Highline. It’s a slackline. Like the purple one tied between the trees in your friend’s backyard. Except for a few minor differences. Instead of trees there are eight rock climbing bolts anchored in huge slabs of rock, and the anchor points are made of static climbing rope, steel quick links, steel carabineers and steel shackles. No tattered old webbing here. The line itself is made of 1 inch tubular webbing, like used in various rock climbing applications, and to make it redundant it has been threaded with narrower webbing, known as super tape.
Since highlining is an offshoot of the department of redundancy department, there is a second line with second anchors taped under the main line. This gives a solid back up in case anything was to happen to the main line. The backup line has its own anchor system in order to offer the greatest protection possible.
The easy part of highlining is getting the gear. Figuring out how to put it all together when there is nothing but space to stand on is a different story. It took nearly four hours for us to tie, clip, drag, stretch, pull, multiply and tie, clip, drag, stretch, pull, multiply again. Finally we had two pieces of webbing stretched across a terrifyingly high air space, with all of the pieces and parts correctly assembled.
Dragging myself hand over hand hundreds of feet off the ground didn’t prepare me for how scary walking the line would actually be. During setup we placed two steel rings around the line to tie into with climbing rope. They were each rated to 10,000 lbs apiece. We used a piece of climbing rope to connect the rings to our rock climbing harnesses. The leash was about 4 feet long, and allowed us to stand and walk on the line, but limited the distance we could fall.
Its considered poor form and potentially dangerous to let the leash catch you in the event of a fall, so our goal was to catch the line with our hands and legs instead of taking a leash fall. The first day Adam Blythe and I were the only people to attempt the line. Adam and I can both walk the 160-foot line we regularly set on campus without any problems. At half the distance, this line seemed like it should have gone down smoothly.
A few factors have contributed to the difficulty of this line. The main one is that it is WAY up in the air. Today, my second day attempting to walk the line, I realized that although I could use the anchor on the other side of the line as a focal point, my peripheral vision was searching so hard for some kind of landmark other than blue sky, that I experienced vertigo. The line was also slightly sloped downward toward the end with our tensioning system. This made doing the mandatory sit start easier, because we started by walking downhill, but it also made it difficult because our leash rings would slide forward and clip our heels as we walked. This sliding action also made it so we tended to trip over the leash. Both Adam and I fell many times trying to figure out how to walk with the leash.
Today there was significantly less wind than the first day, but we still had to battle it in the afternoon. As the sun warmed the cliffs below the line, it would create updrafts, also known as thermals. These thermals would blow the line around and make it near impossible to balance on, depending on their intensity. Brian Martens joined me today and we got an early start to avoid the thermals. It made a huge difference to walk a line that isn’t affected by the wind.
These are difficult factors, but really they are just excuses. Highlining takes incredible mental control. More intense than anything I have encountered before. Compared to mountain unicycling, world cup ski racing, rock climbing, downhill mountain bike racing, normal slacklining and anatomy classes, highlining is by far the hardest mental thing I have ever tried to do. Today I noticed a vast improvement in the level of terror I experienced when standing on the line. Most of the falls we took were not because we lost our balance, but because our self preservation instincts told us that standing on a tiny, wobbly line over a large expanse of air was not nearly as safe as hanging from said line. Most of the time the idea of falling was enough to make us fall.
After four hours of setup and two days of walking and falling I made it seven whole steps on my best attempt. It was a pretty poor performance in my opinion, but highlining is a beast that I had not yet encountered. It was a new kind of terrifying, and an addicting one at that.
Soon the line will be rigged again with a slight adjustment made to flatten it out. Until then, it remains unsent.