By Scott Rogers
To say that slacklining was invented would be difficult, almost as difficult as crediting an individual person with its creation. The truth is that slacklining is an ongoing innovation to the already popular practices of balancing. From the balancing beam in gymnastics, to tightrope walks in the circus, balancing has been a small part of the athletic community. But recently, slacklining has exploded in popularity as more and more people are trying it, and more and more lines can be found in city parks and campgrounds alike. How exactly did this activity emerge, and what spawned the incredible growth in the recent years? Hopefully this article will clear up a few questions.
Yosemite Valley was discovered by modern man in 1851 and soon after it was found, it became a sacred place. As the sport of climbing developed, many people from around the world came to this beautiful setting to be among the revered rocks and striking precipices that make up the now very popular national park. From short hikes, to multi-pitch traditional routes, to multi-day epics on popular features such as Half Dome, El Capitan and countless others, climbers and adventurers make regular pilgrimages to Yosemite. It is said by some that camp 4, a popular campground in the park, became the center of rock climbing development in the middle of the 20th century. With some people staying there many months at a time, it became a regular community of thrill seekers pursuing the rapidly growing sport of climbing.
It was in this place that the sport of slacklining came into existence. After the long days of jugging, hammering, scoping, bolting, cleaning, smearing, crimping, jamming, bleeding, taping, sending and summiting, people would flock back to camp 4 for the evening. Just as new routes were being created on a daily basis, so were new ways to spend down-time. The inhabitants of camp 4 could be found walking parking lot chains, hand railings, and even ropes strung up between the trees. In the mid to late 70’s this type of hobby became increasingly popular, as local hotshots and visitors alike were seen balancing on the rope. It appeared to have positive effects in honing balance for climbing, and strengthening the legs and core.
While tightrope walking has been around for many centuries, this new pastime was different in many ways. The climbing rope being walked was loose and not nearly as taught as the steel cable walked by circus performers. In this way it was clearly more of a challenge. Soon, individuals started to walk on flat webbing, and this is slacklining as it is known today. Some of the most influential slackliners at present learned their skills in Yosemite. Individuals including Adam Grosowski, Jeff Ellington, Chongo Tucker, Scott Balcom and Darrin Carter had perhaps the greatest influence on the early sport of slacklining.
Adam and Jeff began practicing their balance among the high trees and peaceful valleys of Yosemite in the late seventies, and introduced many people to the sport. They were very good, even by today’s standards, and could do numerous tricks including an impressive juggling routine while both of them were on the line. Adam was an incredible line surfer, and could even do a handstand on the line. These tricks are astounding even among slackliners today. In 1983, Scott Balcom and Chris Carpenter were introduced to the sport of slacklining at this very place, and soon brought it back with them to Pasadena. After considerable practice and planning, Scott, Chris, and their climbing mentor Chongo Tucker set up a line underneath a bridge in Pasadena, where Scott successfully walked the first highline in slackline history. Later that same year (1983), Jeff and Adam rigged and attempted to walk a cable from the Lost Arrow Spire to the valley rim, a span of 55 feet, with a staggering height of 2890 feet. They tried and tried to get across, but the cable was so different to walk on compared with regular webbing that neither were able to get across.
By this time, however, Scott Balcom was hooked, and vowed to walk the Lost Arrow Spire gap. He attempted the highline in 1984 for the first time with webbing, and recruited Darrin Carter to help with the rigging. Scott was very persistent, but the choppy wind passing through the valley, combined with the half-mile of exposure and nearly endless psychological limitations, Scott was unable to walk the line. However, in the next year he dedicated himself to training for this epic walk, and returned in 1985. Scott Balcom was the first person ever to walk the Lost Arrow Spire highline, on July 13, 1985. This is now the most coveted and highly regarded highline in the world. With only a few dozen people having walked this line, the majority of them in the last decade, the legend of the lost arrow spire continues to grow in popularity as people become more and more passionate about slacklining. Slackline Brothers has a contingent that visits the spire on an annual trip, and many other people from around the world have traveled to Yosemite to become humbled by the lost arrow line.
After Scott’s historic walk, many other slackliners were inspired to raise the bar on their low tree lines. Scott showed that anything was possible, and more and more people began to take up the treacherous task of highlining. Darrin Carter became very motivated by Scott’s epic fist walk, and trained to become the second person to walk the lost arrow spire, which he did in 1993. Darrin, Chongo Tucker and Scott all returned in 1995 for a 10 year anniversary walk. It was here that Darrin returned to walk the spire without protection, being the first person to do so. Darrin has been one of the premier highliners in the country since his first walk, establishing beautiful new lines, and even appearing on the show Ripley’s Believe It or Not, episode 201, as he walked untethered between two buildings in Long Beach California, 12 stories above the ground. It was Darrin who trained the great slackliners of this decade including Dean Potter, who continue to push the envelope with lowlining and highlining alike.
New tricks on the lowline continue to be developed, as well as new amazing and beautiful highlines around the world. From the glaciers of the Himalaya, to the sea stacks of Australia, to the quarries of the UK, to the great cliffs of Norway, to the desert towers of Utah, long, high and beautiful lines are established on a weekly basis. New records in slacklining continue to be made as longer and longer lines are walked, and more and more aggressive tricks are being developed. 2008 is sure to be a record breaking year for slacklining.
Despite its compelling heritage among the climbing community, slacklining is still struggling to become accepted as a mainstream sport. Many cities across the United States have bans or restrictions on slacklining, and many people don’t understand how safe slacklining and highlining actually is. In a new chapter of slacklining history, Slackline Brothers is helping with legislation to legalize slacklining in cities across the country, and will continue to do so until it is widely accepted and recognized as the incredible sport that it is.
When first encountered by strangers, many onlookers question the motives behind slackliners. “Why do you walk that line?” some people ask. “What’s the point?” It isn’t until you step on the webbing itself that you feel the peace and welcome resolve that slacklining offers. Some people walk to stay in shape for other sports, others for the pure enjoyment of pushing yourself to the limit, and still other because it is such an addicting activity that one can’t help but slackline. For many though, there is a heightened state of being that can be achieved while walking the line. Especially when crossing a void thousands of feet in the air, as all life’s worries, troubles and surrounding nonsense melt away beneath you. A peaceful Zen is reached, as a focus on a cluttered life becomes focused on balance instead. The only thing that truly matters once you are on the line is being able to take the next step. It would be amazing if life could be simplified in this manner, but the sad truth is that it cannot. Fortunately, however, slacklining provides this experience, and slackliners who take it to the extreme know an inner peace that most people will never appreciate. These are the slackliners who have made history, and will continue to make it in the future.
(Please note that many individuals have made great contributions to the growth of slacklining and highlining throughout the last 40 years, and it would be impossible to list them all in this brief history. However, if you feel that a key development in the history of slacklining has been left out, please contact the webmaster to request an addendum.)