Night Ops

Night has been banished, so have the cold, the wind and the stars. They have all been neutralized: the rhythm of life itself is obscured. Everything goes so fast and makes so much noise, and men hurry by without heeding the grass by the roadside, its colour, its smell and the way it shimmers when the wind caresses it.

What a strange encounter then is that between man and the high places of his planet! Up there he is surrounded by the silence of forgetfulness. If there is a slope of snow steep as a glass window, he climbs it, leaving behind him a strange trail. If there is a rock perfect as an obelisk, he defies gravity and proves that he can get up anywhere.”

-Gaston Rébuffat, Starlight and Storm

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A few years back, out with a few friends soloing the classic “Northwest Books” on Toulumne’s Lembert dome, we passed a roped party about halfway up the 100m route. Afternoon had already passing to evening, perfect for my friends and I to relax on the summit and watch the sunset unfold, but for the father-daughter party the late hour was a source of stress.

As we scrambled around them on an narrow ledge, I heard the Dad enthusiastically congratulating his teenage daughter on how quickly she had followed a pitch. She was clearly out of her element on the barren granite dome, and perfectly communicated her anger, nervousness, and desire to be somewhere else:

“Uhhh, yeah Dad… it’s gonna be DARK soon!”

I’ve often thought that the waning light at the end of the day, far from being the photographer’s “golden hour”, is in fact the most instinctually terrifying time to be outside. The air takes on a slight chill, perhaps the wind picks up, and you constantly peek back over your shoulder to measure the dwindling space between the sun and the jagged horizon. When you’re still far from home, high on a rock or surrounded by mountains, the sun’s imminent exit returns us to a primitive state, one that fears the darkness above all else.

Photo by Forest Woodward

As Rébuffat said “Night has been banished”. Modern technology has combined with our primeval fear, allowing us to pass the dark hours in warm, well-lit homes; to flood the dark corners of our cities with streetlights; and to wait comfortably for morning, when the outside world will again be safe and inviting.

But it needs not be so! As climbers, we should embrace the unknown and the challenge of night. Alpinists love the chill of the pre-dawn for the firmer, safer snow conditions. Rock climbers often find themselves out after dark because they’re drawn to bigger and bigger objectives. Even boulderers love the crisp “sending temps” of the nighttime. We shouldn’t fear the onset of night, but rather wring every last drop of fun from all twenty four hours!

So, after all that blather, here’s a page about how to enjoy those “Night Ops”:

KNOW YOUR MOON

If possible, plan your big days, or night missions, for that sweet spot of the month: the week before the full moon.
First, a few lunar basics that I’m sure many of you already know:

Not only does the moon wax (grow) and wane (shrink) during it’s 28 day cycle, but it also rises and sets at different times. The full moon rises just as the sun sets, and sets as the sun rises again. The new moon, 14 days later, does the inverse and rises simultaneously with the sun.

So, on each day of the two week period between the new and full moons, the moon rises about 52 minutes later. During the week before the full moon, then, the moon will already be high in the night sky as the sun sets, making for a smooth transition from sunlight to moonlight.

A waxing moon in Argentine Patagonia

On the full moon proper, the moon will just barely be clearing the horizon as the sun’s light fades, making for a bit of a gap in illumination.

On the other hand, if you’re planning for a super early alpine start, the week after the full moon will provide the most pre-dawn light.

CHOOSE YOUR HEADLAMP

Of course the moon alone will not be enough to allow for real climbing and routefinding. You’ll need to be prepared with the proper headlamp.

For my PRIMARY LIGHT, used for leading, I prefer torch with three or four AAA Batteries. The most crucial feature is a very bright spotlight mode, useful for looking ahead and planning your route. Other features I look for include:

-A dimmer flood setting, which saves batteries and still allows you to see your hand and footholds, set up rappels, etc.

-A locking feature, which prevent the lamp from accidentally turning on in your pack, and sapping the batteries.

