The history of slacklining
Slacklining means balancing on a piece of webbing stretched between two points. The term “Slackline” refers to its most characteristic feature: when mounting the line it will give under your weight causing a certain sag and make balancing a very dynamic activity. The legends of the origin of Slacklining are many and from the protagonists point of view the development is perceived subjectively and therefore most often differently. In the following we will try to bring together numerous sources all having contributed to what slacklining is today.
When the term „funambulus“ (lat. “funis” – rope , “ambulare” – to go) came up in the year 260 BC, walking on ropes was already widely known. For example in Asia ropes were used to bridge gorges. What is today known as slackropewalking dates back many centuries. In those days the ropes were manufactured from natural fibres which were later on also pulled tight, creating the new discipline of tightropewalking – which nowadays everybody knows from circus. Through rigging tightropes at great heights this form of balancing remained an exclusive and well protected domain of acrobats and daredevils. In spite of the obvious association of slackling and tightropewalking both differ from one another in many ways. This does not just apply to the most observable features like flat webbing vs. round rope, but also to the more hidden aspects like the style, moves and balancing techniques which are used to master the challenge of balance.
Undoubtedly it all started in the Californian ‘climbing-Mecca’ of Yosemite Valley. There as early as the 1960’s climbers started to balance on parking lot chains in their spare time. Even though in contrast to nowadays Slacklines the chains were neither flat nor dynamic they still showed the characteristic slack giving them their name “Slackchain”. Furthermore old climbing ropes were rigged which except their rope-like round shape, show pretty similar stretching characteristics as webbing. As eyewitnesses state this form of balancing did not have a special name back then. The fun of the movement and the positive side effects as a mental and bodily training for climbing was in focus.
In the early 80th Adam Grosowsky came to Yosemite Valley for climbing and got in touch with the latter mentioned form of balancing, which seems to be unique for Camp 4. Back then he had already experimented with his friend Jeff Ellington to balance on climbing ropes and steel cable while studying at Olympia/Washington. Then the two pioneers where the first to rig a piece of tubular webbing commonly used for climbing: Slackling - as we know it today, balancing on flexible and flat webbing, was born. To tighten the webbing Jeff Ellington developed a special technique, the Ellington – a self locking pulley system. To our perception up until today this technique is in its core of simplicity and affectivity unexcelled and will continue to defend its leading position in future. The origin of the term Slackline can nowadays not referred to to a special person or time in history. However the term allows to logically conclude that it is derived from Slackchain and Slackwire (both terms which Grosowsky and Ellington had used to name their forms of balancing): the “slack” meaning the sag remained, however the medium to practice the sport on changed into something revolutionary new – the webbing called “line”.
In 1981 Scott Balcom and Chris Carpenter were inspired by the doing of Grosowsky and Ellington who had tried to rig and walk across a steel cable between the Lost Arrow Spire (a very prominent rock pillar) and the main wall of the Yosemite massif. The friends started to practice but not for a highwire act, but for a real Highline made from three layers of webbing. For training purposes in 1983 they rigged a Highline - what is supposed to be the first documented Highline ever - under a freeway bridge near Rose Bowl in California ( “The Arches” as they called it) together with Scott’s brother Ric Phiegh, Rob Slater and Chuck “Chongo” Tucker. On July 13th after many tries Scott Balcom finally managed to be the first man to walk across the Spire Line, connected to the line by a so called Highline-leash. It took about 10 years till Darrin Carter became the second one to walk the Spire Line again – in 1995 he even walked it downhill towards the pillar without leash.
Grosowsky, Ellington, Balcom and Carpenter are the forerunners of a Slackline-movement which did only exist on a very small scale for decades. The sport remained an art of a small group of skilled climbers in “Camp 4”. Although a few visiting climbers brought the sport back to Europe, it did not spread noticeably. It was Dean Potter, an American extreme climber and superb alpinist, who had learned to slackline from Chuck “Chongo” Tucker in the early 90th , who started to open up a new chapter in the history of Slacklining. Dean is on the one hand through his charismatic and medial presence an inspiration for many people and on the other hand a very controversially discussed daredevil (e.g. free solo ascents of Fitzroy, Cerro Torre and Delicate Arch). In 2003 he walked the Spire Line unleashed both ways – recently one could see him pushing the limits by practicing his own invention “Baselining”, a combination of Highlining and Base Jumping. Dean is the father figure of a new generation which brought up excellent Slackliners like Damian Cooksey and Shawn Snyder. Through spectacular Highline feats the sport wins further public interest. What for the few skilled generates the thrill and attraction makes Slacklining for most others on the same time an exclusive and elitist sport again.
A further spreading of the sport in Europe is thus not possible until 2006. Nowadays a fairly high number of Slackliners can predominantly be found in Germany, Austria and Switzerland but also in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. Responsible for this development is first of all the continuous growth of medial interest and presence of the sport and secondly the expanding contacts and exchange between locally bound small Slackline communities. Since the First International “Slackline-Treffen” (lit. Slackline-Meeting) organized by Heinz Zak in the Austrian Village of Scharnitz in 2006 – the small “Slackline world” has grown a lot – not only by the introduction of commercially sold Slackline kits but also through the establishing of didactical concepts for Slackline courses. Slackline-Tools has actively taken responsibility in that process of growth – with the first Slackline courses at the University of Konstanz, with optimized Slackline kits as well as with Highline feats such as the Capanna Regina Margherita (above 4550m) in 2009 which was for long time the highest Highline in Europe. We, Slackline-Tools, take up the challenge to continuously influence the spreading of Slacklining in a positive way. Slacklining is still young - thus: Get on line and help to write the present chapter of the Slackline history.
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