Big thanks to Backcountry Access for sponsoring this avalanche education content. Check out the additional plethora of avalanche safety resources on their website.
(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 http://suncalc.net/)
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.)