Say YES to Alpine Starts — Say NO to your Snooze Button!

Post by blogger | May 3, 2018      
Early to rise has many benifits.

Early to rise has many benefits.

(Note from Lou: We’ve had this kicking around in the WildSnow echo chamber for quite a while, figured it was due for a re-pub. Comments appreciated, what are your techniques for early starts?)

The avalanche fell in May, at about noon. Like a bulldozer blade it scoured every living thing from the east face of a huge Colorado 14,000-foot peak. Of the three people climbing the face on South Maroon Peak when the avalanche hit, only one, the guide, survived. Those who witnessed the tragedy* knew the mountain well — they’d climbed the same route earlier that morning. All too obviously, the stable morning snow they’d kicked steps up had transmogrified to a killer. Perhaps this late-season slide left one survivor to spread a lesson: You can never start a real adventure too early in the day.

Indeed, the “alpine start” is among the simplest and most important techniques of mountaineering. Be on the snow before sunrise and you’ll not only raise your odds of survival, you’ll also feel stronger, get more turns, snap superior photos, gawk more views, enjoy better weather, rest more, and catch the tastiest snow.

1. Stronger
Use the added time from an early start to pace yourself, eat more, and spend time adjusting your clothing and pack. You’ll feel better all day.

2. More vertical
More time and appropriate pace equal more vertical climbed, and subsequently more turns. Rather than an extended morning snooz, relax when you return from the mountains, while basking in the warm glow of your success.

3. Safety
The big one. If nothing else, an early start means plenty of daylight to handle unforeseen challenges of nearly any variety, including accidents. The difference could be between spending the night on a mountainside or taking a helicopter flight on a warm afternoon. Most important, in many snowpacks (especially in spring) sun heat weakens bonds and leads to extreme instability later in the day. Nothing is worse than the slow grinding of a wet slab avalanche breaking your body.

4. Photos
Photogs call morning the “magic hour” for good reason. The pinkish diffuse light just after sunrise makes stunning photos easier to acquire. What’s more, sideways “rake light” of the morning gives the snow pleasing detail, rather than the “chalk board” harsh look of photos taken when the sun is high in the sky. Even the best Photoshop artists have a hard time duplicating these effects, they’re best captured in real life.

A person is only allotted so many sunrises in their lifetime. I kick myself for every one I’ve missed while eating breakfast in the confines of a lodge or while brewing tea in a tent. Have you ever seen an ugly sunrise in the mountains? Time your start so you’re above the timber when the first god-beams shoot from the horizon, and that golden orb humps up from the peaks in a display that makes the best photos look like crayon drawings.

6. Weather
In most mountain ranges, weather is usually better in the morning. Even in the midst of a storm, you may get a morning window when clouds lift and precipitation diminishes due to diminished atmospheric heating. In spring and summer, mountain mornings often mean crisp sky that will later fill with thunder clouds. Dig through mountain accident accounts and you’ll find that lightning strikes cause countless deaths and injuries. Almost all such misfortune could have been avoided if the victims had started a few hours earlier.

7. Rest
With an early start, you’ll be back from your descent in time for a warm siesta. If you’re camping you can enjoy sleeping in the cozy warmth of early evening. Often, during the spring season, hardcore lightweight mountaineers bring underrated sleeping bags to save weight. They sleep in the afternoon and early night, waking to travel during the coldest part of the night.

8. Better skiing and snowboarding
Even in the dead of winter the sun can damage your powder stash. Other skiers can too. Beat those evildoers to the punch! In spring, corn can be terrific when it ripens in the morning, then turns to yucky muck soon after. Better to be early and wait for perfect velvet rather than make a sweaty climb just to turn around and ski crud.

(Caveat: It’s not uncommon for springtime ski mountaineers to summit a bit too early in the day, before the snow ripens. Such situations can lead to skiing steep, frozen snow that’s quite dangerous in terms of fall potential. Good planning and patience are key. More, during your pre-trip research pay attention to slope aspect. Runs that receive first sun-hit are of course where your early start has the most benefit, while east or northerly goals could advance your necessary start time by hours. Some guidebook authors attempt to give “first sun hit” for their routes, usually as a “sunrise +” figure. Lacking that kind of detail, you can get a good sense of sun hit by using sun calculators such as

Even considering all the above, it’s surprising how few mountaineers understand the alpine start, and how hard they resist it. In Colorado, where early starts are often especially important for safety with our spring snowpack (which may never really consolidate), I’ve had countless trip-planning conversations that turned became negotiations about start time. They usually go something like this:

“Let’s start early so we’ll get the best snow and the most safety.”

“Ohhhhhhh brother, what’s that mean?”

“Well, sunrise is 7:00, it’ll take us an hour to drive and three hours to climb the peak, so I’ll pick you up at 3:30, that should result in us being at the top of the route just after the sun hits, with some cushion built in.”

“What!?” “How about 4:10? I’m just not a morning person.”

“Would 3:35 be okay?”

“3:37 would be better — I need my sleep.”

