Adam and Jeff’s attempt at the Spire was powerful in another way as well. Scott Balcom, Chris Carpenter, and Darrin Carter also happened to be in the Valley in the summer of ‘83, and just so happened to run into Adam and Jeff practicing on their nylon. After their failed attempt, in Scott Balcom’s words, “my purpose was born.” And with that, the Slacklife was born that day, too.
But let’s back up a bit and explain a few things first.
Who is Scott Balcom, Chris Carpenter, and Darrin Carter? Why are they so important?
Well, we went straight to the source to find out. What follows is a direct account of events from the man himself, Scott Balcom, telling us all about it:
Scott Balcom, Chris Carpenter, and Darrin Carter were all childhood friends that grew up together. Darrin transferred to Scott’s school in third grade, and Chris was three years younger, a kid that lived up the street.
Scott Balcom discovered rope walking at nine or ten (around 1973) when his older brother, Ric, came home one day with a hemp rope and said, “Let’s stretch this between two points and walk on it. My friend Kurt does it and it's pretty cool.” So they did, but no one could walk it very well. Nobody could really do more than four steps. But for some reason, Scott had this feeling “that THIS is my thing. I’m good at this. Even though the neighbor kid across the street could run four steps, I could walk slowly four steps...and that made me way better than him.”
Scott continues the story: “All through my childhood I climbed on houses that they were building. Back then, they framed houses with diagonal braces and we’d climb all over those things and walk right on the edge of them… And I had a big tree house with big rope swings, and I used to walk on the railroad tracks. We did a lot of stuff like that...it was the 70's. We were the crash test dummies of the future. We did a lot of painful shit…. So by the time that balancing on parking lot chains and cables was a thing, I was already doing that…. I was already doing that when I met Chongo, who at that time was Chuck in Joshua Tree in May of ‘81.
Darrin Carter was with me, and we met Chuck, and he took us climbing and taught us how to climb. I had been itching for something like that. I really wanted to climb, but I figured, ‘How do you learn?’ There were no climbing gyms or anything back then. If you didn't know somebody that climbed, you did not learn to climb. Maybe you could learn to rappel on your own, but there was no internet...no books on it, I mean...there was nothing.
We ended up spending a couple more days with him and then we left. And he was 29 and we were...I don't even think Darrin was 18 yet. I was 18...and I thought that he was way older than us and we would never see him again. But then when we were leaving, Chuck said, "Oh! Here's my number. I work in Hollywood some of the time, and I don't have a car. You could come pick me up and we can go to the mountains.” And I'm like, "Alright.” So we became friends with him...and he wasn't completely homeless back then. He programmed computers and he worked for someone that actually did programming for other businesses, but he would camp at their place in Hollywood.
I would go out and pick him up, and we would drive to Joshua Tree...and a little later, Yosemite. And then one day Chuck's like, "Oh yeah! You gotta walk on parking lot chains! This is the thing in Yosemite." And I'm like...I can do that. I’ve already been doing that. And that was something that I could walk all the way across without falling. I was really good at it.
And so...some time went by. And in 1983, Chris Carpenter, Darrin, and I show up in Yosemite, and Adam Grosowsky and Jeff Ellington have slacklines set up in this little strip...now it's part of the Lodge employee housing area in Yosemite. But that used to be a parking lot, and we used to camp there. Well, you weren't allowed to camp IN the parking lot, but people would picnic in there and there's a little strip of trees. Adam and Jeff were set up there, and they were walking back and forth on this narrow, nylon line, and they were doing crazy shit. Adam could do a handstand, and he could swing the line back and forth, and he was really good. They could pass clubs back and forth... and Chris and I were like, "Man, THAT is the shit."
At that moment, when I met Adam and Jeff...it impacted my life A LOT. It impacted their life, a lot less. (I actually met Adam years later, they flew us to New York for some Saturday morning TV show in ‘06...NBC or Good Morning America or whatever...and he didn't remember me at all.)
And that was the first time I had ever seen nylon webbing used for slacklining. Camp 4 at that time had a chain, and it was like a gym there. They had bar dips and pull up bars and finger tip bars and, of course, the slack chain. And that was there for a long time. If there is one now, it is not the same one that used to be there. Adam told us that he had shown up and seen the slack chain a few years earlier, and that he couldn't walk it. So he went home and he couldn't find a chain to walk on, and ended up stretching a piece of nylon webbing instead.
