In 1960 Chuck Pratt and Yvon Chouinard climbed a new route on Middle Cathedral, in Yosemite, and were forced by darkness
to bivouac on a ledge.
“I had shorts and a T-shirt on,” Chouinard recalls. “He had long pants and a sweatshirt. We were both freezing. In the middle of the night Pratt says,
‘Chouinard, I know this is going to disgust you, but if we don’t embrace we’re going to die.’”
I originally heard a coconut-telephone version of that story from my friend Tom, who had a thematic variation of his own: of the time he persuaded a woman
he liked to come climbing. The descent from their route was complex, he got lost, and they had to hunker down in the dark, both in shorts and T’s.
She was so pissed and disgusted, he told me, that hugging for warmth was “out of the question.”
Duane Raleigh recently wrote in this space an essay entitled “Six Things Every Climber Should Do,” and one item I had not experienced, thank god, was benightment. Oh, I’ve stumbled down around
midnight, by headlamp—or, much worse, without one—countless times. I got in at least that late from the aptly named Midnight Rock in Leavenworth,
Washington—and a week later, obviously a slow learner, did it again. But I have never been stuck out all night. Yet.
There are a million stories, though, by our brethren who have bivied unintentionally. Those are, for better or worse, times you really remember over the
years and decades.
As Chouinard once put it: “It’s not an adventure
until something goes wrong.”
Herewith, some tales—of cold and coping, hunger and the torturous pace of nights—from the bivy crypt. These are (mostly) the stories in which
we know, as Michael Ferrara of Aspen Mountain Rescue reflected one winter night after giving his sleeping bag to an injured skier, “I wouldn’t die
but it was going to suck to be me.”
Barry Blanchard’s memoir The Calling (Patagonia Books) describes how he
and his friend Kevin “Wally” Doyle, both of Calgary, got benighted between bivy spots on the steep Salathé Wall of El Capitan. Barry emptied
their haulbag and squatted in it, the wall beside him so overhung that only one shoulder touched. Wally sat in his butt bag, kneepads against the face.
They were so tired they would fall asleep, but then their heads would drop, waking them.
Sometime in the night Barry announced, “I’m going to anchor my head to the wall.”
From Wally: “That’s a great idea.”
Hence they girth-hitched slings around their foreheads, and clipped themselves in.
Similarly, Russell Hooper and Tony Wilson, both from Oklahoma, were caught out on El Cap one night, and duct-taped their heads to the wall.
This next one is about venue—or, rather, location:
• Mike Pennings of Colorado and Jim Surette of New Hampshire, caught out by rain on Stratosfear (VI 5.11+ X) in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison,
spent the night in a chimney Surette calls “less wide than our shoulders.” Surette smeared his toes on the wall to keep from slipping down, and the
two “wedged some boulders to shim ourselves in there.”
On a surprise at the top:
• Sibylle Hechtel of Silverthorne, Colorado, once part of the first women’s team to climb El Cap, and Tom Dunwiddie had intended to climb the East Face of Mount Whitney, California, when they were tempted by another line, a great-looking crack and chimney system. Eventually overtaken by darkness,
they sat on a ledge and tried to nap, but got too cold. When the moon rose, they climbed on.
She recalls, “Sometime in the middle of the night, we crested the summit to find a large group of hippies sitting on the summit waiting for the sunrise.
They weren’t sure if we were real or a hallucination.”
On hunger and how sound travels:
• A climber from the Idaho Outdoors Forum appears on network54.com, writing about being stuck on
top of the 15-pitch 5.9 Royal Arches in Yosemite after completing the last pitch in the dark. The poster mainly remembers his or her stomach
growling, and this: “On this crystal clear, absolutely still night we could clearly hear diners' conversations 1000 feet below as they left the deluxe
Ahwahnee lodge and discussed their gourmet dinners.”
Which was worse, the hunger or cold?
• Tracy Martin of Asheville, North Carolina, and Dave Pegg of New Castle, Colorado, were experienced trad climbers when they embarked on the Diamond Face
of Long’s Peak, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, and hit trouble on their descent.
