This is the story of the custom-made hanging “porta-ledge” tent that Kitty Calhoun and I used on our epic 2-week attempt on the north face of Thalay Sagar in the Garwhal Himalaya, India. Elsewhere you can find our tale of extremely exposed climbing and starvation survival. In this article I’m adding a chapter to the history of porta-ledges as compiled here by the legendary big-wall climber and gear innovator John Middendorf.
Kitty and I went to Thalay in September of 1986. We were professional guides and climbing fanatics, but in Bellingham we were a bit isolated and we went to Thalay not knowing that the face was one of the most notorious unclimbed objectives in world alpinism. Many parties–mostly European elites–had tried the face, all by fixed rope sieges, going up and back down every day. Neither did we think of ourselves as gear pioneers. We just wanted to be ready for climbing in a faraway land on a cool-looking objective that I wrongly thought would be just moderately difficult.
The whole porta-ledge concept came about as climbers started taking on routes so big and continuously steep as to take many days and offer basically no place to lie down. The overhanging aid climbs on the east face of El Capitan was where climbers started bringing ledges. There, easy access and pulley-hauling in almost friction-less space made the extra weight of a ledge a minor concern. In the Himalaya though of course every pound burdens so much more. John Roskelley and his partners took porta-ledges on their first ascent of the granite wall of Uli Biaho in the Karakoram in 1979. Before that, the examples we had of extreme sleeping solutions in the Himalaya were Don Whillans’ (aluminum) boxes on Everest and Annapurna, and Peter Boardman and Joe Tasker’s suffer-fest of 20+ days on Changabang in Garwhal–sleeping in hammocks. I had found it pretty difficult to get a decent sleep in a hammock in comfortable Yosemite spring, and the thought of a week of extreme high-altitude vertical camping–melting ice for water and such while hanging like a sack of potatoes in bitter cold–sounded, well, Tasker and Boardman could have that.
It was Michael Kennedy, editor of Climbing, who recommended Thalay to me. He sent me a photo of the face, with one spot marked not quite halfway up as a possible bivvy. His attached note suggested that a porta-ledge might be helpful. His snowy picture was from a very stormy season and I interpreted the face as a snow climb with a few technical pitches in the upper-middle and near the top. It looked like there ought to be opportunities to dig sleeping spots, but it would be such a wasteful bummer to get there and realize we needed a porta-ledge and not have one. so I started calling around to gear designers.
It was just three months before the trip when I recruited Kitty as my partner. She had never been to Asia before, and neither had she ever climbed in Yosemite-wall style with hauling and jumaring and ledge or hammock sleeping, as I had. But she was very fit from a lot of alpine climbing, and she was as determined as any climber I’d ever met.
The main commercial ledge then was Gramicci’s, and their 2-person model weighed, as I recall, about 14 pounds. That seemed way too heavy. I called Jeff Lowe, and we talked how the whole idea of sleeping arrangements on severe alpine routes was a serious next-level challenge. He suggested that I should reconsider hammocks. I remember thinking yeah, the weight saving would make some suffering worthwhile for maybe a night or two with a good forecast. But…also in the equation was how, in a two-person porta-ledge partners can share a sleeping bag, staying extra warm and paring a good 3 pounds or so off the sleeping system. And I had a secret alpine weapon, a fairly lightweight yet very warm 2-person Gore-tex down bag complete with separate down “helmets.” This was the genius of my friend Chuck Kennedy, who had been a luminary in the outdoor and gear design scene in Arcata, CA, while I was going to college there at Humboldt State. Chuck’s little company was called Down Home. Back then I worked for our friend Fred Williams, the owner of Moonstone Mountaineering, and I had learned to sew on Moonstone’s first machines.
My criteria for a lighweight 2-person ledge did not interest many, until I went down the street in Bellingham to my friend Rick Lipke. Rick was a big, Nordic-looking, Skagit search-and-rescue and martial-arts guy who ran a gear shop and little factory making “Extreme Use Equipment.” He enthusiastically jumped into the porta-ledge problem. He started by having Kitty and me lie down on the sidewalk. I was 6’2”, and Kitty was 5’1”, and as we lie there he drew a chalk triangle around us–me on the hypotenuse in-side, and Kitty out on the out-side. That became the dimensions of the triangular hanging bed we would share on Thalay.
