Conceived around a campfire, born in a tavern parking lot and raised in one of the last bastions of the Wild West, the Man of the Cliff turns four this year.
And in a region that has spent decades searching for an event to pull fall visitors into town the same way an average summer weekend attracts guests, it seems we've finally found it in Red Cliff, one of the last areas anyone ever cared to look. The Man of the Cliff's ax-throwing, archery and wood-chopping competition has become synonymous with autumn in Eagle County, and has created a scene to which many look forward all year.
That uniqueness of that scene - a gathering of beards and flannel in the parking lot of Mango's, a bar/restaurant in Red Cliff - has no doubt led to its success.
And in a great reversal of the standard, the idea has actually worked out better in execution than it sounded in conception.
"We started talking about it years before we actually did it, and it was always a kind of campfire discussion," recalls organizer/founder Amanda Williams. "When it was first starting, I went door to door to try and get people pumped about it and everybody kinda had the same response - beer and axes? You're really going to do that? ... It has since evolved into a much smoother-running machine, now we've been able to have sponsors contacting us to be involved, which is a lot different than begging people to just donate something."
The presenting sponsor of the event is now Stranahans Colorado Whiskey, with Bonfire Brewery making special "Wood Splitter" beer for the event.
The competition at the event has seen improvements, as well, with a new spear throw event that debuted last year.
"It's different than a javelin in that you're throwing for accuracy," said Williams. "And the weight is distributed differently with one end being heavier."
The only thing expected to be different for this year's competition is a new arsenal of Texas-made hatchets, technically called tomahawks, for the ax-throwing event.
Crowds of the cliff
Of course, with more sponsors and new competitions come more and new crowds.
In a town that has a population of 267 (as of the 2010 census), bringing 2,000 people in for a weekend can cause a headache.
Mango's owner Chris Keran said parking has been one of the major challenges, but the event can continue to grow despite those hurdles.
"We do have kind of a boiling point in town where we can't get much bigger," said Keran. "But if we get creative with parking and transportation, this is the type of place where we can have a festival feel throughout the town. With multiple spots - up at the school, out at the parks - we have a lot more land in town; it could become more of a festival feel with more people benefiting."
Nevertheless, the end goal of the event is to raise money for charity, and bringing all those people to town brings a fair share of proceeds to First Descents, a group for which Williams had a soft spot for long before starting the event.
"I've been volunteering with First Descents since I first moved to the valley; they just seemed to be a good fit," said Williams. "They're the same age group, same kind of crew, same kind of outdoor mentality, and we've just been going with them ever since."
In the three years it's now been running, Man of the Cliff has raised more than $20,000 for First Descents, a charity which helps improve the lives of young adults with cancer by taking them on outdoor expeditions like rafting and climbing trips. And as the charity has helped raise awareness of the event, the event has helped raise awareness for the charity, as well.
"It's actually one of the first causes I understand and I support," said Matt Luby, a Man of the Cliff regular who became aware of First Descents through the event. "I think it's a great cause."
Luby comes in from Denver every year to attend. His fondest memory from Man of the Cliff is making finals in the ax throwing competition, even though he likes the caber toss the best.
"It's an intense throw-down," he said. "It's kind of reconnected us to the Highland Games."
Plan of the Cliff
Speed chopper Brian Cerkvenik, another Denver resident who attends Man of the Cliff every year, said he plans for the event all year long.
"One my best friends was going to have an engagement party over the weekend of Man of the Cliff and I told him he had to reschedule it," said Cerkvenik, who grew up chopping wood in Minnesota. "I book a room at the Green Bridge Inn every year as soon as I know the weekend is set."
The Green Bridge Inn represents the only hotel in town, and one of your only choices for Red Cliff lodging outside of the camping option.
"Once you're there, you don't want to have to drive out of Red Cliff," Cerkvenik said.
Mango's co-owner Chris Keran also doubles as a manager of the Green Bridge Inn. He said since the event is always the first weekend in October, the hotel starts filling up before the actual dates have been confirmed.
"This year I think we had nearly 40 percent booking before they event announced the event," he said. "The first booking started at least two months out, and we were fully booked a month out, maybe even longer than that."
Keran said despite the fact they sell out without fail every year, the Green Bridge Inn doesn't play the typical lodging-industry supply and demand game, and keeps to their normal rates - $129 for a regular room and $149 for a suite - even when they're down to their last bed.
"This weekend does offer us the opportunity to take advantage," Keran said. "We could charge $300 for a room because it's right across from the event. But we try to be huge advocates for the town of Red Cliff ... It's a fairness thing. The way we run our business up in Red Cliff is not the same way the big hotels run their businesses."