-A red light mode, which allows you to maintain night vision while hiking, belaying, or other  simple tasks.

My current favorite headlamp is the Black Diamond Storm (92g, with lithium batts), which includes all the above features, takes four AAA batteries and is waterproof. Do take care to use the locking feature (hold down the power button for a few seconds, til a blue light flashes), as this headlamp is prone to turning itself on.

When operating in very cold climates, a detached battery pack would be a nice feature, as it would allow you to prolong battery life by keeping them warm inside your jacket.

SECONDARY LIGHTS

If you’re just going out for a long day and don’t expect to get benighted (who ever does?), you may opt for a lighter weight lamp. Petzl makes an excellent model, it’s E-lite (28g, with batts), which runs on two watch batteries and still has multiple brightness settings and a red light.

The E-Lite and the Storm

BATTERIES

Headlamps are only as good as their batteries. Always use fresh batteries when embarking on a big climb. On a long route, where you’ll potentially be out for a few days, bring an extra set of  fresh batteries. Lithium batteries are lighter (7.5g for one AAA Lithium vs 11.5g for Alkaline), contain more energy, and perform better in the cold.

TEAMWORK

I love finding ways for a climbing team to bring “asymmetric” gear to save weight. In most situations, a very bright light won’t be needed by both climbers simultaneously, so bring one good lamp (like the Storm), and one mini-lamp (like the e-lite ), and trade them off. The leader is still able to route-find, and the follower is able to manage.

DON’T LOSE YOUR LIGHT!

Attach your headlamp to your helmet securely, most climbing helmets include clips for this purpose. For added security take a short piece of 2-3mm cord and tie a simple keeper loop around both the lamp and the helmet (maybe through a vent or strap).

I often see climbers duct-tape headlamps to their helmets, and wear them all day. This seems silly, since personally I don’t like any extra weight on my head, and also since it exposes that crucial equipment to damage unnecessarily.

When it’s not in use, store your lamp in an easily accessible location in your pack, or your pocket. If you have no pack, but are carrying shoes for a descent, stuff the headlamp into a shoe (making sure to clip it’s strap through a biner).

The back of my helmet, with my Storm headlamp secured.

A strip of reflective tape on the back of your helmet (the red strip in the photo) will help your partner see you in the dark, and could also be useful in rescue scenarios.

IN THE CHILL OF THE NIGHT

In addition to lacking light, of course, night also lacks the warmth. During long summer missions, on which you’re likely to be out past dark, a few layers will prevent tons of misery. Even if it’s warm out when you begin climbing, consider packing a light Down Vest and Windbreaker combo, just under 400 grams. You could share these items as a team, since the leader is likely to be warm by virtue of movement, and only the belayer will really feel the chill.

Another way to keep both climbers warm is to lead in blocks. While swinging leads, one climber must belay up his partner, and then belay again as his partner now leads. This long period of immobility will sap one’s warmth. By leading in blocks, no climber will need to belay for more than one pitch consecutively, keeping both partners more active and warm.

NIGHT VISION

Finally, while I don’t think this is a good idea while actually climbing, I do really like turning off the lights and acclimating my eyes to the dark. Especially if there’s a good moon, I often find that I can follow a trail easily with only night vision. This is good because it helps you feel more aware of the world around you, and not just the tiny spot of light cast by your lamp. You’ll see the big features that help with navigation, like mountains and ridges, not to mention the stars!

If you do need a brief moment of light to read a map or cross a tricky spot, try to use a red light so that you’ll be able to click it off again and maintain night vision.

If the terrain is rough enough that you do need a constant light, try holding your headlamp in your hand, down at waist height. The angle brings rocks and roots on the trail into greater contrast, and allows you to use a dimmer setting, which both preserves your night vision and batteries.

One Response to Night Ops

  1. Caroline Maclennan says:

    Do you have a reference for the Rebuffat quote?

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