I slowly open my eyes, hand guarding against the bright light. I prop myself up on one elbow and look out at the white mist around us. Low clouds were swirling gracefully with the unseen forces of a breeze. All I could see was white. And then, as an opening in the mist widened in front of me, I could see the mountain side below, bathed in the magnificent morning sun. Magic. That’s the only word to describe this experience.
What was I doing? I was sleeping on a portaledge!
WHAT IS A PORTALEDGE?
A portaledge is a collapsible platform used for sleeping on cliff faces, or any vertical surface for that matter. Essentially it’s like a hammock that’s rigid with an aluminum frame for structural support which you can stand, sit or sleep on.
Portaledges are used by rock climbers who spend days or weeks at a time on huge cliff faces. It’s their home, and those few small square feet are their kitchen, beds, living room and toilet all at once.
Without them, there is no comfortable way of spending any significant time on a wall.
Are they safe? Yes!
At first glace many people may wonder what happens if you ‘roll off’ in your sleep, or trip over the edge. I'm sure imaginations go into vivid overdrive focusing on what could possibly happen up there.
But rest assured, you always wear a harness which is still connected to the main anchor with a rope. There is no possible way you can fall down.
Popular spots to use a portaledge include:
Yosemite Valley in America, the Dolomites along the Austrian-Italian border, or if you live in sunny Queensland in Australia, Mount Beerwah.
Mount Beerwah certainly isn’t a comparison to the many big walls found around the world, but it was the best local spot to try out some cliff camping for a night.
My good friend, Daniel, had just bought a portaledge, and we couldn't wait to take it up there!
Photo by Daniel Razzino.
THE PORTALEDGE ADVENTURE BEGINS!
When I say it gets hot, I mean IT GETS HOT. Temperatures soar above 35°C (95°F) at Mount Beerwah in the middle of summer and with enough humidity in the air to drown you, the last thing you want to do is spend a full hour hauling gear up scorched rocky slabs.
But that’s what we did. Because portaledges, that's why.
Throwing caution to the nonexistent wind, we excitedly arrived in the carpark having spent a few minutes back home sorting out supplies. It would only be one night after all. A quick weekend jaunt up a cliff wall. You know, the typical weekend stuff.
Mount Beerwah, the remnant of an ancient volcanic plug, has some slippery trachyite slabs leading up to the start of to the massive main cliff face. At 150 meters high, this vertical wall had numerous overhangs to negotiate. And it’s under the first major overhang that we would set up the portaledge.
Our plan was in motion and the adventure began.
Shouldering our 20-25 Kg packs containing the portaledge, ropes, food, water and climbing gear, we left the carpark at the unfortunate time of 1PM. Great for getting us to the big overhang by sundown, terrible for the oppressive heat.
Each of us carried 4 litres of water. Not nearly enough as we would find out.
As we first touch the rock being blasted by the sun, we recoil as our hands singe. Midday was not the perfect time to be going up, but frying eggs and bacon probably would be!
With deft and delicate foot movements, we balance our way to the top avoiding the use of our hands as much as possible. Being rock climbers gives us a good advantage in balancing in precarious positions. Of course, everyone can do the hike up the slabs, Its certainly a popular place over weekends!
After one hour, we make it to the top of the slabs.
UP, UP AND AWAY!
From here, the main track that hikers take follows the base of the cliff and then climbs one of the side ridges. But for us, our real adventure begins at the bottom, and from there we would climb the face for 60 vertical meters to our cliff camping spot.
I was getting excited!
To climb up, we would ‘aid climb’ the route, which follows the many bolts drilled into the face. As the rock is as smooth as glass, climbing in the regular way with hand and foot holds would not work, so aid climbing allows us to progress upwards easily.
Aid climbing technique involves using nylon ladders, or ‘aiders’ as we call them, which are clipped or hooked into the bolts and used as the hand and foot holds instead of the rock as you usually do in rock climbing.
While this may seem easier since you are essentially climbing ladders, the experience is unnerving if it’s your first time. And it was my first time.
Daniel leads the first pitch of climbing and I am glad to be belaying in the shade of trees at the bottom. I have another sip of my water bladder and in my greediness, the last bit slurps out.
Half my water is now used. It was time to begin rationing.
After a while, Daniel is safe at the anchor 30 meters up and calls out to help get the haul bag through the trees.
While I would climb a fixed line with my ascenders, Daniel would haul the bag containing all our gear, including the portaledge, to the anchor using progress capture devices. As the bag lifts off the ground all seems well until it tangles in the branches a few meters above.
Damn. I would have to start climbing and reach out to untangle the bag.
I start up and am soon puffing from the effort. I stretch out, fingertips brushing the rope, and manage to grab the rope and free the bag from the tree’s grasp with some help from Daniel up above.
Back in business!
All the while, the sun keeps beating down and exposed skin reddens alarmingly quick. There were many things we should have taken, and sunscreen was one of them.
I finally make it to the anchor, the ‘belay’ as its known in climbing, and Daniel suggests I try the next pitch to the overhang.
