“I don’t think I can even stand up on this thing,” laughs Steve Roddick, as his knee vibrates back and forth like an erratic metronome, trying to steady the piece of webbing enough to put his full weight on it.
The piece of webbing in question stretches 25 m across a clearing in the Ibex Valley, anchored on both ends to trees, then reinforced by additional anchors to nearby boulders to offset the scrawny nature of Yukon trees.
The whole system is then ratcheted tight to form a slackline. Not too tight, though.
Unlike its cousin the tightrope, which is usually made of cable cinched tight to restrict any movement, a slackline is usually made of webbing, with slightly improvised anchors, and tensioned by hand—which means, as its name implies, that there is slack in the line.
And slack in the line means movement. Sometimes, a lot of movement.
It also means slacklines are much more accessible than tightropes. The set-up is quick, can be done just about anywhere you can find to anchor your line (trees, boulders, truck bumpers, picnic tables, etc.), and it’s relatively inexpensive.
These factors, along with the fun and challenge of walking the line, have contributed to its soaring popularity.
“I bring my slackline wherever I go. Usually within minutes of setting it up a crowd materializes wanting to try it out,” Loïc Markley says.
“It’s always great watching the reactions of people trying for the first time. They always seem to think that it shouldn’t be that hard—after all, it’s thicker than a tight rope, often it’s only a foot off the ground, and if it’s a short line (under 10 m) they don’t have to walk that far,” he adds.
“They always look really confident stepping up to try and then they put their first foot on the line and the look of shock on their faces is always priceless.”
That look on their faces relates to how much the line starts to move and sway the second you put a single foot on it, before you even get the chance to get both feet and your full weight suspended in the air.
“It takes some getting used to. And a bit of faith,” Markley admits.
“It actually gets a bit easier once you commit and get both feet up and balancing. Not that easy, though.”
Once you’re up and standing the jury is still out on your next move.
Some slackliners swear you should focus on the line itself so you don’t get distracted by the scenery and lose your concentration, just as cyclists try not to focus on an obstacle they are trying to avoid (“Oh look, a tree. Ah, I just smashed into it”).
The majority, though, will argue that you should pick a focus point in the distance and keep your eyes on that (the way sailors watch the horizon to avoid sea-sickness).
Neither option is foolproof. The one thing all slackliners agree on is that you will fall off a lot.
Fortunately, falling usually involves a relatively gentle step onto the ground (a mercy if you are trying the sport in the bare feet which many favour).
But sometimes, if the line is really swinging, or you’re trying out some jumps or tricks (for those who have mastered simply walking across the line), you will get thrown in a motion akin to a rocket taking off.
Which may beg the question for some, “Then, why do it?”
The answer is simple: because it’s fun!
Amber Church is a painter, writer and sports enthusiast. You can reach her at [email protected].