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Meet the crew pushing the obscure extreme sport of free solo slacklining

extreme sports

A fine balance

Spencer Seabrooke walks on a slackline 290 metres above the ground over a gully atop Stawamus Chief Mountain in Squamish, B.C.

A small group of friends in the Vancouver area are at the forefront of slacklining, a burgeoning subculture that's pushing a fringe sport to ever-greater heights and distances.

Two summers ago, Spencer Seabrooke stepped off the edge of a cliff and out into the air.

Seabrooke was held aloft by a narrow band of fabric, three centimetres wide. The slackline stretched over a deep gully atop Stawamus Chief Mountain in Squamish, B.C.

The plan was to walk across – without a safety harness. The ground was 290 metres below Seabrooke's feet. A fall meant death. The walking distance of 64 metres would mark a world record in the obscure extreme sport of free solo slacklining. "You're standing on nothing," Seabrooke said at the time. "Everything inside your body is telling you this is wrong."

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Several steps into the crossing, Seabrooke looked down. It was a searing moment of reckoning. He crouched to steady himself and reached with his hands to grab the slackline. He suddenly flipped over – but hung on. He righted himself, let out a few screams, and stood again. He had walked the same slackline – tethered by safety gear – many times before. He exhaled his nerves, settled into the adrenaline. He crossed in four minutes. The video of the stunt became an online sensation and the story was broadcast by ABC News. The feat is dizzying to watch.

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Seabrooke and a small group of friends in the Vancouver area are at the forefront of slacklining, a burgeoning subculture that's pushing a fringe sport to ever-greater heights and distances. The ethos is similar to rock climbing. The endeavour exists without precisely set boundaries, without exact rules, with no big paydays. Slackliners dream up new challenges and then broadcast their exploits on YouTube and Instagram, aiming to attract attention and potential sponsors.

The sport is percolating into the mainstream. There was a slackline performance during Madonna's 2012 Super Bowl halftime show. And this month, to start the new season of Amazing Race Canada, one contestant on each team walked a slackline over a 40-metre gap high up on the Hotel Vancouver, which Seabrooke and his friends had helped rig. The racers – harnessed and holding a rope as an aid – were a dozen storeys above the street. "Fear is a natural reaction," one participant counselled himself after he fell and bounced on a bungee. "Courage is a choice." Another racer, who didn't have to walk the line, exclaimed, "I'm so happy I'm not doing this."

Slackliners like Seabrooke must overcome fear and master balance.

On a highline – any slackline of a considerable height – fear is universal, even for the likes of Seabrooke and his band.

Almost all slackliners use a safety tether. (Free solo highlines are a tiny niche of an already niche sport, for the obvious reason of extreme consequence.) Stepping from the edge, even with the seeming security of the safety tether, adrenaline spikes, the heart pumps, limbs quiver. Marshalling this is the challenge, one that can take months of practice, overcoming fear and mastering balance. Eventually, there is zen. Slacklining, at its best, is a kind of physical poetry, a slow-motion flying, walking through the air.

"While I'm out there, it's home, for me," said Seabrooke, 28. "You find yourself in a really calm place."

Tightrope walking has a long history. A fresco unearthed from Pompeii depicts fairy-like creatures dancing across tightropes. At the coronation of England's nine-year-old Edward VI in 1547, a Spanish tightrope walker performed. Niagara Falls was first crossed in 1859 by Charles Blondin, a Frenchman. Nik Wallenda, part of the famous circus family, did it for a large audience in 2012. Philippe Petit, another Frenchmen, garnered fame in 1974 when he walked on a wire between the two towers of the World Trade Center.

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Slacklining and tightrope walking are similar, but a tightrope is much more taut.

Slacklining is a cousin to, and an evolution of, tightrope walking. As the names indicate, a tightrope is much more taut than a slackline. Tightropes are generally steel, whereas slacklines are a fabric webbing, polyester, nylon, or a similar material. On a slackline, a person can bounce and swing, and on long lines, the sag is also significant, so one is walking up or down an incline.

The sport emerged in the early 1980s, around the rock climbing scene at Yosemite National Park in California. Scott Balcom, in 1985, was the first to walk tethered on a 17-metre highline on Lost Arrow Spire, the valley bottom some 880 metres below. Charles "Chongo" Tucker, a long-time denizen of Yosemite, was there in slacklining's earliest days. Later, in 1994, he was one of the next people to walk the Lost Arrow Spire highline.

"As scared as I was, it was as cool as anything I've ever done in my life," said Tucker.

Slacklining remained a little-known pastime. It is only in the past few years that the sport has started to grow.

"It's unbelievable what people are doing now," said Tucker.

Seabrooke grew up in Peterborough, Ont., in love with snowboarding and the outdoors. On a chairlift when he was a boy, he asked his mom what religion they were. She answered, "This is our church." As an adult, Seabrooke moved west and worked pouring concrete. He saw a documentary in 2012 that featured Andy Lewis, a slackliner and free solo pioneer who performed at the Super Bowl with Madonna. Seabrooke was entranced and devoted himself to the sport. Three years later, he walked his record free solo highline on the Stawamus Chief.

