“For me the most fun of climbing was bivouacking, getting up in a wall and sleeping in god-awful conditions, in hammocks or just hanging from your ropes all night trying to sleep. You really get into the rhythm of the wall. It’s all about the process, not the goal”, said American rock climber and outdoor industry billionaire Yvon Chouinard. Think of the most challenging trek you’ve been on, big or small, one week long or even just a day trek. Just think of a trek that was personally challenging for you as an individual. Think back to that one moment where you’ve reached a significant height, when the air is chilly and bites into your hitched breath, when parts of your skin tingle with the effort you’ve put, when your heart is busily hammering inside your chest. And as your heartbeat rings in a steady rhythm inside your ears, your cheeks, probably frozen and burnt under the Sun, break out into this massively big lopsided grin over your whole face. You would have probably stared at the peaks and the panoramic views for as long as the Sun didn’t snatch away the light. I asked you to visualize that moment because beyond the obvious beauty that one finds themselves immersed in during a trek, there’s the fact that human beings challenge and test their own bodies to reach somewhere and that’s a thing of beauty in itself. We chase that rush of adrenaline just as much as the admirable views’ nature offers. And it is maddd adventurers who devour a taste of adrenaline who venture into something called bivouacking, sleeping in snowed in caves, in sleeping bags hanging by ropes and sometimes even that is a luxury.
Literally, the term bivouac means “a usually temporary encampment with little or no shelter”. But tracing back to its origin back in the 18th century, the French word then meant a night watch by the whole army. This was probably picked from the German word “biwacht” which signified “additional guard at night”. Overtime it came to be used for how at times an army had to make shelter just about anywhere. The tides of time transformed it to denote the crux of the word to be a temporary or improvised shelter bare minimum essentials. Sometimes a temporary shelter of a bivouac may have been undertaken even without any supplies, simply out in the open with your guts and grit keeping you going in the absence of any form of roof above your head. Although a number of adrenaline junkies now seek out bivouac as a choice, as a thrill they want to experience, the reality is that adventurers have had to make basic bivouacs since ages and not always out of choice but as a consequence of unexpected adversities. Today, we’re looking at 5 of the deadliest bivouacs of all times!
Where: Nanga Parbat
Altitude: 26,242 ft
No conversation about mountaineers and their deadly doings can be complete without the name of Hermann Buhl. The Austrian alpinist stunned the mountaineering community when back in 1953 he became the first person to ascent Nanga Parbat, solo and that too without any bottled oxygen! Although accompanied by a team initially, Buhl eventually left them behind as they couldn’t match up to his pace. He summitted at 7 pm, took in his surroundings and was starting to descent when he turned back to get a rock to take back home for his wife. Aww, right? However, just as he started to commence his descend, he realized that even an experienced climber like him would meet face front with disaster if he continued to return in pitch darkness. By this point he even lost a crampon. Above 8,000 metres, in the blackened air, with just one crampon Buhl took the call to bivouac. Where? On a ledge with just one handhold. The man didn’t have enough space to even squat, so, he stood (yes, stood!) on the ledge all night long in an area labelled as the “Death Zone” on account of the plummeting oxygen levels. As daylight emerged, he descended and returned to camp 41 hours after he had left it, both frostbitten and hallucinating. This is thus not only one of the earliest bivouacs during a climb but also one with no basic comfort to say the least.
Where: Siula Grande
Altitude: 20,813 ft
Joe Simpson, author of “Touching the Void” is more popularly known as “the man who fell to Earth”, a name earned on account of living one of the biggest survival stories ever told. Joe and Simon Yates were the first two people to ever climb the western face of Siula Grande perched in the Peruvian Andes. Climbing “alpine style”, they carried everything for the entire trek with themselves. They dug snow caves as their bivouac every night. On day 4, as they were descending Joe’s axe suddenly gave away causing him to break his knee. Yates sat in the snow, tied their ropes to Joe’s belly and started lowering him down the 3,000 ft face of the mountain. They had two ropes of 150 ft each which they combined. Yates would first lower Joe, then Joe would remove his weight from the rope which Yates would subsequently use to descend himself. This was repeated multiple times but then Joe found himself slipping. Yates failed to hear him due to the deafening winds. And then, Joe sailed off of an overhanging cliff’s edge, hanging in mid-air nearly 80 feet above a massive crevasse below. When Yates gave the rope a tug for Joe to take off his weight, neither could Joe do so nor could he convey this to Yates. Yates waited for a considerable amount of time but started to slip. Believing Joe to be dead, he cut the rope. Joe fell and bivouacked inside a crevasse! He crawled, hopped and miraculously made his way back to camp 3 days later. In his countless narrations, Joe has himself stated how he thought he was surely dead at multiple points but somehow, he kept going making his story a testament to the burning desire for survival at all costs.
