Big-wall climbing is one of the most extreme human-powered pursuits in the world. Ascending routes so long that they often take days, sometimes weeks, to complete, climbers haul hundreds of pounds of food, water, and gear along the way.
These steep and technical climbs take incredible skill, endurance, and planning, including plotting out where and how to sleep. Using a portaledge — a cot-like platform that hangs from the cliff — climbers get a night’s rest suspended hundreds, if not thousands, of feet above the ground.
We talked to professional big-wall climbers and married couple Bronwyn Hodgins and Jacob Cook about how sleeping on a portaledge works and what it feels like to rest with nothing but a whole lot of air beneath you.
What is big-wall climbing?
Big-wall climbing involves scaling cliffs so large that they typically cannot be ascended in a single day. How difficult a big-wall climb is depends on the climb’s length, location, and technical grade.
Big-wall climbing is more complex than other types of rock climbing because climbers pack everything they need to survive for days on the cliff. (Water is the heaviest item, with a week’s supply for two people sometimes weighing 100 pounds).
Most climbers use ropes and can only climb one rope length at a time — generally 200 feet. To deal with this, longer climbs are broken into smaller sections called pitches, which link up to create a multi-pitch route.
A pitch is essentially a rope length, or shorter, and it ends at a point where a climber can clip into an anchor system, taking their weight off the rope so they can belay the next person, protecting the second climber from a fall as they climb. When both climbers get to the checkpoint, they haul up their supplies. Then they start all over again, repeating the process, pitch by pitch, until they reach the top.
A classic big-wall climbing destination, El Capitan in California's Yosemite National Park is 3,000 feet tall. Its most famous route, the Nose, has 31 pitches and typically takes four to six days, and many nights perched on a portaledge, to accomplish.
Meet climbing partners Bronwyn Hodgins and Jacob Cook
Hodgins and Cook have collectively chalked up about 100 nights on big walls. Now based in Squamish, British Columbia, the couple first met 10 years ago through a mountaineering club at Leeds University in England.
Cook had been climbing his whole life, but Hodgins was new to the sport. They quickly became climbing partners and eventually started ticking off big walls worldwide, including putting up routes on Baffin Island in Northern Canada that no one had done before. They both have climbing achievements to be proud of, but after just a decade of climbing, Hodgins is now one of the best female big-wall climbers in the world—a quick progression to anyone familiar with the sport.
In November 2018, Hodgins became the first Canadian woman to free climb El Capitan with her five-day ascent of Freerider — the 3,000-foot route made famous (to non-climbers, anyway) by Alex Honnold in the Oscar-winning documentary “Free Solo.” (Free soloing is done without a rope. Free climbing — the way Hodgins climbs — is when you use a rope and place gear in the rock as a safety net but try to never put your weight on the gear or rope as you climb. The term “free climbing” means you’re climbing free from direct aid. Aid climbing is a style of climbing where you reach the top by any means necessary, pulling or hanging on gear to haul yourself up the cliff.)
In 2021, Hodgins was the third woman to free climb another iconic El Capitan route called Golden Gate — a 36-pitch route she completed in an eight-day push.
She is also an Association of Canadian Mountain Guides certified rock climbing guide, running specialized big-wall clinics and women’s-specific programming.
In addition to his professional climbing career, Cook is a mathematics professor at Quest University in Canada. Between gear, logistics, and managing vertical terrain, big-wall systems require a lot of problem solving, says Cook. “I’ve found that the math brain becomes really useful in those environments.”
The first time they both slept hanging off the side of a cliff, they were together in Utah’s Zion National Park. “We climbed a very famous line called Moonlight Buttress,” recalls Cook, “That was our first time [spending] the night on the wall in a portaledge.” Hodgins has since spent eight successive nights on a big wall, and Cook has spent seven.
How to sleep on a big wall using a portaledge
Athletes sometimes sleep in the strangest ways. To get sleep in big-wall environments, “the goal is to make a horizontal platform in vertical terrain,” says Cook. To bed down, climbers deploy a portaledge — a collapsible platform that hangs off the wall, serving as a suspended cot.
When it’s time to make camp for the night, the aluminum and nylon contraption is taken out of its carrying bag, unrolled, and snapped together. (There is a rain fly you can use if the weather is stormy or cold.) It’s not that different from setting up a standard tent, but instead of being staked into the ground, it’s clipped to metal bolts, webbing, and other gear that has been secured to the cliff. A portaledge isn’t just a floating bed; it also doubles as a kitchen, bathroom, and living room during a climbing team’s time on the wall.
