I am hanging from a cliff, 500ft above the ground, 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.
This is cliff camping: a new extreme sleeping activity, which puts vertical virgins in the hands of experienced climbing guides for a night on professional mountain portaledge that is guaranteed to set dinner table tales alight for years to come.
But it’s not for the feint-hearted. “We haven’t watered it down in any way,” my guide Buster Jesik says as we ready equipment for the day. “It’s intense.” 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.
Portaledges, he explains, are used by mountaineers to sleep on during vertical wall ascents that would take more than a single day to complete. Similar to a portable camp bed, they are hauled up on ropes behind the climbers and then anchored to the cliff at night using a variety of gravity defying gadgetry. But this makes it sound straightforward. 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 a optimistic sense of fate. “It always surprises me how nervous people get up there,” Buster says, eyeing me without a hint of sarcasm.
Our day begins with basic safety instruction and practice ascending fixed lines (the easiest route to the portaledge, and no climbing experience required) before the mystery of midnight portaledge pee protocol was revealed: 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 Festival day three conditions. Just don’t go.
After that we’re off, hiking through steep pine forests to the base of the cliff – sharp granite peaks glowing in early amber light around us, chipmunks scurrying overhead, a herd of elk lazing in the shade. But as Buster sets up the portaledge high on the cliff above, dark clouds blow in overhead, bringing hail, high winds, and drums of thunder that ricochet around the valley. When I was finally able to follow him up – pulling myself to the top of the 160ft vertical ascent as the sun set in a golden arc beneath the rain – a flash of lightning explodes suddenly by our side. “Move fast,” I hear him shout above the storm, his eyes flaring on a vortex of dark cloud circling above us. We descend shaking and wet, our dalliance with death defiance dashed, I was convinced, by the weather.
Except Buster had other ideas. We are going to wait out the storm, he explained, then scramble up the side of the mountain, and abseil down to the ledge. In the dark. “It’s good to get scared sometimes,” he says, 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. By the light of head torches, in the middle of bear country, we fight our way through a steep, scrubby gulley; Buster tying us together so if one should slip the other would arrest the fall. We jump crevasses, cling to dark precipices, and feel 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 traverse to an exposed pinnacle, set an anchor around a large boulder, and lower ourselves into the abyss of night, walking backwards down the cliff until we reach our hanging bed.
Later, as I lie still, fighting vertigo, watching stars, sensing the pull of empty space like hands spinning me backwards into the night, I remember something Buster had said. “Your mind will tell you shouldn’t be there,” he had warned. “The secret is controlling it.” Dawn rises over the valley, flooding colour into treetops and the shadows of the Rocky Mountains. With the light of the new day my courage begins to return too. I feel like I am 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 are getting in their cars, switching on their TV’s, going to work. That life, my ordinary everyday existence, seems 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 kiss the dirt, look up and promise myself I’d be back one day.
Cliff camping is offered exclusively by Kent Mountain Adventure Centre (www.kmaconline.com / +1 970 586 5990) in Estes Park, Colorado. The price of $800 per person is based on an overnight tour for two people, and includes two experienced mountain guides, all equipment, transfers dinner and breakfast.
Photo courtesy of Kent Mountain Adventure Centre