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ISSUE 121 VOL 1 PUBLISHED 9/21/2007

Pickin' up the slack

By Lyndel Owens
News Editor

Friday, September 21, 2007

There are some at St. Olaf who walk the line - the slackline, that is. Composed of tubular webbing encased in an inch-wide strip of nylon, a slackline is strung between two trees about thirty yards apart using a rope-anchor secured by two carabiners. What initially looks like campus limbo from the long, low line is in fact a disciplined, community-oriented sport that is spreading with promising enthusiasm on college campuses.

Slacklining is a hybrid of the ancient highlining tradition and rock climbing. In the early 1980s, Yosemite climbers Adam Grosowsky and Jeff Ellington began walking across a slim climbing cable a few feet removed from the ground. Accounts tell of them juggling, mounting via handstand and "surfing" the line by swinging from left to right - impressive tricks even by today's standards.

In fact, just to maintain balance on the cable and continue moving demands focus and discipline despite the ease some walkers exhibit. Bobby Kinnare '08 described his process of successfully getting from the ground to balancing on the line. "I stop thinking about everything around me while I find the center of the line with my foot," Kinnare said. "When standing up on the line, you have to trust yourself entirely because at first all your weight is on your grounded foot, and in an instant you have to shift all your weight onto your foot on the line."

During my first attempt, seasoned slackliners supported me by holding my hands as I walked back and forth barefoot, giggling. I gradually tried to wean my dependence on their help, but standing independently is, I discovered, wildly difficult.

Firstly, the webbing I walked on had a degree of springiness that, while fun to bounce in place on, made balancing an elusive feat. I tried to focus on a point directly on the tree in front of me, center myself, and keep my weight back, but success was not mine. Though proceeding with caution and determination, I couldn't get rid of my "seriously-I'm-concentrating-but-I-know-it's-hopeless" face because, lets be honest, mastering or even walking on a slackline takes an admirable amount of patience and persistence.

This point is not lost on Kyle Flesness '09. Flesness took up slacklining earlier this year. "I just really got into slacklining about three weeks ago. It is really hard at first and it took me awhile to be able to stand for even a few seconds. But the cool thing about it is that if you stick with it, you will improve rapidly," he said.

Worldwide interest has steadily accrued in the quarter-century since the sport's inception. Recently, slackliners from the United States, Britain, Poland, Sweden and Germany gathered at slacklining's Mecca, Yosemite's Lost Arrow Spire, to traverse the legendary distance. The highest slackline walk of 1000 meters was made in Kjerag, Norway, while the longest walk of 154.29 meters was made in Munich, Germany. The activity's association with climbing and its simple construction contributes to its global practice.

Slacklining's extreme accessibility and limited expenses also account for its popularity, especially on college campuses. All that's required are two carabineers (three to be safe), a general rope to fasten and keep taut the climbing rope (at most thirty yards long), and cardboard to protect the tree from the contraption.

Kits are sold, too. One can purchase various types from different sources ranging in price from $40 to $230 and length from 30 to 100 feet. Last September, Adam Bryant reported in the New York Times that kit sales have been increasing exponentially, citing the case of owner Joe Kuster, whose sales of slacklining gear have increased fivefold over the past year. Clearly, slacklining is becoming more commonplace.

The community nature of slacklining has also contributed to the sport's success. People usually learn to slackline from others because the nature of the activity requires assistance the first try. (Actually, assistancemay be required the first ten or twenty times.) The fact that one generally needs others before being able to successfully slackline independently is conducive to creating a community of mutual support.

"Slacklining is more about personal accomplishment than competing against others. It's great to set a line up on a beautiful day and have everyone cheering for each other. The whole attitude makes you want to be a part of it," Kinnare said.

After learning in the forests of Tennessee the summer before coming to St. Olaf, Paul Peterson '09 set up his slackline on Ellingon's lawn his first year and eventually attracted others. "Some people joined me and learned a bit. Some people eventually went out and bought their own lines," Peterson said. "When people saw us slacklining outside of Ellingson, they introduced us to others who also slacklined at Olaf."

Kinnare highlighted the distinct way the sport spreads. "Slacklining is unique in the fact that there is no organization to join, or a coach to pass down his or her wisdom. People who have experience slacklining love teaching others, especially those who have never tried it. In this way, slacklining is kept alive like a tradition," he said. Indeed, the first few times walking the line is akin to walking on water.

Even for practiced slackliners, maintaining balance while on the line can be a struggle. The exercise is a positive way to engender agility and achieve a meditative state of mind. Peterson attributes this "moving meditation" to the intensity of the focused." All your energy is concentrating on one task: balancing on the line. You will fall as soon as you think about something else around you," Peterson said.

Slacklining requires that the entire body be used to ensure stability on the line. Yet, as Peterson points out, this challenging endeavor benefits people when they're in other positions that demand dexterity. "It's a good way to challenge yourself mentally. You push yourself and your friends to whatever new balancing act you all can dream of," he said.

Laura Oliver '09 works at a YMCA ropes course in Sioux Falls, S.D., where adolescents contemplate the correspondence between their experience slacklining and making everyday decisions. The idea is to demonstrate how much more difficult walking the line is without help, and the drastic difference offering a bit of support makes.

"The kids comment on what a huge difference it made when someone offered a hand. We talk about how easy it is to offer just one hand to help someone yet what a huge difference it can make for that person. The kids usually comment that it felt good to help someone," said Oliver, who adds that like most activities at the ropes course, slacklining "is about much more than the physical accomplishment itself."

Whatever your motives for slacklining are, the sport offers a unique opportunity to socialize with your friends, walk the line and, eventually, fall on your face.

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