This past weekend, I finally got to knock off one of my Moab bucket list items: I got to go out to Canyonlands National Park. After a 30-or-so minute drive into the desert, a seemingly longer trudge down a desert road, and finally a descent into the canyons, I had arrived. A week earlier, my colleague Jacque Garcia mentioned she was going to see the “GGBY” (you can look up that acronym on your own) event in Canyonlands, and she allowed me to tag along to see what slacklining was all about.
My first impression was shock and awe. I was amazed to see the stunning beauty of the canyons themselves, but even more intense were the tiny specks floating in-between the vast precipices, which turned out to be actual humans on highlines, which are the most challenging and exciting of the various forms of slacklines. After walking around the campsite and snapping photos for a bit, I became more and more comfortable with the idea of hanging in-between two cliffs above a 1,000-foot drop. “Are you gonna get out on a line today?” one passerby asked me while I was taking pictures.
I guess I wasn’t that comfortable yet.
All of my reservations aside, the event seems very well prepared and above all else, safe. After the event, I was able to speak with event coordinator and executive board member of Slackline U.S., Sonya Iverson. She was able to educate me on the rapidly growing world of slacklining. The first question I had was how experienced one should be before they get on a highline. She recommended at least becoming proficient in transitioning from the sitting to standing position on a smaller slackline first, similar to the ones that can be seen in parks or on college campuses.
We also discussed her three rules for slackline safety. The first rule for beginners is “Don’t do anything alone.” Iverson recommends that everyone have someone with more experience help him or her with rigging any type of slackline. The second rule for safety is in regards to the actual build of the slackline and its support beams.
“Everything in the system is redundant,” Iverson said. “No one component can cause overall failure of the slackline.” This means that if any one part of the slackline’s support beams, for example, were to lose a bolt, it would not effect the safety or integrity of the structure. The third rule requires that the slacklines are abrasion proof. This means that the material used, while quite flexible, does not fray when rubbed against rocky surfaces.
I must admit, the first time I saw someone drop from the highline my heart leapt out of my chest. This is quite normal, however, and the structures and harnesses are designed for this very act. From my observational standpoint, falling off of the highline and bouncing up and down seemed to be many people’s favorite part of the whole thing. I definitely noticed a difference in experience levels on the slacklines as well. I saw many seasoned “slackers” that had no issue staying on their feet the entire time, while I saw many people who were either practicing (and falling — a lot) or simply just wanted to be suspended over the canyons and drink it all in.
After being there for a couple of hours, I felt way more comfortable watching the slackliners, and I even caught myself laughing along with them when they fell off. Perhaps what surprised me the most was the fact that highlining done by professionals is not actually very dangerous. According to the International Slackline Association, only 4.7 percent of injuries reported in their 2015 incident report were related to highlining, and only one fatality has been reported in the 30-year history of the sport. At the GGBY event, at least one medic was on-call at all times, and medical kits were placed throughout the campsites to provide easy access.
“It’s interesting to see the changes taking place in the sport as it grows,” Iverson said. “We were caught in a bit of a catch-22, because we couldn’t, in the past, get insurance ... because no-one knew what highlining was. Then we started publishing all known incidents, which was key to getting insured as well as increasing general knowledge.”
Iverson and Slackline U.S. are at the vanguard as far as guidelines and safety regulations for the world of slacklining — as the sport becomes more and more popular around the globe. As for me, just witnessing the event was an incredible experience. Who knows, I might even try it out myself next year.
Probably not, but maybe.