Camping on a cliff? Extreme sport takes sleeping to new heights

Just trekking the camping gear up the cliff face is a feat in itself.

Just trekking the camping gear up the cliff face is a feat in itself.  (Daniel Gambino)

I feel strangely cozy 300 feet off the ground.

For starters, the view is impressive: stately summits as far as the eye can see; chiseled cliffs covered in green lichen; a swooping raptor letting out some impressive shrieks.

Granted, for the first 20 minutes, my sister and I refused to look over the edge.

But now that I’ve gotten used to my overnight quarters (a two-person nylon cot smaller than a mini cooper strapped to the side of a cliff), I have become more and more relaxed.

I’ve removed my helmet, snuggled up in extra layers and waited patiently for dinner, which, by the way, was delivered to me via a bucket, a soft of cliffside dumbwaiter. We gobbled up the delicious quinoa and sautéed veggies in mere minutes and then turned our attention to the mini cheesecakes and box wine as the sunset began to wash over the mountains.

Our fearless guide, TJ, is stationed above us on his own portaledge. We feel pretty connected to him, not only because he taught us the finer points of relieving ourselves (using a funnel-like gadget and a water bottle, which quickly became the most challenging, and hilarious, part of our day) while perched on the side of a cliff, but also because we are harnessed into the same rope system, so each time he moves, our portaledge sways.

“Are you having a dance party up there?” I ask. TJ answers by imitating the noise of pulsating dance music.

Our day began nine hours ago, when we were fitted with gear and packed meals for our 24-hour adventure. TJ expertly curated a menu based on our dietary needs and the desire to bring only what we need. Scattered across the table was a large collection of fruit, snack bars, fresh granola and a pile of vegetables from which we prepared our meals. We packed veggie-rich hummus wraps for lunch, eggs for omelets in the morning and a handful of snacks. One thing was for sure, we didn’t go hungry.

After we trekked to basecamp, we learned how to use our climbing gear and made our ascent. Along the way, TJ told us some of the highlights of the area.

Estes Park is a haven for outdoorsy types, he explained. People flock here for fat-tire biking, epic hiking and horseback riding in the summer. Come winter, its ice climbing, snowshoeing and sledding. And its home to Roosevelt National Forest and Rocky Mountain National Park, so the wildlife opportunities are endless.

That said, it comes as no surprise that people are now coming here specifically for cliff camping, offered by Kent Mountain Adventure Center in Estes Park.

Harry Kent, the owner, couldn’t be more pleased.

“We’ve had a climbing and outdoor school for 28 years,” he says. “No other business or guide service was offering cliff camping to the public. I thought it would be an exciting bucket-list adventure for people.”

The best part is, no climbing experience is necessary. But, being comfortable with heights and rappelling is extremely helpful. Everyone, Kent says, reacts differently.

“One guy froze at the top, and it took him 30 minutes to get up the courage to rappel over the edge,” he says. “Another guy got settled in and, rather than eat dinner right away, he had to stream an NBA playoff game from his iPhone.”

By the time sunset rolls around, we are joking about how little sleep we expect to get, if any. As we tell stories, I can’t take my eyes off what is in front of us: Longs Peak, Jurassic Park (a series of gorgeous domes) and Mummy Range, to name a few. We even have a hummingbird stop by to say hello.

In the morning, swinging myself off the portaledge proves to be the most intimidating part of this whole process. As I stand up, the portaledge dips to one side – so much so that I almost lose my balance. But with TJ’s encouragement, I make it down in one piece, and my sister is there smiling ear to ear.

As we trot down the trail back to the van, I realize how lucky I am to have done this. It’s still new to the general public, and only a handful of people have tried it. Getting this type of perspective is not for the faint of heart. It’s for the full of heart.

If you go

Kent Mountain Adventure Center in Estes Park, Colo., offers cliff camping from May through September. With no weight or age limits, everyone interested in adventure is welcome. The cost is $1,200 for one person or $1,600 for two. There also is a "Just Lunch or Dinner” program that lets you picnic on a portaledge 40 feet in the air. Prices for that start at $295 for one person.

Where to stay

YMCA of the Rockies has activities and programs galore for the entire family.

What to do

After you’ve recovered from cliff camping, rent fat-tire bikes from Estes Park Mountain Shop and hike or drive through Rocky Mountain National Park to spot marmots and elk.

Leah Murr is an experienced travel writer based in East Africa. Her adventures have spanned the globe, from swimming with sharks in Hawaii, to skydiving in Norwegian fjords and cliff camping in Colorado. Follow her on Instagram at murr.leah.