Dean Potter | The History of Slack


Dean Potter was introduced to slacklining in 1993 in Joshua Tree by none other than Chuck “Chongo” Tucker. In the slackline community, Dean went on to become known for his many free solo ascents (including being the second person to free solo the spire in 2003, walking it both ways) and his invention of BASElining (walking a highline free solo and then BASE jumping off). Additionally, he is often referred to as the father figure of the new generation. The media attention he gave to slacklining inspired a new generation of slackers all around the globe. As Scott Balcom puts it, “When Dean potter walked the Lost Arrow Spire, that was the end of the beginning.” It was the start of a new era.


I’ll let Dean give you the details himself.


The following is an excerpt from his article, The Space Between:


“White-throated swifts dart past as I stand on the Upper Rim of Yosemite Valley. Their whoosh makes me flinch, splintering my concentration on the Lost Arrow Spire. I check the rope around the tree, clip in with my sticht plate and rappel into the shadowed notch. My lucky red swami cuts into my lower ribcage, constricting airflow.



Sixty feet down I reach a ledge and stare at another strand of webbing. The one-inch ribbon flutters in the air, spanning the sixty-foot gap between myself and the Spire’s tip, half a mile above the Valley floor. I can’t help thinking of blood as I unwrap myself from the crimson belt and let it drop to my bare feet.


I carefully rub chalk into the sole of each foot, then sit on the edge of the highline and focus my entire attention on my outward breath. My ears ring with my sharp exhalations. Tremors rush up my spine and into the base of my skull. A wave moves across the line and into my flesh. I rock forward, stand up unattached and unleash everything within me.


My vision turns black and white except for the searing red line. Sounds fade.I feel faint, face flushed with heat. My muscles tense, but I hold calmness in my center and loosen my arms from the shoulders to my fingertips. The moment sickens me, and my mind tries to stop it, but I command myself to walk.


The line rattles in all directions, forcing me to lean aggressively sideways. Catching the line would be impossible if I slipped in this position, but I relax through the uncertainty.


Rational thought disappears. Midway across I find precision and begin to play, toying with the thin ribbon and immense air. I sway serenely, as if I could float to the end. With a few quick steps I spring forward, feet hitting the coarse white granite of the spire. My eardrums reverberate with my own raw scream.



My eyes turn back to the line. I want more! I face the gap, reaching out my right foot. Deep blues and varied greens shine into my eyes. Muffled vehicle noises from the Valley floor filter into my awareness. I’m halted by a clear voice in my head--the words of a friend who hit the deck and lived. ‘The moment you feel unstoppable,’ it says, ‘is the time you need to say,’I’ve had enough.’ Golden light flickers through my eyelids. I sit down in disbelief and think back to my first experience on the line.


MY FIRST TIME:

My feet padded softly through Joshua Tree’s warm gravelly sand. It was spring 1993; I was eight months into my first road trip out West, and finger injuries prohibited me from climbing. Depressed, completely uninspired and almost out of money, I cruised Hidden Valley campground, searching for a lift.


Rowdy voices caught my attention. I picked up my gaze to see a round figure silhouetted in the fading light, blissfully dancing. I stared: he was balancing on a line, swaggering forward with an exaggerated sensuality. Long, drawn-out “woahs” and “yeahs” whooped out of his mouth while his onlookers hollered, “Yah, Chongo!”


The line was pulled tight over a small boulder and stretched to a faded blue Chevy van. Chongo strutted, hips flowing in a manner not usually seen in men. He began bouncing violently, until, with a sharp twang, the line ejected him onto the ground. He landed upright, the webbing vibrating in the air behind him. Then his shape hunched a little and he slipped into the van, followed by an assortment of grungy climbers and desert junkies.


Too embarrassed to introduce myself, I lurked outside, peering in through the foggy windows. Finally, I strolled back to my tent absorbed with the bop of the line.



The next morning I gravitated back. Salty campers were taking turns getting tossed off the thin red ribbon. Chuck “Chongo” Tucker sat back in the shade, egging them on. I sat down beside him. Thick strands of oily brown hair hung over his perma-dirt tan. He grinned a smile of missing teeth.


‘Try it!” he said. “It’s bitchin’.’ I nodded and stared into his mesmerizing blue eyes. ‘Just relax, man,’ he said. I felt like he was hypnotizing me. “Keep your eyes fixed on a single point at the other side.’


