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Toe the Line

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What started as a way for rock climbers to sharpen their skills has evolved into a thrilling communal experience. Kate Siber ventures to the crag and discovers the world of slacklining.

Photography by Cameron Gardner

Timmy Hawkins traverses the Fruit Bowl, just outside of Moab, Utah. The canyon has lines that range from 20 feet to 120 feet across.
Timmy Hawkins traverses the Fruit Bowl, just outside of Moab, Utah. The canyon has lines that range from 20 feet to 120 feet across.

Hidden in the canyonlands beyond Moab, Utah, at the edge of a chasm named Fruit Bowl, a length of flat, narrow nylon webbing stretches between two juniper trees. The morning is crisp, dry and topped with a glorious blue sky unmarked by clouds. Expanses of reddish slickrock, studded with twisted trees and sagebrush, stretch to the horizon.

But at this moment, you don’t notice all of that. Your attention is centered on staying balanced atop this slim piece of webbing known as a slackline. First you place one foot on the line, strung a few feet off the ground, then you step onto it in one fluid move. The line sways and wobbles under your weight, but the muscles in your arms, core and legs respond with tiny adjustments to maintain equilibrium. Your mind becomes clear and focused on this all-encompassing task, and awareness of the rest of the world falls away.

Gear is backed up at least twice for safety.
Gear is backed up at least twice for safety.

“When you first start off, you get that feeling of, ‘Wow, I’m walking on a 1-inch piece of webbing! This is crazy!’” says Cameron Gardner, a Los Angeles-based photographer visiting Moab to practice slacklining. “Once you get past that, it’s more of an active form of meditation. It’s about being there in the moment, and nothing else really matters except the next step.”

Tightrope walking has been around for centuries, but slacklining — the sport of balancing on flat webbing strung between two anchor points, such as trees or rocks — was only born about four decades ago. It began as a way for rock climbers to hone their balance and concentration, then evolved into a social activity at campsites after a long day of climbing.

Flip Hickson and Ray Diaz slackline with a webbed swami belt that is attached to the line.
Flip Hickson and Ray Diaz slackline with a webbed swami belt that is attached to the line.

In the past 10 years, the sport has become more popular among a wider set of outdoor enthusiasts and has branched into various disciplines. Slackliners, also known as slackers, now practice highlining over large gaps like canyons, waterlining over lakes and rivers, and even tricklining, which involves stunts like handstands and jump turns. Now, there’s even a professional group, YogaSlackers, that performs standing, sitting and inverted yoga postures on slacklines.

Yoga postures are furthest from my mind when I venture onto a slackline myself. Even balancing on one sitz bone, feebly lifting my other leg off the ground, feels tenuous. Slacklining is a practice in rebounding from almost continuous failure, but this instant feedback accelerates learning. I get incrementally better and realize I haven’t felt so willing to fall since I was a kid.

Soon I graduate to standing on the slackline. I center my foot on the webbing and stand decisively upon it, but it jettisons me every time. Finally, after a dozen tries, focusing my gaze on a point at the other end, I step up and, miraculously, stay aloft. My body responds intuitively to the vibrations of the line and for a few moments, it feels as if I am perfectly attuned to it.

Flip Hickson starts his day at sunrise.
Flip Hickson starts his day at sunrise.

Part of the appeal of slacklining is its simplicity. To begin, all you need are a piece of webbing, a ratcheting mechanism, two anchors and some patience. Several companies sell ready-made kits that can be set up anywhere, but Moab is a favorite hub for the sport. A legendary rock-climbing destination, this southeast Utah adventure town has long hosted casual slackline sessions at its hundreds of campsites, but recently the community has made a more concerted effort to embrace the sport. Unlike some cities that have banned slacklining in public parks mainly out of concern for trees, Moab opened a dedicated park for the activity in 2013. And thanks to an abundance of canyons and tower-like rock formations, the area beyond city limits now features hundreds of established locations for highlines.

“It’s the biggest mecca for highlining in the world,” says Brian Mosbaugh, a Moab-based professional slackliner who has helped pioneer many areas with the Moab Monkeys, a group of young local adventurers.

To celebrate the sport, eight years ago, Mosbaugh and several other local slackliners started an informal annual gathering called Gobble Gobble Bitches Yeah. Held on the flat rocks surrounding the Fruit Bowl canyon, in an area overseen by the Bureau of Land Management, the event takes place the week of Thanksgiving. At first, only about a dozen people showed up, but over the years, word spread. Now, several hundred people appear, including world record holders and elite athletes.

Off the line, slackliners often gather cliffside or around the campfire.
Off the line, slackliners often gather cliffside or around the campfire.

“When I first started, I was really freaked out,” says Ray Diaz, a semi-professional slackliner from San Clemente, California. “But you learn how to manage the fear. I had this realization that highlining is the same exact thing as slacklining in the park. You break through that barrier.” Although highliners are clipped by harness to the line, they often catch themselves when falling to avoid extra stress on the equipment, which is typically retired after a certain number of falls.

Come evening, slackliners gather around campfires and those with guitars lazily riff chords and melodies. They feel the air temperature drop and watch the stars freckle the clear sky. In the morning, they awake to do it all over again, emerging from tents to marvel at the giant dome of blue overhead, the spectacular sweeps of water-carved sandstone, and the beautiful, sinuous limbs of ancient-seeming trees — a fine backdrop for a moving meditation.

“Being out there in the canyonlands, it’s so quiet it feels like you can hear the hum of the universe,” Diaz says. “The scenery is unbelievable. You can’t even take in what you’re seeing. I wake up and I’m like, ‘Wow, this place has serious magic.’”

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