Text and pictures © 1992-2023 Guillaume Dargaud
Last updated on 2021/11/05
"10 March... 0 hours climbing. Write 5 pages to my mother in law. Getting desperate." — Dave Johnson's journal entry while stormbound in Alaska.
So it took weeks of excitement and organization to prepare for this expedition and now you wish you'd gone to a sunny beach instead of this stormy, snowy, windy place... Has this ever happened to you ? Well, every climber ends up one day stuck in camp waiting out a many day storm. You may be in a cozy refuge with all you can eat and a pretty warden, in your tent worried that the wind will pick it up or shred it to bits, in a snowcave freezing you butts off or holding for dear life up a hanging bivy... It's always survive first, then stay warm, eat and don't get too bored.
Left: Stormy night in Sarek, Sweden: the wind bending the tent out of shape !
Camping and climbing instruction books are full of advice on how to pitch a tent in any place in such a way that it'll resist any weather. The truth is, after a day of hard climbing you want the tent to be up quick and don't want to risk hypothermia in you wet clothing by spending 12 minutes on each anchor. And then during the night you wake up hearing the sound of howling winds outside, through you sleeping bag. And the first dilemma is: "Should I go out and pitch the tent better ?". Usually quickly followed by: "Nah... too cold !" and a nervous attempt at going back to sleep. Being alone makes it even worse, I once was afraid to exit the tent to repitch it in fear that it would blow away without my weight inside to keep it down... It is usually also a good time to think things like: "Why did we pitch the tent right on the ridge and not below it ?" or "I knew we had to build a snow wall around it..." or "I should have had granma build those bag anchors a long time ago instead of using those useless pegs in snow"...
Supporting Friends at base camp can be quite an occupation, bring along a shrink... Many people taking part in large expeditions (I'm thinking mainly Himalaya here) underestimate the importance of 'being friends' with the other members of the expedition. Most members of commercial expeditions have never met each other before getting on the plane. They have different background, different technical skills, even different goals... This shows up while climbing: some will summit in only a couple of days while some others never even reach camp 1. It also shows at base camp when the weather is bad and they can't stand each other from day one. I've seen expeditions fail this way on their first day, their members not wanting to climb with each others ! And you thought this was a healthy sport ? A mountain climbing expedition is a stressful event; on Cho-Oyu we were a group of 16 friends who knew each others before, but even though there were some stressful moments with people avoiding each others or a couple of heavy words. High altitude mountain climbing is pretty bad, the altitude tends to bring out the worse out of people: selfishness, laziness... Horror stories of climbers on Everest walking past dying climbers without offering assistance still repel me but I understand part of them: it's so hard to already take care of yourself that no one wants to go through all the social niceties, be them saluting or saving someone's life. So if you are planning an expedition with people you don't know, be ready for trouble. Planning an expedition with people you don't like is just plain stupid to start with... except if you're a guide and they pay you a lot of money, but I'm being cynical here. So it all breaks down to: be patient with others, bring stuff to keep you busy and hide your chocolate.
Top activities: reading, taking notes (prepare the website of the expedition for the return), knitting, playing chess, talking, singing, telling jokes... Sometimes one person will bond the others together: at the base Camp of Cho-Oyu there was a trekker with us at the beginning. Every night he would get us into singing and sound effect contests for hours. After his departure it never happened again.
You may also get busy for the enjoyment of others... While in New Zealand late in the season my partner and I ended up alone in the large Plateau Hut, waiting out a week long storm. There was food and fuel aplenty, so I would spend hours every day cooking. I built a stove and even managed to make bread ! After reading 10 cheesy novels I was so bored that I even delved in pathetic women's magazine ("top ten reasons to make love: satisfy your partner, fight constipation..." not even one line about pleasure !).
In Sweden it was different: I was with Jenny and we had pitched the tent on a small promontory over a frozen lake. It was a nice place, except when the wind moved in. We spent 3 days with the tent beating us over the head. The wind was recorded at 130 km/h at the closest meteo station and up there in the mountains it was probably worse. The temperature wasn't too bad and our sleeping bag was warm. After sleeping and reading all we could, we started planning our wedding, making lists of people we wanted to invite, thinking up the menu... Jenny also spent hours removing unsightly leg hair with the pliers of the Swiss Army knife, crouched under the sleeping bag.
Sarek was a lot better than the storm I got on my first attempt to summit on Denali, back in '95. I don't even know first hand how bad the wind was because I crawled inside a snowcave and waited it out 3 days at 15000ft. First night was spent in cold and loneliness. Then the second day a exhausted climber woke me up by crawling inside; he stayed flat on his stomach for several minutes, resting and then went outside to fetch his pack. His tent had been shred to bits by the wind at the higher camp and he took the risk to come down here, knowing about this snowcave. Then later another climber came in and later 3 more. All had the same story. With 6 people inside there wasn't too much room to move, but it was so cold anyway that all you wanted to do was stay in your sleeping bag. The storm dumped quite a lot of snow on the third night and almost clogged the entrance... and our air supply. Not a nice feeling. But the real problem was the bathroom: with so much people inside a 1 meter high cave, there wasn't too much room for people moving around to reach the bathroom corner... So one of the others sacrificed one of his water bottles and we used it as a 'container'. With some training you can do it without getting out of the sleeping bad...
