Hanging on a sheer cliff face at a head-spinning height with nothing but a thin sheet of nylon separating him from a vast drop, Aaron Millar considers how fearsome adventure really is the making of us
I’m hanging from a cliff, in the middle of the night, with nothing to occupy my thoughts but vertigo, empty space and six billion years of evolutionary common sense screaming at me to get down. This is cliff camping, a new extreme sleeping activity – based in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado – that puts ordinary non-superhumans like me in the dreamlands of mountaineers and monkeys.
The concept is simple. Vertical virgins, accompanied by professional climbers, spend a bucket list night camping out under the stars on a portaledge – those flimsy hanging beds used by mountaineers during multi-day vertical wall ascents. But that makes it sound relatively banal. Imagine instead a nylon cot, less spacious than a park bench, and no sides, tethered to the face of a sheer cliff at head-spinning heights, by nothing more than rope, bolts and an optimistic sense of one’s own fate. As I lie in the darkness, trying to stop my hands trembling, my guide Buster Jesik shouts at me across the void: “It’s good to get scared sometimes. It stretches the limits of who you are!”
“Fear makes us richer, fuller and more alive”
That got me thinking. To reach the portaledge I had to climb a 160ft sheer rock face, jump across a 300ft deep crevasse and abseil into an abyss of darkness so complete it felt like I was descending into the bowels of a giant beast. If being scared stretches who you are, who I am, by night’s end, had been placed squarely on the rack. But opening your life to adventure doesn’t have to mean dangling from a cliff. As Helen Keller, the deaf, blind and extremely brave author and activist once said: “Life is either a great adventure or nothing at all.” We are supposed to push the boundaries. Comfort stagnates; fear is the fuel of personal growth.
Adventure has psychological benefits, too. When we jump off a bungee platform, or fly 100mph headfirst down a zip wire, we are getting more than a rush. We are boosting our confidence and self-esteem. We are changing the way we view ourselves; who we think we are, and what we might become. When we land, we are literally not the same person that stood trembling on the banks. That’s the rush.
But living your life as an adventure means more than that. It means going your own way: stepping out of the boxes of modern life and choosing your passions, your purpose, your life’s course, without the weight of others’ expectations. As we do so, we widen our frame of reference and expand the parameters of who we are. Fear makes us richer, fuller and more alive.
That night, on the portaledge, as the spirals of the Milky Way brightened in the dark of a moonless night, we watched the candle lights of civilisation flickering far below. “Don’t you feel sorry for them?” Buster asked. “Watching TV while we’re up here looking at this view?”
When dawn finally broke, flooding colour into the pine forests and granite peaks of the Rocky Mountains, I watched the valley come alive hundreds of feet below: people having breakfast, getting in their cars, going to work. That life, my ordinary everyday existence, seemed so safe and contained. Like I was peering in from a world infused with a wildness I never knew was there. Perhaps that’s the point Keller is making. The real challenge of life is the evolution of our selves. The adventure is inside us.
Embrace the fear with these life-changing adventures:
Cliff Camping: Estes Park, Colorado
This year the Rocky Mountain National Park celebrates its 100th anniversary. Join in the festivities with a vertigo-fuelled bucket list night spent cliff camping – guaranteed to set dinner table tales alight for years to come. The season runs May-September.
Kent Mountain Adventure Centre
24hrs London to Paris Cycle
Are you tough enough to ride non-stop for 24hrs? This new extreme test of endurance will see would-be Chris Froomes pedalling out of London, crossing the channel and continuing through the night into northern France and the welcome sight of the Eiffel Tower – more than 240miles in the saddle, and all in aid of a good cause.
Stonehenge to Avebury Trekathon
Trekathons are 26-mile marathon length treks in a single day. This classic long-distance hike links two ancient sites across the Wiltshire countryside, with spectacular views throughout and plenty of support from fellow walkers and event staff. Raise enough money for a good cause and the participation fee will be waived.
Global Adventure Challenges
Aaron Millar is travel editor of Positive News and writes a blog about adventure travel and personal development through exploring the world: www.thebluedotperspective.com