This series of posts outlines our philosophical and practical approaches to climbing, and will cover factors we consider vital to successfully completing climbing objectives.
[...] climbers grow to appreciate alpine starts: the brilliance of stars at higher altitudes, perhaps the glow of moonlight on snow, the distinctive sounds of crampons on ice, the tinkling of carabiners in the still night. [...] The magic of watching a sunrise from high on a mountain above a sea of clouds remains with a climber long after memories of the trip's exertion have faded.
We Choss Boys have refined our procedure for success in the early morning. Read on to learn how we start our big climbing days.
For us mere mortals, the alpine start falls somewhere closer to 4 AM. Although this may seem luxurious to hardened Himalayan climbers, for daily craggers, and even experienced multipitch climbers, waking at 4 AM usually feels like rising from the dead.
So how do we Choss Boys cope with this harsh necessity of long climbs?
Stage 1: Planning
It's best not to decide on climbing a 16 hour multipitch the evening before. Otherwise, you might be awake too late, or, worse still, forget crucial equipment. Give at least a full day to plan and prepare before your alpine start. Taking care of tasks preemptively will make the morning significantly easier.
The preparation list.
Write down everything to be done the day before. This preparation list can even be recycled, so doing it well the first time is wise. Divide tasks between yourself and your partner(s). Below is an example of a list shared between Daniel and I.
If each person does the same tasks on multiple adventures, the process becomes quicker overall. Each person will become more efficient with their jobs. And of course, if one person finishes early, they should help the other(s) finish their tasks.
Stage 2: Preparation
With a preparation list, this should be straightforward. Work your way through the list, and be attentive to the tasks at hand. It is easy to forget things when your attention is directed elsewhere. During this stage, you will face several important decisions. We will highlight them, and explain our approach.
Food is an important but often overlooked facet of successful expeditions. Knowing how certain foods affect your body will help with the preparation.
Aside from the food discussion below, make sure you hydrate thoroughly. Dehydration can be a major problem on long days, and prevention begins the day before.
Clothing must also be carefully considered during preparation. A weather forecast should only be a rough guide for conditions. Smart climbers prepare for all possible conditions within a reasonable margin of the official forecast. For example, a forecast might call for 25 Celsius with sun and clouds on the day of the climb. In the mountains, this could mean 2 degrees Celsius at 4 AM, a light windchill at midday, blistering heat in the early afternoon, and sprinkles of rain in the evening.
Always bring layers.
Climbing gear is the most important thing to prepare in advance. Foggy, half-awake brains easily forget things. Searching through gear bags in the dark adds more unnecessary strife. At all costs, avoid arriving at the base of the climb only to discover that your climbing shoes are still in the car.
Essentially, the climbing gear should be arranged in such a way that in the morning, all you need to do is put on your equipment and go. Look at the rack beta for the climb, then look at the first pitch. Who is leading the first pitch? Rack the gear for the first pitch on the leader's harness. Is the first pitch a thin finger crack? A sport pitch? If so, leave the big cams for the follower. Wear all the gear on the approach so when the climb is reached, the leader can begin almost immediately.
The backpack(s) should be mostly full before the morning. Pack the water (we recommend adding Gatorade powder, it makes the water go further because it is more hydrating), lunch, extra layers, first-aid kit, climbing shoes, headlamp(s), and the rope(s). The only things that should be added in the morning are extra layers stripped off during the approach.
Alarms should be set the night before. Alarms plural. Make sure they are reliable, loud, and set for a few minutes before the intended wake-up time. Allowing time to get up slowly (e.g. 3:53 AM for 4 AM wake-up) provides a much needed buffer to drag your stiff ass out of the sleeping bag and into the nipple-erecting early morning chill.
Finally, go to bed early. If you are realistic about how long each task will take, it should be easy to tuck in early. Try for 9 PM when waking at 4 AM. It takes most people an extra hour to fall asleep, so hopefully you will still snag 6 hours. If staying in a campground, or even sharing a space with a partner, consider bringing earplugs (and a sleeping mask if it is still light) to create a small bubble of silence for yourself.
Worrying thoughts about the coming day often keep me awake, but I find studying the approach and route topo thoroughly during preparation helps me relax. I sleep more easily when I have a good picture of next day's journey.
Stage 3: Wake up
If you've stuck to our procedure so far, the morning should be straightforward. Alarms will rouse you from the depths of your slumber, and you begin making the slow transition to lucid thought. A typical alpine start for the Chossboys goes something like this:
Alarms sound. I usually kick Daniel to ensure he knows its time to start waking up. We sit up in our sleeping bags, and pull on our shirts. Together, we look at the morning list, and then at the approach beta for the climb. We discuss the approach, then reluctantly leave the warm refuge of our sleeping bags.
We finish dressing in our base layers and leave the tent (or van). After gauging the weather conditions, we put on the appropriate outer layers. We each eat an energy gel permeated with caffeine. Mmmmm.
One final look through the master checklist from the day before. Anything extra is either added to or removed from the pack.
Ready to hit the approach! We either hop in the van and drive to the trail head, or begin hiking from camp. Discussion of the route topo and descent beta ensues on the walk in.
Stage 4: Enjoy the experience!
From our experience, the less you do in the morning, the easier it is. Adhering to this simple principle by following our procedure will take the sting out of the pre-dawn air. Who knows, maybe you'll even catch yourself looking forward to that 3:53 AM alarm..?
If not, you can at least be thankful you've slept-in two hours later than Himilayan climbers, who, by this point, would be trundling through crisp ankle-deep snow, hunched and shivering in a biting -40 degrees Celsius wind. The true alpine start.