Right: A building destroyed by rocks and chunks of ice carried by the terrible katabatic wind of Antarctica.
I've had my fair share of being in a group with other people, up to the point that when asked if I'm a team player during job interviews I answer that I've been stuck in a tent in a storm for days without killing anyone. During my winter over at the French base of Dumont d'Urville we had more distractions than the average climber gets at any base camp. But still, only 35 people for more than a year do not make for very varied conversations after a couple months. We had very little communication with the outside (that was before the Internet age) and only some movies, a bar, books and a couple video games for distraction. Most of the time we went along fine, with the possibility of taking long walks on the sea ice and see emperor penguins. Oh yes, and work too. But when a katabatic storm hits... The current French base is only 50 km away from the windiest place on earth, the former french base of Port Martin. We did get winds above 250 km/h that lasted two days and a couple times winds above 200 km/h lasting more than a week. A week during which going outside is an adventure where you have to hold for dear life on the railings (and trying to reach more remote buildings might get you killed). A week during which the constant howling of the wind and the vibrations of the buildings slowly builds up a sharp tension between the base members. I suspect that if anything like that had lasted more than 2 weeks, tension would have exploded into violence. It was no surprise that on the first nice day after large storms, most people would be out on the ice for a walk.
Left: A satellite view of a severe Antarctic ocean storm.
Always take a book with you on trips that last more than one day, you never know how long you may have to wait out bad weather... And it may be better than enduring the conversation of other trip members ("Yo dude, this move was so hard... etc"). But be careful what you take... Personally I never take climbing stories with me, that's because I find there are only two kinds: the hero kind and the survivor kind. The former are stories by very strong climbers (say Messner, Mark Twight, Amundsen...) succeeding on every hard climbs they attempt... Get the hint ? They are stronger than you and me, and if they were in that storm right now they would probably be doing some hard climbing instead of getting bored like you in the tent.
The latter are books like Joe Simpson's Touching the Void, Walter Bonatti's The mountains of my life or John Krakauer's Into Thin Air, and also Captain Scott, Shackelton... where the author has a broken leg deep down a crevasse high up a on mountain, everybody around them is dying from exhaustion, hunger, cold and weather conditions, they take 600m falls on what would normaly be deadly grounds, the temperature freeze their breathe solid, avalanches, seracs, rabid penguins... Are you sure you want to read about something like that while the wind is trying to shred your tent and you need to psych up for that schrund in the early morning ? All I can think of is: "If this happens to me, I'm gonna die...". They are certainly all good books, but better enjoyed while you are in a hot bath back home.
Right: Icy fog on the summit of Chimborazo, Ecuador.
But don't think that you are safe with novels that aren't even remotely connected to climbing. On the first day of our climb of Mt Hunter in Alaska, the weather turned sour and we spent the day in the tent. I was the only one with a book so I split it in 3 with my two australian partners. It was Harry Harrison's Make Room! Make Room!, the grim story of an overpopulated earth, with exhausted resources and abounding bigots (it was the base of the movie Soylent Green, but the book is much more hopeless !). After this we just wanted to go home; climbing seemed so pointless. The opposite example is George Stewart's Earth Abides, a story about the last survivor of an epidemics which wiped out the human race; not a good read before doing a multi day solo ascent in Peru... So now i'd rather take stupid but entertaining books than classic grave ones. Plenty of choice. My guess is that if some biologists had watched Blade Runner before cloning Dolly, they would probably have stayed in bed that day. Same for climbing.
What else can you do ? Make love ! Although if your climbing partner harbors a 10 day beard just like yours, he may not agree about that ! And if you're lucky enough that your climbing partner doubles up as a life partner, (s)he may not like the smell of clothing caked with rancid sweat that's gone way over the time limit. And the idea of washing up with snow afterwards might refresh even the most excited. No the way to go is to do it alone ! Oh come on, in this day and age, don't be so surprised; and you don't want all those arm muscles to go limp due to lack of exercise, do you ? Can you feel all this training climbing up walls just wasting away by staying for days rolled up in your sleeping bag ? Just kidding. Well, some climbers will attest that having a wet dream in a sleeping bag when you have no spare change and it's freezing hell outside is no fun: "But the mountain was really sexy in my dream !"
So what does it take to ensure your expedition doesn't die of boredom at base camp ? A pile of good books, a shrink, a wiseass joke master, a couple singers, some sexy (fe)males, a fast internet connection... Yes. Some good climbers ? Nah, not necessary.