Now, just before this, I had an old....well, Chuck had a bunch of old climbing gear. And some of it was useful, and some of it wasn't. And he even had a whole rack of Friends [cams]...back then the aluminum stem Friends was the best you had... but he made us learn to lead trad climbs with our hexes. And he's like, “You need to use hex's because it's too easy with cams. You don't want to make it easy. Then you can climb hard.”
So I had taken a rope-- it was the old goldline. I don't know if you've ever seen a piece of this rope, but it was twisted climbing rope. I don't know what it was like back in the 50s when this rope was from...I mean, this rope was older than me probably, and it was really, really stiff. It was more for roping a cow or something. But I stretched it up and was walking on it. And it was really difficult to walk because it would roll off your feet, so you had to be really careful with it. And this is before I had ever seen slacklining. I had considered walking on nylon webbing, but I thought it would just be too squirrely. But Adam...he had this mastery of the squirreliness that was mind blowing. I mean, he did different things than people do now, but he would be pretty good for now. Like he walked on a short line, but he was doing handstands and juggling and stuff.
Anyway... so Adam and Jeff had a cable set up in the forest out someplace away from camp. They were practicing on this cable to walk the Lost Arrow Spire, and then the rangers confiscated their cable so they kept on walking on nylon in camp. And then they went up to walk the Lost Arrow Spire on a cable, and they stepped off a couple times, and they broke a bolt on the spire tip. I think that scared the shit out of them and they packed up and left.
And when I met Adam and Jeff it wasn't like I just all of a sudden thought, “I want to walk slacklines.” It was like, “OH! That looks like that would be fun to walk!” I was already walking other things, and it was just... the stuff they were doing--you couldn't do on a rope because it would roll off your feet. Like swinging the line really hard back and forth. And I don't mean like the whipping the line, where you keep your body straight, and you're whipping the line under you. I mean, like slowly surfing it, with more of a bounce in it. Where you actually are at a point where you are nearly weightless, and you come down with positive G force and you come back to where you are weightless. Surfing a rubber band was what Adam made it look like. And I just thought that that was just insane. And I tried to understand how he could do it. And when I thought about it mentally, it looked like a complete disaster--in the shortest split second, you could have that thing slapping you in the face. And then I tried to empathize with how he was able to do it, and I got the feeling in my body.
And when they first told me they were going to walk the Lost Arrow Spire, I had this weird, intuitional outburst like, “Wait a minute! I’M supposed to do that!” And I was like, “What?? Where did THAT come from?” As soon as it popped into my head, it didn't make ANY sense to me because I couldn't...ya know....I could walk across the chain like three times and that was good. And these guys were walking back and forth on these nylon lines, surfing it like it's a rubber band in the air. It didn’t make any sense to me. And it wasn’t like I wished they wouldn’t do it so I could it. I thought, “I wish them well because these guys are really skilled. These guys are awesome.” And then they came back and they're like, “We broke a bolt and we took it down. It just seemed too dicey.” And, I just… my purpose was born.
I was like, “This is it. I'm gonna walk it.” I went home and Chris and I bought some nylon and we both started walking. And in just a month or two, I was able to get that down. It was such a liberating feeling! We were in the masters of stone apprenticeship program at University of Yosemite where everything is a self-directed course study. I climbed a little...I attempted some big walls when I was young, but I never graduated from the masters of stone program. I never got to that level. I liked the movement of climbing. I liked the standing on small holds. I liked going places on a rock. I liked...well, when I was younger, I liked more of the feeling of being up high. I still like it okay. But I don't like getting the shit scared out of me. And I don't like feeling like I'm gonna get cheese grated by the rock at Joshua Tree. But the slackline afforded just this pure flow-state that was….different. Like when I've been really focused leading [a climb], it's a different experience than the flow state in slackline. It's similar in that you shut everything else out...and you can really just be, but on the slackline, when I'm swinging the line back and forth and bouncing up and down...It’s so...it is completely spontaneous. It is more creative. I feel like I'm playing lead on an electric guitar. A one string electric guitar….and me and balance are dancing. And I swing the line. I take my hands, I direct the line, pushing on it with my hands, in this energetic way. And I would fall off when I would lose myself so completely that I would do something stupid and just like step off the line. And all of a sudden, SNAP. You just yank out of that state. But when I didn't fall, and when I'd ride the line until I popped off the line and landed on the ground, I felt like I was….you know, the feeling when you come back to the ground, when you feel like... “I HAVE MASTERED WALKING!” And it feels SO good.
So that was it. I was just completely sold.”
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