Wanderlust Editor-at-Large Phoebe Smith takes to Colorado’s cliff faces to attempt a portaledge camp out, as part of her training for the UK Extreme Sleeps challenge...
Ponderosa pines stretched up to the sky, which was smeared mottled grey with blossoming clouds. The sun was fighting its way through – desperately attempting to burn a hole in the darkening sky, while the air was alive with the steady knock of a three-toed woodpecker and a peregrine falcon soared on the thermals. Here in Estes Park, Colorado, all was truly serene. But there was trouble on the horizon – quite literally.
“I’d say a storm was coming in,” said my guide Kyle, as we made our way towards a huge granite rock face that protruded above the canopy. For the past few years the Kent Mountain Adventure Center has been offering a truly unique experience here on the border of the Rocky Mountain National Park – the chance to do something normally reserved only for climbers – sleep on a portaledge.
Essentially a material platform, these bed-like structures are traditionally used on rock faces which take several days to climb. They allow climbers to spend the night suspended high on the precipice they’re tackling without having to descend and re-ascend each day. California’s Yosemite National Park is perhaps the most famous place to see them in use, but they are also found around the world on scary looking cliffs – from the Alps to the saw-toothed peaks of Patagonia. With accommodation options worldwide getting more and more quirky – think wine barrels, cave hotels, treehouses, disused airplanes and even inside glaciers – it was only a matter of time before portaledging became a viable option to the everyman (and woman).
“We realised that people who don’t climb were attracted to the idea of spending time on these ledges – even just to see what it’s like,” explained Kyle. “So we decided to start offering experiences where people could come and sit on one for a picnic or sleep up high and experience a little taste of the adventure these climbers have – and we book up super fast.”
He wasn’t wrong – I'd been trying to do this for the past three summers but every time it had been fully booked, now, finally, I would get to spend the night on a towering wedge of rock – or so I thought…
After a 45 minute stroll through the trees, where chipmunks curiously darted alongside the path, with our bags full to bursting with ropes, harnesses, helmets and sleeping apparatus, we reached our clearing and caught sight of the ominous clouds in the distance.
“Thunder was forecast, but it could well move through,” Kyle admitted hopefully, so we harnessed up and got all the gear we needed for the night into two ‘haul bags’ – basically large waterproof sacks that you tie to ropes and literally haul all you need up to your platform once you are in place.
We made our way – John Wayne-style (I defy anyone to walk elegantly in a climbing harness) – to a ledge of rocks where a series of ropes had been set up above good natural footholds in the stone.
After showing me how to ‘clip in’ – always with two carabiners in case one should fail, I began to follow Kyle, traversing the sloping rock, making my way over to where we would descend, via abseil, to the platforms Kyle had set up earlier.
I had been fortunate (though some might argue unfortunate) enough to sleep on a portaledge before, both dangling from a tree in Germany and free hanging from one inside the Eden Project in Cornwall as part of the Big Canopy Campout charity fundraiser for the World Land Trust in 2017. Both times it was hard work – climbing and descending a rope for a non-climber is not only nerve-wracking – especially as you gain height – but also physically demanding, but I did have an ulterior motive for doing it again. I was about to front a challenge in Britain – the Extreme Sleep Out for young people’s homeless charity Centrepoint – which would require me to sleep suspended from various landmarks across the country on 10 consecutive nights – so this was not just a unique way to peer into one of the USA’s most famous national parks, but also something of a training programme.
I watched in awe as Kyle smoothly slipped over the side of the drop, while I gingerly peaked over the edge – the height now hitting me hard and making my head spin just a little.
I’d spoken to a friend before doing this – the kind of guy who seems to ooze adventure – and he’d confessed that he’d had a panic attack when doing the same activity and couldn't wait to get back down to solid ground. I hoped it wouldn’t happen to me. Then came the call to join Kyle.
I figured the best way to do it was to not give myself any time to consider what I was about to do – that is step over a perfectly good, solid, wide rocky ledge to dangle over well… nothing at all. I turned my back to the abyss, felt my harness tighten around my thighs, and began to feed my rope through the descending device (which thankfully comes equipped with an anti-panic mechanism which stops you in your tracks if you start thinking you’re Bear Grylls and go far too fast).
The first step was the worst, overriding every ounce of common sense in my body, but once I’d committed and pressed my feet firmly against the rock so I was essentially standing perpendicular to the cliff, I realised that what I was actually doing was walking down the wall and, as long as I didn't dwell too much on how high I was doing it, my mind stopped being fearful.
By far the trickiest manoeuvre was getting onto the platform itself – which involved feeding myself through the network of ropes holding it in place, then giving myself enough slack on the rope so that I could sit down.
“Just a little more,” encouraged Kyle and I finally landed on my ledge and felt my fingers tingle with a wave of adrenaline.
“Now what?” I asked curiously.
“Now we enjoy it!”
