Slacklining in the sky: how to get into highlining

Posted by Sarah Stirling on 11/03/2016
Sarah on Monte Piana in the Dolomites. Photo: Sarah Gmeiner
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"It's a small and esoteric community where everyone knows each other, like climbing used to be," says Sarah Rixham, holder of the record for the longest women's highline walk. She says anyone can get into walking slacklines in high exposed places and explains how. This morning she highlined above Sheffield to open Sheffield Adventure Film Festival.

Highlining is essentially slacklining up high. People do solo but it's normal to use safety gear. It started out in Yosemite; I think the Lost Arrow Spire was the first place it was done. 

I first got into it three years ago when the UK highlining community was really, really small. One of my friends went to America, came back with some gear and experience, and then we started meeting up with other UK highliners. My first time felt crazy wobbly! I couldn't do it at all. It felt like a huge challenge and something I really wanted to do.

The best thing about highlining is the people; everyone knows each other. It’s a small and esoteric community like climbing used to be. People will often invite you to their house and show you the best spots! There are regular meet ups in the UK and new people are welcome.

People always say “I could never do that, my balance is rubbish.” It’s annoying! It’s not true; it’s just practice. I don’t have particularly good balance naturally. I was the slowest to progress at slacklining out of my friends.

For a long time I fought the line. I love that highlining is a mental game as well as physical, and one of those sports where you’re competing against yourself. You have to train your mind to understand the line's movement so you can predict what’s happening next. Eventually it feels like you can flow with the line. It’s definitely meditative.

There’s nowhere to hide from your mind when you’re highlining! It’s an endurance challenge of concentration. I do a lot of trad climbing, too. In both sports you’re trying to get into the zone. But highlining is extremely safe if you know what you’re doing, so it’s harder! I focus on my breathing, count steps or listen to melodic techno.

I set the record for the women’s longest highline walk, 122m, walking above a cloud inversion in Switzerland. I could see four countries from up there. I like highlining in the mountains best. Another of my favourite locations so far is Monte Piana in the Dolomites; I went to a highlining festival there.

Women are a minority in highlining, and to me it doesn’t make any sense. Nothing limits us; it’s not like strength is an issue. I think women can do exactly the same as men, and soon we will. A lot of us just haven’t had the chance to try. The longest line a man has walked is nearly 500m. Two guys have done that.

For a while soloing seemed the ultimate goal but people came up with other ways to push yourself. You can make lines longer, looser or heavier (adding more layers of webbing to amplify the movement), and do tricks like bouncing or surfing on the line (moving it side to side). You have to either balance on these movements or control them.

I’ve got a lot of ambitions. I want to combine climbing with highlining in remote places. Highlining has taught me that I can do anything. I’ll certainly try anything now. My advice is: just go for it, don’t let irrational fears limit you.

WATCH: Sarah Rixham highline above Sheffield to open the 11th annual Sheffield Adventure Film Festival this morning:

How to get into slacklining in the UK

The global Facebook page is SlackChat and the UK page is UK Slackline Association.

Anyone can get into highlining, but get proficient at slacklining first. You have to be able to get back on the line in the middle when you fall off, so you need good upper body and core strength. It’s surprising how tiring it is. I’ve seen many strong climbers get totally knackered!

Regular slacklines are 25cm wide, but you can get beginner slacklines that are 50cm. As a beginner, shorter and tighter is easier as there’s less movement in the line, so you just have to think about staying on top.

On our highlining meets, everyone helps to rig the lines. You need to find good strong anchors. Whoever is experienced shows the others, and everyone who wants to walk the line checks it’s safe for themselves. Then whoever is enthusiastic enough to run for the line and fight me off goes first!

To get the line across the gap you usually walk around or descend and climb up on the other side. I haven’t come across many situations where you need to throw the line across but recently my friends did use a bow and arrow from Decathlon and got the line across 35m! 

Malham Cove is probably the UK’s best highlining spot. You get a great view of the climbers. We don’t get in each other’s way really. Unfortunately peregrine falcons are nesting now so we can’t highline there at the moment. The slate quarries around Llanberis are a good spot, too, especially for beginners, as you can set up various lengths of highlines.

WATCH: Sarah in Switzerland, setting the record for the longest women's highline walk:


The BMC TV Women in Adventure Film Competition is back and accepting submissions for 2022. So dive in, if you have a story to tell or a cause to share it's time to do so!

We want to see your adventures captured on film and keep the cycle of inspiration rolling as we head into the eighth year of the competition, supported by Montane.

WATCH: All the entries to the Women in Adventure Film Competition 2021 on BMC TV

FIND OUT MORE AND ENTER: Submit an entry

WATCH: Women in Adventure Film Competition 2022 Trailer on BMC TV

Need inspiration?

WATCH: All the 2021 winners and entries

WATCH: All the 2020 winners and entries

WATCH: All the 2019 winners and entries

WATCH: All the 2018 winners and entries

WATCH: All the 2017 winners and entries

WATCH: All the 2016 winners and entries

WATCH: All the 2015 winners and entries

 

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