Sensei rides the lightning

As my friends from high school headed off to college, the flurry of new people and new things to do distracted me from keeping in touch with a lot of them. In these post-college years back in Montana, I’ve had the distinct pleasure of reconnection with some genuinely passionate people.

Ski buddies present an interesting case–we knew we’d see each other the next weekend at Big Mountain, knew we’d ski together, and so it wasn’t a huge worry to schedule anything outside of the chairlift time we could count on. David Hobbs was always killing it on teles, and we had good times, but I didn’t know him too well then. So when I met up with him this spring and realized the skills he’d picked up on a slackline, it broadsided me.

Say what you want about the internet; it’s brought like minded crazy people together. A day of research and inspiration, some money, and you can be out on a slackline. The availability of hardware, equipment and knowledge is impressive, and Hobbs has transformed that into some seriously impressive work on the line. It’s one thing to have a  30ft Gibbon in your backyard, and quite another to scout, safely rig, and walk the massive lines that David has put up around Missoula.

Last Friday, I headed down to meet up with him in Bonner Park. In June, we’d set a 200 ft line up just past the bandshell between two large pines. The length was over three times the longest line I’d ever walked on and nearly seven feet off the ground at the anchors. While I got a feel for the oscillations and how to dodge the rope when I fell, Hobbs did laps back and forth. Striding along in a gait he’d developed with a friend, it looked like skinning on a slackline–for each step, he’d push off, catch with the other foot, slide on it, and then keep going.

This time, he was wearing shoes in preparation for a trip to Moab over Thanksgiving. It’d been a while for me, and I made it a little over half way, but the footwear didn’t slow Hobbs a bit.

While we were playing, he mentioned that he’d be going to rig a highline with his roommate Abe outside Hamilton on Monday and I’d be welcome to come along. After some wondering about extending the trip, I committed a day later.

Sunday night we watched Flight of the Frenchies and sorted the gear for the trip. There’s still something cool about pulleys and ropes and climbing stuff for me–it’s not flying, but it mitigates or sidesteps gravity, and that appeals to the child in me. Highlines have metal and woven nylon out the yingyang, and that makes them especially attractive.

After a requisite trip to the hardware store, we pulled into the trailhead around ten am. Three beards and three pairs of Carhartts meant that the outing was sufficiently manly. Hobbs found a couple of deer carcasses abandoned in the bushes off the parking lot before we shouldered our packs full of gear and headed up into an old burn. Note the didgeridoo on the outside of Hobbs pack.

I’d seen some photos of the line, but it doesn’t really prepare for the experience of cresting over the ridge, seeing the rock, and staring down the overhang into steps of nothing–first 100ft to a ledge, then 600ft more steep ledges, then scree slopes to the valley floor.

Hobbs calls this line The Plank. You can see why. This is the east anchor, and the rope and pulleys are the tensioning apparatus for the line.

Hobbs and Abe rigging anchors on the west side. The webbing is about 100 ft, so that makes the chasm somewhere around 90 feet.

It’d been windy, but when Hobbs took the line around the side to connect with the tensioner the thermals drafted the webbing up into a great loop. Somewhere in here it occurred to me that it’s mad to walk this thing on a calm day. Pile the thirty or forty mph wind gusts on top of that and you’ve got one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever witnessed in person.

Abe and Hobbs protecting the line where it meets the rock. Initially, we’d raised the line on the east side with a small boulder. After one fall, the line skipped off the rock and the boulder rolled south, bounced off a ledge, and sailed into space. We rigged it flat after that.

The one inch webbing is backed up with a dynamic rope that runs right under it. To stabilize them and help with wind drag, the two are taped together. Because it’s hard to rig this before stretching and getting everything in place, a tyrolean traverse is the best option. I got the honor of tying into the leash, clipping two quickdraws from my harness to the line, and pulling my way across. Every three or four feet, I’d stop to wrap electrical tape around both.

I also taped on some pieces of webbing while going across. These help to stabilize the webbing in the wind, and they give some idea of how much air is blasting up past it. For most of the day, they were pointing up.

While out there, the line would hum, and I was swung around by the wind. Exposure, wind, power everywhere–it’s a very primal sort of feeling. Pulse elevated, heart in my throat. Looking down, that pause to scan the true measure of separation from the ground is a ride in and of itself. I shook for a little while after getting to the other side. None of this was lack of confidence in the rigging. We had backups on backups. It was solid, and nothing short of aerial bombardment would pull the lines off the rock. But that didn’t matter in my headspace, and it’s aweing to see fear take reason, crumple it like a sheet of paper, and drop it into the abyss.

And Hobbs was going to walk on this. Balance on top of it. Roped in, tied safe, and yet scoot out there and walk in the wind. He’d told me it was an emotional experience, and when he stepped out on the yellow line with yellow anchors in his yellow shirt, he was truly riding the lightning.

Abe and my silence was punctuated by Hobbs answering “FIGHT!” to the wind gusts.

That first try, he made it nearly half way before the wind knocked him into a linegrab and a resounding “FUCK” that signaled the first victory for the wind.

I’m convinced that the old stories about knights and dragons, simplistic as they are in their notion of struggle, are true. Dragons still exist, but they’ve got different forms, and the one up there was blasting its wings up the cliffside to where Hobbs would try, fall into a linecatch, take a break, and get back at it. I mentioned this analogy, and he got a great laugh.

After perhaps five or six walks cut short by the dragon, he brought the leash over to the west side to try from there.

After a suggestion from Abe, I climbed up in a ponderosa to get a different angle. Hobbs waited for a break in the wind, scooted out, bounced up, and started walking.

About halfway across, the winds picked up. By two thirds, the tree I was anchored in, nearly two feet thick at the trunk, was swaying three feet in either direction. His jacket flapping, the gusts whipping the line, Hobbs locked on and cleaned it through what I’d estimate to be forty mile per hour gusts.

Letting out a whoop as he stepped onto the rock, Abe’s video camera caught the rest of his words: “Taste my sword, you dragon!” I clambered out of the tree, did some yelling myself, and went down there to hug the crazy man. Later, he brought the sword comment home. “Want to know something? I sent that with my fly down.”

We hung out for a bit longer, and Abe took some turns sitting and then hanging from the line.

Hobbs tried a couple times to head back the other way, but we called it in the name of victory beers at Blacksmith Brewing in Stevensville.

Highlining isn’t exactly common, and I’d wager that only a few more people than walk highlines get to witness. Short of free soloing, I can’t imagine an act that shuts down the bravery that can be exhibited in the alpine arena. Watching someone overcome that is to note the action of a gifted athlete and a person with immense power in their own skull. To walk away uninspired would be impossible. Getting to go along was a huge honor, and it’s days like this that keep me coming back to the mountains. Thanks Hobbs.

*bows to sensei*

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