My monthly outdoor sleeping has spilled over into 2016 due to missing February last year. Winter is always tricky because the short days encourage a relatively long lie. Having a long lie in a remote outdoor location makes it hard to get much else done the next day, and in winter there is much that I want to do with my precious days off.
My plan for the second Saturday in January was to go skiing at Cairngorm, which had just opened for the season. Often I will go down the night before and doss in my van, in order to avoid waking my family as I crash around the house in the morning, but it occurred to me that I could instead sleep out on the hill, thus getting my monthly outdoor sleep in the bag. That makes it sound like I’m trying to get it out the way, rather than doing it for the enjoyment of it. It is true that I experience a strong inbuilt resistance to sleeping out on a snowy mountaintop when I could instead be in a warm bed. But I knew I would regret it if I let the opportunity slip past, for the conditions looked perfect.
So I gathered my equipment, sleeping bag, mat, bivvy sack, breakfast making materials. Throughout the gathering I wrestled with a strong urge to abandon the whole plan. When I finally left home after 2100 I took car rather than van so I was committed to sleeping outside. There was more snow than I expected and I was able to start skinning from the car park, up the empty ski runs towards the summit. I saw one torch beam far ahead up on the ridge, a night tourer or another oddball headed to a high bivvy. The night was without wind, crisp and cold, ideal for avoiding excessive sweating that might dampen my clothes and then my sleeping bag. Around an hour took me to the ice-clad Ptarmigan Restaurant, from whence I followed the posts and cairns to the large summit cairn and beyond the rime-encrusted ice castle that contains the automatic weather station.
Friday had been a fine day and their were many footprints around the summit. I skied a short distance east to a large patch of windblown snow that was still in a virgin state. It is often surprisingly difficult to decide where to sleep on a hilltop when there is an almost infinite choice of identical spots. My chosen patch was slightly sloping and I cut into it, excavating a small hollow like a hare’s scrape and laid out thermarest and bag.
The moon was only a tiny cresent that rose just before 0700, so the view of the stars was undisturbed, save for occasional whips of mist. I woke several times during the night and saw a couple of shooting star and watched familiar constellations, Orion, Auriga and the Plough rotating through my field of view.
I had a full weight thermarest and a bag rated to -15 °C so was expecting to be hot. I was also concerned about taking my trousers and jacket inside, though they were only slightly iced up. So I entered my bag with base layers, socks and hat on, taking my breakfast water inside my sleeping bag and stuffing my outer clothes between sleeping and bivvy bags.
As it turned out I was never too warm as I had feared, and though I was on the cool side never actually cold enough to put more clothes on, fearing the multistage operation required to get inside them. I was using my down jacket as a pillow, inside a recently fabricated silk pillow case and didn’t want to forgoe this comfort by putting the jacket on.
But I should have put clothes on earlier than I did. I was much warmer – or certainly less cold – after I took the plunge and completely exited my bag to pull on sallopettes, jacket and buff. Even then I was still moving my legs periodically to generate heat, thinking of how W.H. Murray had used this trick, which he learned in a Polish prisoner of war camp during WW2, during his own attempts to perfect the art of winter camping in the post war years. One on Murray’s failed attempts that sticks in my mind was when he decided to try the groundbreaking approach of sleeping on foam mats. Only once they had soaked with condensation did the folly of sleeping on an enormous sponge become apparent.
The beauty of sleeping beside a weather station is that one can find out the temperature. It dipped to a disappointing -3.5 °C overnight, so I should have been toasty warm rather than having to jiggle my legs around. I am going to continue Murray’s tradition of passing on learning points about sleeping outside, not least for my own benefit so I don’t make the same mistakes again.
- Check down distribution and loft in winter bag during the autumn. Mine had several panels on the back with minimal insulation and will need some refurbishment to bring it back to its original standard.
- Reinflate Thermarest once the air inside has cooled and contracted. There was a thin layer of ice on the underside of my Thermarest below my back, suggesting that I lost enough heat to slightly melt the snow beneath me.
- Start off wearing as many clothes as possible. In the event of overheating they can be removed and kept inside the bag, and can then be put back on with only awkward wriggling.
Despite the mild discomfort it was a wonderful experience. I woke when the day was a pink line on the eastern horizon and put on my down jacket, keeping legs inside my sleeping bag. I cooked coffee and porridge as the last stars faded and colour gradually came to the crags of Loch A’an and the summits and cloud filled glens beyond. It would have been nice to wait until the sun’s rays brushed my cheeks, but I was keen to pack up, ski back to the car and deposit my equipment so I could enjoy a day of unencumbered skiing.
I spent a total of thirty days sleeping outdoors during 2015. Without this absurd, pointless and self-imposed challenge I would never have managed so many and I am rather tempted to make it the habit of a lifetime. But I don’t want to get ahead of myself. I still have have my nemesis to confront yet, February with its short days and few weekends before I have notched up twelve straight months.