Chongo strolled to the line, sat down on it and groaned, then lifted his body until he was standing. The flat webbing barely moved. He embellished his straight back and gaze, breathing calmly for us to catch what he was doing, then stepped gently back to the sand.


In a moment, I was staring down the line. Granite domes and springtime desert greens condensed down to the blue van on the other side. I focused on the ratty knot, which quaked as I stepped nearer. The line went berserk; my stomach muscles rapidly tensed. I threw full extension arm swings, crouched down and rocked out just enough to ride the spastic line to the Chevy bumper. Exultant, I lurched onto the van.


We spent the next weeks stretching nylon. Chongo showed me his styling moves, recounted slacklining’s early days and exposed my weaknesses. ‘You’re learning the basics too quickly,’ he said one evening. ‘Those who have to really work become true masters. Naturals rarely learn to keep trying.’ I took his words to heart, exhausting myself on the line.


Chongo lived in a cave, where he stitched “Chongo” brand clothing with a foot-pedal sewing machine. Though he owned only a few backpacks of possessions and scraped up just enough cash to exist, he seemed to share everything he had. I quickly came to admire him, as much for his slacklining as for his lifestyle. As my interest deepend, he talked of “highlining,” mostly about the Lost Arrow Spire. Others, he told me, had mastered “slackin’” more than he had. Inspired, I started searching for whatever tales I could find. . . .




THE VALLEY

In the spring of 1993, I left Chongo in Joshua Tree and headed north toward Yosemite. Childlike dreams of flying and walking on air no longer seemed out of the question. Before splitting town, I spent more than half my remaining cash on tubular webbing for a 150-foot, double-threaded high line.


Fresh from the little crags of J-Tree, I found the Valley walls more daunting than I’d envisioned. I was also not ready for the law enforcement rangers. I quickly felt hunted. Fortunately, some savvy locals took me in. . . . Having survived my first week in the Valley, I needed to slack. I chose two huge sugar pines carefully, so I could see the Lost Arrow and Yosemite Falls, thousands of feet above. After protecting the tree trunks with sturdy branches, my friends and I wrapped them with old climbing rope, leveled the line and started yankin’. Luckily even the climbing riffraff could see that we didn’t know what we were doing. After giving us some well-deserved shit, they joined in to pull.



Many attempts later the line came up without twists. Six feet atop the line, hovering in the trees, I stared at the Falls as the mist lit up. My thoughts went blank. I absorbed the line’s wobble with my belly. I was the warm breeze, dappled light, swaying branches and deep sky. Even the vicious springtime mosquitos didn’t deter me from the soft steps. Nothing else existed, not even the ranger prowling back and forth on the blacktop, glancing up at me as if some obscure rule were being broken.


That night I partied a little harder than I should have, then retired to the caves behind Camp 4. Late the following afternoon, mouth dry and vile, I went to the line. ‘NO!’ I yelled, clenching my teeth and growling. ‘IT’S GONE!’


My friends Brian the Peasant and “The Pres” lurked nearby on their beater bicycles, cowering, ready to pedal hard if I came at them. ‘What the fuck!’ I stuttered, saying “fuck” over and over. Brian choked off more laughter, and burst out, ‘We t-t-told him not to cut it, but the stupid t-tool wouldn’t listen and it WHIP-SLAPPED HIS PAG ASS!’


My anger swelled, then dissipated with breaths of fresh spring air. I was, after all, not in handcuffs--and my world had a floating, soaring lightness that the ranger might never have experienced. At the same time, I was filled with curiosity: Why was he so quick to cut our line, when it wasn’t illegal?


THE WIND

Before I could attempt Lost Arrow myself, Yosemite law enforcement made my life too stressful. It’s forbidden to sleep under the stars without a permit in the Valley, and I was too broke to pay for camping. I was content to eat crackers and free condiments if it meant being free a little longer.


Eventually, I was drawn to the landscape of Moab, Utah. The desert stilled me. In its sparseness, I became more aware of the beauty of lines and of the spaces they created: the hollows between canyon walls, the curves traced by the edges of a spire. All distractions submerged in a radical simplicity of form and emptiness, light and shadow, varnished red sandstone and deep blue sky.



I often tranced out beneath my favorite petroglyph, in a sort of landscape-induced meditation. Carved in a sandstone cliff centuries ago, a shaman walks a line, his hands outstretched to the great mystery. Native Americans have told me, ‘He is traveling between the material and spiritual worlds.’



The leash held me to the earth, but I wanted to fly free. In Joshua Tree, I took my first steps onto Chongo’s thirty-five foot Potato Head Gap line, no leash jiggling. Once, the space surrounding the line had been a void; now it was flowing liquid. I walked slowly, pressing against it.


