and rest their heads on their dangling rucksacks. Those chaps had balls of steel.
Today with modern safety equipment it’s much more safer to climb or so the labels say. I think the perhaps the scariest thing about vertical cliff camping is the gear. Just like with traditional rope climbing, the trust you place in your gear while vertical is extreme, and when you’re laying on a portaledge over 2000 feet in the air, you’re probably not going to want to have doubts in the ledge you’ve chosen for your multi-day climbing expedition. For the most part, the gear you bring on a multi-day climbing expedition and the gear you’d bring on a single pitch climb don’t differ all that much, with a few major exceptions:
• Portaledge • Extra food/water (especially energy bars) • Water…lots of water. • Waste containers • Toiletries • Whisky. Trust me, it will be your best friend.
Obviously, no one’s bringing a tooth brush with them on a day trip, but for a multi-day or multi-week climb, the little things make a big difference. Food and water for vertical camping are similar to backpacking provisions, with the extra caveat that there’s likely no way of getting to extra supplies during your climb.
That said, planning your meals and caloric intake is extremely important when climbing, and can be the difference in your climb being a successful experience or a miserable one. Typically, I was told when I attempted my first cliff camping, climbers should be replenishing their bodies with 50 to 100 grams of carbs every 60 to 75 minutes to prevent muscle breakdown. As far as food selection goes, multi-day climbers often opt for fairly traditional foods to replenish themselves (bars, chocolate, nuts, sandwiches) while avoiding excessively heavy foods.
Safer than it looks - honest.
The main piece of gear, the portaledge, is basically the vertical camping version of a tent, with the added caveat that it hands suspended in mid-air instead of being staked into the ground. Typically, portaledges are in the 10-13 pound range, and are secured by a single point of tension. Compared to the hammocks first used in the 1950s and ‘60s, portaledges have come a long way in terms of safety, comfort, and packability. Although portaledges are simple, in theory, to set up, setting them up while suspended in the air is a different matter entirely. It’s important to construct your portaledge at home before you start your climb, so that you know exactly what to do once you’re on the wall.
As far as safety goes, most portaledges are built with airline-grade metals and parts, and are constructed to operate efficiently from their center point of tension. While the safety rating on portaledges is extremely high, all climbers should remain harnessed to the primary anchor, even while resting in the portaledge.
Ever looked up a portaledge and thought of the time you fell off your bunk bed? Considering sleeping 2000 feet up the side of a wall is one thing, but the prospect of sleeping with someone else next to you, potentially a kicker or a sleep shifter is entirely another. That said, the safety geniuses in charge of constructing portaledges are the same ones who recommended that climbers using them still be harnessed up and attached to the wall via a primary anchor. Not going to say it wouldn’t be a dire situation if a portaledge failed, but having a backup system helps climbers (and anxious viewers) to sleep soundly knowing that it’s virtually impossible to sleep walk your way off of a portaledge.
“Look at me ma! I’m top of the world! “ - Not as scary as it looks
The first time I did vertical cliff camping I didn’t even know what I was signing up to because it was a surprise pulled on me. I was visiting an American friend who had served alongside one of my older brothers in Iraq (who served in the British army) - and through my older brother I had struck up a friendship with his Yank comrade in arms. He was by now a retired ex-special forces operator and I was in my final year at Cambridge and still undecided if was going pursue my PhD or postpone it by going to Sandhurst to become an army officer instead.
My American friend invited me out to Colorado when I was over for a family friend’s wedding in NYC. So afterwards I flew over to Colorado and we spent time with some of his friends - a mixed bunch of grizzled ex-veterans but funny, very down to earth, and easy going - with whom we went camping in Estes Park in Colorado.
I distinctly heard him say camping but he left out the ‘vertical cliff’ part. So I couldn’t back out and I felt a twinge of personal pride and honour of my future regiment at stake too if I had backed out. He had played me.
Estes Park is gorgeous and such a majestic place where it sits on the east side of the Rocky Mountains National Park. Americans are so spoiled with so much natural beauty. I looked at what we were going to climb and said we’ll never do that in one day. I should know as I was already a decent mountaineer from climbing in Norway and other places around Europe - I’ve climbed the Trollveggen in Norway - or the Troll Wall in Norway - which is a 3,600-foot wall, the most famous one in Norway and is also the tallest vertical rock in Europe and the continent’s longest climbing route, and great place for climbers and base jumpers.
Anyway, they all laughed when they unfurled the portaledge packs and threw at me what looked like a tube waste container for shit and pee. That’s when I knew we were going to do some vertical cliff climbing. Already I could feel the pee running down the inside of my thighs. But chin up and best foot forward as they say. Oh and never look down.
Gosh! What an adrenaline rush it was!
The mountaineering part is the easy part and I more than held my own as its in my half-Norwegian blood. So screw them, I thought. They thought I had ice in my veins but I put it down to my half Anglo-Scots blood which has good Scotch whisky running through my veins. I had my trusty small weather beaten whisky flask by my side (a reliable Dalmore 12 year single malt whisky) to fight my nerves.