The next key was the corner design. Rick decided to use the system that Eureka tents used on their ridgelines: a short and extra-wide joint tube with angled holes accepts the adjoining side poles. We researched the different types of aluminum tubing, decided on (by my best recollection) 2024, and found we could get it at Boeing Surplus. Kitty drove down to Seattle and picked up the tubing, while Rick and I started work on the sewing. I called Jeff again, and he recommended that to minimize condensation on the inside of the fly we should sew in vents screened with speaker foam. I knew that a vital fly feature would be to have the fly fit snugly to shed spindrift snow, and to this end we put in a shock cord around the bottom.
I made the joints simply by eye-balling a big drill through the wider joint tubes, then refining the angled holes with a round file. Rick fabricated the main poles with male-female pull-apart joints midway. The frame all stayed connected with shock cord. He designed a tight fly out of blue Gore-Tex tent fabric, a bed-span of buckle-tensioned pack cloth, and suspension webbing with a buckle on the outside corner to adjust for different slope angles. The anchor point at the top was an integral loop through the fly, so we we could stay always clipped in to full-strength webbing. Voila! The whole thing weighed under 9 pounds. It folded up nicely into a reasonable size, and deployed without any separating parts.
Another key to our camping was a hanging stove. None were available in the U.S., but I had an Austrian Markill kit that worked with Bleuet stoves. I’d picked it up in Kathmandu two years previous, just noting then what a cool idea it could be. I also sewed up some stuff-sacks with tie-in loops, because I knew that on a wall all your stuff has to hang.
A week before we left we took it all out to a little sandstone cliff at Chuckanut Beach, and it all seemed to work, pretty cool for a backup anyway….
When we got to Delhi we learned the monsoon had failed, and when we got to Thalay Sagar we saw a very big and very different looking wall than what Michael’s picture suggested. It was a 5800-foot granite fang with patchy ice. Yikes. A bit of scouting confirmed we would definitely want the porta-ledge.
The first night we set it up we had to hang it from ice screws–three of the old Chouinard hard-crankers that were the state of the art then. We knew that ice melts under pressure; would our total of 325 pounds of persons and gear hanging for a whole night melt out the screws? Had anyone really tested sleeping from ice screws before? We slept fine, and in the morning everything was secure.
The second day went pretty well too. I showed Kitty how to haul our packs with a pulley and jumars, and even on the 60-degree ice we found that hauling was much easier than climbing with them. Just before dark we set up again. When I poked my head outside I could see steam streaming out through the upper vent of speaker foam. Nice!
While breaking camp the next morning though, we screwed up. The problem was, we’d hung our packs from the main anchor and they hung below the ledge, and we tried to haul them up to us, between the wall and the tubing, while still kneeling in the ledge. It wasn’t working, and in frustration we just tried a big heave. Rip! An outside pole tore through its joint tube.
“Kitty,” I said, “We are fucked.”
“We’ll fix it,” she said, which I knew meant that I would fix it. The weather was still perfect, so I figured we’d worry about it come nightfall.
Luckily I’d brought some parachute cord, and indeed that night I could lash together that joint to hold, albeit with the foot segment sloping off some.
As we got higher the climbing steepened and the ice thinned. We moved more slowly and found very few anchors. Clouds came in as we neared the crux pitches, and snowflakes started to fall. We decided to stop and see the trend. Off to the left of our couloir I found a place to drive in a couple of pitons and set a couple of cams. Thank God, because….
Four days later we were still there waiting out what proved to be a big storm. Spindrift poured down in continuous waves, night and day, and spilled off the triangular cone like magic. Then one day it warmed up. I happened to look outside just in time to see a huge avalanche coming down. I shut the door and yelled to Kitty to wake up and we braced our arms against the fly just as the first blocks hit. We felt the ledge flexing and straining under who knows how much force. It grew dark. It was so easy to picture the next blocks wiping us off the face like bugs into a fatal plummet. But everything held.
There is of course much more to the overall story, but the porta-ledge saved our asses. When the storm finally cleared several days later we descended, over two days of rappelling. Some months later, back in Bellingham, I gave a slide show on the trip at Rick’s shop and we hung the ledge for everyone to see, like a NASA capsule that had come back from space. I kept the ledge stored at the shop. A few years later the building burned down.