One inch is the length of a blade of grass, a baby carrot, a toothpick. It is the proverbial next to nothing.
But for slackliners, this tiniest of measurements is the key to their sport.
First, a definition: Slacklining is not tightrope walking. No offense to Nik Wallenda and his recent mammoth Niagara Falls and Grand Canyon crossings, but slacklining is a different discipline altogether. A tightrope, as the name implies, is a half-inch wire stretched taut. There is no give to the line, and the performer’s balance and center of gravity is augmented by carrying a pole dozens of feet long.
Slacklining takes place on inch-wide stretchy webbing anchored across a gap.
Because it is pliable, a slackline is responsive to the elements—in particular the wind and the movement of athletes as they walk across. While a tightrope just lies there, a slackline oscillates, and walkers can end up clinging to a line that’s behaving like a jump rope whipped around by a sugar-fueled elementary school kid.
“Instead of controlling the line and walking it, you’re along for the ride,” says Hayden Nickell, a 22-year-old professional slackliner from Nederland, Colorado. “You have to walk in these weird intervals. As the line goes up, you have moments where you can take eight steps. At the opposite, you’re out of control and you’re at the mercy of the line and the wind.”
Once relegated to parks and beaches as a hobby of the hippier-than-thou, slacklining is now branching out into professional disciplines: tricklining, where performers combine gymnastics and choreography at competitions; urbanlining, which eschews the chasms of nature for the canyons between buildings; and yogalining, which adds asanas for those balancing on the line.
The most spectacular incarnation, though, is highlining, where a slackline is rigged hundreds of feet in the air, in awe-inspiring locations both natural and man-made—Yosemite National Park, Hell Roaring Canyon in Utah, the Las Vegas Strip—bringing national attention to this nascent daredevil sport. Protected from falling by nothing more than a leash around their waist or ankle, slackliners constantly respond to the dynamic changes in balance underfoot.
“It’s like surfing,” Nickell says. “You wait for the good set to come in. You wait for the wind to die out and then you have a 15-to-20-minute window to go out there and do your thing. Then another set of wind will come in and you back off for a minute.”
The wind gives the highline an ominous sound, an eerie plucked bass note as the webbing reverberates in between its anchors. When a walker looks ahead on a slackline, the brain can only register a certain amount of height through its 45 degrees of peripheral vision—at more than 100 feet in the air, it’s pretty much a wash, Nickell says. Going up higher—300, 400, 500 feet—doesn’t create a perceptible difference. But that’s when the chattering monkeys in your head start up.
“In your mind, you’re thinking ‘instant death’ as opposed to only being merely mangled at the bottom,” Nickell says. “The highline is a direct reflection of how you’re feeling on the inside. If you’re nervous, if you’re thinking about anything, all of a sudden the line is all f*cked up and you’re like, ‘Ohhhh no!’ ”
For the sport’s adherents, it’s this blend of acute concentration and life-or-death risk that makes the pursuit of slacklining a near-spiritual endeavor. Andy Lewis, 27, has a résumé that should be the envy of any athlete in a niche sport: He holds multiple slackline world records: In October 2013, he set the urban highlining world record by walking a 360-foot-long line 480 feet up at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. He’s been the star of numerous scenery-porn slackline videos in gorgeous locales—he lives in Moab, Utah—and he performed alongside Madonna during the halftime show at the 2012 Super Bowl.
But, honestly, he couldn’t care less about all that.
“Why can’t I call slacklining a religion?” he asks. “The lifestyle behind slacklining has all the metaphors: One step at a time. Keep in balance. Control your fate. It directly translates to life.”
Lewis has the word “Slacklife” tattooed on his arm and earned the nickname Sketchy Andy from his more adrenaline-fueled endeavors, including BASE jumping off slacklines and free-solo highlining, where he doesn’t wear a protective leash as he walks across lines hundreds of feet up. Lewis believes that pushing the limits is the essence of slacklining, and as the sport continues to grow, he will conquer longer and higher and more dazzling lines to feed his soul—even if it terrifies the public.
“People don’t want to watch you do things like that,” Lewis says. “But it’s horrible that today in life, there’s no respect for skill anymore. People are too afraid to take risks nowadays. All these f*cking pussies all over the place, they won’t even let their kids scrape their f*cking knees. Risk isn’t bad—you can be the safest motherf*cker on the planet and die when you crash your car.”
Check out the March 2014 issue of Red Bulletin magazine (on newsstands February 11) for more articles. To read the magazine on your iPad, download the Red Bulletin iPad app. Follow Red Bulletin on Twitter for more.