Yosemite Origins of Highlining
Yosemite National Park is a majestic land rich in climbing history, a long Native American presence and marked as the birthplace of modern highlining as we know it today. For a long time it’s been preserved as a sacred place of grandeur and natural beauty, dominated by an abundance of extraordinary waterfalls, diverse wildlife and gigantic granite walls that erupt from the valley floor reaching for the heavens. Without a doubt, these glacial polished amphitheaters beckon to every rock climber and adventure seeker to test their courage and strength on the towering white rock above. Attempting to capture the scale and impressive qualities of El Cap (short for “The Captain”) and the rest of Yosemite’s environments is hard to convey in words, but the feeling and perspective of seeing the larger than life white cliffs for the first time will leave any visitor with a lingering sense of awe that will be remembered for a lifetime. As millions of tourists filter into the park every year, the scene at Camp 4 and around Curry Village can leave the outdoorsman with a sense of claustrophobia and unease, but luckily the backcountry is only a short backpacking distance away, where the hustle and bustle of millions of tourons (common nomenclature for “tourists” and “morons”) can be avoided if you have a solid set of hiking legs. Leaving the crowds behind, along with the many domesticated Yogi bears trying to steal your PB&J sandwich, is where true adventure can be found.
I’ve been frequenting different parts of Yosemite for the past 5 years, and it was during my first visit to the park when a new passion was sparked and my worldview was absolutely shaken. I think back at my first experiences looking up at Yosemite Falls as the marked catalyst for what triggered the falling dominoes in my life, profoundly altering the events which have lead me to my current niche. It’s sometimes difficult to define the moment or origin of such an impacting life change, but seeing Yosemite Falls from below (towering some 3,000 feet above the Valley floor) left me with a yearning for adventure which I couldn’t resist. Instead of witnessing the roaring waterfall as simply another impressive creation of mother nature, my senses were dumbfounded by the sight of humans casually walking above its crest of falling water on a piece of one-inch webbing. This was incredible and I had to experience it for myself.
My previous year of life had been defined by a nomadic migration living out of my car with an irresistible obsession for rock climbing. After being introduced to technical climbing in college, and constantly watching films of young men and women traveling the world with a singular obession, I was inspired to follow in their footsteps. Unlike many university graduates who haphazardly question their post-school life, I knew exactly what I wanted and more importantly I knew how to get there. Since finding my vertical passion I had begun taking summer classes and studying constantly to graduate from the University of Oregon as fast as possible. The moment I turned in my last homework assignment was the day I left my old structured life behind, with no regrets to follow. I opted out of walking at graduation, not caring that I had finished in the top 1% of my class in the Romance Language department, in order to uproot my life into a vehicle and see the world from new heights. My journeys lead me from one climbing destination to the next, beginning in Squamish, Canada and heading south along the west-coast corridor to many world-class climbing meccas. I touched many cliffs and boulders around Smith Rock, Bishop, South Lake Tahoe, Yosemite, Joshua Tree and many other pocketed areas in new terrain. I simply followed the seasons chasing the endless summer, when I eventually ended up moving east toward Hueco Tanks State Park and landed in Flagstaff, Arizona. The year had been phenomenal and I had progressed from bouldering at a beginners level to sending V10 in some of the best climbing destinations in this country and world. My sport climbing abilities saw a spike in technical improvement, my gear placements were improving and my strength to weight ratio was exponentially on an upward trend, until IT happened… Injury set in… I was bouldering one day in Arizona and heard the dreaded/heart breaking sound that plagues the minds of active climbers with many nightmares. SNAP went the pulley in my middle finger, the swelling commenced quickly and tears seeped from my eyes near the base of the boulder. For the average person working a 9-5, this is not a common injury, but for climbers who put extreme amounts of physical strain on their fragile fingers, it’s unfortunately a relatively common occurrence. For a “dirtbag climber” living and breathing to scale upward, this can be a serious time of change and potential depression. After realizing I wouldn’t be climbing hard for at least another 6 months to a year, I had to make some new life decisions. Like all events in life that appear both tragic and liberating, there was a lesson to be learned here and life would go on. My path of simple living and constantly dreaming about the next route had to shift…
Shortly afterward, I found myself backpacking into the depths of the Grand Canyon for a week where I hoped to find answers to new life questions. Fast forward to the next stop on my journey, back to Yosemite National Park, and my life would once again find new direction… I simply looked up and saw the most beautiful highline in the world where Andy Lewis and Jerry Miszewski were walking in space. In my previous climbing experiences I had begun casually slacklining in a park around Eugene, OR. It was around the same time when I was introduced to rock climbing outdoors at Smith Rock State Park, where I treated slacklining as a common rest day activity from the routine of cranking down on rock and torturing my tendons. By chance I had also rigged and walked the classic Monkey Face Highline at Smith Rock after starting to walk a slackline six-months before, but the thrill wasn’t enough to overcome my climbing interests. I was very terrified of the couple hundred feet of exposure below and was shaken by the mental focus needed to walk in balance, but the level that these highliners were operating at 3,000 feet above the Valley floor was on a new level of Jedi!
