Highlining and Willpower

I went highlining yesterday, at Garrapata State Park, with a group of good friends of mine.

Highlining is probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. It’s slacklining, but really high. It involves stretching a piece of webbing between two points, and trying to walk across it. You’re secured by the leash, a piece of static rope attached to a ring which slides across the line, and you tie yourself in with a rock climbing harness. You scoot out to a safe spot, sit on the line, and then try to stand up and walk across to the other side.

(that’s me!)

In the best-case scenario, you “send” the line, making it across without falling, and maybe turn back around and walk back before untying. If you fall, you’ll flip through the empty air before the leash catches you. At the bottom, after you’re done swinging around and you’ve gotten your bearings back, you need to pull yourself back up the rope to get back to the line. Sticking a foot high up on the leash for leverage, you pull your body back up to the line with your hands. This is all upper-body strength. From there, it’s a simple matter of hooking the line behind your knees, hanging upside down, and swinging back on top, only to reach the sitting position you started in and try it all over again.

We rigged over the beach, between two wavy sandstone cliffs, looping the anchors around a chossy boulder and a small spire. The rock is awesome; different strengths of sandstone have eroded differently. Some rock juts out in jagged orange outcroppings, and other boulders are pockmarked with small bowls; the wind has eroded away so much it looks almost like they wear a wrinkly skin of softer sandstone. I had high hopes for the day! The weather and the setting were perfect. I went to sleep early, I had been meditating every day, hadn’t done anything bad to my body; I woke up early, ate enough food. I was totally on top of my game… minus slacklining. I tied in and I fell, over and over again.

The biggest benefit of highlining is simply willpower. When you’re just starting, you will fall—a lot. It’s even fun to take your first whipper, because the sheer prospect of walking on a stretchy, swingy, bouncy line 30 or 50 or 100 feet off the ground is terrifying. Your body thinks that, if you fall, you will die. It’s relieving to get over that initial fear; it’s good to know that falling off is OK. The first fall is an accomplishment in and of itself. Up on the line you feel so precarious that any action is a triumph. You’ve conquered fear and paralysis.

The next step is perseverance. You fall, and you get back on. If you don’t want to haul yourself back up the rope all the way from the bottom, you can try to “catch” the line by either grabbing it with your hands or hooking it behind your knee. But the line is hard, pulled taught with hundreds or thousands of pounds of tension, and it will transfer a lot of force to your body very quickly. The line doles out bruises, cuts, abrasions, calluses. “You just fell,” your body says. “Why do you want to go through all that effort to fall again?” After pulling yourself to a stable, comfortable sitting position, trying it all over is the last thing you want to do. It takes a lot of guts to get back to your feet.

But that’s where the good comes in. If you can manage to start walking, if you can cast doubt and pain and everything else aside, then you will find yourself in a magical place. Unfortunately, I didn’t get there. I’ve been highlining three times; the other two were at a backyard highline festival, in Garden Valley, where slacklines were strung through the trees like telephone wires. If there’s a reason why my performance didn’t match up to my expectations (in the SSBM community we call this a “john”), it would be that I was out of practice. At the festival there were slacklines everywhere, and I was all over them, starting, walking, balancing, correcting, turning around. Yesterday I never really got to the point of walking; it was all I could do to stand up and catch my balance.

The second time I got on, later in the afternoon, I was determined. This would be my last chance. Even though Blake had added more tension, making it more to my liking, I fell, again and again. I caught the line and then threw my legs back up vigorously, hanging from my knees and fingertips. My technique was off when I spun back upright—if you do it right it’s more about finesse than force—but I tried with every fiber of my heart to hold on and press myself back up. Slackliners walk a fine line between trying hard and surrendering. You need to be calm enough to notice the sway of the line, exert enough force to correct it (but not make the wobbles worse), and be tenacious enough to keep yourself on. What’s more, your body imposes a physical limit; you can only pull yourself back up a finite amount of times before you need to get off, eat some food, drink water, and recharge. After your last fall, sitting in your harness defeated under the line, you still have to pull back up, haul yourself back to either side, and climb back up onto solid ground before you untie.

So I had to call it quits. Even though I had lots of determination left, lots of fire, I knew that nothing good would come of pushing past my limits. I painstakingly hooked heel after heel and dragged myself back to the starting spire, climbed back up to safety, and untied. I was so mad. I didn’t even walk.

I laid down on a rock to collect myself. What happened? I went through all the mental checks: I was relatively Zen’d out. I had meditated that day, and every day for a week. I was connected with my body. My thoughts weren’t racing, and I had enough willpower to try and to fall a shitload of times. As I calmed down, my anger gave way to confusion. Could I have done anything better? Did anything go necessarily “wrong”? I guess I was just out of practice, and 30 feet above the ground is a hell of a place to remember how to do something. What did I learn from today? What does this mean? Why do I do this to myself?

When I last went home, me and my friends classified each other as either earth, wind, water, or fire element. I was elated to get the “fire” label. I was feeling particularly fiery that week. I was happy to be home, back with my friends. I was lifting weights and radiating heat. Sometimes I picture my will as an inner fire, and when I’m excited it ignites my whole body, spreading energy outwards from my diaphragm. I think this willpower is what Brendan and Steven and Derek saw when they called me a fire type. Later, during a phone call, my friend Adam said he always pictured me as a wind type, riding the wind and soaring when a strong motivator comes my way, or coming to a dead stop when the breeze lets up, and flying off in a different direction the when another impulse compels me. I like them both, to be honest.

So what do I have that doesn’t leave me, at the end of the day? After I’ve pulled myself back up and fallen, over and over and over, and I still can’t walk? I have the ability to choose, to say “Yes, I’m going again”—I have my determination. Lying down on the rock, eyes closed, I realized I still have my fire, my willpower. That will stay with me until the end, whichever way the wind decides to blow it.

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2 Responses to Highlining and Willpower

  1. adamcmadison says:

    I want to do this! I bet it’s allllll about the breath. The longer the breath the better. Sounds like a blast!

  2. Lale says:

    Go Joe! Veronica gave me some good practice climbing the “dinky” wall at OPERS. I got some good practice through my summer job, Krysta and some of the parkies helped out. I want to find the time to climb a real rock, soon.

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