Would you willingly sleep on the side of a mountain? Even if you answered "No" to that question, chances are, you have questions. We recently spoke with Dominic Rickicki, a climbing guide with Estes Park's Kent Mountain Adventure Center.
Describe the experience of cliff camping. (How long are you up there? How do you get up there? How do you know you won’t fall off? etc)
The cliff camping experience is really quite unique. Prior to KMAC offering this as a trip, the only way people could really experience sleeping on porta-ledge (a lightweight foldable cot that has a suspension system for hanging off anchors on a cliff.) was to be a decently accomplished climber that had the skills to climb a cliff large enough that sleeping on the side is necessary to make it to the top. In the United States, the number one spot for climbers to climb walls of this size is Yosemite Valley in California. Outside of Yosemite, there are walls scattered throughout the country that may require a porta-ledge, but it's much less concentrated. So even for skilled climbers the options to climb walls of that length are limited to a single location.
With the KMAC cliff camping experience we've opened up the opportunity for non-climbers and climbers with a smaller skillset to experience sleeping on a porta-ledge.
Our trips are one night long, they begin around 3 pm and finish around 10 am for the basic package. If you are looking to maximize your day we offer trips up our Via Ferrata or rock climbing as add-ons to the cliff camp, which would start your day earlier. To begin the trip, your guide will do a gear check with you in the office to ensure you have brought the proper equipment and supply you with any rental equipment you may need for the trip. From the trailhead, we have an approximately 30-minute hike to the base of the cliff where we will reorganize gear at our on-site gear shed and then begin the trek to the ledge. Getting to the ledge requires a short but steep 15-minute hike followed by a short 15-minute climb of a portion of our Via Ferrata. This puts us above our cliffside permanent ledge, from here your guide will lower you down to the ledge with a climbing rope.
Above: Cliff campers rappel down to their home for the evening: A small portaledge carefully secured into the side of a mountain.
On the ledge, you will always be anchored to the cliff via a climbing harness and a tether system that connects to an independent anchor on the cliff. A porta-ledge is never a sole means of security and even climbers doing walls on their own will stay anchored to the mountain via a separate tether for the night.
Your guide will spend the evening in a separate portaledge near your ledge so you can reach out to them throughout the evening for any questions or concerns that may arise. The guide will also cook you a cliffside dinner for the evening and a breakfast+coffee/tea the next morning.
Pictured above: A KMAC Cliff Camping guide helps set up camp for the evening.
Do people actually sign up to sleep hanging on the side of a mountain? How popular is this?
It feels like this trip grows in popularity every season. That being said it is a rather niche trip and only attracts so many folks per season. Currently we will do around 15 cliff camps per summer, compared to our rock climbing trips where we may do 15 trips in a single day.
Okay. Most important question: How do you go to the bathroom?
As climbers and outdoor educators, we do our best to follow Leave No Trace principles and keep our climbing areas clean for the next visitor. Folks climbing big walls that require a portaledge also generally adhere to these same principles for waste management. What that means is we are packing out our waste where possible. For #1's we go into a disposable bottle, for females, we offer the GOGIRL funnels to help with this, this disposable bottle is more of a transport item than a storage facility. It is hard to balance to pee off the edge of a ledge, so instead, you go in the bottle, and then you can dump the bottle off the ledge. For #2's we utilize wag bags, which are essentially a purpose-built trash bags for pooping into, they have a kitty litter type material in the bag to help absorb the odor, and that trash bag gets tied off tight, then it is placed into another secure ziplock style bag to help prevent any unwanted damage to the bag... It sounds pretty gross but it's really not bad. When I'm guiding or climbing on glaciated peaks these are also necessary pieces of equipment and I use wag bags more than flushable toilets during those trips without any issues.
Who typically cliff camps? Are they all adrenaline junkies or can anyone do this?
I've had a large variety of people come on these trips, from the adventurous traveler to the novice gym rock climber, lots of parent/child trips, couples and families. To me there doesn't seem to be a box that people going on this trip really fit into. A lot of people were inspired by the popularity of the films Free Solo and The Dawn Wall to find a way to try and sleep on the side of a cliff and we saw a large boom in trips after those came out.
The other guest we sometimes see on this trip is the experienced climber that is inspired to climb big walls and learn the skills from a guide. For this sort of guest we can cover a variety of big wall climbing skills and practice porta-ledge set-up and organization.
Above: KMAC Owner and guide Reed Woodford takes in the sunset views as cliff campers settle in for the evening.
What would you say to someone who is on the edge (pun intended) about signing up for this wild experience? Why should someone do this?
Take the leap! ha but in all seriousness, we have so many satisfied customers that have gone through this trip and I think a lot of them find fulfillment in overcoming their fears, the solitary experience amongst a beautiful landscape, and the knowledge that they have done something truly unique. The stars are gorgeous at night up there, it's really quiet, and there aren't other campers staying up late around you. It's really quite special.
Have any crazy/funny stories?
I honestly think the craziest story is just how we started doing these trips. I believe it was a British TV host known for doing extreme things (the name escapes me but it's not Bear Grylls) was calling guide services around the United States looking for someone to take him cliff camping. Eventually, he called us, we didn't offer this trip at the time but when the owner got the call he decided he would do the trip for him since most of our guides have climbed big walls and have the skills to accomplish such a task.
One of the lead guides at the time took the guy on the trip, at a location we don't use anymore, which was a pretty large cliff far from the road. They got caught in a lightning storm, dealt with rocks falling off the cliff and eventually pulled the plug on the adventure in the middle of the night and hiked out of there. (Or so I've been told the story goes). Sounds like it made for great television.
Either way, that trip happened and we decided to put cliff camping up as an option on our website to see if it got any bites. Over the years it's grown in popularity, we've refined our techniques and it's become quite successful. To this day we're really the only company in the US offering trips like this and it's cool to see that folks are excited about it.