The Eastern Sierra is a great area for many types of outdoor activities, from fishing to climbing to skiing in the winter. One that’s becoming more popular lately is a variation of slacklining known as highlining. It’s like tightrope walking, but you’re suspended at a much greater height and use nylon or polyester webbing instead of a cable.
There are several individuals in the Eastern Sierra who have a penchant for walking these lines — the longer and more challenging the better. One of the best in the area is Preston Bruce Alden, a Bridgeport-based wildlife biologist for UC Davis who spends his workdays studying the Sierra Nevada Red Fox. He’s put a lot of time into developing his skill at highlining, walking lines around the world, from Mammoth Crest and Alabama Hills to Thailand.
Alden and local adventure photographer Cody Tuttle are working together to film a highlining documentary series, the first installment of which is shot in the Eastern Sierra. They’ve visited Alabama Hills, Lone Pine Peak, Mammoth Crest, Matthas Crest in Tuolomne Meadows, numerous locations in Yosemite Valley, and many more to come. The team is even accompanied by friends at times. It’s quite the event.
One of Alden’s latest adventures was up on Dana Plateau, outside Yosemite National Park. After an hour and a half of hiking from Tioga Lake, his team, comprised of Alden, Cody Tuttle, Maxwell Silver, David Gladish, Callee Hagarty, and myself, made it to the plateau.
Everyone took a short rest and surveyed where the line would be. When they worked out how things would go, Alden, Gladish, and Maxwell walked a pair (one for backup) of type 18 nylon webbing across the chasm of choice and secured it around boulders on each side. It took a good hour and a half to rig the line for safe passage. With the help of a laser measuring system, Alden and Silver found the line to be 96 feet in length.
When everything was successfully “rigged,” the team took a short break and explored the surroundings; Cody Tuttle prepared his gib and tripod to shoot some photos and video of the highliners.
The line’s sheer height was intimidating, but to Preston it was just another adventure. He was the first to walk the line. He carefully moved out from the canyon’s edge and sat on the webbing for a moment to clear his mind. “What people tell you about highlining in general is that it’s 95 percent mental, 5 percent physical. And it’s true.” said Alden. “You have to learn to be comfortable because you can do it physically.”
Once Alden had focused on just getting up, he placed the sole of his foot on the side of the line and slowly stood up, balancing on just one foot. He took a few steps and fell, but the leash caught him and he dangled hundreds of feet in the air. Faced with the challenge of getting back up, he again focused on just the one task, eliminating all other distractions from his mind. “I see highlining in particular as a form of mental meditation. It forces you to cut out a lot of the mental bullshit in your mind,” said Alden. As he slowly pulled himself back up to the line above, Preston sat silently for a moment and then stood up, this time making it to the end of the line.
Alden walked the line a good three to four times, taking a short breather on each side, before stopping for a break. After he finished, Gladish headed out to test things. He managed to take a few steps, but quickly fell. “He can do it, physically, but it’s the mental part that’s getting him,” said Alden.
Maxwell Silver, a rather experienced highliner, was next up. He fell a few times, but was able to get a few clean passes on the line. However, since he’s from sea level, he was out of breath pretty fast.
The wind stirred up, but Alden headed back out for another run. Since he was used to the line, he took a few laps on the line in chilly 10–15 MPH winds and kept his balance the whole time.
When asked how he began highlining, Alden gave a brief history of his experiences. “I first started slacklining 13 years ago with my brother, but I didn’t start highlining until 2 years ago. I met this German highliner when I was climbing in Thailand. He showed me my first long slackline and my first highline. I’ve been psyched about it ever since.”
Alden has traveled the globe just for this sport. He said “one of the coolest” places he’s been was in Thailand. “My brother and I rigged a setup in a cave that goes into the ocean,” said Alden. “At low tide the base would turn to sand and there’s an old vertical lava tube called a ‘hong.’ We’d ascend 150–200 feet up, tying off to vines and stuff. We spent about three days working on it and used a water balloon launcher and a sandbag to shoot the line over a tree. When it was finished, you would look down to see a tube of green. It was really cool. We named that line ‘force of nature.’”
Why a documentary on highlining? Cody Tuttle said, “It’s a pure mountain sport that requires the disciplines of technical climbing, mountaineering, highlining, and media production combined — it’s a good challenge.”
High-elevation highlining, he said, is probably the hardest of all. “Some of the best highliners in the world can’t do these lines. You have to be a strong climber, mountaineer, and highliner to make it happen.” The elevation, too, plays a role in the difficulty of highlining.
“Nobody sees your accomplishments. It’s just you and your team of people sharing an intimate mountain experience. We’re not setting up slackline festivals on the beach so people can see how good we are; we’re going to the mountains to test ourselves and beat our personal goals,” said Tuttle.
Cody Tuttle and Preston Alden will continue shooting video of their latest adventures and plan to release the full films early next year. “There’s going to be a trailer out within the next two months,” said Tuttle.
You can find updates and more photos of highlining on Tuttle’s website, http://codytuttle.com.
Alden was accepted into the PhD program at U.C. Davis and he’ll be heading off to begin that this autumn.