the toddler alpine start and how to survive it

I roll over, letting my eyes adjust to the blue stars streaming across the bedroom ceiling. My 3-year-old son is kneeling between me and my husband, staring at me intently. "Mama, mama,...". It starts out as a whisper but becomes louder and more desperate the longer I lay still, hoping he'll take a hint and go back to sleep.

Eventually, he reaches an octave I cannot ignore and I sit up, defeated. My son stands, balancing himself on the end of our bed and jumps off in celebration. I push myself to my feet and stumble out the door after him. The clock on the wall reads 3:47 AM.

This is a typical morning for us. My son has always been an early riser and though getting up before 4 AM is early, it's been worse. We went through a period, about a year ago, when he was waking up at 2 AM ready to start the day. Every. Day. That went on for about six months.

I've always considered myself a morning person, with the exception of maybe my college days, but this is a whole other level. As I gather enough brain cells to make coffee I remember waking up at 2 AM to summit Mt. Fuji for the sunrise, 4 AM ascents through a hillside of manzanita just to boulder in "cool" temps during Tahoe summers, and the early training sessions I accompanied my husband on while he was training for his first expedition in the Himalayas. These are not true alpine starts, but the point is I'm not against an early morning suffer-fest if it means a little type 2 fun is in my future.

A true alpine start is usually a push to ascend a mountain, generally covered in ice and snow and requiring technical gear like ice axes and crampons. The dark pre-dawn start is more of a safety measure than anything else. The later in the day you start, the more likely it is the snow and ice will melt and break causing falls, avalanche, and even death. Also, depending on the route or goal for the day you may not want to be descending the mountain in the dark. Timing is everything. "I can do this." I think to myself.

My son's tiny voice breaks through my morning haze. I am being summoned to make play dough houses and food for all the "animals". I grab my coffee, sit down beside him, and focus my attention.

This is a rough way to start the day, but we've stumbled across several ways to cope. We treat the situation a lot like an actual alpine start in the mountains, prepare, rest, and always bring enough water (i.e. coffee)! Let me break it down.

Since we wake up early, we go to bed early! My son is in bed asleep by 5 PM every night, which is a nice perk. My husband and I routinely get to spend the evenings together hanging out, catching up, or writing this blog...until I'm too tired to function which is around 8:30 PM.

My son does wake up early but as with anything else, it varies. Every once in awhile he will sleep until 5:30 or 6 AM and by that time my internal clock is so confused I'm the one sitting up and staring at him! We have been trying to encourage more of these later starts by using the Hatch Baby. It's a combination of light and sound machine. We can control the sound, color, and wake up/sleep time with an app on our phones. When he goes to sleep the light is pink, in the morning if he wakes up before the light turns blue, he knows he needs to stay in bed and wait for the color to change. *Note: We tried this a year ago when he was 2 and he did not understand the concept well enough for the light to be effective. We brought it back out again recently and explained the concept. The next morning, he was tossing and turning at 4, I saw him sit up, check the color of the light, and lay back down because it had not yet turned blue! IT WORKED! Now he quietly lays in bed until the color changes and we all get up. Also, just so no one out there thinks my son is laying awake for hours held hostage by this light, it's only an extra 20 minutes or so at this point. We are moving the wake-up time incrementally later and later so he has time to adjust.

Morning naps! For us, NOT him. His wake up time is way before my husband has to start working which allows us to run a sort of tag-team operation. Whoever can handle getting up with him initially usually lets the other one sleep for about an hour and a half, then we switch. Sometimes, if there's time we switch again! It helps.


These early wake-ups have been going strong for 3 years now and I do not love them, but man, I love the little boy who wakes up next to me every morning eagerly asking to play with me. I love the way he bounds fearlessly off the side of the bed into the darkness with pure excitement about starting a new day and I love the way his face lights up when he discovers a new way to use his trucks or legos or play dough.

I know that one day he will sleep until noon and not care where I am when he finally emerges, so even though these mornings are hard, I do my very best to absorb this time with him....and not to pass out face first into his play-dough.

Who knows, maybe this is great training for actual alpine starts in our future. Sleep well fellow parents and if you have a secret sleep trick that works for you, please, PLEASE pass it on.