SDSU climbers make daring attempt to highline across Big Sioux River

Reed Rombough

If you’ve ever been in the Wellness Center, you may have seen people in the rockwall area walking on what looks like a tightrope.  However, it’s not a tightrope. Actually, the name says it’s the exact opposite; it’s called a slackline.

Climbers started slacklining in the pioneer age of rock climbing.  They would tie their ropes between trees and try to walk on them to increase their balance.  Slacklining has since become its own separate sport and people are beginning to take it to new heights, literally.

Highlining is the newest addition to the long list of adrenaline pumping, fear-inducing, extreme sports.  The concept is simple, take a slackline, and put it way up high.

Palisades State Park is near Brandon, S.D.  The Big Sioux River runs through the park and is nestled between 60-70 foot rock faces. Many people go there to climb.

Five SDSU students, including myself, set out with a photographer and several spectators on Dec. 3 to steal a little piece of history in Palisades State Park.  We started set-up at about 930 a.m. and the temperature started to drop while the wind began to pick up. By noon, it was snowing sideways, blizzard style.  Luckily I was wearing about 50 geese in the form of a down coat, so I stayed warm.

We had to build anchor systems out of climbing gear on either side of the canyon strong enough to support more than 1,000 pounds of force.  After spending four long, cold hours in a blizzard, we finally got the entire line set and ready.  We did one last safety check of all of the gear as I readied myself to take that first step.

There I stood, at the very edge of a 65-foot rock face staring straight down, exactly what you’re not supposed to do.  Taylor Lais sat next to me holding the broomstick that would allow me to take a few steps away from the wall before letting go.  I teach slacklining to students at the rock wall all the time, but at this very moment I had forgotten all of the fundamentals.

My mind fought my body as I stepped onto the line.  I steadied myself with the pressure from the broomstick. My bare feet pressed hard into the line, as my legs quivered uncontrollably.  As cold as it was, bare feet make walking on a slackline easier and more comfortable.  It’s similar to doing yoga barefoot — you just have a better connection with what you’re standing on.

The most important aspect of slacklining is focus.  The slackliner must be able to focus constantly on the very end of the line.  If their focus is broken, then they lose their balance.  Have you ever tried to focus while standing on one-inch of nylon 65 feet in the air in a blizzard?  I may have been tethered to the line by a small chunk of climbing rope, but fear is a hard battle to win.

My hand let go of the broomstick and I stood teetering for a few second before I plunged into the open air below the line.  Falling from the highline was the most terrifying fall I’ve ever experienced and I’ve taken 20 to 30-foot free falls on climbing gear before.  But the five-foot fall into the nothing below the line and the yo-yo like bouncing that followed, made my stomach churn.

After I fell once, the memory of the fear I felt stayed fresh in my mind as I continued to step out onto the line.  After my first fall, I fell six more times, including the time my crotch caught all of my 175 pounds.  Four other students, Ben Ekeren, Taylor Lais, Logan DeBoer, and Tony Arampatzis tried their luck at the walk, all with no success.

Although we were unsuccessful in our attempt to make history, we all left feeling like winners.  We had just tried what may be the first outdoor highline ever attempted between the Black Hills and the Appalaichan Mountains.

My grandpa always said, “If you hit everything on your first shot, it wouldn’t be any fun.”

I guess that holds true with everything in life.