Most major climbs can’t be completed in day. So, when night falls and sleep beckons, alpinists deploy a portaledge, a hanging tent secured to the rock face via a system of intricate webbing. Once set up, the system is stable enough for a climber to crawl into, curl up and fall asleep. There’s even space to hang portable stoves and other such supplies so that, in morning, coffee can be enjoyed from 4,000 feet up.
Professional climber and modern day explorer Mike Libecki estimates that he’s spent about a year of his life hanging off a vertical rock face in a portaledge. In fact, the 43-year-old, who’s also completed 65 expeditions to such places as Antarctica, China, Madagascar, and Indonesia and tackled first ascents of unclimbed walls in Greenland, once spent 30 nights in a row sleeping in a portaledge with two climbing partners to ascend a 4,500-foot-tall granite tower near the Arctic on Canada’s Baffin Island. So if anyone knows what it’s like to snooze in precarious places, it’s Libecki.
We called him up at home in Salt Lake City, Utah, to talk about what it’s like waking up thousands of feet above the ground.
So, for those who don’t know, what exactly is a portaledge?
Imagine a standard camping cot. It’s that size but it’s equalized with anchors of webbing on each corner. It’s hung on the rock with climbing gear that’s inside the crack or attached to bolts on the wall. If there’s weather, you’ll put a tent around it. It can become a pretty claustrophobic situation.
How difficult is it falling asleep in a situation like that?
I sleep well in any situation. It probably comes from sleeping on mountains. You’re usually pretty exhausted and after a long, hard day, you’re ready to crash. For the average person, it seems so extreme, so wild and fantastic. But once you get used to it, it’s really fun.
Are you ever scared you’ll fall while sleeping?
When you know what you’re doing, you know that the equipment cannot fail. You may be exposed, but it’s 100 percent mathematically safe. You don’t have to worry about anything. If you don’t make a mistake, you’ll be fine. Plus, you always stay tied into your rope, so if something happened, you wouldn’t fall to your death. You’re secure.
What’s the daily routine on a big-wall, multi-day climb?
Let’s say you’re on El Capitan in Yosemite. A classic style is you climb it in two, three, four, or five days, depending on the route. You’ll climb all day, then set up the portaledge at night and you’ll have your camp. Your stove is hanging, everything is hanging. In the morning, you pack up your portaledge — it folds up like a tent and goes into a bag. Then you keep climbing and haul your bags as you go.
How many hours of sleep will you get typically?
That totally depends on where you’re at. Sometimes you’ll climb for 20 hours straight, then sleep for 15 hours. We did a route in Greenland that took us 62 hours without stopping. We slept for a long time after that. It depends on the weather, the supplies, the food, the water. Sometimes we’ll be climbing and we’ll take a power nap for two hours on a little ledge. There’s no consistency.
After 62 hours straight of climbing, you must be running off pure adrenaline.
You’re basically running of the psyche and energy of your partner and vice versa. In Greenland, we wanted to do it alpine style, as fast as we could, where we were just moving and moving. It was a first ascent that nobody had done before, a true mystery. And mystery for me equals adventure. For 62 hours, we were just running off that question of ‘Can we do this?’
Are you often trying to climb as fast as possible, and therefore sleeping as little as possible?
There are a lot of speed climbers out there who move as quickly as they can. But my favorite part of climbing big walls is enjoying spending a few days or a week up there. I love sitting in the portaledge and having coffee in the morning in your sleeping bag and watching the sunrise. That’s one of the most magnificent moments I’ve ever experienced. Maybe I could do the route in a day or two, but why not spend a few days and enjoy it?
What is it like waking up way up high like that?
You wake up 3,000 feet above the ground on a vertical wall and let’s just say you don’t need coffee to wake up. The beauty of it is sometimes you’re hearing nothing but your own breathing. That’s one of the beauties of being in the wilderness, that pure silence. Or maybe you’re hearing wind or bats inside the cracks, or if you’re in the Arctic, you’ll hear the sea ice cracking and moving.
Do you sometimes spend days and nights in the portaledge?
Yes, depending on the weather, you may have to stay put for a couple of days. On one climb, we spent seven days without moving because we were in a storm. Imagine just laying there for a week in a snowstorm. You better have a lot of books. Sometimes you’re thankful because you’ve been climbing for seven days and a storm means you get to rest. That’s always a little gift.
How important is sleep for you to perform your best as an athlete?
On an expedition, sleep is most important before or after. When you’re on the climb, you better be ready to do whatever it takes. That could be climbing for 30 hours straight. You have to plan on recovering after the climb is done. If you’ve got the opportunity on an expedition to complete your goals, then you’ll do whatever it takes and then when you get home, maybe you spend days straight just eating, sleeping, and recovering.
What has been your most memorable night in a portaledge?
We had our portaledge set up about halfway up a wall on the border of China and Kyrgysztan. A thunder and lighting storm came through. I know I said all the equipment was safe, but the exception is if you get caught in an electrical storm, the nylon webbing could melt and you’ll fall 2,000 feet to your death. That was a very frightening time. Our hair was rising up like cartoon characters from the static electricity.
And you managed to sleep through that?
We were able to sleep. It wasn’t like we were stressing and freaking out. Because there’s nothing you can do. It was just spooky.