The whole climb was a fun climb and lots of ribbing along the way. We worked in pairs as one should. Since it was my first time I didn’t help that much with the unfurling and rigging of the portaledge I was sharing with my Yank friend. But I watched with a keen eye as to how it was done so I could at least do my part too.
It wasn’t as complicated as I had imagined. The key is having the strong rigging secured firmly above for a safe unfurling of the portaledge. You won’t roll off because you can secure yourself with a harness strap once you’re on the portaledge. It’s perfectly possible to sleep soundly as a baby knowing it’s hard to roll off because you are secured tight.
Helping hand please! No i in team work.
Speaking personally the hardest part of vertical cliff climbing is controlling your biological processes thousands of feet in the air on the side of a flat faced mountain.
Obviously the big question is what do you do when you have to poop or pee?
It’s really a matter of going back to general principles for going to the bathroom if you were camping or backpacking in the wild. You use what works that you can also carry with you. Most vertical campers use a wag bag or a paper bag that they then store in an airtight or otherwise sealed container. Some climbers use five gallon buckets, some use waterproof, sealed gear bags. Most use a “poop tube,” or basically a piece of PVC pipe with lids on both ends. It tends to be the easiest to hang on your gear bag, and the safest solution when it comes to lugging it along with you. At the end of the day, use what works for you. Our party had a mix of things from empty water bottles to sealed container pipes.
Contrary to popular belief climbers try not to pee against the wall. That’s just being nasty to nature. If you pee on the mountain you tempting fate by encouraging the mountain to find a way to piss on you back twice over. General guidelines for peeing while vertical camping depend on how high you are and how many climbing parties are below you. Baseline advice for both males and females, though, suggests that vertical campers either pee out from the portaledge and wall as far as possible (so that the pee turns mostly into vapour before it hits the ground). Or use a bottle in the middle of the night.
I remember my friend leaning on his side with his back to me. He was peeing from his side out from the portaledge and his pee. It was quite a feat of acrobatics and I could tell he was feeling smug about it. Being a girl I didn’t have the luxury, so I held it in as long as I could. In the dead of night I tried to stand up and knowing I was hooked up by a secure rigging I balanced myself on the spine edge of our shared portaledge for two. Guys have it easy they can pee and direct it anywhere with laser guided precision. We women, not so much. It’s really tough balancing the balls of your feet on the edge of your portaledge looking down and trying to open your legs wide enough to try and get some respectable distance for your pee to go over the edge and into air and not splash back onto your portaledge. And in the dark too. I did manage a trickle and then quit while I was ahead.
I then got up again to pee but this time sat up and legs over the edge and pulled my stretch bottoms down. I finished what I started and let the rest trickle into the empty water bottle. Again, in the dark.
Somewhere in the middle of the night I reached out for my water bottle for a drink but I was half awake and I couldn’t find it so I started to fumble around looking for my whisky flask that I put by my side thinking a tipple would be better. I unconsciously picked something and took a sip. I remember thinking this Balvenie double wood 12 year old single malt whisky tastes a little on the tepid side. It was actually my pee. I had mistakenly picked up the small water bottle that had contained my pee instead. I let out a silent scream.
I groped around and did find the real water bottle and chugged down half a pint before I allowed myself to breathe again. I found the whisky flask and took a swig and used The Balvenie as mouthwash.
Makes for pretty good mouthwash does that wee tipple.
Despite that wee incident I had a relatively peaceful sleep because I was exhausted from the day’s climb. Looking back all I can remember of the climb was how wonderful the experience was. The feeling of being almost secluded high up on a wall was very peaceful. And of course the view of the night sky and surrounding scenery was just simply spectacular.
‘You got this, girl!’ - practice makes perfect.
Since then I have had other experiences of vertical cliff camping with other friends. I’m all for an adrenaline rush but I wouldn’t go out of my way to go vertical cliff climbing. Having said that with the cajoling of others I’ve done it on Chamonix Mont Blanc in France and an adventure mountain resort, Waldseilgarten, a Bavarian mountain summit in Pfronten, Germany.
I could do with a dram of whisky right about now...
But one of the most mind blowing experiences I’ve had of vertical cliff camping was with a small group of army friends with whom I served with in Afghanistan. We went cliff camping in Pembrokeshire in Wales. We were climbing with the Atlantic Ocean lashing its waves below us in cold chilly winds. We even spotted some seals and dolphins from our perch. It was a great place to read a book too and have a dram of whisky to keep warm.
A wee bit of heaven indeed.
Thanks for your question.
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I always seem to be longing for the shortest most fleeting seasons, especially in Colorado. Spring and fall come and go so fast at this elevation that makes the time feel all the more special. It just makes me want to shoot more film so I can hold on to a piece of that temporal beauty. What's your favorite season?