Ben Plotkin-Swing stood balancing on a line, just an inch wide, stretched between two towering spires in the North Cascades.
Below much of the line, only thin air stretched for thousands of feet down to the jagged floor of the mountain.
Plotkin-Swing’s safety harness was attached to the line. And he’d never been afraid of heights. Still, something happens when you’re standing on a thin strip of polyester webbing far above the ground.
“When you first get up on a highline, you have a sort of adrenaline response. And for me, that makes me sort of shaky, and that is counterproductive to staying on this lifeline,” he says.
Unlike a tightrope, a slackline swings and stretches with each shift of the walker’s weight. And walking across a highline, which is a slackline placed at elevation, proves even more precarious.
There’s only one thing to do when the line shakes: “Keep on walking and try to absorb those shakes,” Plotkin-Swing says. “But it takes a lot of mental toughness and belief to keep going. Feels like it would be much easier to stop and just grab the line.”
Your limbs might tense up, which doesn’t help. Stressful thoughts might rise, clouding your focus. And your unsteady feet might make you look down, which can be dizzying for even those unafraid of heights.
“But the really tough thing is that the worst thing you can think when you’re walking a line is how much you want to do it. And if you’re thinking, ‘I’m almost there, I’m halfway, I’m three-quarters of the way; I just have to not fall,’ that’s when you fall,” Plotkin-Swing says.
Fall off the line, and you dangle from the harness — what slackliners call the leash — some 6 feet below the line. Then one must climb back up and stand up again. When experienced slackliners slip, they try to catch the line with an arm and a leg as they fall to shorten the climb back up.
But on that September day in the North Cascades, Plotkin-Swing didn’t fall as he walked the 181 feet of line between the Early Winter Spires in just a few minutes’ time. After all, the line was well short of his personal best of 286 feet — a record he set at Zion National Park last spring, in just 10 minutes, some 1,500 feet above the valley floor.
Still, the Cascades line was the first attempt at an alpine highline in Washington for Plotkin-Swing and his cohort. And fortuitously, adventure photographer Krystle Wright, who happened to accompany Plotkin-Swing on the hike, captured a dramatic action shot, seen above.
“It’s a big process, getting people together and gear together and [having the] weather to go out and do this,” he says. “And having someone who can then capture an image like that is really the icing on the cake.”
Plotkin-Swing is one of just a handful of people who practice highlining in the Seattle area. He first tried slacklining a decade ago, but the sport remained “a small and incidental part” of his life until he discovered highlining three years ago.
“It was mind-opening to do that,” he says of his first highline, which was 40 feet off the ground. “It’s extremely intimidating and overwhelming when you first try it.”
It’s one thing to practice highlining high up in trees at a park, but it’s quite another to attempt it in the wild. On the day Plotkin-Swing crossed the highline in the Cascades, he and his companions first had to hike to the spires near Washington Pass while carrying as much as 30 pounds of climbing equipment.
Then there’s the matter of hiking to the anchors and rigging the line in place. Plotkin-Swing and his companions use pieces of old firehose to pad the boulders against the line. This natural anchoring technique allows them to avoid placing bolts in the boulders. And after highliners attempt the line, everything must be tended to in reverse — unrigged, packed away and carried down.
Still, the dedicated highliners spend just about every dry evening and weekend practicing. Come spring, they plan to further explore the North Cascades, which remains uncharted by highliners. Plotkin-Swing has a personal goal of finishing a highline that’s longer than 100 meters, which is about 330 feet.
“I’ve been dreaming for a while about finding these kinds of spots in Washington,” he says. “Right now, I think most classic highlines are yet to be done, and it’s really exciting to go out and look for them.”
The top story image shows Ben Plotkin-Swing walking a highline in Zion National Park. (Courtesy of Preston Bruce Alden)