It takes a certain kind of person to scramble up a mountainside, rappel down to a nylon cot no bigger than two sleeping bags (called a portaledge) and spend the night on the side of a cliff.
Today, that person is me, along with my sister and our guide. And I have to admit, even though I find most extreme sports very appealing, this one has me thinking twice.
It’s called cliff camping, a truly epic experience, but it’s not for the faint of heart.
For daring big-wall climbers, it’s been commonplace for decades. When they trek up walls too tall or too difficult to climb in a single day, they simply camp on the cliff face.
It’s something that doesn’t faze daredevils like Harry Kent, owner of Kent Mountain Adventure Center in Estes Park, Colorado, who has been climbing all around the planet for the past 45 years.
“Climbing for me is like brushing my teeth,” he says. “It’s something I just do as part of my life.”
With that kind of passion, it comes as no surprise that in July 2014, his company was the first in the nation to let inexperienced climbers give cliff camping a go. It’s something that would normally take five to 10 years of climbing to build up to.
The unknowns: Potty breaks and beyond
First things first: How exactly does one get to the portaledge?
Very carefully. And with no small amount of preparation.
On a sunny day in June, we start with a crucial element: food. We pack veggie-rich hummus wraps for lunch, quinoa and cheesecake for dinner, fruit, water, snack bars and eggs. One thing is for sure, we will not go hungry.
Next: a quick orientation and a 30-minute hike to base camp. By about 11 a.m. we arrive and our intrepid guide, T.J. Sanford, leaves to set up our cliff-side cots.
He hikes to the summit to rig the anchors, rappels back to the ground, hikes back up to the summit again and then hauls the gear up with a pulley system. Later, he’ll assemble the portaledges right before we rappel down to them to settle in for the night.
We could have opted to be more involved in the setup process, but as newbies, we had enough on our minds.
In fact, there are so many unknowns: For starters, how will it feel to sit on a tiny platform, 300 feet off the ground? Will our brains allow us to fall asleep come nighttime?
And, how exactly do potty breaks work? (We later find out that it involves a GoGirl device — and a tricky balancing act.)
‘It just seems scary’
Before we know it, it’s go time. Scrambling over boulder after boulder and past evergreens is just plain fun. Once the rock becomes more vertical, we rope in and continue to work our way up. Within an hour, we are at the top, and it’s time to descend to our sleeping quarters.
As I rappel down, I’m totally in my element: a peregrine falcon lets out occasional squawks, the stream below provides a soothing hum. The tonic of nature really kicks in. All is well.
Until I look down, that is.
My goal is to land squarely on the ledge and hook myself onto a different rope. This part is a little dicey because the ledge sways back and forth and side to side. Not as sturdy as I had hoped it would feel.
I just keep reminding myself of something Sanford said earlier: “You are always anchored and backed up. Redundancy is the key, and you are attached to two separate systems. It’s safer than riding in a car. It just seems scary because you are not in your comfort zone.”
Still though, when I land on the ledge, I don’t move for a good 20 minutes. Sanford and my sister are still at the top. I’m frozen stiff. There is no barrier on the ledge preventing me from falling off. However, I am roped in, so I can’t go very far.
Once my sister makes it to the ledge, it takes another 30 minutes for us to feel okay looking over, and another half hour passes before we remove our helmets. My sister and I handle it all fairly well, but I assume not everyone does.
“I did have a client freeze up while we descended to the ledge,” Sanford recalls. “Having someone attached to me, legs straight out and hanging between my legs made for a difficult, very personal rappel.”
Dreamy views you have to work for
Once I finally get comfortable, I’m able to fully appreciate everything surrounding me, right down to the neon-green lichen covering parts of the cliff face. The view includes the 14,259-foot Longs Peak, Jurassic Park (a series of gorgeous domes) and Mummy Range.
With so much beauty and varied landscape, it’s easy to see why people flock here. Adrenaline-pumping adventures range from mountain biking to ice climbing to river rafting. And the Rocky Mountain National Park provides plenty of opportunities to spot elk, bighorn sheep and deer year round.
As we scarf down dinner, delivered via basket (Sanford’s portaledge is about 15 feet above ours) we are still geeking out about the whole situation. Here we are, the sun is setting, we are taking in views that few get to see and we cannot wipe the goofy grins from our faces.
Still, it gets better. A hummingbird flies to about eye level as if to say hello while its tiny wings flap 50 times per second. Sanford sees this all the time, but for us, it’s straight out of a fairytale. Better yet, he says, this season he’s had the chance to see baby peregrine falcons learning how to fly.
“I got some amazing close encounters with the parent birds,” Sanford says. “They swooped and screeched at me while I moved my gear. Nothing beats seeing the young ones gliding back and forth and play fighting with each other.”
To sleep or not to sleep
Once I get used to my new sleeping quarters, I start to relax. We had already discussed that I would sleep (or stare endlessly at the top of the tent) on the edge side, while my sister would take the wall side. Believe it or not, it feels quite cozy.
“I’ve never had anyone fall off the ledge,” Sanford points out. “I’ve heard stories of climbers, typically couples, getting too rowdy and causing the ledge to flip, but I’ve never had anyone just roll off. If you were to roll off in your sleep, you would fall only a few feet before hitting the end of your tether.”
Still, it’s a thought that pops into my head every time my sister moves.
Fortunately, I remain securely snuggled in my sleeping bag all night. The winds pick up enough that we pull the tent flaps down. Voilà! It is transformed into a cool, little fort, hanging high above the tree tops.
Come morning time, we are treated to a brilliant sunrise, veggie omelets (carefully prepared in a Jet Boil stove that dangles from the cliff) and a visit from the mama falcon. She’s in full-on protective mode right now, so we expect her to attack the drone documenting our experience. She swoops pretty close to the buzzing device, but surprisingly leaves it alone.
Soon after, we discover the most challenging part of all is the way down. Since yesterday, we have only been sitting or snoozing on the camp cot. Now, we must stand on this wobbly rectangle and rappel down.
I slowly stand. It dips. And I nearly lose by balance. Without much grace, I lean back and begin the hopping motion that is rappelling.
Sanford reminds us that fear is completely normal.
“Being afraid of heights just means that your brain works properly,” he says. “As humans we aren’t supposed to be comfortable hanging off steep cliffs.”
Back on the ground, we are all smiles, all day long.
Months later, I’m still telling anyone who will listen about my gravity-defying excursion. Hands down, it’s one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had. And it’s become a new way for my friends to introduce me: ‘This is Sarah. She does crazy things like spend the night on the side of a cliff.’
Yes, that’s me. And I would do it over and over again.
If you go
Kent Mountain Adventure Center offers cliff camping from May through September. The 24-hour experience is $1,200 for one person, or $800 per person if you have two people in your party. All food and gear is provided.
For something a bit tamer, consider the “Just Lunch or Dinner” program where you picnic on a portaledge only 40 feet in the air. Prices start at $295 for one person.