August 7, 2009

Highlining Will Kill You

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“Any questions?”
Keith returns the cap to the Dry Erase marker, looking up from the large notepad for the first time in minutes. His ever-present maniacal grin is noticeably absent from his face, his whole body seemingly reflecting the seriousness of what he had just laid before me. I stare at the elaborate series of drawings Keith has just produced: each page depicts multiple formulas, schematics and ratios, circled and crossed out in a dizzying array of red and blue marker. Each drawing has enormous red arrows that point to the title of his presentation: “Highlining Will Kill You”. After 45 minutes straight of lecturing, I get the point loud and clear. I shake my head in defeat.
“OK, maybe this is a bad idea”.
Unfortunately, I’m the only one in the room prepared to jump ship. “Cooooooool!” My friend Zupes exhales the word in one drawn out breath. I turn sharply to my right and glare at him:
“How can you still be interested in doing this?” Didn’t you follow any of that?”
“Keith said highlining kills people. Not ALL people. Just people who mess up. Not people like us.”
“OK, you build it, and you go first. Then maybe I’ll consider it. Until then, no highlining for me.”
Zupes goes silent for a second, his eyes turning glassy as he stares at Keith’s numerous charts. Soon he’s lost in a reverie that brings to mind freshmen’s faces when they realize that 9 a.m. lectures are largely optional. Clearly, Zupes is out to la-la land, and wherever he is, he’s obviously already highlining—the dangers be damned.
Highlining is basically slacklining, only very, very high off the ground. You’ve probably seen people slack-lining around campus: it’s where people tie a length of climbing webbing between two trees, tension it tight, and walk across end to end as if they are tight rope walking. The webbing is typically one inch wide, and wobbles back and forth as the walker approaches the middle of the line. Walking the line demands focus, balance, core strength, and a certain affinity for looking slightly silly to passers-by. If you fall off, it’s no big deal: you drop a couple feet to the ground, and just get back on. No crazy schematics or formulas necessary.
Highlining ups the ante, quite literally. It requires the same skills of balance and focus, but also functions as a meet and greet between you and your latent fear of heights. At this point, you have a safety leash keeping you a safe distance from terra firma, but falling off is no walk in the park. Typically, you wear a harness that is leashed to the line that catches you once you fall below it. Most people give themselves six feet or so of slack in the leash, guaranteeing a fall of at least that distance, though most likely you will fall a good few feet more with rope stretch.*
After Keith’s lecture, I resigned to let my highlining ambitions fall by the wayside. Any time I stared wistfully in to the canopy, graphs depicting gruesome falls, broken webbing and uprooted trees would flood my consciousness, and I’d quickly return my gaze to my feet.
A year and a half later, I’m 70 feet in the air, taking my first steps on a highline. As I place my right foot on the webbing and press down firmly, my entire leg and hip starts to gyrate back and forth, wiggling with such gusto as to make the best Elvis impersonator jealous.
“Why am I doing this?” I wonder aloud.
Two seconds later, I fall. My screams echo throughout the silent tree canopy, and I come to rest a few feet below the line. I look up at Zupes and his delighted face.
“Isn’t this fucking awesome?”—my other friend Magoogs calls down to me, snapping pictures, taking in my wide eyes and trembling arms in each frame.
Minutes later, I’m back on the line, waving my arms in the air in a subtle back and forth motion, slowly placing one foot in front of the other, feeling the one-inch tubular webbing resting in its familiar grove between my big and pointer toes.
Breathe in, lean left, right foot forward.
Breathe out, lean right, left foot forward.
This mantra slowly brings me to the end of the line, where I do an about-face and make my way back to the starting platform. Halfway along my return journey, I overbalance and slip off the line, grabbing my leash and righting myself as I fall in to space.
As I dangle below the line, I see Zupes and Magoogs grinning down on me. As I grin back at my two partners in crime, I have to admit, I’m having fun.
“You’re right, this IS awesome!” I yell up to the platform. And then to myself: “Just so long as it doesn’t kill me!”
*Keep in mind, highlining is EXTREMELY dangerous, and should not be attempted without proper equipment and training.