As Drew Gunn steps onto a strip of 1 inch nylon webbing, it stretches under his weight like a slingshot. But Gunn stays on the line, balanced like a tightrope walker -- arms outstretched -- and starts to walk. Forward at first and then backward. Then back to the center where he practices bouncing on the rope, the first step in a series of tricks he has yet to learn.
Slack-line walking is a pastime of climbers, designed to improve balance, strength and concentration. It started with a small group of climbers in Yosemite National Park in California about 20 years ago and has grown into the circus act of extreme sports.
"You can do it anywhere," David Fix said. "It used to be something we did during boring times while we were climbing." They would tie one side of the line to a tree and the other side to a trailer hitch and pull forward until the line was tight enough.
Gunn learned about slack-lining two years ago from a neighbor and fellow climber who had a line set up in his back yard.
"It required the same focus you need for climbing," Gunn said. "The only thing you can think about it what your body is doing. You're not thinking about work. You're not thinking about relationship troubles.
"Slack-lining is the fastest way I know to get to that head space. It instantly puts me in that space."
Talk to any slack-liner and you'll hear something near Eastern mysticism. Walking a slack line is harder than walking a tight rope, because the webbing bends under your weight and tends to move from side to side. It takes such intense concentration that climbers liken it to a transcendental experience.
For Gunn, it's also about fear.
The Web site Slackline.com opens with a quote from Edmund Burke: "No passion so effectual robs the mind of its powers of acting and reasoning as fear."
On Sunday, Oct. 5, Gunn ran a 90-foot slack line between the rocks above Fish Creek Falls and made an aborted attempt at walking across the expanse. Gunn's hero, Yosemite climber Dean Potter, is famous for walking a slack line between two spires with as much as an 850-foot drop below him and no safety line.
"Fear, more than anything, focuses your attention," Gunn said.
Taking the initial step onto a slack-line is a big, frightening commitment.
"There is nothing stable to hold onto," Gunn said. "You step onto the rope and it immediately sinks down. It feels very out of control.
"You can't press up slowly. It takes one committing step."
Beginners should be aware that learning to walk a slack-line is not easy and can be dangerous.
"The deal when you're learning it," Fix said, "is you are going to take some really wicked wipe-outs. I've noticed some kids get flung off like a rubberband."
"It's not like falling off a 2-by-4," Gunn said. "It pitches you off. It's like flying over the bars on a mountain bike."
Fix has seen a lot of people get hurt, but he still says, "Go for it." However, first time slack-liners should consider wearing wrist guards or placing a mattress under the line to pad their inevitable fall. The line should be set on a flat surface away from any dangerous objects.
Fix recommends stepping onto the line and just standing until you feel comfortable. Before you try to walk, do some simple exercises such as putting your left leg out and then practicing the same thing with your right leg.
"Slack-lining has a pretty steep learning curve," he said. "It's very hard, but luckily, I fall down well." It took him a long time to learn, but he kept trying, "partly because I was so bad at it," he said. He started the sport two years ago, but it wasn't until June that "all of a sudden, it felt really good."
Slack-lining can help any athlete improve in their sport, Gunn said. "It teaches you balance and awareness of your feet, which is exactly what you want in a sport like skiing and snowboarding."
To begin, you need about 40 feet of nylon webbing and a few locking carabiners. The line can be set up between any two trees. The line should be tensioned enough that it doesn't touch the ground under your weight.
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