Several years ago, I attempted my first “carry-over” alpine climb. The length of the route demanded my partner and I break it into two days of climbing, meaning my sleep system would become a key piece of my kit. The plan was to sleep on a ledge midway up the mountain and descend along a different route. This meant that we’d have to climb with backpacks full of camping gear, food, and other essentials.
Packing for the trip, I recalled the old climbing saying that “ounces lead to pounds, and pounds lead to pain.” I decided to ditch my sleeping pad and sleep on the rope, because I heard that’s what true alpinists do. (I didn’t cut the end off of my toothbrush, though I definitely considered it.)
We started the approach under sunny skies, but as we stood at the base of the route prepping to climb pea-sized hail pellets began to ping our helmets. After the storm subsided the granite slabs at the base of the climb resembled a slip-n-slide. We decided to camp and attempt a shorter nearby peak the next day.
In our tent my partner laid out his cozy Therm-a-Rest NeoAir pad, and I began the tedious process of laying out the rope in what I hoped would be a comfortable sleeping configuration. That night I learned a hard lesson in R-Value. Sleeping pads are used for more than just padding; they play a critical role in keeping you warm by providing insulation from the cold ground. Without a sleeping pad, I spent most of the night sleepless and shivering, trying to weasel my way onto my partner’s pad. I didn’t get a great night of sleep, to say the least.
A quick jaunt up the neighboring peak the next morning redeemed our foiled plans and granted us the coveted “summit selfie.” Though we hiked out that day feeling successful, I gleaned several lessons from my fumbles along the way. Every climb is a chance to try something new, improve your technique, and dial your efficiency, so I’ll share my lessons below.
1. Weight Matters for Climbing Gear
On backpacking trips in my past, I’ve been known to carry watercolors, boxed wine and multiple books. While lighter gear can definitely make a backpacking trip easier and more enjoyable, it can be the difference between success and failure when attempting an alpine climb. The more time I spend in the mountains, the more I pay attention to the ounces when I purchase and acquire new gear.
However, it’s not all about paying a premium for ultra-light materials. Paring down your essentials to bring only what you truly need in the mountains is just as important. Every trip you take is an opportunity to perfect your climbing kit and trim the extras that sit in your pack unused. Depending on the objective, there could be space for an extra luxury item. If I don’t need to climb with a full pack on, I might decide to keep the travel watercolor set for down-time at camp.
2. Practice Climbing with Your Gear
If you’re planning to climb with an overnight pack for the first time, it is helpful to get a feel for it before you’re deep in the mountains. Pack everything you think you’ll need, head to your local crag, and test out some climbs with a full backpack. Consider trying some top-ropes or choose something well below your ability to lead at first.
With an extra 15-20 pounds (or more!), your balance will feel off, and hand holds may be harder to grip. Practice climbing with weight to get an idea of the route difficulty you should attempt with a backpack. If it feels too hard, ask yourself if there’s any gear you can leave behind, or if you should start with an easier alpine route. Some alpinists also like to practice climbing in their mountain boots at a single-pitch crag before committing to wearing them on a long route.
3. Build A Sleep System for Every Outdoor Adventure
At the time of my attempted climb, I had one sleeping pad for every activity. It was a comfortable, durable pad that was great for backpacking. But it was pretty bulky when stuffed in a climbing pack. My sleeping bag was similarly cumbersome, leading to my unfortunate decision to sacrifice warmth, and ultimately my sleep.
Luckily, there are sleep systems for every adventure. By embracing each piece of sleep gear as components of an overall sleep system you can dial in a perfect night’s rest, no matter the pursuit or conditions.
If I had attempted my climb in mid-summer, when conditions were warmer and more predictable, I may have gotten away with a lightweight quilt on top of the rope alone. Because of the colder late season temperatures, I needed something with a higher R-value. During the early season, when I’m more likely to be sleeping on snow, I’ll add extra insulation by sliding a closed-cell foam pad underneath my inflating pad to boost my overall R-Value. A Z Lite SOL™ Small weighs 10 oz. (290 g) and provides extra insulation and a comfortable seat around camp. Those are ounces I am willing to add to my sleep system to achieve better sleep and overall comfort during certain climbs.
Ultralight gear often costs something in durability, so I still use my bulkier pad when I’m less concerned about weight. For long days of climbing with a full backpack, I’m pretty stoked to have my UberLite pad! Given its ultralight materials, I’m still concerned about potential punctures. Layering a closed-cell foam pad under my ultralight pad provides protection. That way I can have an ultralight alpine climbing sleep system that is durable enough to rely on when I’m out in the elements.
In the end, the point is that with the right combination of gear, you can build an alpine climbing sleep system that is far better than a quilt and a climbing rope. One example is the lightest most compact sleep system.
4. Make Sure Your Alpine Climbing Sleep System is Warm
Lying awake and shivering all night does not bode well for tomorrow’s climbing objective. A good night’s sleep is crucial before a long push in the mountains. I’ve learned a few creative tips for staying warm and sleeping well besides choosing the ideal sleeping bag and pad for the conditions.
The rope can still be a useful part of a sleep system, though it was insufficient by itself to keep me warm in the late September alpine. Stacking the rope under your sleeping pad can add insulation and protect a light-weight pad from sharp rocks. Some climbers even like to use the rope as their pillow, for added neck support.
A hard-shell jacket can also trap extra heat in a pinch. My climbing partner draped his rain jacket over my sleeping bag in the middle of the night to provide some relief to the cold. Aside from the jacket-on-top hack, clothes are an integral part of any sleep system. Base layers wick away moisture and help your body stay the right temperature when sleeping. They also protect the fabrics of your sleeping bag from the dirt and oils on your body. When its particularly cold, I’ll sleep in my puffy jacket and a warm hat pulled over my ears. If wearing the puffy is overkill, I may stuff my puffy jacket into my bag and tuck extra clothes around my feet to minimize the space that my body needs to heat up.
Finally, I always keep a pair of “sacred socks” that stay dry in my sleeping bag, so my feet will be toasty at night. Nothing keeps me awake like frozen toes. Happy feet makes for a happy climber.
5. Always Have a Back-Up Plan
Alpine climbing in late September usually means you’re taking a gamble with the weather. I don’t remember hail being in the forecast, but we were prepared for precipitation with rain gear and a waterproof shelter. Luckily, the storm came before we were on the technical part of the climb, but we had not thought through that scenario ahead of time.
Before embarking on a committing route, it’s essential to consider how you would get down if things go south. Are you prepared to leave climbing gear if you have to rappel? Do you have enough layers if you get stranded overnight? Is there an awesome, low-commitment climb nearby, so you can still get your summit selfie if the weather thwarts your original plan? Alpine climbing requires us to consider what could go wrong, so we always make it back to the car.
6. Practice Makes Functional
Every climb or outdoor adventure offers new opportunities for learning. Whether a summit is achieved, or you barely finish the approach hike, it’s always worth reflecting on your successes and failures along the way.
Take note of which gear sat in your pack untouched, any narrowly avoided accidents, or communication breakdowns between you and your climbing or hiking partner. Build on the lessons learned each trip and have better mountain adventures for years to come.