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 roof is made, it should be low to keep in as much warmth as possible and prevent it from being blown away. It's a fairly simple process and can help keep you dry and out of the wind.

Photo 3
A Snow Bivy
Again, the main idea is to stay warm and dry and out of the wind. In snow, the best option is to dig a snow cave. Snow caves are warm, safe and windproof. Look for a slope between 30 and 50 degrees. There should be enough snow to dig half a metre deep. The area should not be in an avalanche risk zone. Start by digging an upward slope and then a platform slightly higher than the cave entrance. This way you'll conserve more heat inside the cave as the cold air will stay at the bottom and the warm air will rise.

Dig until the hole is the right size; for two people it would normally be one metre and a half long by two metres wide or two by two for a bit more room. One metre high is enough space. You can make a bigger cave but remember that the larger the space, the harder it will be to keep warm. Once made, smooth all the edges and lumps in the roof to prevent dripping from condensation. If you're really organized, you can even make a shelf for your gear. The platform you sleep on should be above the access tunnel. Put your packs on the floor for insulation against the snow. If you have a plastic sheet or thermal blanket lay it down on the floor to keep you dry. The cave entrance can be closed with a block of snow.

Photo 4
Make a couple of holes in the roof of the cave for good ventilation, by using your ski pole. In photo 4 you can observe the construction of a small ice cave. Bear in mind that when constructing an ice cave you'll usually get quite wet so a spare pair of gloves is recommendable.

Bivying in a forest
A forest is maybe the most comfortable place for a bivy. Find a tree that offers protection under its branches. If necessary you can place more branches against the trunk to construct a small tent for protection in case it rains or snows. If necessary you can build a fire to keep warm.

If you have planned to bivy on the ascent then you'll also have planned to carry the right gear. However, try to pack as lightly as possible so that you can achieve your aim without carrying too much weight. One lightweight sleeping bag for two is lighter than taking two sleeping bags. Take a bivy bag, thermal sleeping mat, plastic sheet or thermal blanket, lightweight stove and extra food and clothing. You may want to take a lightweight bivy tent, depending on the ascent. On Big Wall routes, a portaledge will substitute finding a ledge.

On rock
There's no doubt that a sleeping bag and bivy bag will make your overnight stay much more comfortable. On a wall, apply the same safety procedures as previously mentioned. Staying tied in at all times, even when you're inside your sleeping bag. Photo 5 shows a climber in his sleeping bag, tied to the belay point, on a ledge, while climbing the El Capitán.

Photo 5
On Snow
If you have a bivy tent, dig a small cave in the snow and put the tent inside to offer greater protection against the wind. The ledge also needs to be large enough to pitch a tent.

Photo 6
If you spend a night in a snow cave, having the right equipment will greatly increase your comfort. The plastic sheet and sleeping mat can be placed on the ground for greater insulation and then your sleeping bag. Another good option for a snow bivy is to construct a snow trench.

Snow Trench
A snow trench is much faster to build than a cave. A trench isn't as resistant, but it is still effective and warm. Unlike the snow cave, a trench can be dug in any kind of terrain – sloping or flat. Dig a hole about 1.5m deep x 2m long x approx. 1.5 to 2m wide, depending on the number of occupants. Like the cave, the smaller the space, the warmer it will be. Stamp on the snow floor to make it nice and stable and then use your ski poles as beams across the top, as shown in photo 8. Then place a plastic sheet over the top of the poles and weigh it down with snow around the edge. Make a small entrance at one end and you can seal this off with your backpack or a block of snow. Photo 9 shows the finished trench with the plastic sheet and entrance. If you want a stronger roof, you can also use your skis across the top, but obviously the roof won't stand up to really hard snowfall, so you'll have to push off the accumulated snow periodically in this event.

Photo 7

Photo 8

Photo 9
If you decide to make a bivouac, it's important that you have the right equipment, so that you can get the greatest enjoyment from the experience. On the other hand, if you don't intend to bivy, make sure you plan ahead to avoid getting into such a situation. Plan the ascent carefully, get up early, take a headlamp, travel light, make sure you have the technical know-how for the ascent and are in physical condition. These are some of the points that should be considered before putting on your harness. And if a bivy is inevitable, enjoy it, as you'll remember it for the rest of your life.

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