With my finger severely injured and the reality of long recovery seeping in, I needed to find another way to keep my brain stimulated, my body moving and my soul happy. I decided then and there, at the base of the grandiose Yosemite Falls, that highlining would become my new life focus. Since that day, my life has lead me on a path of world travel in pursuit of combining both my passions in a balanced way to see the world from new perspectives. It was inevitable that I would eventually buy a camera and attempt to capture this unique space, and so continues the constant challenge of finding the right angle and image to capture my friends/heroes being awesome in nature. The act of rigging a highline and walking above the great abyss is an almost indescribable sensation, but I try my best to convey its beauty through moving and still images. This challenge stimulates my senses and leads to profound feelings which define my character in a way I’ve never encountered before. Sometimes the walk is calm and meditative, while other moments are filled with fear and terror, shaking my sanity and balance. I suppose it’s because of these contrasting reasons that we all push our personal limitations of what we think is possible in the void. The slackline community which faces these challenges and adventurous pursuits ironically tends to be very grounded, supportive and happy as a result of this. My fellow highlining, climbing, BASE jumping and rigging companions are now more like a family to me, they all tend to understand my worldview and meaning of life. It is with them that I find acceptance and understanding.
Our dreams are filled with BIG goals which straddle what’s possible and impossible, and for this reason we’re always pushed in new directions and extremes where we intimately learn something new and exciting everyday. For this reason, we remain young despite our age and push on like there is no tomorrow, because the present is what matters most. Instead of accumulating a 401K plan, most of us share destitute lives which often clash with the rules and values of a modern society that accumulates material wealth and a secure routine. I’m not claiming that we are super human and above these motivations, but we cultivate a lifestyle of balance with our every action and strive toward a simple life where the great outdoors is both our home and playground. For this reason, we respect the wild places where we dwell, adventure and smile together. In chasing down these dreams of elevated adventure, constructing arbitary lines in space, jumping into the abyss and climbing large rocks for no apparent reason, I’m somehow reminded of my small size and become immediately humbled. I don’t exactly know why we do, what we do, but a love for the outdoors and a humbled feeling of being with this family is what keeps me coming back for more…
I’ve included some photos and a video of a highlining trip I took to Yosemite in 2010 and 2011 to accompany these words. These images are a tribute to how inspiring Yosemite National Park is and it’s also a tribute to those that have taught me so much along the way. I want to thank Scott Balcolm for setting a new standard of adventure by walking and establishing the Lost Arrow Spire Highline back in 1984. You did the world a favor on that day. I also want to thank Jerry Miszewski, Pierre Carrillo, Eric Rasmussen, Jeremy Louis, Julien Desforges, Hayley Ashburn, Russ Phetteplace, Damian Cooksey, Emily Sukiennik, Jan Galek, Faith Dickey, Jordan Tybon, Damian Czermak, Mical Korniewicz, Andy Lewis and SO MANY others who not only inspired me to find greater balance in my life as I was learning to walk a slackline but who also shared with me their wealth of knowledge in rigging and living gracefully against the grain of modern expectations. I hope these words and images will have somehow inspired others to follow their own dreams with passion. May everyone continue to inspire and be inspired!