Last fall, while wandering through a mall during an out-of-town shopping trip, I saw a demonstration of young men walking across a narrow strip of webbing stretched fifteen feet between two anchors approximately two feet off the ground. They bounced effortlessly across the 1 1/2 inch strip of webbing, sometimes walking backward, spinning on one foot, and performing fancy dismounts. I’d never seen anything like it, but I was intrigued.
I grabbed the Gibbon brochure, and discovered the world of slacklining, a new balancing sport that is rapidly gaining popularity worldwide. Unlike tightropes, slacklines are not completely taut. A Wikipedia article describes a slackline as a “long, narrow trampoline.” Once home, I ordered a slackline for my kids’ school to supplement their recess play equipment, and with a quick click, ordered another one for our family.
Although slacklining has become an international activity, (check out this Korean commercial by Reebok featuring slacklining experts from that country), its origins are among the rock climbing community in Yosemite National Park not far from here. Adam Grosowsky and Jeff Ellington, while living in Yosemite Valley in the early 80s, began fooling around with walking on loose chains and cables that ran along the parking lots. Eventually they took to rigging up their climbing gear to create a flexible transportable line, and a new sport was born.
While waiting for my own slackline to arrive, I perused the Internet, and discovered that over time, slacklining has split into two very unique variations, each requiring a different set of skills and daring.
The first type of slacklining is called highlining, and is quite different from the slacklining I witnessed at the mall. Highlining is described as “slacklining at large distances above the ground or water.” According to Wikipedia, “many slackliners consider highlining to be the pinnacle of the sport.” After viewing a number of highlining videos on YouTube, I can see why. “Large distances” doesn’t even begin to describe the feats undertaken by some expert highliners. With immense focus, these balancing pros walk on lines strung across deep canyons and fast flowing rivers. Sometimes they are even strung across impossibly high venues such as shown in the photo below where world renowned rock climber Dean Potter walks a highline set up at Taft Point in Yosemite Valley.
(Dean Potter highlining at Taft Point in Yosemite Valley. Photo by Jeff Cunningham.)
While most other highliners attach themselves to the slackline with a tether that will catch them in case of a fall, Potter, known for his daring, rope-free rock climbs, often highlines without a safety leash. When this photo was posted, the slacklining and rock climbing community spoke out, some in support of Potter and some criticizing him for being irresponsible and setting a dangerous precedent for others. Potter defended himself in a blog post published on the Prana website. (Prana is one of Potter’s sponsors.) Potter claims that he highlines well below his skill level, and in the event of a fall, would hook an arm or a leg around the slackline making the safety tether obsolete.
Since I have a healthy fear of heights, and as a mother, have a real motivation to stick around as long as possible to see my children grow and flourish, I was more interested in joining the second slacklining community. Tricklining, also called lowlining, is the type of slacklining I witnessed at the mall. In the tradition of skateboarding, trickliners try to outdo each other inventing cool new tricks on the slackline, and participate in competitions all over the world. Basic tricks are as simple as walking on the slackline forward, backwards, and with a bouncing step. Intermediate tricks have interesting names such as the moonwalk, the Buddha sit, and the cross-legged knee drop. If you really want to see some impressive maneuvering, check out some of the advanced trickliners who can do front and back flips, handstands, and 360s.
In the world of tricklining, Andy Lewis is known as “Mr. Slackline.” Lewis, who favors performing shirtless, is the World Cup 2010 Slackline Champion.
(Photo of Andy Lewis by Andreas Trenker for Gibbon slacklines.)
He is known for sticking the difficult backflip in competition, but other trickliners are breathing down his neck, and new, more difficult tricks are being successfully executed every day. The thing that makes Lewis stand out among the rest, besides his bushy red hair, is that he is versatile. Lewis holds the record for longest highline after completing a 340 foot walk across a slackline in Moab, Utah, and the record for longest free solo highline (without a tether) for a 130 foot walk also in Moab. (These records may not stand to date as new slacklining feats are being recorded all the time.)
As soon as our slackline arrived, we strung it between two trees in our front yard. After watching a number of YouTube slacklining videos, we couldn’t wait to give our own a try. Lewis and others made it look so effortless, but as we quickly discovered, just stepping onto a slackline was exceptionally difficult. The foot on the line shook wildly as we tried to lift our other foot off the ground. After a couple of failed attempts, we grabbed a pair of ski poles to help stabilize ourselves while our muscles learned how to adjust to the wobbling webbing.
I figured my years of yoga practice would help me master the ins and outs of slacklining fairly rapidly. It was a bit of an ego bruise to discover that this was not the case. While yoga helps me with static balancing, slacklining requires a completely different type of balancing–what I call balance in motion. This is the type of balancing required to participate in activities such as cycling and skiing, two sports that continually challenge me. My husband, on the other hand, excels on both his bike and his skis, and it was he who first mastered stepping up onto the slackline and taking a few steps. Within a couple weeks he was walking back and forth across the line trying to learn how to turn, while I was still struggling to take more than four quick steps in a row.
But slacklining is addictive, and we perservered, making it a family activity. While one person practiced their slacklining skills, the rest of us lay on blankets eating snacks, listening to music, and offering encouragement.
We discovered small muscles in our ankles and knees that ached for days after an especially long slacklining session. Everyone who visited was intrigued with our slackline, and couldn’t resist giving it a try. My sister- and brother-in-law got so hooked on slacklining that they went home and ordered one for themselves.
With a lot of coaching from Stephen, I eventually made it across the slackline, but I am still better at balancing on one leg than I am at taking a step. Eventually, I’d like to get good enough to do a slackline cartwheel, but for now, I am just going to be content with discovering a whole new way of balancing. I am just going to enjoy walking the slackline.