A little unsure as I had never aid climbed before at that point, I agreed as it would be good training to do something new. I spent far too much of my life not getting out of my comfort zone before finding the outdoors, so now I like to make sure I learn and grow as much as possible. It’s usually fun...
I was nervously tense at the beginning, but I soon find a peaceful rhythm. Ignoring everything but what I needed to do, I made it to the overhang and our cliff camping spot in the odd hour or so. I still have a bit to learn in efficiency when aid climbing it seems. I felt pretty slow!
I begin hauling the bag like Daniel did on the last pitch while he uses his ascenders climbing on the fixed line. The afternoon sun has slackened a bit but is still relentlessly sapping our fluids. Water is running low for the both of us.
This is all forgotten again as Daniel reaches the belay just as the haul bag does and we celebrate our efforts with some water and high fives.
We made it! We would be sleeping on the wall tonight!
SLEEPING ON A PORTALEDGE
With the fading sun on the horizon spraying the last of the oranges, reds and yellows across the clouds, we attempt our first portaledge assembly hanging in the air.
Like a tent, the poles go together in certain ways and I was glad Daniel had rehearsed it at home when he first got the portaledge delivered.
An hour later, feeling quite chuffed, we had fine tuned the straps and figured out the subtle nuances of moving about on a platform that will quite suddenly ‘drop’ to one side when its unbalanced. We realised it’s important for one person not to take their weight off the portaledge suddenly!
Of course this is why harnesses are still worn and you are always secured to the main anchor with the rope. Though scary, it is totally safe.
We settle down for dinner, use more of that precious water, and leave just a small mouthful for the morning.
It was time to sleep.
Night time adventures
Sleeping on a portaledge isn’t too bad. It’s not as scary as you might think. Quite the opposite. It's exciting, and when you look out on the landscape, quite stunning.
We watch the cars on a distant highway drive along, house lights gradually turn off and the stars appear brighter still as we contemplate how amazing this was.
I mean, how often do you sleep on a cliff face like this?
It feels epic, and the adventurer in me sure is stoked to be able to do this. You quickly forget about the heights and all that. The warm, fuzzy adventure feelings take over. I settle in on the inside section against the wall while Daniel takes the outside next to the sheer drop.
Sleeping is the easy part of the night, it’s the waking for a certain inconvenience that makes it a little more ‘interesting’.
It almost felt like I had just drifted off when I had to pee. Thank god it was just that. I had brought a homemade ‘toilet tube’ to secure our waste in. I reluctantly get up and stand on the edge.
I admit I am now scared.
Scared that Daniel might move in his sleep and throw me off balance. Scared I get one of those 'jolts' as you adjust your balance and pee on myself, or the portaledge, or Daniel. Holding the container in one hand, while my arm is threaded through a strap for balance, I feel like a gentle blow of wind would send me over.
My mind contemplates all these outcomes, and I do away with the container opting for the ‘natural’ approach. I'm tense. Stomach muscles band together like iron. I resign and get on my knees. Maybe that will help. Breathing deeply and thinking happy thoughts, I try to relax, and I soon get a steady stream going.
Straight onto our ropes hanging below!
With reflexes like I've never seen before, I quickly adjust my aim and it looks like it has missed. I hope. I look over my shoulder at Daniel sleeping. He hasn't noticed I think. I finish, lay down and drift off again.
I wake again a short time later.
Daniel is laying on his side with arm stretched out grabbing one strap, and has his foot hooked in another. It looks like some core strengthening yoga pose. It doesn’t take me long to figure out what he was doing teetering on the edge like that.
It isn't your usual way of doing it, but I guess he didn't feel like standing like I did.
a grand morning on the cliff
Photo by Daniel Razzino.
Waking up enveloped in white was pretty spectacular. Swirling with the breeze, the clouds parted and allowed us magnificent views into the surrounding land. But as the sun burnt off the clouds we remembered our priority.
With the last drop gone in a hasty morning sip, we bail and de-rig everything. Carefully packing the bag, making sure not to drop anything, we abseil down the 60 meters in free hanging space to the ground below.
The slippery slabs still await us but at least going down is easier. Mostly.
Its quite unfortunate that Mount Beerwah has no creeks or water sources. I could really do with a drink!
We blast down and past the first hikers making their way up. Beating the midday sun is our only goal at that point. I already have everything planned for when we reach the car. I would buy 2 litres of water, a Gatorade, lollies and some chicken nuggets from the nearest service station.
Which I did.
Want to go cliff camping?
It’s time to get out of your comfort zone and try something new. This could be it. And you know what? You don’t even have to be a climber to try this! With guided trips available in most countries, you can easily give this a go.
And unlike our trip, your guides will pack enough water (and probably also lollies) and help you through the experience from start to finish!
Check these for the popular places:
In the UK
In the USA
Kent Mountain Adventure Center
Is today the day you try something new? Remember, every adventure starts by saying yes to an opportunity!