Inside the terrifying sport that is cliff camping


By Sarah Sekula, published on

ESTES PARK, COLORADO — Repelling several hundred feet down the rock face is sheer fun for me. Hummingbirds zip by with their telltale cricket-like chirps, the air is still and the stream below is a calming noise.

Lowering myself onto the bright red portaledge is another thing. That’s when the nerves kick in. It’s a nylon cot—no bigger than two sleeping bags—jutting out from the wall.

This, I’m thinking, is the most ridiculous thing I’ve done lately. And I’m really glad I didn’t give my mom the details beforehand. For the past hour my sister, Leah, and I have been hiking, scrambling and shimmying our way up a granite crag covered in neon-green lichen.

I had my doubts.

We had signed up to spend the entire night sleeping (or not sleeping) on this portaledge, which, by the way, sways back and forth with the breeze. That said, why in the world would someone willingly do this?

My past camping excursions were fairly tame. My rock-climbing experience was limited. Even though I am extremely comfortable with heights, I still had no idea how I’d react. Would I feel like I had vertigo up there? Would my brain allow me to actually fall asleep on the side of a cliff?

I had my doubts.

Still, cliff camping was simply something I had to try. It’s a new extreme getaway offered by Kent Mountain Adventure Center in Estes Park. And Harry Kent, the mastermind behind it, says it’s something the pros do all the time, but most average Joes do not.

Until now.

Sure, there are plenty of ways to get to know Estes Park—mountain biking, horseback riding and snowshoeing to name a few. Just being surrounded by the Rockies is amazing in itself. Flanked by Roosevelt National Forest and Rocky Mountain National Park, Estes Park is a place where elk freely roam the streets, wide-open spaces abound and outdoorsy folks have plenty to do.

However, cliff camping is arguably the biggest nail-biter. And for good reason, once on the portaledge, you are up 300 feet, or about 18 stories. Your abode for the night towers above the forested hilltops and offers up dreamy views of the 14,259-foot Longs Peak, Jurassic Park (a series of super cool domes) and the continental divide from Twin Sisters. In other words, bragging rights are certainly earned on this trip.

Our day begins around 10 a.m. with us packing our meals and hiking up to base camp. With a brief tutorial on big-wall climbing, we make our way up the rock. Every now and then a peregrine falcon makes its presence known with the loudest bird shrieks I’ve ever heard. She is on major mama-bird duty, teaching her babies to fly. We are in awe.

Afterward, we repel several hundred feet to the ledge. Once there, it takes at least 30 minutes for me to feel OK looking over the edge. It takes another 30 for me to remove my helmet. Geeking out over it all, we FaceTime with our parents (surprisingly the cell phone reception is exceptional), and only now do they realize what cliff camping actually entails.

By 6 p.m. our guide, TJ, lowers down dinner in a basket (his portaledge hangs above ours). As we scarf down quinoa and cheesecake and sip boxed red wine, he tells us that only a handful of us nonclimbers have conquered cliff camping so far, and Kent Mountain Adventure Center is one of the few outfitters in the nation offering it.

He says it’s designed so that most anyone can do it, climber or not. Scaredy cat, or not. I don’t wholeheartedly agree. It’s challenging enough that a certain dose of bravery and athletic ability are required.

As epic adventures typically go, things keep getting more and more surreal. As the sun paints the Rockies in a golden hue, a hummingbird visits us at eye level, its tiny wings flapping 50 times per second. It’s at this moment that I realize I’m sharing a view with my sister that few will ever experience.

Once darkness settles in and the alpine air conditioning kicks on, we glance up at the stars. And after a complicated potty break, we don’t even consider any other normal bedtime rituals. Instead, we both doze off.

Altogether, I get spurts of sleep that likely add up to at least four hours. Each time my sister moves I imagine how I might roll off the edge and need to call TJ for help. There is no barrier on this nylon rectangle preventing me from doing that.

However, I am harnessed in, so I can’t go very far. The thought of rolling over, though, is still very freaky. It’s a matter of reminding myself over and over that I am safely attached to the rope.

Fortunately, I remain securely snuggled in my sleeping bag all night. The winds pick up enough that we pull the tent flaps down. It is actually strangely cozy.

In the morning, we watch the sun rise and eat omelets prepared by TJ in his Jetboil stove, which hangs from the side of the cliff. We repel to the ground and talk about how we will tell this story to our grandkids one day. Until then, would we do it again? Absolutely.