The Ultimate American Cliff-Camping Trip Every Adventurer Should Do
IT’S A SUNDAY IN ESTES PARK, COLORADO—not long after the sun has set over Twin Sisters Peaks across the canyon and nearby Rocky Mountain National Park—and I’m sitting some 100-200 feet up in the air on the side of a cliff waiting to eat a steak dinner.
I’m not on solid ground either. I’m wearing a harness and hanging out on a Black Diamond portaledge, a portable cot, if you will, made of nylon and aluminum. There’s a main anchor point wedged into the cliff’s natural cracks to which my harness and a series of straps and clips are secured, like a suspension system.
This isn’t something reserved for pros like Tommy Caldwell who spend days in the sky on precarious climbs. You can do it, too. It’s one of the 200 guided excursions that comprise Airbnb Adventures, a new set of extended Experiences the brand rolled out this month. They include everything from checking out paranormal activity in Utah and Nevada to activities geared toward adrenaline junkies like this one.
The beauty of these Adventures is you can immerse yourself in something wholly foreign. For me it meant finding out I am, it turns out, sort of afraid of heights—and subsequently trying to hide any apprehension from my girlfriend and a couple strangers. But, after a busy day of hiking, sport climbing, and traversing a via ferrata (a protected route with a series of built-in ladders and a cable line running alongside the mountain), all I can think about is how hungry I am. And that’s when Steven swings in.
“Bon appétit,” says Steven Moss, a climbing and adventure guide at Kent Mountain Adventure Center, as he hands my girlfriend, Taysha, and me a plate of broccoli, potatoes, and a medium-rare steak. He’s clipped into his harness and rope, wearing a helmet and a headlamp that spotlights our dinner in the sky. To be clear, this isn’t “fake” food; it tastes way too good to be instant. He and our second guide, Stephanie Maxwell, prepared our meal using a cast-iron pan and a Jetboil. We inhale it. We kinda have to: It’s chilly enough that the food gets instantly cold. But we don’t care. It’s exactly what we wanted to eat after hours on the wall.
The day started around noon at Kent Mountain Adventure Center—or KMAC—which leads outdoor adventures on a regular basis, as well as the occasional cliff-camping excursion or cliff picnic (a “clifnic”). Our host, Dustin, greets us and introduces us to Moss and Maxwell. They go over the packing list they sent us a few days prior before we pack up the van and drive to the mountain. Sleeping bag? Check. Extra layers? Check. Sunscreen? Already on.
We approach the Cheley Camp entrance and Moss and Maxwell lead us on a hike through evergreen trees up to our camping destination, Deville 3, pointing out the metamorphosed granite and Juniper bushes along the way. “How’s the speed?” Moss asks us before we stop for a quick sack lunch and clip into the cable of the via ferrata.
Once we reach the top, we gear up to rappel down to the portaledges, which Maxwell already assembled. I take the rope and thread it through my harness loops. First up under the bottom loop, then the top loop. I pull it tight, then follow it along a figure-eight knot.
Maxwell and Moss inspect each section of the rope throughout the day and reassure me everything is ready to go. They’re seasoned pros at KMAC, which is part of the American Mountain Guides Association. In other words, they know what they’re doing. This is all comforting because even though I’m having one of the greatest days of my life, I’m terrified. (It’s only the next day they tell me those afraid of heights should consider trying one of the other activities KMAC offers first.)
It won’t be the last time I ask these amateur questions.
I unclip from the wall and try to trust the rope. I’ve never rappelled down the side of a massive cliff before, and the guides can tell by my death grip. They tell me this first section is the hardest part, which makes sense because I can’t see the ground yet.
Maybe that’s a good thing.
“I’m going to give you a challenge,” Moss says. “I want you to let go of that right arm.”
My arms feel tired from hanging on so tight.
“I’m with you here,” Moss says, grabbing the rope to show me I’m secure. “You can feel me tugging on you. We’re still tied in—super strong.” He instructs me to let my arms fall to the side and lean back, keeping my heels sturdy and legs straight. It’ll be a lot easier this way.
“Feelin’ good?” he asks me.
“You look amazing,” Taysha encourages me. “It looks great.”
She gives me the confidence I need to calm down and go for it. I know it’s going to be fun.
Moss gives me a fist bump. “There we go, he’s still smiling.”
THE PORTALEDGE IS just big enough to fit Taysha and me and our two large packs. When we move, it sometimes shifts, depending on how heavy either side gets. I can’t help but hold onto the straps attached to the wall for the first few minutes.
A quick break and Moss asks if we want to throw on our climbing shoes and go up again. Neither of us have ever climbed outside of a Brooklyn Boulders’ wall before, but we know this is what we signed up to do.
It’s golden hour when we finish the short climb. Moss later tells me: “Most of the lines you were taking were around the 5.7 range—that’s called the Yosemite decimal system… and it’s basically a system of how we grade rock climbs to compare them to one another.” Not bad for our first time.
We clip back into the via ferrata to watch the sun set from one of the peaks, snack on orange-and-hazelnut chocolate bars, and turn our headlamps on to rappel back down, eat, roll out our sleeping pads and bags, and settle in for the night.
SUNRISE HAPPENS AT 5:30 a.m., but I’ve been awake for hours. I slept better than I thought I would, wearing most of my layers and zipped into my sleeping bag with plenty of room to stretch out. I was worried about us falling off the side during the night but we’re both still there and strapped into the wall like Moss and Maxwell said we’d be.
Moss and Maxwell are already up, too, making us breakfast: an egg burrito and coffee.
“This is so beautiful,” Taysha says. I let go of the straps, sit back, and watch the sun fall over the evergreens. Our time in the sky’s almost up.
BACK ON THE GROUND we hike to a shed to drop off some gear and load up the van again for the short drive back to the KMAC office. Moss says, “That 10-15 minute van ride to the parking lot is more dangerous than the actual activities we’re doing up top.” It’s not even noon, but I’m ready for a feast—and a beer.
I ask our guides if they have any recommendations.
“Rock Cut,” Maxwell says, steering us away from a few other establishments that are on the touristy side. It’s a nearby brewery that also happens to have a rotation of food trucks out on the patio.
Maxwell has some more expert advice before our trip ends: Ask for “the Kate Special,” she adds, a mix of a sour and an IPA.
It’s not on the menu at Rock Cut but they know exactly what we’re asking for. Taysha orders one and I get a Galactic Portal. “We just went cliff camping,” we tell them as we move on to the patio. We order food and finish up our beers before it’s time to head to the airport and go home.