On the other side of the country, in the mid 1950s, the art of balance was slowly developing into our favorite activity out of the rich climbing culture of Yosemite Valley. Inspired by Ivy Baldwin’s line in Eldorado Canyon (still hanging in place since 1905), Colorado climbers Pat Ament and Van Freeman began practicing on a short slack chain. When they brought their balance-trainer to Yosemite National Park in California in the mid 1960s, they were surprised to find that others, like climbing legend Chuck Pratt, had already been walking chains for two decades. In fact, Pratt was quite adept on the slack chain and was able to juggle three or four wine bottles at a time while standing on it. In an Alpinist article written by Dean Potter, TM Herbert, a Valley regular since the Golden Age, recalls, “Pratt was always into some sort of that circus stuff, juggling bottles or balancing on things.
He used to walk the metal railings at Glacier Point [in the mid-1950s] and any other chains and cables he could find.” John Gill, the father of modern day bouldering and training for climbing, was also well versed in the discipline, and he would frequently take a thirty-foot length of light chain for balance games when he toured the climbing campgrounds of the Black Hills and Tetons in the 1950s and 60s. The slack chain went on to become an important and revered tradition throughout the 70’s in Camp 4 as a way for climbers to train, challenge their minds, improve their balance, and relax after long days of climbing.
Remembers Ron Kauk of the era, “People were always doing some kind of balance thing, walking on top of beer bottles or running along the top of knife-edge boulders. We were kind of hippies grooving to Hendrix, wearing cool clothes, but we were also professionals. You’d do your 100 pull-ups [but] you also had to walk the flat chain.” “It was a part of being in our gang,” agrees Rick Cashner. Dean Fiddelman, the unofficial-official team photographer of the Stonemasters, the creator of Stone Nudes, and longtime Valley resident, echoes this sentiment in the Adventure Sports Journal, “If you were living a climbing lifestyle, you slack-chained. If you didn’t, it meant you weren’t part of our culture.”
Outside Camp 4, line walking remained relatively rare in the climbing community. But that all changed in 1974 when Philippe Petit walked the Twin Towers and brought the art of the highwire back to the forefront of American consciousness. As said earlier, it was widely lauded as the “artistic crime of the century,” and Dean Potter believed that “Petit’s freedom of expression had connected with Americans, perhaps reminding them of their country’s founding values.”
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