Vertical Camping In The Rockies

 Daniel Gambino

After a short hike through a pine forest near Rocky Mountain National Park, our guide stops at the base of a towering granite rock face. "We're close," he says. "Only 160 feet from camp." The catch: He's talking about 160 vertical feet.

In fact, we'll be overnighting on the side of a 350-foot granite crag known as Deville Rocks. My bed will be a portaledge, an aluminum frame about three feet wide and seven feet long, strapped with canvas, and suspended from steel bolts drilled into the rock. Hardcore climbers, of course, have long bedded down on rock faces during multiday ascents; Kent Mountain Adventure Center in Estes Park, Colorado, is one of the few U.S. outfits to offer it to nonclimbers.

After a tutorial in big-wall climbing, our guide, TJ, declares us ready. Amazingly, it takes just 15 minutes or so to ascend the 100-plus feet to camp. Shaky with adrenaline, I attach my harness to the anchor point. (Everything at camp is anchored to the wall at all times.) I sit with my back against the wall, gazing across the valley at rows of forested hilltops, rocky outcroppings, and imposing summits, including the 14,259-foot Longs Peak. TJ sets up the hanging Jetboil stove — tonight's menu is pasta and garlic bread — and explains what connects us to the rock. Each portaledge is suspended from a master point, a bombproof anchor constructed of two steel bolts. He sets up a line to the valley floor: In case of inclement weather or vertigo, he assures us, we can rappel down in two minutes.

Once I understand how it all works, I slowly begin to relax. Soon I feel like a cliff-dwelling bird burrowing into its nest for the evening. Sipping from a mini bottle of red wine, I watch the sun drop into the hilltops across the valley. After an hour or two of sharing stories, there's nothing to do but sleep. The night is mild, and the air is still. I lie on my back, watching the stars and listening to the sound of the stream below. It's relaxing, but I must confess that I don't get much actual sleep.

At dawn TJ starts the coffee and we enjoy a bird's-eye view of first light on the mountains. We eat organic omelets and laugh about how little we slept. TJ has heard this before: "You need a couple of nights to get used to it," he says.