What’s the big deal? Scientific studies show we can skip a night of sleep with only a slight drop in physical and mental performance. Sure, it takes a few moments for most people to get moving when they get up before the bedtime they’re used to, but once you snap those creaky joints a few times, you’ll feel pretty much normal until the afternoon. By then you’ve returned to home or camp and it’s siesta time.

After decades of super early starts, I’ve figured out a few tricks that make it easier. If you’re serious and plan quite a few early mornings, adjust your sleep schedule the same way you adjust to a new time zone. Force yourself to bed earlier, use a sleep aid if necessary, and give yourself about three nights to adjust. No need to get up at the exact time you plan for your mountaineering trips, but setting your normal rise time to 5:00 A.M. will make that special 3:00 A.M. getup feel much more civilized.

Regarding caffeine, enjoy your normal morning dose. But don’t expect excessive consumption to compensate for a sleep deficit. You’re better off letting your body self-regulate by reacting to your cardio demands as needed.

For the occasional “sub-alpine” start, try forcing yourself to bed a bit earlier the night before. Most people live with a sleep deficit, so you might find it easier to nod off than you think. Again, a sleep aid may help. If your household is noisy, use earplugs or listen to mellow music with headphones. Curtain your windows. Avoid alcohol, which is known to disrupt normal sleep patterns and leave you dehydrated — or worse. Studies have shown that laying in bed awake, but consciously relaxing, has up to 75% the resting effect of sleep, so don’t be discouraged if you find yourself awake for a few hours. If all else fails, focus on the goal and remember that for us mountain folk, life is too much fun to spend sleeping.

“Breakfast” is an issue for many folks, especially if the start time is “super alpine” (around midnight or earlier). If you’ve enjoyed a reasonably sized dinner (hopefully earlier in the evening so as not to disrupt sleep) your body probably has a full store of nutrients and blood sugar. No need to cause unpleasantness by choking down a “breakfast” at midnight. Simply skip eating till a few hours into your climb (don’t forget!) or begin with small quantities of a carbo/protein combo you know your stomach can tolerate (experiment at home). Do be sure to start thoroughly hydrated (yet do not over-hydrate).

*(Notes: The avalanche accident used as an example occurred in June of 1992, victims were G. Brent Cameron, 58, and Marcie Cameron, 55. Most expert climbers familiar with the Maroon Peaks of Colorado agree that if the group had been on the snow earlier in the morning, they would quite possibly still be alive. But that’s of course conjecture based on overall experience, not exact facts. While the temperature state of May snow in Colorado is a huge factor in avalanche safety, other parameters are always in play as well. For example, spring storms can bring winter-like conditions that require a shift of your mindset back to the avalanche safety protocols you use in the midst of winter.)


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20 Responses to “Say YES to Alpine Starts — Say NO to your Snooze Button!”

  1. Eric Steig May 3rd, 2018 9:55 am

    Spot on, Lou!

    Some years ago I was taking some friends to go up in the Indian Peaks, Colorado front range. I told them we needed to leave at 6:00 at the very latest to get to the top of Mt. Toll by 11:00, to avoid getting struck by lightning.

    Predictably they were ready at … 6:30.

    We got to the top at 11:30. Lightning all around us just as we arrived.
    We ran like hell through torrential rain all the way back to the car.

    They just looked sheepish when I said, “I told you so”.

  2. NT May 3rd, 2018 10:16 am

    Good points. I’ve gone through periods of struggling with the early start. Having a kid has gotten me into getting up early most every morning so it’s not a big deal anymore. is a great resource for sun hit analysis. It will shade areas on a map that are in shadow or sun. And to add to the sunrise/photography benefit- you can also do a viewshed analysis to see what can be seen from a specific point. “How high do I need to be to be able to see that distant mountain past the ridge? Ah, that’s where I need to be.”

    Early starts also help avoid rockfall.

  3. NT May 3rd, 2018 10:18 am

    Forgot to add that I’ve gotten into trouble from rationalizing about how much the wind or clouds will delay corn-o-clock. Seems to be better to just get up top and then hunker down and wait for it to soften. Then you have time to enjoy the view.

  4. Mdibah May 3rd, 2018 12:37 pm

    Depending on how reliable your friends are, a good rule of thumb I’ve found when coordinating alpine starts is to plan on each additional person delaying the departure by 15 minutes and to compensate accordingly when planning. This helps account for the probability that someone in the group had a flat tire / had to get gas / had to go buy headlamp batteries / … increases as the group size increases. This is another great argument for not skiing in larger groups.

    Also, make sure that everyone in the party is clear on an absolute departure time—the caravan leaves the parking lot / trailhead no later than this time, no exceptions. Doesn’t matter if “they’re just five minutes away and running late because the coffee shop didn’t open on time.” Getting left behind on an alpine start after showing up late is a strong teacher—all the suffering of being up stupid early, none of the rewards. Such people will learn to be prompt next time…

  5. VtVolk May 3rd, 2018 1:30 pm

    Great article. Two tips spring to mind, writing as very much NOT a morning person:

    1) I set a different alarm tone for dawn patrol days. Instead of subconsciously hitting snooze a few (several) times like I do on work days, I now spring out of bed psyched and ready when I hear the bells of adventure ring, no matter how early it is. Pavlovian response at its best.

