Jonathan Thompson tests his head for heights by taking on the latest extreme sports craze – cliff camping.
If you’re spending US$600 a night, the least you’d expect is a comfortable room with a view. In terms of the latter, I can’t complain: it’s witching hour in the Rocky Mountains and I’m 18 storeys up, soaking up an incredible vista. On the comfort side, it’s a bit more iffy: my bed for the night is a portaledge attached to a sheer rock face.
This is ‘cliff camping’, the latest – and possibly most extreme – adventure sports craze to date. Previously a means for elite climbers to sleep during long vertical ascents, it’s now on offer to the general public here in Estes Park, Colorado. And, according to the man behind it, people have been queuing up in large numbers for a taste of life on the edge.
“People seem to love the intensity of it; of pushing their limits and seeing life from a different perspective,” says Harry Kent, owner of the Kent Mountain Adventure Centre, which is offering the service. “Folks seeking out extreme adventures tend to see this and think ‘holy mackerel, I can sleep on a ledge 200ft (60m) off the ground! I have to try that!’”
‘Holy mackerel’ doesn’t even begin to do justice to it. After scrambling, hiking and climbing to the summit of 400ft (120m) Cathedral Rock, we abseil off the top, swooping 150ft (45m) down until our boots tap the flimsy fabric of our portaledges.
My stretcher-like bed grates against the rock as it takes my weight, lurching sickeningly to one side. I carefully feel my way to a seated position, ledge wobbling and tipping as I do so. A few seconds later, Harry has me locked – by an ingenious assortment of gravity-defying gadgetry – to both the cliff face itself and the flimsy portaledge. It’s time to enjoy the sunset before settling in for the night.
Soon we’re left with just the stars, the moon, and a bubbling river somewhere beneath us for company. By 10 pm my right foot – wedged between the rock face and my rucksack – has gone to sleep, but the rest of me obstinately refuses to follow. My heart is racing and I’m counting the minutes till sunrise.
Don’t get me wrong. The night sky is spectacular. The stars glisten approvingly as the moon makes its dignified patrol of the heavens. It’s a night for soul-searching, for self-reflection – but also for trying to stay as warm as possible and avoiding the need for the “toilet” (a plastic fruit juice bottle dangling worryingly close to my head).
Finally, with the moon on the opposite side of the sky, my endeavours are rewarded. It starts off to our right; a distant spark on the horizon. Then it ignites, racing across the sky like a wildfire, evaporating the oily mists beneath us and illuminating a forest I’d almost forgotten. Morning rises around us, and with it any sense of fear seeps away. I swing my legs over the lip of my ledge and revel in the roaring blaze of colours.
Cliff camping is all about “pushing your limits and finding a new perspective,” Kent told me the previous day. And what a perspective it is from up here. Yes, that was a night I will always remember. But more importantly, this is a morning I will never forget.
From US$600 per person, based on three campers, including guiding, equipment, transfers, dinner, and breakfast.
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