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Cliff Camping: The Latest Bucket-List Tick

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Cliff Camping Portaledge Estes Park Rock Climbing
A guide looks after his client on a cliff camping excursion.Dan Gambino

While we climbers only camp hanging on a wall when we have to, for many in the non-climbing public, portaledge camping ticks a box on their bucket list. Three years ago, Kent Mountain Adventure Center (KMAC) in Estes Park, Colorado, began offering one-night Cliff Camping excursions ($800–1200 per person). The idea, says KMAC’s founder Harry Kent, is to spend the night on a portaledge 150 feet up nearby Deville Rocks while a guide takes care of logistics. (Clients can either climb to the ledge or rap down.) Meanwhile, they offer a scaled-down version called the Cliffnic ($425–850 per person), a picnic lunch on the ledge. KMAC typically leads around six to eight Cliff Camping and Cliffnic trips each throughout the summer. We caught up with Kent to hear his thoughts about wall-side camping.

What gave you the idea?

Charley Boorman, with the UK show Extreme Frontiers USA, was traveling around the country. His production people called from England and said, “Listen, we’ve heard about climbers sleeping on these ledges, and we’d like Charlie to do that as one of his extreme adventures.” I told them, “Yeah, I guess we climbers do that on El Cap and Baffin Island and all that, but we’ve never done it for anybody other than ourselves.” We ended up doing the whole thing and they got a good story about it. And that’s how it started.

What type of client do you generally see?

Cliff Camping is for people who have very little if any climbing experience. We have not seen any serious climbers. We’ve had the hardcore, macho-type military guys, the husband-and-wife couple, a mother and daughter, and two girls in their teens who were a little timid. We’ve had it all, and that’s been pretty good.

What is the general schedule of a Cliff Camping trip?

We have a brief ground school then we hike out to the cliff. Most times, they get up there around 3 or 4 in the afternoon, have some snacks, and just look around. Some people are a little scared; some feel pretty good. In the evening, we do a gourmet meal that’s all-natural, organic. We set up the Jetboil and give them the whole thing. A lot of these people don’t sleep. The next morning, we have breakfast—tea, coffee, and omelets—but [by then] they’re usually ready to get down. So they rappel right down and off they go.

Have you ever had to come down mid-trip?

Yes—we leave a fixed line straight to the base. One of the things we track is electrical storms. Guides will track them on their phones using radar. We can take a fair amount of weather up there, meaning if it’s not electrical they can handle it, but if it seems like it’s going to be a four- to six-hour deal, they can retreat to the ground, wait for the storm to pass, and then ascend back to the ledge.

What are these excursions like for the guides?

It requires hard work—the rigging, plus carrying the food, water, and equipment to basecamp even if it’s only a half-hour hike. At some point, the clients are all cozy, sitting on the ledges and enjoying the experience, but the guides are always working.

You’re also working on a custom portaledge for these outings, correct?

This one is hopefully going to last longer [than your standard portaledge] and be a little more comfortable. It’s a lightweight steel frame, and we have a prototype. It’s the standard size, so all the tarps or flies from any portaledge will fit. For comfort and stability, we’ve added a piece of very thin plywood that’s painted with marine paint, bright red. We also had the option of using a Plexiglas bottom—wouldn’t that be cool if you could sit on a portaledge and look down through it like a window?