I hate night-time ascents.
Half a night’s sleep, waking up in the dark, in a freezing cold tent, and getting dressed by the beam of a head torch.
Trying to have breakfast in the middle of the night when you’re not remotely hungry.
Waiting around in the cold night air for your companions to get ready.
Trudging for hours in the pitch blackness and seeing nothing at all of your surroundings. All you watch for hour after hour are the legs of the person in front by the beam of a head torch.
Getting increasingly cold as the night goes on (the coldest part of the night is just before dawn) and yearning for the sunrise and the chance to warm up again.
Having no photographs of your ascent to remember it by.
(Sometimes) slowing down as you approach the top, and waiting in the cold because you realise it’s still going to be dark when you reach the summit.
Descending the mountain tired, during daylight, and discovering what you missed on the way up.
Being tired for the rest of the day because you got up in the middle of the night after only half a night’s sleep.
With all these negatives ruining your enjoyment of a climb, you might be wondering why people climb mountains at night. Well, sometimes it’s necessary. Here are some reasons.
On some alpine routes, you need to climb before the sun hits the slopes and melts the ice. Once the sun is up, there’s an increased risk of rockfall and avalanches, and of crevasses opening up.
In some parts of the world, days start crisp and clear, but cloud over sometime in the morning. In these places it’s good to reach the summit early before the views disappear into cloud.
Sometimes an ascent is so long that it might be impossible to complete it entirely during daylight. In these situations it may be better to climb in darkness at the start of your ascent, while you are still fresh, rather than at the end, when you are tired.
Some people like to experience the sunrise from the top of a mountain (personally I don’t care whether I see the sunrise down below, or halfway up, and it’s never as important to me as the climb itself).
Sometimes none of these conditions apply, but people still get up early and climb during the night. This often happens on popular, guided peaks, where climbing at night has become the norm, and reaching the summit is considered more important than enjoying the experience.
In Ecuador it has become the norm to start the climbs of the glaciated volcanoes at the stupidly early time of midnight. But apart from Chimborazo, they are not really big enough to justify this. On Cayambe last year we reached the summit just as dawn was breaking. I was very grumpy because I’d completed the majority of the climb and not seen a single thing (some people say that the summit is only halfway, but in reality it usually takes 4 or 5 times as long to get up a mountain than it does to go back down again).
We had passed through some amazing ice formations on the way, but I was only vaguely aware of them and had not a single photograph of us climbing through them. I became increasingly cold as the climb went on, and by the time we reached the summit my fingers were so freezing I could barely operate my camera. Taking my mitts off to do so only made them colder. Aside from my summit photos, I only have a handful of photos of that day, and they were all taken on the way down.
There is another way. On Aconcagua it has also become the norm to start summit day in the small hours, but in 2010 I was lucky enough to climb it with an enlightened guide, Augusto Ortega. We set off at 7.30, when the sun was already hitting the slopes, but he told us to put our head torches in our packs in case we returned after dusk. We didn’t need them, and I enjoyed every minute of the ascent, tiring as it was.
I’ve just completed my Christmas trip to Tanzania, where we climbed Mount Meru and Kilimanjaro. These are both mountains where night-time ascents have become the norm.
For us they were two contrasting ascents.
On Meru, we stuck to tradition and set off around 1am. We completed the entire ascent in darkness, after a few stops along the way to slow us down. We arrived on the summit just as the sun was rising, and once again I was very grumpy. To begin with, my fingers were too cold to take my mitts off and operate the camera, but it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. There was a great view down below me, but I knew it was too dark for any photos to come out. Luckily it wasn’t so cold to go down immediately, and we were able to wait half an hour for the sun. I had to discover the terrain on the way down, and once again, I have no photos at all of us going up.
Meru was our acclimatisation peak. On Kilimanjaro it was a different story, and we were determined not to make the same mistake. We were to end the day by camping in the crater, only 150m below the summit, so we had a much shorter descent than the rest of the trekkers. We were also pre-acclimatised from Meru, and far more experienced at high altitude than the majority of trekkers on the mountain. There was simply no need for us to set off at 1am like everyone else, and climb with the hordes.
So we left just after 4am, and had only two hours in darkness. We climbed alone, which is always more enjoyable than following a line of head torches, and asking people in front to let you past.
We were halfway up to Gillman’s Point when we watched the sunrise over Mawenzi across The Saddle. It was amazing, and it would have been worse from the summit, obscured by much of the crater.
Unlike on Meru I have lots of photos and video footage of our ascent. We made good time, and reached the summit in only five hours. The sky was still clear, but most of the other summiteers had got there before us, so we had the summit largely to ourselves. I was also warm, because the sun had been out for three hours. It was a magical experience that I will be writing about in more detail later.
Night-time ascents nearly always spoil the enjoyment of a climb, and should be avoided wherever possible. Not all guides see it this way, though. They believe their priority is to get their clients to the summit, and enjoying the experience is of secondary importance. In fairness to them, many of their clients may feel this way too.
But for those of us who are there to enjoy the whole thing and reach the summit as well, then it’s always preferable to delay the start for as long as possible to maximise climbing during daylight. If you’re a guide who feels this way too, then I would be happy to hear from you.