“Highlining” is a growing extreme sport that’s a bit like tightrope walking, except that instead of walking across a rigid piece of rope, highliners use a dynamic rope that moves and sways as they walk. These athletes, who generally attach themselves to the rope with a climbing harness, practice highlining around the world, fastening their ropes across canyons and other expansive natural barriers.
There is a canyon in southern Utah that is about 400 feet deep that’s particularly suited for highlining, as its unique twisting shape offers the extreme athletes several anchor points from which they can set up highlines of varying length next to each other, and this allows large groups of highliners to gather and practice their sport all at once, creating a festival-type atmosphere. Although it’s perfectly legal for highliners to practice in this canyon, they prefer to keep its exact location secret, and the exact date and time of a highlining gathering is only spread via word of mouth. Nevertheless, GrindTV was recently allowed access to this spot, so check out our gallery of what we found there below.
The highliners usually had six to 10 different lines set up at once, varying in length from 22 feet to 192 feet. There aren’t that many places in the world where you can safely set up such diverse lengths of lines so close together.
The graceful and fluid Pierre Carrillo, of Montreal (above), makes the sport look easy, but walking across that line is one of the most difficult tasks an athlete can accomplish. Highliners use every muscle in their bodies to balance and stabilize themselves, quickly draining themselves of energy. And while highlining is definitely an exhausting physical workout, the most tiring part about it is the mental strength it requires; when athletes step to the line, an intense, paralyzing fear runs through their bodies, and they have to use a massive amount of mental energy to wash the fear from their minds and replace it with a sense of focus and calm. This requires so much energy that beginner highliners usually work themselves into collapse after only about 15 minutes of trying, and they wake up the next day so sore they can’t move, especially if they consistently fall from the rope and have to struggle to get back on again. But no matter how practiced and advanced a highliner is, they say that that sense of fear never subsides.
Some of the highliners who gathered in southern Utah were also BASE jumpers, and whenever the conditions were right Scott Rogers and a few of his friends would strap on their parachutes and go.
Most highliners strap themselves on to the rope with a climbing safety harness that wraps around their waists. But Jared Marvel chose to highline with only an ankle leash. If he had fallen, he could have easily broken his ankle or ripped his leg from its socket. Some highliners like Marvel choose to add an extra element of danger because they want to test whether they can push past greater and greater fears as well as progress the sport to greater heights.
The highliners gathered in southern Utah from all over the world—the U.S., South Africa, Canada, France—but they all quickly became friends and gathered around a campfire every night.
The remote canyon offered no shelter other than tents, and there were no bathrooms and no cell phone service. Every morning people would wake up and start highlining, practicing yoga, playing music, and even juggling.
Many of the highliners also tried tricks on the line. In this photo, Vinny Delaney, of Colorado, is doing an exposure turn, where you turn 90 degrees and walk with your shoulders parallel to the line. This turn completely throws off your balance, especially since you have nowhere to fix your eyes, and you’re essentially exposing yourself to the open air. Here Delaney further adds to the challenge by removing the natural balance his arms provide by bringing them above him.
Heidi Blais, from Montreal, does the splits on a highline. She was one of the few women who had traveled to Utah to highline, and she is a yoga instructor in her day-to-day life.
It’s difficult to describe how terrifying it is to fall from the highline, even though you are strapped in via a climbing harness. Yet some highliners, such as Mickey Wilson of Colorado, seem to be able to push past the fear and even attempt tricks like back flips, above.
Here Jared Marvel practices “surfing,” where you rock the line back and forth, causing it to sway wildly above the canyon floor.
Here Pierre Carrillo does the splits on a 192-foot line, which was the longest line set up at the gathering. The longer the line the more difficult it is to cross it, especially as the wind catches it. Carrillo was the only male athlete at the gathering who could do the splits on the line.
Here, Heidi Blais practices yoga above the canyon, demonstrating that the spot is a beautiful, peaceful place to visit even if you’re not a highliner. Perhaps that’s one of the biggest reasons why they keep it secret!
This story’s photographer, Travis Burke, spent several days at the gathering and attempted to highline several times. On one of his last days there he was able to make it across a 22-foot line, and a 42-foot line, an experience he says was one of the toughest and most terrifying of his life (and which is photographed above). Burke likes to participate in the activities he photographs, saying it helps him understand his subjects better and it makes him a better photographer. “I wanted to get an idea of what they were experiencing, and it blew my mind,” he said. For more of Burke’s adventures, click here, and here, and here, and here. For more highlining photos from Burke, click here.
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