Taking up slacklining

Rock climbers, other outdoor enthusiasts challenge skills by walking on narrow nylon webbing

By Patty Hastings, Columbian breaking news reporter

Published:

 

Jack Cullen hops onto a 2-inch-wide length of elastic webbing stretched between two trees in Esther Short Park. He walks and jumps on the line suspended three feet above the grass. A tightening mechanism controls the tension: It's taut enough to support his weight, but bows as he walks along it.

How to get started:

Area climbing gyms don't offer slacklining classes, so the best way to learn is to just try it. Anyone interested in slacklining can buy a beginners kit at http://www.gibbonslacklines.com/ and check out http://www.nwslackline.org/. or http://slackline.hivefly.com/slacklining-for-beginners-step-by-step//.

When he kneels it reminds me of professional slackliner "Sketchy Andy" Lewis, who appeared with Madonna during Superbowl XLVI's halftime show. He began kneeling on thin, nylon webbing, and bounced up and down to the music, bringing slacklining to tens of millions of viewers.

Slacklining started in the 1970s at Yosemite National Park as a way for outdoor climbers to pass the time and give their arms a break. As sport climbing grew in popularity, so did slacklining, according to slackline.com, a website for enthusiasts.

Cullen is one of many climbers and Portland residents bringing the sport to Vancouver.

The 25-year-old started slacklining about four years ago — a year after he started rock climbing.

"They go hand in hand," he said.

When Cullen first began slacklining, he would take a couple of shaky steps on the flat webbing at climbing gyms. It took him a year to be able to walk all the way across a slackline.

"I was afraid as hell to try it the first time I saw it. I thought they were nuts," Cullen said.

The sport works a lot of different muscles you might not expect: core, calves, thighs and even the arms. The circuslike sport requires concentration and improves posture and balance.

"I like to do it by myself a lot to center myself," he said. "It's very Zen."

He'll have a beer and hop on the line after work. He's an energy consultant at Navigant Consulting on Officers Row in Vancouver and started climbing at The Source Climbing Center on Main Street, where he met Lauren Reynolds, 19. She can "surf" a slackline by swaying the line from left to right.

Cullen and Reynolds agree slacklining's growing popularity in the Vancouver area has to do with The Source opening in November.

The Source is too small to regularly have a slackline set up in the gym. On occasion, however, the business sets up a highline — a slackline suspended 15 feet above the ground. Slackliners have to wear a harness and clip into a safety leash with about six feet of slack. If they fall, they only fall the length of the leash. With a regular slackline, slackliners just fall two to three feet.

But the sport isn't without its risks.

Cullen hyperextended his elbow in May after falling off a slackline into mud. It took him out of rock climbing for two months.

"I kept slacklining 'cause that's what I could do," he said.

Most people jump off the line and roll so they're not injured from a fall. Those new to slacklining may pull a muscle because they're working different muscles than they're used to. If you're a guy and you fall onto the rope, well … it hurts.

There's no park code that regulates slacklining in the Vancouver-Clark park system. However, city officials said they may ask people to take down their lines when the park is reserved for an event.

Cullen and Reynolds were asked to take down their slackline at Esther Short Park on July 21, during the Fire in the Park fundraising event for the Vancouver Fire Department.

"I got mad 'cause what am I doing wrong here?" Cullen said.

"Setting up a slackline is going to keep people from fully using the park," said Brian Potter, park resource manager for Vancouver-Clark Parks and Recreation.

He started talking with Seattle's park director to take a look at their guidelines and potentially integrate them into the Vancouver system. Bigger cities such as Seattle have to be more aggressive about slackline use to protect trees from damage and keep park visitors safe.

"We're fine with it as long as it's used in a way that doesn't impact the trees … or potentially hurt other park users," Potter said.

He pointed out that, at one point, in-line skating was a new activity city officials had to figure out how to regulate. There was a learning curve to both figure out the sport and how to welcome it into the park system.

When I try to get onto the slackline, holding Cullen's shoulder for balance, I shake and the line oscillates. I can't even get on the line, much less take a step.

"It's something you shouldn't get frustrated at," Cullen said and hops back onto his 2-inch-wide trampoline. "You'd be surprised at how quickly you can get it."

Patty Hastings: 360-735-4513; http://twitter.com/col_cops; patty.hastings@columbian.com.