Testing your balance walking across a line suspended in the air is probably something you’ve given a crack at some point. The humble slackline is common fodder of a sunny weekend in your local park, adventure festivals, perhaps an outdoorsy summer wedding. But while the essence of setting up and walking across a slackline has a lot in common with its bigger hair-raising cousin, there’s a literal chasm between the reality of rigging and walking a highline.
This summer a fresh new ardent crew, turning heads among the British scene rigged and walked the longest highline ever in Scotland: 320m long, over a hundred meters above the steep glaciated valley between Sgairneach Mhòr and the Sow of Atholl. Below, Owen Hope explains how they did it.
Many of the lines we’ve rigged in the past are just from prior knowledge of the locations. We are all avid outdoor enthusiasts in some way or another – either runners, cyclists, climbers or hillwalkers. They’re all activities that get us out and exploring these kinds of environments and so as a result we have all come across epic gaps suitable for highlining in a variety of ways.
But the key thing for a good location is to have them high enough. If the backup line has to engage, there needs to be plenty of room for that to happen. You really don’t want to bottom out which is when, if the main line was to fail (which is a really unlikely situation) if the backup line is too baggy you’d hit the ground. So we all spend a fair bit of time scrolling around on OS Maps looking for spots with a wide enough gap that we can rig challenging lines, but also with a sufficient drop beneath to ensure that it is safe.
The Sow of Atholl was spotted as a potential highlining spot by Michael and Rowan who scouted it on the way back from a mini tour back in July. It’s super good because it’s in a great big U-shape valley. So it’s an epic place to have a line, there’s so much exposure.
I met Michael last year and we highlined a lot last summer. Then we linked up with Amar and Rowan. Other people have helped us from then on but to me that feels like our really strong core. I trust these guys implicitly. I’m totally happy with whatever they rig. If they rig an anchor, then I’m happy. If they say it’s okay, then I’ll trust that 100%.
It’s basically all about being a unit of keen people. Rowan, Amar, Michael and I have rigged together numerous times now and have huge amounts of trust in the rigging standards of each other and as such can split into teams, trusting that the other team will do as rigorous a job as the other. We all share a philosophy on rigging that prioritises safety at all costs and are so much happier to pack up and go home than we are to problematically reduce our safety margins. If either of these guys were to vouch for the safety of an anchor, although I should always double check, I’d have no issue taking their word as gospel.
Also of importance is my trust in these guys to safely rescue me from the line should I find myself stuck – I think the same is true the other way round.
We also need to be confident in the physical abilities of each other. While not wanting to gate-keep the spot, you need to be sure that anyone you let on your line has the ability to handle the physical challenge. We all really had the ambition to send it on the Sow of Atholl and we’re all capable of that.
But what we love about rigging and walking, highlines is the building and the logistical challenge. Being able to rig something that then means you can experience a new airspace is so surreal. It’s awesome to look at an airspace or gap and just think ‘yeah, we’re gonna walk across that.’
I really love seeing a new air space and rigging it so we can walk through that space, that’s just as big a part as the athletic feat. We’re at the kind of stage now where we are looking at like 200, 300, 400, even 500 meter spaces between mountains and thinking we can be the first people to walk through that airspace, which is awesome. It’s such a cool sense of achievement.
And then Ammar, da. Michael Ross and me own hope. We all crossed it. I think it’s kind unfortunate. We, we actually, we had a time pressure, so we didn’t get a chance. Row got two shots. He sent it on his second shot. We all got one shot, so we didn’t manage to ‘onsight’ it, but there’s more to come!
It’s awesome to look at an airspace or gap and just think ‘yeah, we’re gonna walk across that’
Highlining evolved from climbing but requires specific and specialist equipment if it is going to be safe. We have all been collecting equipment over the last few years, including ground anchor stakes for securing the line to the ground in absence of trees or rock bolts (against which there is strict etiquette in Scotland), and other rigging gear like swivels, A-frames and soft shackles to join segments of line.
The 320m line consisted of 3 x 100m segments and 1 x 50m segment, all of relatively static highline webbing and a backup webbing per section.