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Seabrooke’s record free solo highline on the Stawamus Chief led to commercials and paid appearances, but he continues to work the occasional day job pouring concrete.

The attention Seabrooke won led to work, everything from commercials (including one for Stoli vodka) to paid appearances at slackline festivals from Poland to China. SlacklifeBC, the group he co-founded, also got into the business of selling gear.

They started to imagine bigger projects. Seabrooke and his friends couldn't take their eyes off the Lions, two iconic peaks visible from much of Vancouver.

A year ago, a group of seven hiked six hours with more than 200 kilograms of gear to get to the Lions. It was July and they camped on snow between the peaks. But their planning was poor – they pushed ahead even with a forecast for a lot of rain – and problems ensued. Seabrooke's thumb was badly cut up by a loose rock when he worked to anchor one side of the line. Another person, while rock climbing East Lion to help anchor the other side, was nearly hit by a soccer-ball-sized boulder that fell from above. Then came full-on failure. The gap between the two Lions is 375 or so metres. The group realized their slackline wasn't quite long enough.

Atop East Lion, Seabrooke cursed and shed a few tears. "This is really sad," he said over radio to the camp.

Lessons were learned. In August last year, the group headed to Hunlen Falls, 400 metres high, in B.C.'s Tweedsmuir South Provincial Park. They drove 10 hours from Vancouver and then flew in by float plane. A string of successes were achieved.

Friedi Kühne, a German slackliner, walked a free solo highline 72 metres long, besting Seabrooke's record. For Kühne, it was a physical journey into mind and soul. "I remember thinking that nothing is impossible," he said. "I truly got to know myself."

Mia Noblet, tethered, crossed a 222-metre highline, then the farthest by a woman. Noblet had taken up the sport only 1-1/2 years earlier. As a teenager, she was a competitive speed skater. But she had long been inspired by a poster in a shop in Nelson, B.C., where she grew up, that pictured Dean Potter on a highline at Yosemite. (Potter, a rock climber and wingsuit BASE jumper, was also a free solo slackline pioneer. He died in 2015 in a wingsuit crash.)

Mia Noblet walks on a 222-metre-long slackline at Hunlen Falls in B.C.’s Tweedsmuir South Provincial Park. When she started slacklining, Noblet says, the height froze her with fear.

Noblet, 22, has since bettered her record, walking a 450-metre line this spring at Skaha Bluffs near Penticton, B.C. Then, in June, after Slacklife BC scoured Google Earth for new sites, they rigged a 680-metre line, the longest in North America. It was on Mount Seymour, on Vancouver's North Shore Mountains. Noblet wasn't able to cross the entire distance but made it almost 500 metres.

For months, when she started slacklining, the height froze her with fear.

"I would stand up, so terrified," said Noblet. "I couldn't even move my foot to take a step – battling my own mind."

The breakthrough came last year. At Hunlen Falls, she said, "My mind was in the moment. Just walking. And it was so enjoyable."

There are variations of slacklining, everything from highlines to tricklining, which is devoted to bouncing and doing flips and spins. There are competitions but there's no governing body, and no go-to website. The slacklining Wikipedia page is a rough compilation of information.

Noblet on a slackline close to the Stawamus Chief in Squamish, B.C.

Progression in the past two years has been rapid. In late 2015, the longest highline was about 500 metres. The figure was bumped up to 1,020 metres last year, in France north of Nice. This year in June, northwest of Marseille, a 1,662-metre line was rigged and crossed. With such long slacklines, the rigging can be the most difficult part, involving arduous days of work to anchor the line on two distant points.

With the escalation of distance walking, Seabrooke and Noblet turn their focus to projects of esthetic beauty and unique challenges – like Hunlen Falls last summer. The Lions remain a goal of Slacklife BC. And while it's not a sport to make much money, Noblet is now paid to travel to festivals, like Seabrooke has been. And Slacklife BC has sold upwards of 10,000-metres worth of slacklines – and 6,000 more are being manufactured.

Still, it's niche. Most of the best-known slackliners like Seabrooke have only a few thousand followers on Instagram.

Seabrooke continues to work the occasional day job, pouring concrete. But his slackline ambitions grow. He cheered on Kühne at Hunlen Falls when his free solo record was broken.

Seabrooke tore the meniscus in his right knee in late 2015 and struggled thereafter. Now, he feels poised to outdo his 2015 stunt, again drawn to walk on the edge of death.

"It's always on my mind," he said. "It's really about the battle with myself. It's the feeling of control."

He's thinking about a 101-metre free solo highline on the Stawamus Chief, farther than Kühne's mark and his previous walk.

"When you step out into the air, there's something so clean about it," said Seabrooke. "Height makes it real."

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