How Highlining Works

From Slack to High: History of Highlining

Highlining over a canyon in Moab, Utah
Highlining over a canyon in Moab, Utah
Jared Alden/Photolibrary/Getty Images

Highlining grew out of a similar activity known as slacklining. For each sport, athletes attempt to walk down spans of nylon webbing strung between two points. The only real difference is that highlines are suspended dozens or even hundreds of feet in the air while slacklines are hung just a few feet off of the ground. Like the slalom adds gates to make downhill skiing more challenging, highlining adds height to make slacklining more challenging.

Slacklining was a product of Yosemite National Park's rock climbing scene in the mid-to-late 1970s [sources: Rogers, Tracy]. Here, at Camp 4, a campground in Yosemite, climbers found that balancing on parking lot chains, hand railings and ropes tied between trees seemed to improve their balance and strengthen their legs and core. By the early 1980s, Adam Grosowsky and Jeff Ellington began walking on nylon webbing, which climbers typically use to anchor themselves or a rope to the rock walls they ascend [source: Lightcap]. This advancement marked the birth of slacklining as it exists today.

After being exposed to slacklining at Yosemite, climbers Scott Balcom, Chris Carpenter and Chongo Tucker took the sport to Pasadena, Calif., where they set up the first highline in 1983. Suspended under a bridge between two support beams, the line was 22 feet (6.7 meters) long and 80 feet (24.4 meters) high [source: Lightcap]. Here they pioneered some of the techniques still used today, like the use of safety harnesses to protect themselves from falls.

Balcom raised the bar in July 1985 by traversing a 55-foot (16.7-meter) long, 2,890-foot (880-meter) high span at Yosemite's Lost Arrow Spire [sources: Lightcap, Rogers]. Darrin Carter, who became the second person ever to cross this coveted highline in 1993, brought a great deal of attention to the sport in 2001 when he appeared on the television show "Ripley's Believe It or Not." Additional exposure came from advertisements for the outdoor clothing and gear company Patagonia, which featured breathtaking photographs of well-known climber Dean Potter on a highline. Today, Potter still impresses audiences with walks like the one above Enshi Grand Canyon, but a new generation of highliners including Shawn Synder, Corbin Usinger and Damian Cooksey continue to push the limits of the sport.