We used Rowan’s webbing; 200m of Core 2 Low Stretch, and 100m of Wizard both by Landcruising. The backup webbing was Parsec by Raed Slacklines. We joined these using Dyneema soft-shackles.
The line is attached to the anchor on one end with sewn loops, and with a weblock on the other. A weblock is a specific piece of kit used to attach webbing to an anchor without the need for knots that dramatically reduce the breaking-strain of the webbing. The weblock is also useful as it allows us to tension the line.
All this kit is heavy and means rigging such a line is a huge logistical feat, let alone an athletic one.
Walking the Line
The weather on the day was great. It was pretty windy in the morning, so we couldn’t really get on it until the afternoon. But then it was pretty still, we wouldn’t really have been able to do it in any more wind. So the fact that there was such low wind, especially in such an epic and exposed location, was great.
On the day Rowan was the only one that did, but we were a pretty capable team of people who also had the potential to send it. So we had that drive which was really important, it wasn’t really the same as, just rigging for the sake of trying it.
I crossed the line with six falls on my first and only try, so I technically didn’t send it and so can’t claim the record alongside Rowan who crossed with zero falls on his second try. But for me, this was the most fun I’ve ever had on a highline. Being so comfortable on a 320m line, over a hundred above the ground, gave me so much confidence going forward. I was worried I’d find it very difficult, but I didn’t. The falls can be explained by a few things; when it was going well I’d experience this overwhelming feeling welling up inside me of ‘oh this is possible, I can send this!’. This would eventually amount to pressure that inevitably interrupts your flow and corrupts your focus. I know I can send a line like this and can’t wait for the opportunity to do so. When I was walking, I felt calmer than I ever have on a line before. This was an infinitely more beautiful and surreal experience than any other highline I’ve ever stepped on.
We all felt that this rig boosted our self-confidence. We now identify as a team who can rig and send serious highlines going forward. This was such an empowering experience and I think we agree it is only a tiny stepping stone towards much bigger projects. We’re just getting started. We’ve only just dipped our toes into the water. It’s such an exciting time for us.
Rowan was the only one that sent it but we’re just nothing but happy for him. There isn’t really any like competition between us. I mean none of us go home like, ‘oh, damn, he got it and I didn’t’, I just, I haven’t experienced that with this group of guys.
This was an infinitely more beautiful and surreal experience than any other highline I’ve ever stepped on
There’s a big kind of hippy-like narrative around highlining that we don’t really align with particularly often. We’re really quite calculated, so for us it’s not really spiritual or anything like that. I know some people out there feel that, whereas I we don’t really identify much with that. I think a lot of us like the athletic achievements. We’re all into movement and we all really like the action.
We’re all really active – you know, running and climbing – so this is I guess just another extension of that. I imagine we get a similar feeling out of highlining as someone does when they of play game of football or whatever. I don’t think there’s anything inherently special to highlighting really. It’s just a past time we enjoy, I don’t think we’re too keen on making much more of a deal than that.
We want to encourage people to look at highlining in the same way that people look at other sports and understand how accessible it is.
So right now they’re rigging lines of two kilometres. That’s the world record. We’re obviously nowhere near that. You know, people are out there doing phenomenal things on highlines and we are really not at that level, that is worth acknowledging. There’s definitely still a bit of imposter syndrome, that we have this attention on what was relatively quite a small line.
But it’s big for us. We are pushing our limits and I think that’s what’s important to us. We don’t really focus too much what other people are doing. We get inspiration and motivation from it, but it’s not very helpful for us to compare ourselves. We’re just enjoying ourselves and it’s not competition.
It’s definitely gone zero to legit in the last year. The community in Scotland has taken off super well. I started slacklining last year, then I got into highlining but I wasn’t really aware of a community. I think there was a pretty small one.
Now, there’s a lot of people who are keen to learn and there’s a lot of people who are in the periphery which is great to see. We have a strong core, there’s four of us who can take the lead on rigging stuff and, and that’s really positive and other people are definitely getting there.
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