    2) On a recent Sierra trip where we were camping at altitude, making a thermos of coffee with dinner the night before and keeping it in my sleeping bag meant that my partners and I had hot coffee to drink while still in our sleeping bags the next morning. It certainly made the rest of the early morning routine much happier and I think we were likely on our skins and off towards the day’s objective quicker as a result. We all agreed the extra weight was well worth it.

  6. Lou Dawson 2 May 3rd, 2018 2:40 pm

    Ditto on the pre-brewed coffee or tea in a thermos. Works at home too. Lou

  7. OMR May 3rd, 2018 6:06 pm

    Great post Lou. I’d emphasize to fight the urge to stay long just because you have the rest of the day to blow and your ski partners might be over-achievers, thinking that any daylight is ski light. Kick them (and yourself) in the ass by late morning and go home. Don’t give in to the peer pressure to keep skiing till dark. It violates all reason for the dawn patrol.

  8. Bar Barrique May 3rd, 2018 8:56 pm

    This is good “generally true” advice, but, there are other things to consider.
    First; what were the overnight temperatures? If they were above freezing, any stability issues from the previous day might persist.
    It is a good idea to track temperatures at higher altitudes for a few days before your trip (snow-forecast is a good source for some areas, as well as air nav. sources).
    If overnight freezing has been consistent, I might opt for a later start.
    A big problem is; let do Mountain X next Saturday, and, then the weather does not cooperate.
    If it is warmer than expected, lower angle stuff can good fun, and, it’s great to be out on a warm spring day.

  9. Roman May 4th, 2018 1:45 am

    Hi Lou

    Tried to find the answer on your super website. Could not find so i ask:

    Is there a way to reduce forward lean of an TLT 6 P?

    Thank you for your answer.


    Roman (Switzerland)

  10. Nate Porter May 4th, 2018 7:10 am

    “Rise free from care before the dawn and seek adventure” Thoreau. Early starts are almost always the way to go in the mountains, especially where safety issues related to warming could be an issue. If nothing else, you get a jump on the day, get more adventure in and get home sooner with the rest of the day to do what you want. Sometimes though, I’ve gotten an early start only to wait around for visibility or conditions to improve. And, dusk patrol can also be a satisfying time of day to be out.

  11. Lou 2 May 4th, 2018 7:35 am

    Just flip the “forward lean insert,” the small aluminum plate that the Ultralock “finger” fits in. Changes lean by “3 degrees” according to Dynafit. Lou

  12. Roman May 4th, 2018 7:41 am

    Thank you Lou

    Wouldn’t that increase forward lean?

  13. Lou Dawson 2 May 4th, 2018 8:22 am

    Depends on what it’s set at presently.

    The only other ways to reduce forward “lean” are to make sure you don’t have too much liner thickness behind your calf, and along with that perhaps add a shim under your forefoot. Beyond those things, sometimes looking at the binding ramp angle is where to put your attention. Lou

  14. Roman May 4th, 2018 9:37 am

    So, there are no „aftermarket“ inserts available that solve the problem?

  15. Lou Dawson 2 May 4th, 2018 10:25 am

    Try contacting B&D


  16. Paolo May 6th, 2018 9:07 am

    Hello, i’d have some questions about dynafit vertica ft and st, but i can’t comment your post about
    I bought a used ski with a dynafit vertical st, it’s very used and loose a lot when i put my weight forward. Is the plastic, or the metal spindle the cause of the loose? I have a pair of old vertical ft 12that i don’t use because i had broken skies, it’s solid and it does not have problems. I can use it’s hell unit on the spindle of the st, are they compatible? Does this work need that i dismount the whole binding from the ski (i think no)?
    Thanks from Italy

  17. Lou Dawson 2 May 6th, 2018 9:28 am

    Hi Paolo, yeah, I keep comments disabled for older posts, to prevent hidden spam floods. Sorry about that.

    I’d have to look at the heel to see what’s causing play, best is you just unmount the old and mount the better. Dismounting is no big deal. Sometimes the base of the binding heel spindle will wallow out damage in the ski topskin, causing play, by unmounting you can check for that.


  18. Mike Marolt May 6th, 2018 7:22 pm

    Rule of thumb for me (in the Elks anyway) is if it’s warmer than 42degrees in town at 4:01 AM go back to sleep. If cold, get up and get to the trail no later than 5:30. For the longer routes, subtract an hour or what you anticipate you need. If cold rule works, 9AM on top of any peak on the planet or don’t go.

  19. Paolo May 7th, 2018 9:34 am

    Thanks Lou, I tried to invert spindle and plastic body of the two bindings (st with loose and newer ft) , the result is that plastic and metal are both worn, after the inversion both bindings have loose. So i think I’ll put bushin on the holes of the skies and I’ll use the newer ft.

  20. Gary Hollenbaugh May 7th, 2018 5:37 pm

    As this quote from Leslie Stephens on his climb of the Schreckhorn in 1861 demonstrates, our ability to arise for early starts has fallen victim to our comfortable lifestyles: “An early start is of course always desirable before a hard day’s work but it rises to be almost agreeable after a hard night’s rest.”

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