“The rope got stuck on the first rappel,” she says. “That bitch-ass piece of plastic on the end of the rope got caught between the rock and a moss pad.
“I'd like to give a big shout out to the climbers that left the can of fruit cocktail on Broadway”—where the two sat on their rope. “That was the
best dinner I ever had.” Luckily, they’d packed a knife and could open the can.
In the night, she says, she would shiver herself to sleep and then shiver awake. “It was a cold miserable night, but the sunrise was amazing.” Overall,
the cold was worse than the hunger: “Might have been a tie with hunger without the fruit cocktail.”
On an ounce of preparation:
• Long ago Russ Clune of New Paltz, New York, climbed the 10-pitch Astroman (IV 5.11c) in Yosemite with the British climber Pete Thexton. Before
they left in the morning, Pete saw Russ slip a small pack of matches into his pocket, and scoffed, “What’re you bringing those for?”
“Never you mind,” Russ said—and they were glad to have them.
On the slow passage of time:
• Todd Gordon of Joshua Tree, California, once read in the book Fifty Classic Climbs of North America that
experienced sandstone climbers could handily do the Finger of Fate route on the Titan, Fisher Towers, in a day.
“Hey, experienced sandstone climbers, that’s us!”
You know what’s coming. He and two friends spent that cold November night, in the wind, in thin cotton clothes that engendered “varsity suffering.”
“I curl up in the fetal position,” his blog account reads, “and after many hours of violent teeth chattering, I’m convinced that I’ve cracked my teeth.”
No one slept. “The nighttime conversation consisted of various grumblings, outbursts of profanity and different estimations of what hour we thought
• Three brothers from California once got stuck on a runout face climb on Tahquitz, near Idyllwild, and as time crawled by would ask each other, “How much
would you pay for a rescue now?”
As the youngest brother, who spent the night on his lead in a depression on a 5.9 face, later told friends, “Each hour it was hundreds of dollars more.”
• From Gary Clark, describing a forced bivy on Mount Fairweather, Alaska, as posted on lamountaineers.org:
“Dave's toes [are] beginning finally to communicate with his brain as they warm against my stomach, but turning white all the same. I think of Rebuffat.
I think of Wickwire on K2, Unsoeld and Hornbein on Everest. I think of the sleeping pads and goose down sleeping bags and stoves and food down at the
tent. There is plenty of time to think.”
• John Middendorf, in a tale of suffering—on the South Face of Half Dome, in typhoon winds and a violent blizzard—that is too awful to be described
in this context (read his great “Rescue on Half Dome”), passed time by counting, in sets of 100, to 22,000.
“Eventually I told myself that many hours must have passed. I looked at my watch. It was only 10 p.m.”
This next one isn’t climbing, but ski mountaineering with a good outcome:
• When Colorado’s Clare Bastable and Josh Hmielowski got benighted in a horrendous snowstorm trying to reach a hut near Taylor Pass, they dug a snow cave.
“The first night wasn’t too bad,” Clare says. But the second one … was.
The upshot? The two figured if they could get through that, they could get through anything, and decided to get married.
My climber friend Katie has always said that someday she wants to compile a book of various accounts titled Silly Places I’ve Slept.
I suppose my entry would not be from climbing but the time my friend Leslie and I, on a high-school camping trip to Assateague Island, Maryland, got rained
out of our tent, and finally took refuge in the horse trailer that stored all the food. We somehow tied the flapping doors shut from the inside, and
folded ourselves in among the stacks of boxes and cartons, to wait for day.
Two years ago I flew “home” to Annapolis to see Leslie where she lay ill in the last stages of breast cancer. At her mother, Alice’s, behest, I was telling
my friend stories of our misadventures on a camping trip to North Carolina (I waited for Alice to leave before one involving police) when I trailed
off, not sure Leslie could hear me. I didn’t know it on that quiet, sunny afternoon, but it was Leslie’s last day and our last conversation.
I paused, and said, a little lamely, “We had a lot of fun.”
Through dry lips, Leslie whispered, “We had a lot of fun.”
Anyone have, or have you heard, any good bivy stories?