What Life’s Really Like 1,400 Feet Up a Big Wall
While living on a portaledge—a suspended platform about the size of a double bed—you still need to perform basic bodily functions, including, yes, answering calls of nature. This is how it works.
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My last climbing project was a 2,400-foot, 5.14b climb named Mora Mora. Located in Tsaranoro, Madagascar, the climb was bolted by Toti Vales and Francisco Vales in 1999, and free climbed by Adam Ondra in 2010. It had gone unrepeated since.
Last month, Edu Marin and I traveled to Madagascar for three weeks to complete the climb. While there, we spent ten nights living on the wall. Now, in order to free climb a big wall like this, we needed to start from the bottom and send—climb without falling, using only the rock, with zero aid gear—from the bottom to the top in one consecutive push. That ultimately successful ascent took us three days.
Before the final push, we placed our portaledge (think: a flat hammock) just below the 5.14b pitch, roughly 1,400 feet off the ground. Here’s how we lived on it for the next 10 days.
Eating and Drinking
Our main goal when it came to meal prep was efficiency: everything needed to be planned out to the last ounce of water and energy bar.
Every day, we rationed two liters of water for each of us. So when we packed our bags for the final three-day ascent, we were carrying along twelve liters of water total. We had to maximize calories, so we brought along lots of dense bars and snacks. I had homemade nut and oat bars, as well as rice cakes from a recipe I got out of Alan Skratch’s cookbook. I’d take a roll of white rice, then fill it with peanut butter, bacon and maple syrup. We also packed bread, honey, jam, beef, turkey jerky, canned fish, prepared pasta in zip-lock bags, and whisky. I need caffeine in the mornings, so while we didn’t have a JetBoil up there (an open flame on a portaledge can be dangerous), I’d bring a can of Red Bull (Disclaimer: They're also one of my sponsors), and espresso in a thermos.
To get all this stuff up to our aerial camp, we placed it in a haul bag, which is specifically designed to be durable enough that it won’t shred to pieces as you pull it up a cliff. In order to haul is up, we used a mini traxion and a jumar. We attached the haul bag to a static line and pulled the load up on a rope that we used just for this purpose.
Imagine living for ten days on a double bed and you'll have some idea of what portaledge life is like. The two-person model we used is 84 inches long by 51 wide. To set it up, we hung in the anchor point on the wall, then constructed a web of metal poles and fabric that came together like a flat tent.
Because the weather was warm and dry, we opted to ditch the upper portion of the portaledge, which would have served as wind and rain protection, to save weight—and so we could see the stars.
While on the wall, I was always in my Petzl Hirundos harness, though, when I slept, I slipped off the leg loops and just left the waist band.
Going to the Bathroom
Have you ever been shy to go to the bathroom when you’re on a date at someone else’s house? Well, when you're living on a portaledge, there's no room for such modesty.
For guys, peeing with a harness on is really easy: just stand up and point off the side of the platform. Ladies have it harder. We need to squat off the side and maneuver our pants down while wearing a harness. It’s not as difficult as you may think, it just takes some balance while perching off the side of the metal beams, with a large vertical drop below.
Going number two is even less sexy. In this scenario, you have plastic bags that you go into, which you then tightly close and put into a “poop tube”—a smell-proof, leak-proof container. I think of it as a mobile Porta-Potty.