If after a long day of adventuring, laying down in a simple tent just isn’t adrenaline-pumping enough for you, it may be time to anchor your portaledge to a rock face and try cliff camping.
Not all climbers are lucky enough have the luxury of seeking refuge on natural ledges, or digging caves into snow or ice, the way that alpine climbers do. Some walls are so big and steep, and offer so little in the way of natural ledges, that the only way to support an expedition is to create your own ledge by hanging off a cliff.
Traditional climber campgrounds leave something to be desired, but a portaledge will keep your adventure continuing even through your dreams. Accommodations typically include a cot, usually wide enough for two, that anchors into the rock. This is the portaledge - home to climbers on walls everywhere from Greenland to Yosemite to Pakistan.
What Is A Portaledge?
A portaledge is made from an aluminum frame, sheets of nylon and, at best, resembles a rigid cot. They fold up conveniently so that they can be slipped into haul bags - the heavy coated canvas bags known as “pigs” - that cliff camping climbers must haul up after each pitch. Naturally, they are outfitted with a tent fly. The best of these are as good as any high-quality tent, and many veteran climbers have weathered serious storms on major walls under their protection. Just make sure you hold on tight.
To hear it from those who have called portaledges home, everything must be in its place. Spoons, pots and cups that can be hung with a loop of nylon make the cut when packing time arrives.
Everything, including the climbers, stays tied in. Every shred of gear and item of clothing should be connected to a carabineer or stuffed into a bag that is clipped to a loop of nylon or other anchor. Such is life on the biggest, cleanest walls, where only a smooth sea of granite stretches for thousands of feet in every direction.
Moving around while cliff climbing, and conducting the simplest of tasks, like boiling water, brushing teeth or using the facilities, becomes a chore with dozens of steps. Bags must be relocated and re-anchored before items can be unearthed, used and placed in their home again.
Photo Credit: mariachily / Flickr.com
Is It Safe?
Climbers learn to anchor the portaledge from the bottom as well as the top. Gale force winds can sweep up the face of a mountain with an unholy strength, and un-anchored ledges can bounce around like a cork at sea. These little tricks come with experience, of course. A badly anchored ledge, like a leaky tent or poorly insulated jacket, can make minutes seem like hours. When most comforts are stripped away on a wall, the little details that dictate comfort come into sharp focus. Big walls are a tough but effective teacher of what they require from climbers.
The cot in the sky is the only way to make huge daunting climbs possible. Aid climbers might toil away for an entire day on a tricky pitch, and more than a month on a difficult climb. Under those circumstances, it might be possible to fix hundreds of feet of rope down to a natural ledge, if one exists. It is not always possible to leave hundreds of feet of rope to thrash in high winds where sharp rocks may slice them. The portaledge provides a safe and comfortable, relatively speaking, home for climbers to return to.
Photo Credit: Sergio R. Nunez C. / Flickr.com
Better Safe Than Sorry
Bringing a portaledge for cliff camping surely has advantages over not having one. Just think of the light-and-fast climber who must endure a snowstorm at high altitude with nothing more than a hooded jacket and a bivy sack. A climber in that situation would happily climb into the space-challenged, but weatherproof confines of a portaledge. Think also of an alpine climber who must endure days on end stuck inside a snow cave, which is nothing more than an ice tube large enough for a man. Those accommodations make a portaledge seem like a five-star hotel room.
It’s not until you’re in a situation like this, thousands of feet up and days from proper shelter, that something like a hanging tent from a cliff begins to seem like home. When a hard climb gets harder, and days stretch on, there is no other way to recover and rejuvenate, no other shelter from the wind to boil a cup of water. At those times, a portaledge is surely as good as any house or apartment any of us has ever lived in. It might even be better. Because if it weren’t there, we couldn’t survive these demanding mountains, let alone climb them. Just be careful when you look down.