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Bivouacs on Rock, Ice and Snow

Read these useful tips to make your next bivouac as safe and comfortable as possible.

Bivy! The decision has been made and the vote from all five of us was unanimous. The voice of Felix could be heard in the night, dark except for the light from our headlamps.

“okay, let's start digging”
“next to the rock is better”
“Yes, Jesus, the ice is hard!
And after some time, we got ready for what would be a long, cold and tightly squeezed night spent in that small hole. There was hardly room to move. With our legs shoved into our packs to try and keep our muscles warm.
“Lorenzo, get up quickly, Lorenzo!”
Our first idea was to sleep in a small tin bivy hut on top of Mount Kenya, but due to an incident when climbing the Couloir del Diamante we had to change plans. Night fell as we reached the col between the two peaks of Monte Kenya (Gate of the Mists Gap) at 5,144m altitude. Felix and I decided to climb up to the peak to try and find the emergency hut, but it was impossible in the dark (the next day, we found it next to a rock after reaching the summit. We must have nearly touched it the night before.

The idea of descending from the col and preparing a bivy was possibly one of the best decisions I'd ever taken. We were tired after a long day climbing and one of our team members had a slight injury, so we were content with our plan of reaching the summit and waiting to set up the rappel until the first sun rays came over the horizon on the African savannah. We only had a couple of bivy bags, so the idea was to stay as close together as possible to stay warm, in the middle of the freezing wet fog.

Photo 1
Today, that adventure brings up memories of comradeship, teamwork and passion. Photo 1 shows the emergency bivy just below the summit of Mount Kenya, at 5,144m.

Any climber and mountaineer always knows that an emergency bivy is a possibility, especially during long and complicated ascents. Sometimes you have adequate gear for getting through the night and other times you don't. The decision to bivy is normally taken before beginning a climb along with the right equipment and locating the most suitable and safest spot. With the idea of planning the ascent or climb in detail.
However, there are times when complications will occur during a climb, due to both predictable and unpredictable risk factors.

An unforeseen situation may arise if it's too dark to rappel or climb down safely and you are forced to take the decision to spend the night on the wall or mountain. Or a storm or fatigue may be the reason for setting up a bivy. Whatever the situation, making the decision to bivy is a delicate and decisive moment.

Bivying on a mountain means spending the night in outdoor conditions and sometimes in undesirable places. And this not exempt from hazards. But on many occasions the complexity and length of a route will force climbers to set up a bivy in order to achieve their objective. Bivying is like minimalist camping; without the use of heavy gear. If you decide to bivy during a climb or mountain ascent, lighter gear is required than that used for setting up an altitude camp and you should certainly not expect an overnight bivy to be as comfortable as sleeping in a good tent with camping gear.

There are two kinds of bivouacs: predictable or unpredictable.

These are unplanned bivies that arise during the descent or ascent due to unexpected factors. Improvisation is required using the material on hand in order to get through the night as warm and comfortably as possible. You may be able to get a good night's sleep or you may stay awake awaiting the first rays of sunlight. Here are some examples of unpredictable bivies.
  • Darkness falls while slowly climbing a long route. The climbers have no headlamps or find it too complicated to use them during the ascent. A descent is out of the question, so all they can do is to sit on a ledge and wait for dawn to allow them to continue.
  • Climbers lose their rappel line on a big wall as it gets dark, so they decide to spend the night on a ledge and wait for sunlight, so that they can find the descent line safely the next day.
  • During the ascent of a crest towards the summit, the weather turns for the worst and makes a descent impossible. The only thing possible is to find a good place for a bivy, spend the night and carry on the next day.
  • During the descent from the summit, one of your companions twists an ankle. The mountaineers are tired and darkness falls. The tent or hut is still hours away, so they improvise and set up a bivy with the aim of descending the next day.
  • While climbing to the summit, some mountaineers are surprised by bad weather and nightfall. Descent is not an option or is too complicated, so they decide to bivy and carry on the next day, in safer conditions.
Making the decision to set up an emergency bivy should not be taken lightly. It's important to consider if you're capable of spending the night and of the possible consequences. Clearly, there are times when you have no choice in the matter and a bivouac is the only way forward. However, it is clear that in stressful situations, people are capable of reacting positively. Especially if they are climbers or mountaineers. The idea is to stay positive and believe that a night out in the open is something you can get through without letting your nerves get the better of you. But it is essential to be safe and try to keep up your spirits and your strength.

Photo 2
Wall Bivies
If you have to spend the night half way up a wall, you'll need to find at least a ledge so that you can sit or lie down. If you manage to find an overhang to protect you from the rain, snow or freezing cold, even better. Ropes can be placed on the floor and used as a mat for protection against the rock. If you have a pack, use it as a bivy bag for your legs. It's essential to stay anchored to the belay point with a rope or lanyard. Try to stay close to your climbing partner to stay warm and, if necessary, move around to increase body warmth. In photo 2 you can see how the climber is installed on a ledge to spend the night, constantly anchored to the belay point.

Ice Bivies
If you're on a couloir with hard snow or ice, you can try and carve a flat, deep ledge. The bivy platform should be made as far away from dangerous objects as possible, out of the way of falling rocks or ice or avalanches.
Whenever possible, protect the bivy from the wind. If need be, construct a wall around you with lumps of snow and ice. Again, place ropes underneath you for insulation and use your pack as a bivy bag for your lower limbs and stay close to your partner for maximum warmth. If a member of the roped team is weaker or injured, place him between the others for extra protection and warmth. Photo 1 shows a group during an exposed bivy at the end of a couloir. A couple of bivy bags and some packs were enough protection to get through a cold night at 5,144m at the end of Mount Kenya's Diamond Couloir.

Bivying on a Ridge
Here you'll have to try to find a place which is as protected from the elements as possible. The wind is your worst enemy during the night, so it's important to protect yourself as much as possible. Look for a spot near large rocks that will offer better shelter and you can also make a small stone wall if necessary. Photo 3 shows an emergency bivy with just a sleeping bag and a length of cord or ski pole. If a
Tags: bivouacs, ice, rock, snow

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