Between Dean and Andy’s widely publicized feats, Gibbon Slackline’s development of the simple ratchet-strap slackline setup in 2007, and the rise of the Internet, there was a worldwide explosion of the sport. People all over the planet could now easily set up a slackline and share their knowledge of tricks and rigging through forums and social media. There are now slackers, highliners, trickliners, festivals, and competitions in almost every country in the world. People are establishing and making first ascents of lines nearly every day. Gear innovation has shot through the roof; there are hundreds of types of webbings made from different materials with different weave patterns and stretch capabilities that all offer their own unique walk.
However, our sport had to go through one more revolution to get to where it is at today. As slackers started exploring the potentials of longlining and pushing bigger and bigger highlines, we slowly started to realize that our style of rigging and walking may have to change to accomplish these feats. What happened next allowed us to push past into explored territories faster than anyone ever thought possible.
Ben Plotkin-Swing explains the phenomenon perfectly in his article The Slack Revolution written for the Balance Community Blog:
“We call it a slackline, but as recently as 2 or 3 years ago the future seemed to be in making lines tighter and tighter. Slackline discussion groups were saturated with talk on how to combine pulleys and brakes and multipliers to tension a slackline with as much mechanical advantage as possible. In all the talk of 9:1 this, and 15kn that, there was an implicit assumption that as lines got longer they would need to get tighter. Today, that assumption has been refuted, and possibly inverted. Online conversation is dominated by phrases like “hand tension” and “sag is swag”. A few years ago, it was commonly believed that a tighter line is an easier line. Now, it is an open secret that boundary-pushing lines are considered much harder to tame when they are tight. Low tension is seen as both cool and expedient. ..
Slacklining wouldn’t be what it is today without the dual influences of rock climbing culture combined with the new availability of webbing that is strong, light, flat, and affordable. Without this new material, it seems unlikely that the climbers’ rest-day activity of balancing on chains between posts in the parking lot would lead to a new movement. But nylon webbing is a staple in rock climbing gear, and once it was discovered that webbing feels nice to walk on, a new kind of funambulism was born. The full significance of the change was probably not obvious at the time, since walking on a short rope or chain is not that different from walking on a short piece of webbing. In those early days, webbing was adopted because it is cheap, easy to carry around, and is flat so it doesn’t roll under your foot like a rope. It took another 30 years for the new possibilities that webbing opened up to begin to be realized. . .
We can only speculate about the logic behind the choice of the name slackline. I’ve always thought it must have been chosen to be in opposition to the established concept of a “tightrope”. That initial impulse towards difference is then immediately contradicted by the practice of making the line as tight as possible, which makes it easier to walk, at least in the short term. The inversion of “tight” to “slack” was woven into the sport at the very beginning, even if it was initially more wordplay than action...
Slacklining grew and styles proliferated, but the thread I want to follow is the attempt to walk longer and longer slacklines. Throughout the 90s and 00s, this project was synonymous with finding ways to make the line tighter. There are two main reasons for this: line height, and walkability. At this point slacklines were usually rigged between two trees with relatively flat ground in between. As the distance between trees gets larger, the slackline needs to either be tighter or higher in the trees in order to prevent the slackliner from touching the ground in the middle of the line. Since there is a limit to how high one can safely dismount a line, eventually the line must be made tighter to be made longer. In the words of longline pioneer Jerry Miszewski:
“When I first started slacklining, people weren't walking giant lines yet. The only guy that was, Damian Cooksey, was using chain hoists and klemheist knots to tension the line. There was no thought about how much sag the line should have or how high the anchors should be. It was just thought that the line should be low enough to reach and tight enough to not touch the ground in the middle.”
In addition to this practical reason for high tension was the belief that the walk would be easier that way. This was probably true at the time, but it lead the sport into a kind of cul-de-sac... adding tension helps keep the wiggles under control as long as the line weight is not a big factor, but once the line gets long enough that it wiggles no matter what, high tension makes them heavier and more potent. The solution isn’t just a little more or less tension, but a total change in walking style. But if your training progression has been to tighter and tighter lines, the big jump sideways to very loose and long lines may not be possible. You may have to backtrack, and start again along a different path.
In the background of the progression to longer and tighter lines there were some who preferred to walk looser lines. There were a certain amount of bragging rights associated with walking a looser version of a line, and while some claimed to prefer loose lines, a lot of people assumed they just liked making things more difficult for themselves.
At the same time that Jerry Miszewski was developing and popularizing the rigging strategies and webbings needed for extremely high tension lines, he was also one of the early advocates for lower tensions. In his words:
“Once I started to get into lines that were longer than 400 feet, I started to realize that the difficulty changes with how much tension there is on the line. I played around a lot with different tensions on different lengths and found a happy medium between keeping the anchor height reasonable and keeping the walkability high. . . .
So what is going on here? To complete this story using the concepts we’ve developed, the discovery here is that while loose means more wiggles, the wiggles have less mass to them. If the line hangs like a noodle, giving it a shimmy while trying to maintain balance doesn’t set big sections of the line swinging together the way it can with a tighter line. In the context of highlines, another contribution to this effect is a loose backup that hangs in loops below the main line, but that is a topic for another day.
Learning this loose line style is more difficult and intimidating to begin with, but the road of progression it offers is longer than the tight line alternative. This has been definitively shown by the recent explosion of new slackline records, all at relatively low tensions. . . .
This progression towards big, loose lines is really the story of slacklining finding its true identity. Until recently, it had been kind of a dirtbag’s version of tightrope walking. Slackliners kept track of their own "world records", but they weren't truly significant because tightrope artists had previously done many bigger and more impressive things. And as slacklining progressed in the tighter lines direction, the amount of gear and infrastructure needed for a line was also starting to head in the direction of the tightrope: heavy and impractical.
In the new era of loose lines, slackliners are crossing gaps in a style that has never been pursued before. . . . And unlike a tightrope, a loose slackline can be rigged fast and light. Even the biggest lines can go up and down in a matter of a few days, and they can be put up in natural areas in a "leave no trace" style. The kind of minimalism that loose lines allow is also what is propelling new explorations into alpine highlining. Just a few years ago doing a highline in the mountains meant hauling a heavy pulley system to tension the line. We're now able to leave that behind, which is allowing us to consider more ambitious and remote projects.”
If you have feedback, additional information, more correct information, or just good ol' typos that need fixing, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment below.
It costs about $10k a year to operate HNTH and no we don't make money on youtube. Please spot us $20 on paypal/venmo or support us per episode on Patreon.
Subscribe to our channel on youtube and hit the bell so you get notified every time we put out a new episode. We talk about bolts, highlining, climbing, gear, break tests and more.