Words by: Nina Zietman
“When you’re really high off the ground, like thousands of metres high, you don’t have the same perception of height. It’s really disorientating. We often say everything looks like it’s melting together.”
I’m sat talking to Faith Dickey, one of the greatest slackliners in the world. She’s become known across the globe for breaking records by walking across a line suspended 1,000m in the air, often without a harness.
I never dreamt I’d be doing it high off the ground between mountain peaks. Fate lead me there.
Let’s just get this straight to start with – slacklining is not tight rope walking. A slackline is a flat woven piece of rope that moves as you walk along it. A tight rope is a round steel cable stretched between two points that’s completely taut.
Slacklining is typically practiced really low to the ground so you don’t need a harness. However, if type Faith Dickey into Google, you will see her navigating more terrifying feats – including walking on a slackline between two speeding lorries in Croatia and between towering mountain peaks in Switzerland.
The softly spoken Texan describes crossing a one-inch thin line 4,000ft above the ground, as though it were as commonplace as riding a bicycle. But it hasn’t always come naturally to Dickey.
She didn’t even known was a slackline was until she came across it in a park in her hometown of Austin, Texas when she was 19 years-old.
“I tried it out and I thought it was way too difficult. But every time I went to the park, it was there at the gate. So I had to try it again – and that time I got hooked. I never dreamt I’d be doing it high off the ground between mountain peaks. Fate lead me there.”
A few years later on a trip to Europe, Dickey started highlining. This is the same as slacklining, just fixed up high between two points. There’s no definition as to what makes a highline, but as Dickey explains, “if you were to fall off, hit the ground and definitely die, then it’s a highline.”
She describes the first time on a highline as truly terrifying. “It was a small, maybe 15m high. I was just so scared! My whole body was. Even if you’re not innately afraid of heights, just putting yourself high off the ground on a wobbly little one-inch wide band kind of goes against instinct. I probably fell off of that thing more than 20 times.”
With highlining, there’s a harness to stop you from falling to the ground. Each time you fall off, you have to climb back up the leash and onto the line. “I actually never got across the entire line, but it really peaked my interest. At that point I set a goal for myself that I wanted to get across one highline.”
Now, five years later, the 26 year-old has broken a number of world records including the first female to surpass the 100m mark in highlining and the longest female free solo (highlining without a harness).
She spends her year travelling the world as professional slackline athlete, teaching at camps, doing interviews and even few public speaking gigs – as well as trips into the wild to seek out highline spots.
After so much experience slacklining – from Switzlerand to Utah – you’ve got to wonder, does Dickey still get scared? “Of course. The whole time you’re walking across a line, raw fear is telling you give up, that you shouldn’t be here. You have to push that fear away with every step.”
The whole time you’re walking across a line, fear is telling you give up. You have to push that fear away with every step…
“Logically I know I’m not going to die because I’m tethered in. So then it’s just fear I’m fighting against – and there’s nothing really to be afraid of.”
People often mistake highlining as a thrillseeking, adrenaline junkie sport, but Dickey explains that it’s actually the opposite. “When you’re highlining, you want to be as calm as possible. Adrenaline might give you extra energy, but it can also make your steps more shaky.”
When you’re teetering hundreds of metres above the ground, you’ve got to have ways to deal with that fear. “When I’m having a really hard time on a line, I actually scream at myself – to the laughter of most of my friends,” she says.
“I used to say ‘breathe’ and ‘control’ with every step. It helped me get into that meditative state where I’m just focused and not thinking. By having a mantra, I was able to quiet some of the thoughts in my head.”
It wasn’t until recently that Dickey took her highlining practice one step further. She now practices free soloing, which is highlining without a safety leash.
“When I started out, I had no desire to ever walk without a leash. As I progressed, I felt like I wanted to walk with less and less safety in order to reach that same mental capacity that I was reaching in the beginning.
“Some people are able to experience enough of a rush with a leash on. There’s a big difference between fear and intuition. By walking without a leash, it gave me the opportunity to experience those differences.”
Highlining has a very low accident rate with only one death recorded in the history of the sport. No one has died soloing so far.“It’s a very controlled risk,” says Dickey. “An important part of learning to highline is learning to catch the line when you fall. I really mastered that early on, so there’s a very high chance that I’d be able to catch it while walking a line with no leash on.
“Also I never walk leashless at my physical limit.” The furthest Dickey has walked with no leash in 28m, while her longest highline is 105m. “So it’s like a third of my ability.”
Slacklining is fast growing across North America and Europe – with a strong number of women taking up the sport. Unlike more physically demanding sports, Dickey feels there is no physical disadvantage for women.
“Slacklining is so interesting because it’s based on balance, technique and your mental edge, so women literally have no disadvantage. Physically, in my mind, we have an advantage over men because our centre of weight is lower.
“The difference between men and women, however, is mental. We hold ourselves back in a lot of ways. It’s not biological, it’s just to do with our upbringing, the media, how we’re represented and what we’re valued for.
“In highlining, I often see that women don’t push themselves as hard as men. I never meet any women who are like, ‘I’m going to beat the men’s record. I’m going to be better than men’. I never encounter that – even in myself. Why is that?
I used to want every girl to be like I am – then I realised that was impossible. I shouldn’t be focusing on making girls like me, I should be focusing on trying to change our perceptions of men and women in general.”
It was on this train of thought that Dickey set up the Girl’s Only Slackline Festival in the Czech Republic last year. She also recently formed a girl’s professional slackline team with two other athletes from Poland and the Czech Republic. “We want to show women doing the sport because they love it and they’re good at it, not because they want to look sexy.”
So what advice would she give to women just starting out? “I often tell beginner slackliners to keep taking steps, no matter how shaky they are.
“We’re conditioned to believe we have to do things perfectly the first time. Instead, get through those wobbly first steps and keep moving forward. If you do, there’s a really good chance you’ll reach the other side.
“Don’t compare yourself to other people. Remember that it’s really about how hard you’re willing to push yourself. The learning curve is pretty steep on slacklining. It feels impossible when you try it the first time, but just remember I thought it was impossible too and look where I am now.”
You can watch Faith Dickey’s latest film at the Banff Mountain Film Festival UK & Ireland Tour until 6 June.