We hauled up our bag of food and began a picnic, musing over how lucky we were to be seemingly avoiding the storm, and feeling very sophisticated eating cheese and crackers at about 18 storeys high. Within an hour I’d got used to my perch and began to rather enjoy it – watching birds, scanning the trees for signs of the resident elk and black bear, making out the ant-like shapes of hikers heading into the park in the distance – it felt increasingly like the best seat in the house. We unpacked sleeping gear, got ready to settle in, and then it happened. Thunder.
A deep rumbling echoed through the sky and seemed to bounce of the rock, shaking us where we sat. I looked over at Kyle who now looked a little less optimistic. Coming from the UK thunderstorms are a slightly rare and possibly even exciting occurrence – the drama, the noise, the sudden forks of lightening. But here in Colorado, where the summer heat high in the mountains hitting drier air means more lightning strikes are possible – there are estimated to be around 11 deaths a year in the state from lightning – they are rather more sinister.
I quickly checked the weather report on my phone and our worse fears were confirmed: not only was the storm coming in, it was going to settle in, with no let up till around 2am, by which time a new front would come in bringing more storms and showers.
“I think we need to call it,” said Kyle and, as if to punctuate his point, a well-timed bolt of lighting suddenly struck the opposite rock face, followed by the bellowing roar of thunder.
It was all I needed to hear. Throwing our belongings back into the haul bags we began our speedy ascent – where the unfounded fear of falling was now replaced by the very real palpable of being struck by lightning. We not only made it off the cliff face in less than five minutes – but also managed to run back to the car – now being pelted by sheet rain – in an impressive quarter of an hour.
As we got back into the car I looked over at Kyle. “I know you said it was going to be a wild night out but that was slightly ridiculous!”
We laughed. It was extreme in every sense of the word but, funnily enough, rather than put me off, it made me even more excited for another (full) night on the edge. Right now there was a storm on the horizon, but I knew it had sparked a love of these high-octane extreme sleeps. For me a night like this only spelled one thing – the opening of a door to a whole new world of adventures.
Known for its abundance of fossils and miles of beach – it was here where the woman who inspired the ‘she sells, sea shells on the sea shore’ tongue twister came from – the aptly named Jurassic Coast is now also home to a new cliff camping experience. Abseiling down to a portaledge, dinner can be enjoyed complete with sea views on every point of the compass. Falling asleep to the waves crashing below is either going to whet your appetite for more or put a dampener on future hanging adventures. Well, there’s only one way to find out…
Eddy Young at Young’s Adventure Solutions offers overnight cliff camping trips on the Dorset coast from £250pp.
Fear factor: 5
The first operator in the UK to offer this knee-trembling experience not only gives you the chance to camp high above the waves on the dramatic shores of the isle of Anglesey, but can also take you to portalege in a valley deep within the Snowdonia National Park too – a less oceanic offering if you fancy more of an mountainous backdrop. Either way, you’ll certainly have earned your breakfast (served in bed, naturally) come the morning – speaking of which, there’s even the chance of just a moonlit ledgeside dining experience rather than a whole night – cheers to that!
Gaia Adventures offers portaledge camping from £500 for 2 people.
Fear Factor: 5
Between the glacially shaped valleys and limestone peaks of Bavaria’s Allgau Alps are little pockets of thick woodland. It’s here where the good folk at Waldseilgarten, in the region of Pfonten, came up with the idea to let people not only wander among the trees, but actually spend the night dangling from them too. In a show of traditional German hospitality, before you embark on your nighttime adventure you are fed a combination of hearty schnitzel and dumplings in a local farm restaurant before making the rope climb (using a special ascending device) up to bed. It’s tiring work, so sleeping should be easy, lulled by the hoots of the resident owls…
Waldseilgarten offers tree camping from €250pp.
Fear factor: 4
If you’re keen to have the views gained from a portaledge but can’t face the wobbly nature of the platforms then you are in luck. Offering just as much as an adventure to get into bed (a via ferrata climb), the folks at Skylodge Adventure Suites do promise that when you finally get there you don’t have to remain in your harness or worry about going to the toilet. Their condor nest inspired polycarbonate and aluminium capsules, are essentially hanging translucent bedrooms. Perched at 3650m, they come complete with four beds, a dining area and even a private bathroom. Just save some adrenaline for the morning when you’ll be taking the zipline back down to earth…
Natura Vive offers overnights from 1335PEN (around £300)pp.
Fear factor: 3
For those for whom height and full 360-degree views still turn you into a quivering mess – there is a final option. Our friendly Canadian friends have come up with the ultimate in suspended glamping. Eryn is a wooden sphere which hangs in the canopy of Vancouver Island’s verdant forest. Made from spruce similar to the trees that surround it, this little bauble is reached by a winding wooden staircase – with no need to go anywhere near a harness or helmet. Inside is a double bed, electric heating, tea and coffee making facilities and even a sofa and fridge. Who says you need to scare your socks off to have a sleeping high?
Free Spirit Spheres offer stays in one of their 3 hanging pods from CAN$299pn.
Fear factor: 1