Will Unsoeld, Tom Hornbein, Barry Bishop and Luke Jerstad
Where: Mount Everest
Altitude: 28,000 ft
During an Everest expedition in 1963, mountaineers Willi Unsoeld and Hornbein decided that the South Col route wasn’t adventurous enough for them. Back then the route had seen only 10 ascents and yet they itched to take a challenge further. They became the first to take the West Ridge route to the summit, a bold decision because that meant cliffs to the top! After reaching the top they realized that they would have to climb down the other side. While attempting their descend, they met other team members Barry Bishop and Luke Jerstad who had taken the South Col route. Not only was it past 6pm, they were also disoriented and low on oxygen by this point of time. With night taking over its dark reign, the four back then made the world’s highest bivouac at 28,000 ft! Frostbite did quite the number on all of them with Unsoeld losing 9 toes! Fortunately, they lived to share this experience about which Hornbein had to say that “The night was overpoweringly empty … Mostly there was nothing. We hung suspended in a timeless void … Intense cold penetrated, carrying with it the realization that each of us was completely alone. No team now, just each of us, imprisoned with his own discomfort, his own thoughts, his own will to survive.” I imagine that the night would have remained vividly clear in each of their heads till their dying breaths. Would they have remembered the blistering cold? The winds howling away at them? The impending unknown decision of their fate? And yet, somewhere a voice whispered to them, keeping their will alive so much so that not only would they live to see another day but to also climb many more mighty mountains!
Altitude: 27,000 ft
While music may have you singing “I’m a savage” with scowls, eyerolls and oomph in place, the real savage, ladies and gentlemen, is none other than K2 – the savage mountain! A name it has lived up to with stats that suggest that for every 4 who seek to summit this peak, 1 person dies. The first to be in the mountain’s good graces must be Lou Reichardt and Jim Wickwire who were the first to successfully summit it in 1978. But the summit wasn’t just made n all emboldened manner. A series of seemingly small mistakes led Wickwire to his summit, from dropping hot water on his down jacket and sleeping bag which he left behind to dropping his water bottle midway to deciding to change the film in his camera after summitting. This last decision caused a half an hour’s gap between Reichardt and Wickwire who was then forced to bivouac in his bivvy sack. He dug a ledge 450 feet below the summit but realized he had slipped 30 feet below after a while. Without supplemental oxygen, a headlamp or a stove the night got bitterly cold and long. His teammates thought that as per statistics the man would surely die. However, as teammates Ridgeway and Roskelley attempted their summit the next morning they saw an apparition amidst a thick cloud, Wickwire. He went onto assure them that he could descend alone. He mentioned that towards the end of his ascent of K2 he had started to think of his wife and kids to distract him. And I think it was probably them again whom he thought of in his snow ledge when the Savage Mountain not only let him climb successfully but also let him survive his night unplanned atop her.
Dougal Haston and Doug Scott
Where: Mount Everest
Altitude: 28,750 ft
And of course, lastly, we come to the world’s highest bivouac ever. Although the bivouac was made in 1975 it has till date remained the highest in the history of mountaineering. This feat was achieved by Dougal Haston and Dough Scott. The two Britishers were setting the record for climbing Everest from Southwest face when they were unaware that would get forced into setting another world record! When they were commencing their descend at 6pm the darkness pushed them into this decision. So, at 28,750 feet they bivouacked by digging up a snow cave which they had dug earlier in the day. They expanded it and got in for the night, a long one at that. Their oxygen was cut by two thirds. The weather got frostier as the night progressed. And to make matters worse they even endured hallucinations. Lack of oxygen is only increased at such altitudes and naturally they ran out of their supplies because they hadn’t pictured this scenario. It’s remarkable how each of these bivouacs was an unplanned one and fascinatingly the mountaineers came out alive and well, on the other side. Luckily, the generally unavoidable frostbite in these situations was successfully avoided by Haston and Scott. And after their treacherous night they made it back to the highest camp at 9am. I picture a surge of emotions would have followed and relief would have tasted sweeter than ever.
Thus, bivouacs have seen many forms through the course of time, sometimes completely open, sometimes under a tree, inside a cave or what not. Today, a number of adventurers’ plan for a bivouac and head out but some of the deadliest ones have all been unplanned ones. A bivouac isn’t always just an adventure, it is a decision and one that can prove to be life altering. What strikes me most is how even after facing such experiences, none of the above climbers ever stopped. Their passion kept stirring them to go on and on no matter what adversities came their way. As Hermann Buhl said, “Mountaineering is a relentless pursuit. One climbs further and further yet never reaches the destination. Perhaps that is what gives it its own particular charm. One is constantly searching for something never to be found.”
Click here to read about five inspiring Indian male mountaineers!