Sleeping On A Portaledge

There I was, lying dormant on a thin sheet of nylon that suspended me high up on the side of a cliff. Instead of managing my gear and double-checking my systems, I was sleeping.

I’ll never forget the first time I slept on a portaledge. I was on my very first aid climb in Zion National Park, climbing Moonlight Buttress. I remember lying there in the dark, hovering over a massive void below. Abe was playing some music on his iPhone while I gazed at the stars and the dark cliff looming above us. That was the beginning of a new addiction.

To date, I’ve collectively spent seven nights on the side of a cliff. By no means am I a seasoned or passionate AID climber. I’d rather spend my time free climbing fun trad and sport routes. However, the opportunity to sleep on the side of a cliff is what gets me to dust off my etriers and ascenders at least once a year. I used to think that backpacking into a remote wilderness to sleep under the stars was amazing, but sleeping on a portaledge—even with the noisy buses of Zion National Park below me—easily takes the cake.

My vertical camping adventures have sprung up some interesting questions from family members, friends, associates, and strangers. In fact, I was once “interrogated” by an old couple from Boston on the shuttle bus in Zion…our conversation went a bit like this:

Q: Wow! What’s all that gear for?
A: Oh, we just spent a couple of days climbing one of the cliffs in the canyon.

Q: Couple of days!? Did you sleep at all?
A: Yea, we slept on the cliff.

Q: How?
A: On a portaledge. It’s kind of like a flat hammock that hangs off the side of the cliff.

Q: How do you get it up there? Do you have to climb with it on your back?
A: First we climb up, and then we use a rope to pull the portaledge, along with “the pig,” up to us.

Q: How do you keep yourself from rolling off in your sleep?
A: We stay tied into our ropes that are connected to the wall, even when we are in our sleeping bags. If we rolled off or in the event that our portaledge were to tip over, our ropes would eventually catch us.

Q: What about going to the bathroom?
A: See this PVC pipe? That’s our toilet.

Q: You have to poop in that small tube?
A: Almost. We do our business into a bag first, tie it off, and then stash it in the tube.

Q: How stable are those portaledges?
A: As long as you keep all the weight distributed…pretty stable. Sometimes one of the sides will suddenly drop if one of us shifts our weight the wrong way. That always shakes me up. I always hold onto my “lifeline” when my partner gets up in the middle of the night to stand on the edge to take pee. You never know if he’s going to “capsize the boat.”

Q: What type of certification or formal training do you need to be able to do that?
A: None. However, you do need to learn how to aid climb and how to rig all the associated systems to be able to do it safely, but there is no formal schooling that is required to camp on a cliff.

Q: Can I take your picture?
A: Why not!?

If sleeping on a portaledge is one of those items on your ever-growing bucket list, go for it…even if the last resort is to hang one at the top of some random single-pitch route at your local crag. You’ll never regret having done it. You might just get addicted to it.

With an addiction like that, you’re better off just learning how to aid climb. This will require you to accumulate your own “kit” of aid climbing gear. Here is what I use and highly recommend:

Etriers: The Singing Rock Jacob 5 Etrier is a 5-step etrier that has proven to be very durable and reinforced for long wear. The steps are designed to stay open and are comfortably rigid. Another great option that will be hitting the market soon is the Singing Rock 4 Step Etrier.

Daisy Chain: I really like the “chain-link” style daisy chains like the Grivel Daisy Chain “GDC”. Each loop is rated at 22kN and the chances of improperly using it are next to none. Another great option is the Singing Rock Safety Chain Daisy System.

Ascenders: I’ve been using the Kong Lift Ascenders to safely get me to the top my ropes. Another great option that will be hitting the market soon is the Grivel A&D Ascender, designed with a built-in descender.   

Haul Bag: I haul up my gear and supplies with the Grivel Haul Bag. It’s design makes hiking the approach and hauling the route a better experience. If you are hauling smaller loads, check out the Grivel Haul Pack.

Swivel: The Grivel Roll Swivel is a must have when hauling up the portaledge and “pig.” I also use two Grivel Delta screw-lock carabiners to connect it all to the rope.

Gear Sling: The Grivel Lynx 13+ Gear Sling is amazing. It combines a vest-style gear sling with a 13-liter rucksack. The best thing about it is that the rucksack is detachable. You can even detach just one of the sides to swing the rucksack around to the front to access its contents without ever taking it all the way off.

Gloves: I’m a fan of using finger-less gloves like the Singing Rock Grippy Leather Gloves on an aid-route. Without these, your knuckles will be shredded after the first day on the wall.

Do you have questions about portaledges that you’d like to have answered or do you have some cool portaledge stories you’d like to share? We’d love to hear them. Please leave your questions and stories in the comments and we’ll do our best to respond to each one.

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