Camping? Easy! Unless you’re suspended halfway up a cliff in the Colorado Rockies with just a flimsy nylon ledge separating you from the dark, vast expanse below
I’m dangling from a cliff, in the middle of the night, with nothing to occupy my thoughts but pitch-black air, bare rock walls and a dose of vertigo strong enough to cower a harpy eagle. I should be sleeping; I’ve been trying for hours. But six billion years of evolutionary common sense is keeping my pupils dilated to a steady panic. Some fears, I realise in sudden horrific clarity, are too primal to be conquered. They must be endured.
Photo: Daniel Gambino//Kent Mountain Adventure Centre
This is cliff camping: a new extreme sleeping activity, based in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, that puts ordinary non-super-humans, like me, in the dreamlands of mountaineers, monkeys and the truly insane. The concept is simple: vertical virgins, under the watchful eye of professional climbing guides, spend a bucket list night on a mountain portaledge – those flimsy hanging beds used by mountaineers during multi-day big wall ascents. But that makes it sound relatively banal. Imagine instead a nylon cot, with less space to sleep than a church pew, and no sides, suspended at head-spinning heights by nothing more than rope, bolts and an optimistic sense of one’s fate.
“It’s intense,” my guide Buster Jesik said as we readied equipment for the day. He should know. Fresh back from notoriously difficult ascents of El Capitan and Mount Denali, 20-something Jesik is to climbing what James Bond is to dry martinis. He makes it look good.
Our day begins with basic safety instruction and practice ascending fixed lines (the easiest route to the portaledge, and no climbing experience required). He is as graceful as water flowing; I am as awkward as bad dancing. Once mastered the mystery of portaledge pee protocol is revealed. No luxury en-suites here: an empty bottle for Monsieur and a funnel like contraption called a she-pee for Madame. Anything more than that is what I refer to as Glastonbury day three conditions. Just don’t go.
After that we were off, hiking through steep pine forests to the base of the cliff as chipmunks scurried overhead and a herd of elk lazed in the shade by our path. But the conditions weren’t to last: as Buster set up the portaledge, an alarmingly miniscule dot high on the cliff face above, dark clouds blew in overhead, bringing hail, high winds, and drums of thunder that ricocheted around the valley.
Photo: Daniel Gambino/Kent Mountain Adventure Centre
When I was finally able to follow him up – pulling myself to the top of the 160ft vertical ascent – a flash of lightning suddenly exploded by our side. Electrical storms are the Rockies’ biggest killer and we were exposed and in danger. “Move fast,” I heard him shout above the storm, his eyes flaring on a vortex of dark cloud circling above us. We abseiled down at SAS speed: shaking, wet, and swearing uncontrollably. Our dalliance with death defiance was over…
or so I thought.
Buster had other ideas: we were going to wait out the storm, then scramble up the side of the mountain – in the dark, in bear country – and abseil down from there to the ledge. “It’s good to get scared sometimes,” he said, smile now fully returned. “It stretches the limits of who you are.”
Who I am, an hour later, had been placed firmly on the rack. We fought our way through a steep, scrubby gully, jumped terrifying crevasses, clung to dark precipices, and felt the weight of air snapping like hungry mouths at our feet. At the summit – the orange lights of Estes Park, the Rockies’ biggest town, flickering like candles far below – we traversed to an exposed pinnacle, set an anchor around a large boulder, and lowered ourselves into the abyss of night, walking backwards down the cliff until we reached our hanging bed.
Later, as I lay still, fighting vertigo, watching stars, sensing the pull of empty space like hands spinning me backwards into the night, I remembered something Buster had said. “Your mind will tell you shouldn’t be there,” he had warned. “The secret is controlling it.” Dawn rose over the valley, flooding colour into treetops and the shadows of the Rocky Mountains.
With the light of the new day, my courage began to return too. I felt like I was peering at the view from beyond the realms of our normal world, sharing a perspective only a handful of people have ever seen. Hundreds of feet beneath us people were getting in their cars, switching on their TVs, going to work. That life, my ordinary everyday existence, seemed so safe and contained now. Perhaps that’s the point. Some fears may never be conquered, but they can be transformed into new possibilities. Back on the ground, I kissed the dirt, looked up and promised myself I’d be back one day.
Cliff camping is offered exclusively by Kent Mountain Adventure Centre in Estes Park, Colorado. The price of $800 (£520) per person is based on an overnight tour for two people and includes two experienced mountain guides, all equipment, transfers, dinner and breakfast.
Words: Aaron Millar