Above images: highlining, Swindon, United Kingdom
“Everyone’s a champ on the ground,” I’d heard my friends chuckle. My heart rate just raced past 180. Now it was real. The moment I’d been waiting for, a most prevalent, bold confrontation of psyche, had arrived.
For nine months, I had been practicing how to stand up, balance, and walk along my slackline. Finally, I felt I was ready for the nauseating challenge that lay ahead.
This was the first time I had ever seen a slackline 900 feet high. I was in the mountains of Osogna, Switzerland, on the edge of a mesmerizing, yet intimidating, glacial waterfall. I had told myself I was going to walk across this chasm on a 1-inch-wide piece of material spanning some 80 feet long, all in the name of fun. I’d traveled hours on a train from Italy to meet my friends and spent an additional half-day rigging with them to combine amazing aesthetics with terrifying consequences.
Think how easy it is to stand up from a crouched position on the ground. It’s a movement that you will have repeated with ease throughout your entire life. But swap the ground for a thin, wobbly, elasticized piece of material known as a slackline, and you have a much harder task. The challenge of slacklining is similar to that of balancing on a classic circus tightrope, except it’s more dynamic, unstable, and there’s no pole to
Now remove the ground and situate the slackline between mountains, buildings, or any other perilous landmark. This is highlining, and I had told myself I was going to do it. Or so I thought.
Highlining: Lublin, Poland; Photo: Jordon Tybon
Tricklining: Dorking, United Kingdom; Photo: Thorsten Henn
Peril of my Own Making I shimmied myself to the edge of the cliff. My bowels felt like rupturing. I hung from the line, muscling myself up to a seated position, readying both brain and body for what felt like a prelude to a grisly death.
I thought I was ready for this. I’d spent weeks, months psyching up myself for this moment that I’d imagined, yet not quite been able to picture. How do you mentally simulate your own death? Here I was, absolutely terrified, wading through the swamp of mental excuses as to why I should get back down to solid ground.
No, I convinced myself. I’d traveled this far, practiced this hard. It was time to go for it. I went through my stand-up technical ritual: stared at the opposite end of the line, drew my navel to my spine, exhaled, and stood.
Except something was seriously wrong.
I couldn’t see the end of the line. I could see two of them. Three of them. Four. The surrounding vapors turned gray, and a sharp ringing exploded in my ears. Again I tried to stand, this time raising up my body off the line, but, again, everything went dizzy. I had no choice but to fall, shouting in terror, catching the line with any limb I could delegate.
I was completely baffled. I had forgotten how to stand. For a full three hours I tried to rise up on the highline. The best I managed was taking one step. So much for the pipe dreams of walking across effortlessly, like I’d seen the “Sky Walker” star, Dean Potter, do with relative ease so many times.
I was beaten up. Welts appeared on the inside of my leg, and my right bicep was red-raw and bleeding from line burn. And, above all, I had failed. All that way, for nothing.
Responding to Failure My humbling introduction to highlining fueled a personal obsession to enter into the deeper realms of bold physical and mental confrontation. I had never experienced vertigo as paralyzing as I had that day. I dedicated three months post-failure to learning how to control my breathing to nullify the dizziness, perfecting my techniques for standing and walking, and looking for my next opportunity to redeem myself.
And after those three months, I did walk my first highline. It catalyzed a journey that has taken me around the world to walk some of the most beautiful lines in existence, through pockets of space where no man has ever stepped before.
Slacklining events featured in this article are performed by professionals. Do not attempt.