Remote, alpine “highlines” being established in the Sierra as the sport grows in popularity
A group of adventurers are pushing the boundaries of their sport, and literally walking where no human has ever walked before.
Maxwell Silver, who (mostly) calls Mammoth home, recently spent four days with a group of fellow “highliners” ascending the top of the middle tooth of the Sawtooth range to establish a “highline;” a length of climbing webbing stretched taut between two highpoints. Highliners walk these spans, generally attached with a safety harness, focusing on balance while battling fear, exposure, wind and feedback of motion as the line swings back and forth in order to cross a void hundreds, or even thousands, of feet above the ground. Highliners are not on a stiff highwire, this is extreme slacklining.
“You just see a gap in the peaks and you’re like, ‘That.’” said Silver of how he and his friends choose their First Ascents. A First Ascent is, in both climbing and slacklining lingo, the first time an individual or party accomplishes a particular “line.” In climbing, a “line” is known as a route up a rock face. In highlining, it’s the line itself—the span across space.
Silver got into slacklining (the gateway drug to highlining, where the webbing is stretched several feet above the ground, usually between two trees) after crashing his bike and “nearly chopping off my toe.” He was a rock climber, but couldn’t put his feet into climbing shoes, so he began walking on slacklines.
People unfamiliar with the workings of this rather esoteric enterprise often picture the classic tightrope walker—holding a pole, standing stick-straight, putting one foot carefully in front the other. However, Silver says, slacklining is, besides the visual, almost nothing like tightrope walking.
“The best way to explain how you’re balancing is like you’re balancing a baseball bat in your hand,” says Silver. “So what you’re doing is you’re keeping your hand underneath the baseball bat. The baseball bat isn’t trying to balance on your hand.” With wire walking, Silver says, the walker is trying to create no movement at all. With slacklining, the body is moving along with the line. “You’re trying to keep this line underneath you… it’s like a one-inch trampoline.”
Silver has been slacklining for about ten years, and highlining for about eight. He’s seen the sport grow exponentially in the last several years, due most likely to the allure of the breathtaking photographs highlining affords—beautiful people assuming a zen-like stance, poised over a void and surrounded by blue sky and granite.
“You’ll almost always see a few highlining photographs in climbing magazines,” said Silver. He’s seen his Facebook group, Highlining Yosemite, grow to over 600 members in the last several years, many participants likely attracted by Silver’s photos on his website, www.chasinghighlines.com.