Imagine scaling a sheer rock face and bedding down for the night atop a canvas platform secured to the side of the cliff, 200ft off the ground. Your nightlight is the majestic, snow-capped Continental Divide of Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, dipped in golden twilight. You are cliff camping in a thrill seekers’ mecca, and you are on top of the world.
Founded in 1987, Kent Mountain Adventure Center is the first and only US commercial outfitter to offer these guided climbing experiences. The company was found by 40-year outdoor adventure guide Harry Kent, who, in a way, lives at the top of the world.
The view from Kent’s mountain home – which I reached by weaving from the highway up several dirt roads – is of one of his favourite summits, Longs Peak. At 14,259ft, the flat-topped peak towers above all others in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Kent pointed to this intimidating mountain landscape, telling me that Longs Peak is not a hike; it’s a climb that involves scaling enormous vertical rock faces and scrambling over narrow ledges. It’s also a climb that he first tackled with Keith Lober, a clerk at an Estes Park outdoor shop who would become Kent’s best friend and climbing partner for life.
Inspired by a Lowell Thomas novel, Book of the High Mountains, Kent hitchhiked 43 years ago from Cape Cod to Estes Park, Colorado – with the goal of climbing the mountains he read about. “I had this draw for the mountains, and I remember approaching Denver from the plains. Anticipating. Looking ahead until there it was,” Kent said. “The outline of the towering peaks of the snow-capped Rocky Mountains was right in front of me – and I knew I was finally home.”
When Kent arrived in Estes Park, climbing shoes slung over his shoulder, Lober was the first person he met. Within minutes, the two had made plans to scale Longs Peak that afternoon.
“We were young, and in reality, we had no climbing experience,” Kent said. “It was snowing, and we camped [at the Keyhole]. Yes it was cold, and we didn’t make it to the top that time. But what a great first adventure we had together.”
Since then, Kent has climbed all over the world, including standing at the top of Longs Peak 100 times. Now at 60 years young and no less the adventurer, Kent still scales mountains in anticipation of capturing the summit view. When he makes it to the top, Kent said, he still feels that heart-pounding thrill, whether it’s near his Estes Park home base or in the Himalayas.
Rocky Mountain National Park, established just one year shy of the National Park Service itself, is massive. Covering 415 sq miles, Kent hasn’t ascended every peak. He has, however, relished in every alpine start, an ascent that’s only possible in the spring and summer.
“An alpine start begins early, before 4am,” Kent said. “Your hike starts with a head lamp, and the moon setting while you are anticipating that magical moment when the sun peeks over the horizon, casting hues of yellow and orange into the mountains and onto pink granite and trees. Colourful, intense and lasting about five minutes, it leaves me speechless every time.”
Appreciating all aspects of the climb – and not just the summit – is a lesson that Kent seeks to share with the children that he guides on adventure trips within the park. For example, on a trip to the top of Twin Owls, it was actually the 200ft descent that presented the challenge.
“To get down, a short rappel was required,” Kent said. “The last student began the rappel… and then froze, dangling perhaps 200ft from the ledge. I get it. Rappelling is unnatural, steep and scary. If you let go, you could fall. He could not muster the courage to allow himself to continue.”
Kent coached and supported the young man, telling him to take his time. Finally, after nearly 90 minutes of internal battle of his fears, the student started inching down at his own pace.
“For that student, this was the most important event,” Kent said. “Today, this student is a grown man with a family, and he still remembers that descent and will never forget the experience. For me, it made me realize that the beauty of the climbing experience takes place internally.”
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