Highlining: The stillness and the fear

Slacklining — the act of walking a tensioned piece of webbing strung tight as a guitar string between two points, often trees — may be a fringe sport, but it’s enjoyed by many.

It doesn’t take much to set it up — just a few carabiners, loads of webbing and knowledge of knots. At least those are the basics.

RELATED: No balance? Here’s why you should try slacklining anyway

Finding the balance to walk on it can take days or weeks. In that time, expect slamming falls into the dirt where the line whips you in the back of the legs.

Highlining, on the other hand, requires walking the line hundreds or even thousands of feet above the ground. This is 34-year-old Braden Mayfield’s specialty.

Braden Mayfield, North Peak, above Saddlebag Lake, Sierra Nevada, California. Photo: Courtesy of Jared Alden

Up here in the sky, with arms raised on either side for balance, there’s nothing below but air.

This is why highliners wear climbing harnesses and make sure their rigging is bomber before stepping on the line.

Mayfield lives in Truckee, California, a ski town nestled high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains surrounded by granite and forest as far as the eye can see. The town is a four-and-a-half-hour drive from Yosemite National Park, where Mayfield was raised.

This is also where he learned to walk the line.

It was 2000 when Mayfield and his high school buddies wandered through the park’s historic Camp 4, long the gathering place for climbers, and approached Cedar Wright, Chongo and the late Dean Potter at the slacklines at the back of the site.

Mayfield watched in awe as the three men walked the lines with mastery: slowly, methodically. Soon they showed him the way.

He spent that summer practicing his new craft under the wings of his mentors.

At the end of the summer — after walking his first highline at age 17 — Mayfield caught a flight to Thailand and spent four months slacklining near Ton Sai Beach. Then he began exploring the slacklining/highlining potential on the nearby islands and beyond.

Understanding and solving the complexities involved in rigging highlines has helped Mayfield become a master rigger, and it’s an occupation that takes him around the world.

He had recently returned from China and was preparing to head to Finland in a few days when GrindTV caught up with him from his home in the Sierra.

What it feels like to walk a highline

Arrowhead_Spire, Yosemite National Park. Photo courtesy of Jakub Křovák
Arrowhead Spire, Yosemite National Park. Photo: Courtesy of Jakub Křovák

“I can feel a lot of things,” says Mayfield about taking those steps onto the webbing. “It feels — ”

He drifts off and his voice becomes a whisper, as if he’s processing his answer or letting us in on a secret. “Exposed in space,” he finally continues. “Exhilarating. It’s a slow sport.”

“I like that,” he says. “You can just stand there in that moment and be totally still. It’s a focused state [that requires] calming your mind.”

Why highlining?

“There’s always been something about the aesthetics of seeing someone on a slackline in the mountains,” says Mayfield.

“I like constructing the experience, capturing images and showing people that there are many different ways to enjoy the mountains. There is a side of it that is performance art.

“I like climbing rock towers that have never been climbed before. I like doing that by itself. And slacklining between freestanding towers — I love that.”

When asked about his favorite places to highline, he rattles off quite the list: “The Dolomites, Czech Republic — I love Czech sandstone towers — the High Sierra, Canyonlands.”

Keeping it safe

Dolomites, Italy. Photo courtesy of Mattia Felicetti
Dolomites, Italy. Photo: Courtesy of Mattia Felicetti

There is always a redundant system when it comes to setting up highlines. “Everyone always walks it with at least two pieces: a main line and a backup line,” he says.

Despite checking everything twice, he admits, there’s still a lot of fear when it comes to walking highlines.

“In many situations, highlining can be done relatively safely,” Mayfield says. “The basic rigging systems are really safe.

“[Yet] many lines I do in the mountains have added elements of danger because of the location. Either way there is fear.”

Inspired to take your first steps? “This is a good time to get into it because there is a lot of information available and it’s always improving and evolving at fast pace,” Mayfield says.

To learn more about slacklining and highlining, visit balancecommunity.com and landcruising-slacklines.de.

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