Learning the Ropes

Photo by Kitty Leaken

Photo by Kitty Leaken

The state of being fit is as different for each of us as the way we live, and to the extent that we live and work in our minds, our mental fitness is as important as physical. Heap on to our brainy lives a seemingly limitless barrage of stimulus vying for our attention, and well, if you happen to have a length of webbing and two trees to suspend it from, it’s time to walk a slackline.

Speaking with slackers David Moench and Jamie Spencer-Zavos, it becomes clear right away that, for them, slacklining is very much about focusing their minds. Yes, it’s physical but mostly it’s a meditative thing. David, who grew up in Placitas, New Mexico, told me, “It was invented by people rock climbing in Yosemite Valley, who wanted to take rest days. They’d play around, bouncing on webbing, in the campgrounds on their off days.” This makes perfect sense. If ever there was a sport and a group of people all about focus, it’s rock climbing and climbers.

David has been slacklining since 2009. “I started in college at Humboldt State University [in Arcata, California]. I was good friends with ‘Sketchy’ Andy Lewis, who went on to become a professional slackliner. He taught me how, got me into it.” In the world of slacklining, Lewis is some pretty heady company. A year or so ago at the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival, I saw a feature on Andy. Watching him free-solo (that is, solo without a safety leash) on a highline hundreds of feet off the ground … I find myself holding my breath just writing the sentence.

In its simplest form, a slackline is a length of webbing—similar to rope, but flat in sections instead of round—suspended from two points. Various devices, such as pulleys, can be added to control tension. The sport is divided into three primary categories. Tricklining is usually done only a few feet off the ground and includes flips, backflips even, and a variety of yoga-like balancing poses. Longlining is fairly self explanatory: running uninterrupted spans from a hundred into the thousand foot range. Lastly, there’s highlining, which David defines as any line high enough that “if I fell off and didn’t have a harness on I’d have a better chance of dying than living.” This is his preferred style.

“When you’re on the line, it takes just as much concentration with your brain as it does physical ability,” says David. “I use it as a meditation getaway from life, and I do it because it’s fun.” He continues about the physical aspect of slacklining: “You have your arms up above your head pretty much the entire time. The core, the sides of your body, your arms, are all getting used.” And of course balance is key. “You slowly build that,” he says. “It’s kind of like learning to ride a bike, you fall off for a week and then suddenly it clicks, you get it, you’re on it.”

David has slacklined all over the country. “When I’m driving, all I’m looking at is different rocks to put a line up between and walk on it.” I assume he also looks at the road once in a while. “It takes me places, I’ll tell you that,” he adds. Close to home, he’s highlined in “the Jemez and Sandia Mountains, and a little bit in the Sangres.” Some of his most memorable experiences however, he’s scouted out further afield. “Moab, Utah, and Smith Rock in Oregon are my two favorite places,” he says.

When highlining, David uses a harness “at all times. I’m not trying to play around with death quite yet,” he says. Picturing a remote spot in the mountains and a line strung high above terra firma, I ask him if he freaks out. “Every time!” he replies. “You handle it by trusting your abilities and your self and the gear that you put up. Every time I do a highline, I’m terrified. I scoot out and I’m scared and I’m like, ‘Wait, I can do this, I can do this … I’m not going to die, I’m not going to die.’ And I stand up and I do it. That’s kind of the mental picture in my head.”

David is an enthusiastic proponent of the sport. “It’s an inexpensive sport to start off. It’s fun, it gets people outside, makes people healthy both mentally and physically. Anyone can do it.” Anyone? Like me? Ha, ha. “Most people who look at it, they try it once, they think it’s impossible. That’s definitely not true.” Well, I wouldn’t go so far as to say impossible, but it looks pretty close. David however is adamant. “Doesn’t matter if you’re overweight, or if you’re 75.”

I then catch up with Jamie, who’s in his junior year at St. John’s College in Santa Fe and has been slacklining “on and off for about four years.” He recounts getting started at St. Mary’s College in Maryland. “One day I saw some people slacklining. One of the cool things is generally people who slackline are very encouraging to people who want to try.” Jamie’s preferred style is doing longlines. I ask if he’s been inspired by any particular slacker, and he has. “I think her name is Faith Dickey,” he says. “She’s really cool, she has a very nice style. A lot of men who are into slacklining, they, like, grunt a lot and are very much into, like, being very powerful on the line. She’s much calmer and graceful.”

For Jamie, slacklining is a balance (no pun intended) of mental, physical and social practice. “There’s something about the focus that really appeals to me,” he says. “Having to hold my focus and hold my balance and learning how to do that has helped me to stay mentally balanced while at school.” I’m curious if slacklining is a meditation for him. “Oh yeah, super meditative!” he replies, adding, “Concurrently, I developed a really intense practice [of] sitting meditation.” Jamie has found he’s doing less of this and slacklining has taken its place. “I think I’m much more suited to slacklining as a way of meditation because if you break that focus or that meditative state of mind there’s an instant physical reminder.” We both laugh. “You, like, fall off the line.” He finds this “really helpful because that’s a poignant reminder of the mind body connection, that maybe you don’t get in a more mentally based meditation practice.”

He comments on the physical side. “There’s a ton of core stuff that’s going on.” Like David, when he’s on the line he holds his arms in the air. “The muscular response is so fast that it gets really tiring to move my arms, constantly moving them to help me retain my balance,” he says, adding, “the core benefits are enormous. There’s, like, constant presence in the act itself.” Slacklining for Jamie is also part of his physical regimen. “During the winter I snowboard pretty hard, then in the summer I slackline. I lift weights which helps a lot.” He also does some rock climbing. “They all work with one another.”

There are a couple trees on campus where Jamie likes to set up the longline. In keeping with his beginnings at St. Mary’s, he likes to share both the activity and the occasion. “People show up, sometimes I set it up pretty low on purpose so people can get on it and try it. I’ll help people try to learn. People will hang out with me even if they’re not slacklining. It’s nice to have other people around.” Commenting on the importance of being in the out of doors, he says, “Mostly it’s just a really nice excuse to spend time outside. I’ve done it inside once in a climbing gym, but it was a lot harder to do. When I get into slacklining, I’ll spend like hours doing it. It’s really cool because it gets me off the internet. It’s hard to find something that will do that.”

One of the beauties of slacklining is its simplicity. Get a truck tie down from your local hardware store, find a stout couple of trees, and go for it. However, if you’d like to connect with other slackers, learn the ropes, or webbings as it were, we have confirmed slackline sightings on the campuses of the University of Art and Design and St. John’s College in Santa Fe and UNM in Albuquerque. Also, where you find climbers, you tend to find slackers.


Story by Gordon Bunker

Here are a few resources on the web:

Albuquerque Rocks the Slackline + Acro!!!

Albuquerque Slackline Community Google+

Yogaslackers New Mexico

Santa Fe Climbing Center, Santa Fe

Stone Age Climbing Gym, Albuquerque

Taos Rock Gym, Taos

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