There’s no need for an enclosed shelter when the weather’s nice, so climbers sleep in the open air, instead of using the rain fly. They’ll sleep with a lightweight sleeping pad and sleeping bag for comfort and warmth, the same gear that most campers opt for when sleeping in a tent.
Is sleeping on a portaledge safe?
As death-defying as it sounds, sleeping on a portaledge is incredibly safe (assuming you’ve set it up right). There’s no way to roll off a portaledge because climbers sleep in their harnesses, fastened to the wall with an independent rope. There’s always something to catch them.
A portaledge will rarely collapse, but it has happened. “If the portaledge were to collapse, we would fall a short distance before our independent tether came tight,” Cook explains. “Obviously, that would be a really unpleasant way to wake up, but it would not be game-over.”
Hodgins and Cook are in the business of risk management, having to constantly make decisions regarding the environment, hazards, and their safety. “You have real danger, and then you have this perceived danger,” she explains. “Existing in this environment, attached to the rock, you’re in a pretty safe position. If you can just convince yourself of that, then you can be relaxed.”
“You’re often working extremely physically hard during the day,” says Cook, “So I find that really helps because I'm so exhausted I'm not thinking too much about my surroundings.”
The biggest challenges of vertical camping
Beyond the obvious physical demands of big-wall climbing, there’s the equally taxing mental challenge that comes with asking your body to power down for the night in an environment seemingly inhospitable to humans.
Hodgins and Cook credit their ability to differentiate between rational and irrational fear as the key to sleeping so high up. “Learning to quiet the irrational fear has been what’s allowed me to sleep on these walls,” says Cook. “On the side of a cliff, I'm logically afraid of falling to my death, for obvious reasons. That's the worst-case scenario and I want to avoid that at all costs.” But by shifting the focus to how reliable his gear is, he’s able to quell the nerves and remain calm. “I'm attached to the mountain with equipment that is extremely secure, that I've tested hundreds of times, and I'm very confident that all of it's going to work. So in that sense, I'm actually in a very safe situation, even though it might appear on the outside like it's a very extreme situation.” Experience also plays a big role. “Being able to relax in that environment comes from years of working with this equipment and learning to really trust it,” says Cook, adding, “Sometimes, I’m even more than relaxed.”
Even if you can fall asleep, overnighting on a portaledge isn’t necessarily the most comfortable experience. “I don’t usually get an incredible non-interrupted eight hours of deep sleep when I’m up there,” says Hodgins, “But it’s not because of the fear, [and] it’s not because of the exposure.” Rather, she explains, it’s because you’re dirty, haven’t showered, and your partner might be shifting around the small platform. Plus, you’re wearing your harness and possibly even your helmet — not exactly ideal conditions.
However, it’s essential that big-wall climbers get good sleep because they need their bodies to deliver peak performance. Most of the time, Hodgins and Cook are so worn out from the day’s climb that drifting off at night is no problem. Other times, Hodgins and Cook will rely on a bit of melatonin to help kick off the relaxation process and prepare for sleep. Melatonin also helps regulate their sleep cycles if they’re traveling through several time zones and at risk of jet lag.
They are about to embark on a trip to Greenland, where they’ll experience 24-hour daylight. The pair will have a lot of freedom related to when they can climb and how long they can sleep, which they see as a huge benefit.
Regardless of where they go, they prep for the demands of the climb by getting a good night’s sleep before they start. “You let yourself be completely satisfied with your amount of sleep the night before and then set off really refreshed, which is great,” says Hodgins.
What does it feel like to sleep on a portaledge?
Despite the physical discomfort, both Hodgins and Cook enjoy the experience of sleeping on a portaledge immensely. “It’s actually a great place to sleep,” says Cook. “It’s really beautiful to wake up on the side of a cliff, seeing the sunrise from a portaledge [with] the feeling of air all around you in every direction—above and below and to the side.” (Fresh air, it turns out, can be really great for sleep.)
“I love camping on the side of a cliff,” Hodgins chimes in. “It’s just such a cool thing that humans can do. It feels almost surreal.”
When asked about their most memorable night’s sleeping on the side of a big wall, Cook is quick to answer, and his response isn’t about climbing, one of Mother Nature’s grand displays, or the exhilaration of sleeping a few thousand feet in the air. “Spending the night on portaledge with someone is special. It’s definitely one of the things that led to Bronwyn and I falling in love,” says Cook. “It’s quite a beautiful romantic place to wake up. My favorite memories have been doing this stuff with [her].”
For the married climbing partners, sleeping together on a portaledge, under the stars, gives a whole new meaning to the expression “love is in the air.”