Sky walkers tip-toe across the Fruit Bowl

By Emma Renly • The Times-Independent

Deep in the heart of Moab’s share of the Colorado Plateau lies a canyon known as the Fruit Bowl. It is as vast as it is deep and although the canyon’s red walls are as visually inspiring as any in the world, the area has been relatively unknown thanks to its ultra remote location in Mineral Bottom.

For those undeterred by the effort to get there, the Fruit Bowl has become well known to a global community of people interested in one particular activity: highlining.

Born from slacklining, both activities require the participant to sit, stand and walk on one-inch nylon webbing. Keen concentration and balance is necessary, but for highliners specifically, possessing the ability to mitigate fear is vital.

Highlines, unlike slacklines, are rigged 100 feet or more above the ground with intense exposure. Participants use a harness to safely tether themselves to the webbing in case of a fall, known as a “whip.” At the Fruit Bowl, steel bolts are used as anchors to suspend the webbing from one cliff edge to the other.

More than a decade ago, a small group of highliners began an informal holiday tradition of gathering at the Fruit Bowl during the week of Thanksgiving. They came to celebrate the sport and their own highly unique highlining community. The celebration has since expanded into an international gathering of highliners, known as Gobble Gobble Bitches Yeah (GGBY). It is managed entirely on volunteered time and gear provided by professional riggers and locals. This year marks the 11th year of GGBY, put on by Slackline U.S., a nonprofit organization.

Participants of all skill levels could choose from approximately 15 highlines on which to walk. The most daunting of the lines was estimated to be 900 meters long, more than half a mile, which allowed it to lay claim to being the longest highline in the U.S.

Lines were shorter and ideal for beginners who ventured to the other side of the canyon. First-timers could partake in the Introduction to Highline workshop taught by Louie Wray, who said that helping others overcome fears to step onto their first highline was a fun and rewarding job.

This year GGBY also featured spacenets, which are aerial hammocks weaved together in a spider-web-like fashion with synthetic steel and paracord. The first spacenet created, known as the Mothership, was weaved together by professional slackliner and BASE jumper Andy Lewis and a handful of his friends. In explaining how the concept came to actualization, Lewis said, “Spacenets came from years of dedicating my life to being around, using, and trusting ropes with my life. I guess in short, over the years, the spacenet idea wove itself together.”

Ryan Jenks, spacenet coordinator for GGBY, explained: “Andy’s pentagon-shaped net is going to be the centerpiece, and we’re going to build off of that until we run out of gear.” The project featured spacenets at multiple heights and used an adequate number of bolts – only as many as needed to be safe – in an effort to lessen the environmental impact.

“This is a really cool portrayal of what the community can do when we bring our gear and time together,” said Jenks.

“We’re borrowing everything we need to do this project, otherwise it would cost around $10,000.” Jenks estimates the project used 1,000 to 5,000 pounds of gear, and it required multiple days of difficult rigging, even with 20 volunteers.

Last year at the event, Jenks and his wife Kim Weglin married on the Mothership during GGBY.

“We even had BASE-jumping flower girls,” he said. This year, the two celebrated their anniversary on the same spacenet they became engaged and married on.

Despite the extreme nature of highlining, Jenks emphasized, “Safety is our number-one priority. We definitely want to portray that we’re not all daredevils trying to kill ourselves.” The professional riggers follow a strict process that ensures strength, redundancy and equalization for optimal safety.

The event attracted highliners from around the globe, as well as Moab locals. Simon Rutherford and Jacob Roman, two students from Grand County High School, found themselves happily dangling hundreds of feet above the valley floor.

The two have previous slackline experience and were enthusiastic about their first time on a highline. “It is super epic. Way safer than I thought. I completely trust the gear,” said Rutherford. “Me and Jacob are going to get our setup and learn from others. We’ll be highlining a lot more from this point on.”

Roman added, “It was pretty fun, but scary being up there.”

Often, the fear comes from exposure to the extreme heights, but for many participants, that very exposure is a key part of the fun. “This community encourages you to challenge your fear and discover something incredibly new about yourself,” said head event organizer Dan Walsh. “The highlining, spacenets, other flow activities and friends welcome you quickly, though.”

Added Jenks, “The community is what makes highlining so special.”

The official event recognition from the Bureau of Land Management resulted in a positive joint effort to enforce Leave No Trace and Pack-In Pack-Out practices. “Last year was the first year Slackline U.S. officially organized the event,” said Jennifer Jones, Moab BLM assistant field manager. “Their proactive efforts resulted in noticeable improvements in reducing impacts to vegetation and soils in the area, and addressing issues like sanitation, parking and dispersed camping impacts.”

Upon arrival, attendees were taught about cryptobiotic soil, waste management and sustainability. A percentage of the ticket sales will be used to fund construction for a permanent pit toilet at the Fruit Bowl to further reduce human impact.