One step from the opposite end, I spun, turning my back to my friends. The line hummed as a wind came up. In the center, immobile, I studied individual rock crystals near the far anchor. Something urged me to move, but I was locked in place.


Electricity shot through my body. I reached forward, gripping the thin ribbon with my toes, then almost ran to the safety of the other side as a violent gust of wind railed through the gap. Everything not tied down flew; the crash pad protecting the line from the edge soared away. My friends cringed and yelled.


I took a deep breath, remembering the last time I had felt such a bizarre wind: dusk, November 23, 1998, below the Leaning Tower. Less than a mile away, climbing legend Dan Osman lay dead on the ground, main line severed and sailing in the high wind above him. Some Native Americans believe that when a warrior dies a powerful wind is released. Somehow, my death wind had come but I was still alive.



CONNECTING

Slacklining had allowed me to grow. Now, I wanted to help open the way for others. Back in the Valley, we started throwing slackline raves, transforming the top of the Rostrum into a multi day outdoor party. We car-shuttled people to the drop-off point, trance rhythm thumping from the Crate amplifier. We’d ride the skyline, then pass my old red two-inch swami to the next walker, carefully tie him or her into the 20,000-pound-strong, double steel rings that slid along the triplicate webbing and rope, and watch, in full party mode, as dozens of first-time high-walkers broke through. Our foreign climber friends visiting the Valley brought the stoke home with them, and soon slacklining multiplied worldwide….


GOSSIP

The Three Gossips had called to me ever since I took my first drive into Arches National Park. I could almost hear those 300-foot sandstone ladies whispering, ‘Join us.’ After thirteen years I finally did. I couldn’t resist being part of that landscape any longer.



During a few days, across spans similar to that of the Lost Arrow, I walked back and forth hundreds of times, leashless, nonstop. The three goddesses held me in a state of sharpened bliss.

For more than a month I relived the moments. Then I heard the soft beckoning again. This time, I chose to free solo a sandstone ribbon: Delicate Arch. Attached only by the tips of my fingers and toes, I felt soothing calmness absorb my entire being.


I was blindly consumed.


Though nothing I did was illegal, within two days, the Park Service forbade climbing on named arches and implemented a ban on slacklining within Arches and Canyonlands National Parks--the first ever in a National Park. The climbing community grew angry because my acts had affected their access. Their fears are valid; I’m gripped, too. Wild lands are diminishing, as are liberties. But I will never bow to unnatural restrictions. People are afraid of losing their access, but what good is a land where you are no longer free? Now the Gossips really have something to talk about.



THE BRIDGE

I thought my own mind was pretty open, but when I first heard of sightless “Death Walks,” I was in disbelief. But there they were, in the records: a blindfolded Rudy Omankowsky walked a 320-meter wire at Cheddar Gorge, England, 145 meters off the deck, on September 28, 1961. A year later, his son, Rudy Omankowsky, Jr., crossed Lake Gerardmer in France, blindfolded. The walk was 200 meters high; the length, 1,200 meters. I’ve tried to walk the slackline many years now without using my eyesight. The furthest I’ve gotten is a thirteen-meter garden line. The idea of stepping onto a highline, above a death fall, unprotected, darkened eyes burning with sweat, terrifies and eludes me. . . Funambulists through the ages have tried to share their insights, balancing everything on the line to demonstrate life’s possibilities. As our world drastically changes and hatred and war spread out of control, it’s clear to me that we must try to see connections across the gaps between us.


‘Life is being on the wire; everything else is just waiting,’ the legendary wirewalker, the Great Wallenda, once said. Cool webbing vibrates under my calloused feet; my breath calms and the mental chatter slows. For scattered moments I am Darrin Carter, unable to believe that a “trailer-trash” kid can walk above the world; I am Chongo, dancing with the roundness of my belly like the orbit of the earth. . . .I am a Yosemite law-enforcement ranger pacing back and forth on an invisible blacktop line; I am the Great Wallenda, falling to my death from a wire stretched between two ten-story buildings in Puerto Rico as a forty-kilometer-per-hour wind howls; I am George W. Bush reaching out my trembling hands to sign on the line that sends men and women to die for oil. I am a sandstone shaman, traveling the line between the material and the spiritual.


We who walk the narrow line have stood for free thinking for thousands of years. Let us continue balancing within the world as we try to understand the space between.”


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