Ever wonder what it would be like to replace the safety of a firm, stable campground with the life-threatening danger of camping on a cliff face? For many, the mere thought of such an excursion shoots adrenaline shoot through the limbs. Others, however, will let the crazy people risk their own lives while they watch from terra firma.
Cliff camping, also known as high mountain camping, extreme camping, or vertical camping, doesn’t let you come down from the super-charged high of scaling a face. Instead, you stay right in the middle of the adrenaline dump by bivvying on the side of the cliff. That’s right, on the side of the cliff. To say it’s a vertical thrill shortchanges the sheer awesomeness of the experience.
Cliff climbing stretches back 50-some years when intrepid climbers were slinging their bodies into hammocks and using rucksacks as pillows. Come the 70’s, the architecture we’ve come to identify with the modern portaledge began appearing in early prototypes. Today’s portaledge is a sophisticated piece of vertical camping equipment that has gifted climbers with manifold ways to enjoy nature while dangling against the side of a wall.
Portaledges are stand-ins for a land-based tent. They’re called “ledges” because that’s what they effectively do for you: Provide a ledge on which you can park your weary soul. From there, you nap, brew some java, read a book, snap some pics, or chat with your climbing buddies. Portaledges look like real tents when assembled with a rainfly, which is the name given to the fabric that comprises the unit’s walls and roof. There’s as much room to move inside a portaledge as one would need during a vertical bivouac, and the rainfly gives additional freedom by protecting the climber from inclement weather.
The climate surrounding vertical campers can easily mimic the worst of what they experience while climbing. Fierce winds, bitter temperatures, pounding rain, slush and snow–they always run the risk of waking up to a barrage of weather’s harshest elements. Mother Nature can be especially annoying to people sleeping on the platforms sans rainfly. For this reason, the mummy bag has become a fixture in extreme camping. It covers nearly every inch of the climber’s body and keeps them warm through any weather-related onslaught. If you’re going to push the envelope with your own life, you might as well stay comfortable.
Which leads to an interesting quirk among many high mountain campers: A preference toward eschewing the rainfly in all but the most dangerous of conditions. Naturally, the naked platform is more perilous and ramps the adrenaline junkie’s fix to even higher highs. You can slackline, free climb, hang glide, or base jump and you wouldn’t get the same type of communion with nature as you’d get with extreme camping. To say the thrill alone is the appeal denies the pleasure of basking in the outdoors miles above ground with a panorama of natural beauty on all sides.
Besides which, there remains a comforting degree of safety despite the increased danger. Multiple points of contact assure that even if one rope fails to support the portaledge, several other connections will pick up the slack. Plus, there’s the issue of the harness. It will be the climber’s best friend during the trip.
This means the climber sleeps in the harness, moves between ledges in the harness, plays cards in the harness–they remain constantly tethered throughout their stint on the face. Everything they do, they do wearing the harness. This applies even if two campers want to get intimate (which, according to many in the vertical camping community, can be easily done). Nothing spells sexy like half-naked body in a climbing harness.
Whereas extreme camping lets you experience the world in a brand new, awe-inspiring way, it does trade in some of the conveniences of traditional campgrounds. When going vertical, campers have no choice but to store their waste for proper disposal at a later time upon reaching firm ground. Combined with all the other crap a climber has to carry (pun intended), this can be a nuisance. The demands of the situation, not to mention camping etiquette, demands it. Given the life-changing experience of vertical camping, however, it’s a small price to pay.
Cliff campers are a rare breed, people willing to join two separate passions together while flipping the bird to death and convention. It’s not for the faint of heart or the merely curious. But for those willing and able to brave it, high mountain camping can satisfy their sense of adventure while starting a new chapter in their relationship with Mother Nature.