Slacklining from Beginner to Highline

slacklineChances are, even if you are not into the climbing scene where the sport has developed, you’ve seen people walking on the slackline around the area. Brought up and developed by the climbing crowd, slackline is gaining in popularity amongst people for refining balance, developing their core muscles, or just to have fun.

Unfamiliar? Usually it’s a piece of climbing webbing, one to three inches wide and, strung between 2 tress, or poles, to a varying degree of tautness and length. The object- to walk across the swaying line as far as you can, for the advanced, to jump on and throw tricks. Head on down to the local park on a weekend, chance are you’ll see one set up, and people are usually more than happy to let you have a turn, no matter your skill level.

According to slackline pioneer Scott Balcom, the origin of the sport came through climbers in the Yosemite area, back in the early ‘80’s. Since climbers have long had an interest in developing and honing their balance, they first practice by walking on slack chains- yes- the chain link strung between two poles to keep you out of the parking lot. Although back then people didn’t really take the chains seriously, the idea took a turn for the modern in Yosemite by Adam Grosowsky and Jeff Ellington. They started walking on one inch tubular webbing and as Balcom observed, he says “I was hooked”. After mastering the skill, Balcom then went to take slacklining to an even higher level- appropriately named highlining. In 1983, Balcom established the first highline walk under highway 134 in Pasadena, California by stringing their line several hundred feet off of the ground. A year and a half later, he successfully completed a traverse of the Lost Arrow Spire in Yosemite, nearly 3000 feet over the valley floor. Since Balcom’s historic first traverse, several have followed, and it has become the epitome of a highline traverse-probably more than any other in the world. Accomplished slackliners now covet an attempt, and the mental aspect is as big as the balance. Balcom says “I was as scared as I have ever been, but was able to break through the psychological barrier.”

Slacklining remained a fringe sport until the late ‘90’s when famous rock climber Dean Potter began to set up highlines, including the Lost Arrow. From there, “the sport really took off, and began to grow exponentially” according to Balcom. “The sport is gaining everyday in the US, and even bigger in Europe where there are festivals built entirely around slacklines.”

As with climbing Balcom notes, “there are as many disciplines in slacklining as there are in climbing. Width of the line, tension, length, the amount of ‘swing’, there are a lot of different schools, it all depends on what you are into.” “A true slackline for example, would have no tension. Most people prefer to learn on a wider, tauter line, and then graduate to something with more swing, and perhaps start getting into tricks. Find what’s fun for you, everyone can do it and once you believe you can do it, you can do it.”

Indeed, many climbing equipment companies now manufacture slackline kits, with all parts included, and there are even companies whose only business is slacklines. Balcom sells them on his website at check out some of the videos as well, including the vintage film of Balcom’s first Lost Arrow crossing. Inspiring!

One manufacturer of complete slackline kits, Gibbon Slacklines, offers an easy to set up and go- right out of the box slackline. “Originally rooted in rock climbing where climbers would stretch a piece of tubular nylon webbing between trees to help fine-tune balance and focus, slacklining has grown into a stand-alone sport of its own,” said Sara Morell, operations manager for Gibbon Slacklines.  “The balance training, core strength workout, and fun of slacklining has helped it reach a much broader audience of athletes and people just looking to have some fun outdoors. The wide platform and bouncy nature has created a new style of slacklining, allowing participants to perform tricks and stunts after only a few weeks or days from learning the sport.”

Some of the tricks involved include walking backwards, twists, surfing maneuvers, yoga poses, bouncing and handstands, even jumping from one slackline onto another.

As Balcom states- to get into it, find what you like, and then stick with it. It’s a good bit mental, and strength is certainly not the most important aspect. Like climbing, you have to think your way through it. Set it up low to the ground, relax, breathe, and keep your knees bent and your arms out. Spend some time getting it down, at least 20-30 minutes a session and you’ll be surprised at how fast you will advance. Ideally, it’s good to start with a spotter, but if you set it up low enough, you should be good. The line will be very wobbly at first, but to reduce this- when mounting, try to put very little weight on the line, and then sink straight down. As you progress, you’ll find that the bouncing is one of the most fun aspects of slacklining. At first, a tighter line is easier, and go barefoot or with a smooth soled shoe, and focus on the end of the line, not your feet.

As the sport advances, so do the opportunities for setting the line higher and longer across spans, spires, and chasms and gaps. There are a few folks in southern Utah that have advanced with lining over several gaps, however, like the sport of climbing or anything else, its best to be thoughtful about where you set up your line. For instance, slacklining is expressly prohibited in Arches National Park, and Yosemite now has a slackline policy as well- though not a ban.

Slacklining has come a long way into the mainstream since the first climbers practiced on chains. The physical benefits remain, as do the mental benefits of focus and relaxation. If you’re a dedicated highliner pushing the edge, or someone just getting into it, give it a try, its one of those rare activities that lets you get out what you put into it.

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