Posted by: Katie Coakley
As long as you’ve got the focus and motivation (and maybe a little Jedi strength), you can balance among the clouds
By Shauna Farnell
There she was, 50 feet above the ground, the first competitor in the first highline speedwalking competition in the United States on Friday in Vail—and Kiley Hartigan started to wobble. The one-inch thick piece of webbing she was on began swinging to the right and then to the left. Then she toppled off, yielding a collective gasp from the crowd below.
But worry not: She dropped a few feet before her harness caught her. In less than a minute, she had scrambled back up and was once again walking gingerly toward the finish line. She took one more topple, but made it across, shaking and smiling as she climbed down the tower at the end.
A 23-year-old Boulder resident who works as a biologist at the University of Colorado and lives in a van she rigged up to function as a home on wheels, Hartigan has a rock-climbing background but didn’t step onto her first highline until three years ago—it was about 400 feet off of the ground in Boulder Canyon.
At first she puked. Then she grew to love it.
“I’ve never been very good at balancing,” she says. “I’ve been a very clumsy person my whole life.”
After that first highline experience, it was several attempts later that she made an actual step, but as all highliners will tell you, all it takes is practice.
“When starting out, everyone is so overwhelmed with anxiety and fear and adrenaline, but there’s a moment when the fear turns to joy,” Hartigan says. “I did the same line over and over. I took my second step, then four steps, then eight steps. In a week I could walk across the whole line. That transition point between fear and joy is what I’ve been chasing ever since.”
As Taylor Van Allen sees it, all fear associated with highlining is “irrational” because athletes are always harnessed in with all lines secured. The Golden resident shares the U.S. highline record, walking across a line that stretched about 1,000 feet and hovered nearly 1,000 feet above the ground in Utah. He got his start on a 30-foot-long line a couple of feet off of the ground in his yard.
“There’s definitely an instinctual fear that goes along with it,” Van Allen says. “When you get up on a highline and take that ground away, you realize how much you use that ground to know where you’re at in space. You take that away and that’s a difficulty in itself. You feel like you’re going to die even though it’s really safe.”
The safety element is key in highlining positioning it, while at similar heights, on the polar opposite level of free soloing.
“From a freestyle standpoint, these guys are trying to push themselves to the brink of a fall and if they fall, it’s OK. They get right back up and start again. They’re putting it all on the line in a different way. They’re trying to chase something more than the fame and glory of risking their life,” says Mickey Wilson, MC and organizer of highline events at the GoPro Mountain Games. “They’re trying to chase the ultimate athletic achievement in their realm on a tethered highline. I threw a backflip on a line 400 feet high in Moab, Utah. We’re chasing the hardest trick—we’re not chasing that terrifying zone of ‘Free Solo.’”
Of course, beyond a fear of heights in a setup like the highline at Solaris Plaza, a fresh element of terror is the eyes of hundreds of onlookers.
“I’m feeling weird right now. I usually don’t do this in front of anyone besides my friends,” says Logan O’Brien before the highline competitions kicked off on Friday.
This is where “the zone” or “the flow” comes in … that state of focus where one is able to make all of one’s surroundings – everything besides the task ahead of them – disappear.
“It’s an interesting mindset. When I’m up there, the mind switches to auto pilot,” says Brandon Peterson. “I’m focusing on how the line feels under my feet, how my shoulders are stacked … you’re totally conscious of your movement. The experience holds you steady.”
“Truly, I zone everything out,” Hartigan agrees. “I see maybe 10 feet out in front of me and everything else is blurry. I’m looking at the thread on the webbing. If there were a shark under me, I wouldn’t know it.”
Hartigan sees highlining as entering a space in the atmosphere where no one else has ever ventured.
“The folks to walk this line are the first humans to ever be in this space,” she says. “It’s completely uncharted territory, especially the big, huge 400-meter lines across canyons. You’re the first person to be in that part of the sky. Ever.”
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