Most of us have watched Cliff Hanger, my husband had not. So, the night before our departure to Colorado to go cliff camping, he decided to watch it – bad move. For those of you who also haven’t seen the movie, or simply have forgotten, it starts with the iconic scene of Sylvester Stallone climbing with his best friends’ girlfriend when she comes unclipped from her harness. Despite Sylvester’s incredible physique he is unable to hold onto her and she plummets 1000 feet to her death.
Fast forward a few days and we’re in Estes Park, on the outskirts of Rocky Mountain National Park, being clipped into our very own harnesses, Steve was undoubtably a little nervous.
To make matters worse, the day before we had been driving through the Rockies over the highest sealed road in the US stopping numerous times to take photos and enjoy the incredible scenery. Later that evening Steve began to feel a little under the weather; headaches, nausea, loss of appetite and went to bed early. The following morning, still feeling pretty dodgy we decided to check in with the local pharmacist to see what maybe ailing him. Seemed he had a dose of altitude sickness and was prescribed some travel sickness pills for nausea, ibuprofen for the headaches, a portable oxygen canister for his breathing along with a box of ‘concrete pills’ and told to go enjoy the day.
So, we checked into KMAC, (Kent Mountain Adventure Center) and met our guide for the day. Kalley (pronounced Cali, as in California) was the quintessential rock climber, who despite growing up in Wisconsin (not renowned for its peaks) had fallen in love with climbing and the mountains. She was passionate about the outdoors and had made a life for herself doing the thing she really loved, climbing.
We were there to experience both the Via Ferrata and Cliffnicking… I’ll explain….
Via Ferrata is an Italian phrase that means “iron way” and it basically means a fixed climbing route has been established enabling you to experience what it’s like to rock climb, without needing to have any technical climbing ability. The KMAC website describes the experience as, “somewhere between scrambling and technical rock climbing, something like a rope course up a cliff.”
Cliffnicking is lunch or dinner on a portaledge attached to a sheer rock face hundreds of feet above the ground. Now, this does not appeal to everyone but if you have any sense of adventure (which we did) this is one of those must-do activities.
Our day began with a 45-minute hike before securing our harness and helmet to begin the Via Ferrata. After a brief demonstration and practise we clipped into the first of the anchored steel cables and began our ascent.
The Via Ferrata climbs roughly 600 vertical feet and traverses across the middle of a steep cliff which is really exposed, so it gives you a mental challenge as well as a physical one.
The views from the climb are spectacular and we managed plenty of stops to enjoy the sights and snap photos (or suck on an oxygen bottle). Although the climb is assisted in the way of ladders and steel rungs, it was great to challenge yourself to use more of the natural features, that way you could get a feel of real climbing. Regardless of the path, you choose it is still physically demanding so you need to have a relatively good level of fitness. You know when you’ve reached the top of the Via Ferrata as the scene is somewhat similar to the prayer flags at the top of Everest.
After a brief stop, we walked down to the start of the rappel for our portaledge lunch. Usually going down is the easy part, but strangely that was not the case. Although clipped into the rappel line, tipping yourself backwards off the edge of a cliff is simply not a natural sensation. You are putting all your faith in the line, with only your feet securing you to the sheer cliff face.
As we inched our way down, the portaledge offered only the tiniest of safe havens between us and the hundreds of feet sheer drop to the bottom.
It’s a strange sensation, to say the least, to perch on a ledge held onto the side of a cliff by a few harnesses. Despite being reassured that the safety holds were exactly that, “safe” it was hard to really relax. It just goes against all logic and took every ounce of mind over matter to simply trust that we were indeed safe, when all instincts screamed the opposite.
I focused on watching Kalley as she gave off a sense of calm and reassurance and I put my trust in her enough to actually relax and enjoy the experience. I’m not sure I can say the same for Steve. Despite his best attempt to “chill” he just couldn’t hide the inner turmoil and never quite looked at ease. Kalley took a picture of us perched on the ledge and we posted it (as you do) to our social media channels and is the image that has received the most comments, most of them along the lines of “are you crazy?” Well, maybe just a bit!
Steve has no fear of heights but a lifetime of being in some fairly adventurous predicaments, like photographing 30-foot waves from a boat and shooting while hanging out of a helicopter (things not always going well), he has developed a good sense of self-preservation and this situation seemed anything but. He asked about the portaledge and how it was held on the cliff wall. Kalley pointed to the single bolt in the wall that we were all attached our harness and the portaledge. “So we are all attached to that one bolt?”
Kalley went on to reassure him of how it was rated and perfectly safe of which he heard none. All he heard was we are all attached to that one bolt and it was time to get down. I could see he wanted to get down and but didn’t want to be a pussy. Kalley unpacked a beautiful lunch – drinks – sandwiches and crackers and hummus. I started to really relax and enjoyed the experience; the weather was beautiful, crows flew around the cliff face and you could see for miles. On the other hand, Steve nibbled at his sandwich, nervously twitched every time someone moved and kept a firm grip on the rappel line.
Kalley: “More crackers?”
Steve: “No I’m good”
Kalley: “Another sandwich?”
Steve: “No I’m good?”
Steve: “No thanks”
Kalley: “Shall we just hang out here then?”
Steve: “No I’m good”
We rappelled to the bottom and sat and looked up at the tiny space we had been sitting on as it flapped in the breeze.We were perfectly safe at all times but something’s its is hard to get your head around, that you are sitting on the face of a cliff 600ft off the ground dipping crackers in hummus!
Weeks later when we returned to New Zealand, this experience is the one that I have relived many times as people have asked me what it was like and was I crazy?
I know that the cliffnicking could have easily been outside of my comfort zone, it was definitely outside of my everyday experiences, however, isn’t it that that makes life exciting. The minute you start putting things in the “too hard” or “too scary” category means you stop living.
Our experiences make us who we are at any age and it is way too easy to put some things in the too hard basket; I am too weak, too unfit, too injured too old, the excuse list goes on forever. Sure, you don’t want to overdo it, but each and every one of us needs so desperately, for our own personal wellbeing, to push the envelope; take that extra step, commit to things we are not completely comfortable with, and all of us will be better off for it.
Kent Mountain Adventure Center was established by Harry Kent and has been offering rock climbing and mountaineering instruction since 1987 as well as providing outdoor education programs for school. Many of the staff are teachers, outdoor educators, professional career guides and personal coaches who cite their passion for the outdoors and love of teaching as one of the most satisfying parts of their lives.
You’ll find KMAC in the lobby of the The Aspire at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park.
What else they offer: Whether you are young or old and seeking a climbing guide or looking for a group experience, KMAC can cater something to suit your needs. Programmes include: Via Ferrata, Cliff Camping, Rock Climbing Programmes, Avalanche Education and more. Check them out at kmaconline.com
VisitEstesPark.com and Colorado.com for more adventures in the region.