When you can't see, the great unknown lurks around every corner, behind every door and under every bed.
This sense of vulnerability is why children fear the dark. By the time we're adults, however, we recognize that this fear can be irrational, and most of us overcome it.
Strangely, many climbers are still scared of the dark -- when they're climbing, that is. But just like there was no boogeyman in your childhood closet, there's nothing to be afraid of while climbing at night. In fact, climbing in the dark is an important skill that climbers of all levels should become comfortable with.
Why? For starters, nearly every climber has been unexpectedly caught on the cliff after sunset. This occurs most often on multi-pitch and alpine routes, but it can happen anywhere. Check out the American Alpine Club's annual publication "Accidents in North American Mountaineering," and you'll see what I mean. Becoming comfortable climbing in the dark is invaluable, if for no other reason than unpredictable situations and emergencies.
Secondly, waking up at O-dark-thirty isn't called an "alpine start" for nothing. Safety in alpinism hinges on the cold temperatures that the wee hours provide. When frozen snow or ice melts to sun-baked slush, alpinists become sitting ducks for the terrain above them. Once the sun hits the wall, frozen rocks thaw and start falling like bombs. In the interest of staying alive, alpinists often climb entire mountains by headlamp and are on their way down by sunrise.
Finally, some rock routes simply take longer to climb than daylight allows. Starting the climb with the confidence that you can finish safely in the dark liberates you from the common but confining daytime-only mentality. Climbing efficiently in the dark allows you to blast long routes -- grade IVs, Vs, even VIs -- in a single day, whereas climbers who are afraid of the dark might take two or more days. A few tranquil hours of night climbing can eliminate the exhausting hassle of hauling bags full of overnight gear and extra provisions.
Clearly, climbing in the dark has its benefits -- but is it safe? Yes. That is to say it's as safe as daytime climbing, but like any skill, it requires practice.
When night climbing, your world is a small cocoon of light surrounding your body, wherever you look. This can make long routes less scary because there is no exposure; you can't tell whether you're 20 feet or 2,000 feet off the ground. The major safety issue is that climber and belayer will be out of sight from each other. No big deal; your partner often climbs out of view during the day. You just need to ensure that communication with your partner is unmistakably clear -- as always.
Before launching onto a grade VI big wall with just a daypack, consider climbing in the dark at a familiar crag with a familiar partner in order to get your nighttime systems dialed.
The only extra gear you need for a fine night out is a powerful headlamp and extra batteries. Companies such as Petzl and Black Diamond make climbing-specific headlamps and helmets that accommodate them.
So the next time you're out climbing and the sun is sinking low, face your fear. Embrace the evening, don your headlamp and crank out a few more pitches -- in the dark.