Taken from: Hayley Ashburn, How to slackline!, Falcon Guides, USA, 2013
You may think of slacklining as a new sport or as something that is just now catching on. While balancing on webbing is a relatively new invention, rope walking has been around in some form or other since at least the Roman times, and likely earlier.
Reportedly, tightrope walkers put on spontaneous performances high above the streets of Rome and even in the Coliseum. The Romans called these artists funambula, and today funambulist is the technical term for wire walkers, tightrope walkers, and slackliners.
Ancient plaster paintings, buried for 1,700 years under the same volcanic ash that buried the ancient city of Pompeii, depict what look like small demons walking on what are unmistakably tightropes stretched over A-frames, a structure slackliners still use today. This discovery stretches the written (or painted) record of tightrope walking as far back as AD 79.
Tightrope walking is not only an old sport, but also a global one. Historians can’t say how long the Korean tradition of Jultagi has been around, but it may have begun as early as 57 BC. Now considered part of Korea’s cultural heritage, Jultagi is a unique form of tightrope walking where performers combine acrobatic performance with music and acting.
A group of Gibbon athletes visited Korea in 2010 to appear on a television show about the simi-larities between slacklining and Jultagi, and were shocked to see traditional Jultagi performers doing many tricks very similar to those in slacklining. A between-the-legs butt-bounce is now named “The Korean” out of respect for a culture that has been performing it for more than 2,000 years.
Across the globe, at the wedding of Charles VI to Isabel of Bavaria in 1385, a funambulist report-edly walked high above the royal wedding feast. Rope walking was popular all over Europe for centuries, but didn’t make it across the Atlantic until the first American circus in 1793.
Decades later, in 1859, Charles Blondin of France elevated rope walking to a high art when he made the first daring crossing of Niagara Falls on a single 3-inch (7,6 cm) hemp cord. Blondin walked the 270-foot-high (82 m) and over 1,000-foot-long (305 m) line blind-folded, on stilts, even pushing a wheelbarrow—all with no safety harness or net of any kind.
High wire Until 1800 the term “tightrope” was correct, because artists used ropes. Tightrope walking is the art of walking on a rope tensioned between two points. However, what people usually mean nowadays when they say “tightrope walking” is highwire walking. Tightrope walking was much more difficult and dangerous than highwire walking. Around 1800 the Industrial Revolution advanced to a point where reliable cable was readily available, and most circus performers switched to rigging with this steel wire instead of the traditional round rope or cloth cord. This was the beginning of highwire walking, and artists could now perform much more technically difficult and eye-popping tricks like building human pyramids and riding bicycles across the wires.
The modern highwire is made of a steel cable that is between 5/8 inch (1,6 cm) and 1 inch (2,5 cm) in diameter. Highwires are tensioned and stabilized with supportive wires called guy wires, or cavalletti wires. Wire walkers commonly use a weighted poal for balance. The pole Philippe Petit used to highwire between New York’s Twin Towers was 26 feet (8 m) long and weighed 45 pounds (20 kg).
The most iconic highwire walker in history is probably Karl Wallenda of the Flying Wallendas, a famous circus act that began in Milan in 1972 and continues to perform today. By the age of 16, Karl Wallenda, their founder, was doing handstands on the shoulders of a German wire walker 40 feet (12 m) in the air. Karl would go on to make tightrope walking world famous as an act in the Ringling Brothers Circus. At a performance of the Flying Wallendas in Acron, Ohio, in 1935, a guy wire came loose, causing Helen Wallenda to lose her balance and fall from the top of the pyramid. She was miraculously saved by Karl, who stunned the crowd by catching her between his legs as he hung from the high wire by both hands.
After that, wire walking was largely ignored by the press until Philippe Petit illegally rigged and walked a wire between the Twin Towers in 1974. After nearly ten months of planning, Petit and a few trusted accomplices snuck into the Towers disguised as construction workers and shot the wire from one tower to the other using a bow and arrow. Petit walked the line at dawn on the morning of August 7 and, in his words, “linked [the towers] for eternity.”
On the opposite side of the country, in Yosemite Valley, California, the story of balance was taking a different path, toward what we now know as slack-lining. Modern slacklining evolved here from the rich climbing culture. To challenge themselves and improve their balance, rock climbers experimented by walking on chains, slackwires, climbing rope, and, eventually, webbing.
Pat Ament and others had been walking slackwires and ropes since as early as the 1960s in a Yosemite Valley campground called Camp 4, and the story of their coining home from long days at the crag to balance on chains around this camp-ground has attained the status of legend in the slacklining community. The camp is still there; sadly, the chains and slackwires are not. Slackwires and slackchains seemed to be unique to Yosemite Valley, but even there the activity remained nameless until Jeff Ellington and Adam Grosowsky found a way to rig tubular webbing and add tension with what is now called the “primitive system” or the “Ellington system.” A precursor to today’s pulley and ratcheting systems, the Ellington utilizes search and rescue techniques, replacing pulleys with climbing carabiners to create a mechanical advantage.
In 1985 Scott Balcom broke Philippe Petit’s record for highest line (formerly the Twin Towers at 1,368 feet = 417 m), rigging and walking the famous Lost Arrow Spire Highline. Perched between a granite cliff and delicate finger of stone some 2,890 feet (880 m) above Yosemite Valley, this highline has become the most famous and sought after in the world.
Now slackline athletes are pushing the limits every day. In 2008 professional climber, slackliner, and BASE jumper Dean Potter jumped from a highline wearing a parachute. Dean performed the stunt over a canyon in Moab, Utah, calling it the world’s first BASEline (in which you make a BASE jump off a highline).
Another important figure in the history of slacklining is Andy Lewis. Following in Potter’s footsteps, Lewis free soloed the Lost Arrow Spire Highline and BASE jumped from a highline in Moab, not far from the location of Dean’s original BASEline. Andy’s career took off when he landed the first ever slackline backflip in 2006. Footage of his Squirrel Backflip went viral, appearing in a Nike commercial and inspiring trickliners around the world. Lewis invented most of the tricks per-formed at competition level today including the double drop-knee, the modern butt-bounce, and the chest-bounce. He also hosted one of the first ever tricklining competitions in Humboldt County, California, in 2008.The Humboldt Classic is still held in California every year.
Around this time competitive slacklining started to shape and expand the slackline community, similar to rock climbing or skateboarding. In 2007 Robert and Jan Kaeding developed the first simplified slackline kit in Germany and started the first slacklining company – Gibbon Slacklines. Gibbon focused on building slacklining community with events and slackline competitions. The high-tension slackline kits were really the beginning of high-level tricklining. For the first time, athletes from many nations were meeting each other at competitions like the Slackline World Cup in Germany.
The Internet also played a large part in the rapid growth of slacklining. Slackliners all over the world used forums, social networking, and YouTube to share knowledge about tricks as well as rigging. Youth and adults in Japan, South America, Europe, the United States, and Canada started contributing their tricks both in person and online, allowing the World Cup to become a truly global event. As tricklining evolved and competition tricklining started introducing increasingly challenging and technical tricks drawn from skating and parkour, the sport moved beyond its sideshow status and became something Americans wanted to get better at. Since 2008 the number of people slacklining in the United States has more than tripled.
The first Gibbon World Cup was held in 2011 in the United States, and other competitions are held by groups like the San Diego Slackers and Slackline Visions in Colorado. Slackline clubs are forming on college campuses like Ann Arbor, Berkeley, and the University of Colorado. There are now slackliners in almost every nation in the world, and people are drawn to the sport because it’s cheap, accessible, and exciting. Tightrope walking is not just for circus performers anymore.