Faith Dickey (25 years old)
"I thought free soloing was stupid when I began highlining. It was so beyond my understanding, and I gleaned so much transformation and fear confrontation with a harness on, I could not imagine why anyone would take the leash off. It seemed reckless, attention grabbing and irresponsible. At that time I had barely skimmed the surface of climbing, and while I was vaguely aware that free solo climbing existed and was traditionally rooted in the sport, I did not make the connection. Somehow scaling a rock wall without a rope seemed more logical than traversing a thin piece of webbing between cliff edges without a leash. The old saying 'Never say never' has proved true, as I have become one of the few soloists in the sport of highlining.
|Faith bouldering in Joshua Tree in 2009 (photo by Jordan Tybon)|
My highline beginnings were slightly more condensed than the average slackliner-turned-highliner. I was fortunate enough to take my slackline skills up high with Jan Galek, who was a great climber and knowledgeable highline rigger, not to mention an accomplished walker. Jordan Tybon, the other stooge in our trio was a great climber and therefore understood the concepts of rigging far more than I. Knots, gear, equalization, redundancy and heights were all knew to this Texan. I experienced longlining, highlining and climbing all for the first time in the middle of a German summer 4 years ago, while my face was still round and my body a bit plump from four months of drinking in London. My decent slackline skills were put to the test on my first highlines and I threw myself at them full force. Finally my stubborn nature was paying off; I ignored the map of the world imprinted upon my thighs in bruises, the utter exhaustion of learning to climb up the leash after many falls, and the uncertainty of my knot tying abilities, all in order to take some steps on a highline. It's doubtful that any witnesses to my highline beginnings would have thought I would make it this far.
After 4 or 5 highlines I finally managed to cross one; and all of a sudden the world was a much different place. I was officially a highliner. The following months were jam packed with walking. I learned that to save energy, time and prolong the life of the equipment, I should grab the highline when I fell rather than whipping into the leash and dangling six feet below. Climbing up a six-foot rope repeatedly did give me some nice guns but it wasn't worth the extra power I lost in doing so. Soon, I was catching the line almost every fall. A highline expedition to the US solidified my abilities; not only did I break my own personal records in distance highlining but I established a new female world record in the sport as well. This was a surprise for me since I had never intended to do so; however within three months I had broken my own records twice more. By the end of our trip, I was a proficient highliner and was starting to understand rigging.
The idea to walk without a leash was not premeditated. I had watched my teammate, Jan Galek, walk free solo a few times and if anything it caused me to realize that solo could be safe. His stability and mental strength was a testament to this. I had recently graduated from a climbing harness to a swami belt; which is virtually a harness with no leg loops. A fall would be life preserving but painful as the thick band would constrict around my waist. Catching is ever more important when a highliner dons a swami, and it serves as a great mental training tool. Thanks to the swami-belt, I was very sure of my ability to catch the line and have to this day never fallen off a highline in anything less than a climbing harness. At this point, catching the line is second nature and I have taken no more than two unintentional whipper's in the last four years.
My first solo was hardly spectacular. A favorite of beginners, the 25ft long highline in Joshua Tree, California lacks any exposure (sense of height), you might even survive if you fell and hit the ground. I had cruised it in a swami easily, and suddenly I desired to push my comfort zone a little more. I untied the leash and walked both directions, and was overcome by a very similar feeling to walking my very first highline. This wonderful euphoria left me beaming. My teammate Janek had very solid advice for me then, to control that happiness and excitement like I control my fear; in other words, not to get trigger happy with soloing because that’s when it can get dangerous. I still follow this advice.
|Faith free-soloing her first highline - "Chongo Gap" in Joshua Tree back in 2009 (photo by Jordan Tybon)|
Explaining why I free solo (a common question) is very similar to explaining why I highline at all. The general public often considers obscure or unusual activities that involve adrenaline “daredevil, adrenaline junkie” sports. These labels have the same effect most labels do; they put highliners in a box, one that is often synonymous with "crazy." When given the opportunity, I enjoy giving some insight as to why I highline including soloing, and why some people find value in walking thin pieces of webbing high off the ground. We can all agree that facing our fears is a healthy exercise, combine this with an incredible community, traveling, and adrenaline, and you have an exceptionally self-transformative sport. The first highlines I walked taught me more about myself than anything I had encountered prior. I was able to compartmentalize my mind and see just how complex it really is. There are a number of chemical processes in our brains when we walk highlines, however the mental and spiritual side of the sport is often overlooked.
I believe we all have different comfort zones and while pushing them is how we expand our consciousness, not everyone will push those limits at the same pace or in the same way. This is exactly why I would never encourage someone to solo. Though I swore I would never walk without safety, eventually I came to a point where I felt I needed to push my limits to that point in order to see myself more clearly. I've realized that fear is very multi-faceted, and it is not always an obstacle even if it is ever present when I am high off the ground. On a highline, I almost have tinges of schizophrenia where my mind splits into these different dialogues, often battling each other to be the strongest. What I've come to understand as ego are those voices that tell me I will fail, that I am no good; that I am too tired to succeed. By the same token, ego tells me I am great, that I am the best in the world, that everyone watching me is thinking about how good I am. Then there is the voice telling all the others to shut up, the one that reminds me why I highline, it tells me to focus on the beauty and the moment. All of this dialogue goes on for minutes at a time, sometimes the duration of the walk. Being naked to myself signifies seeing all that is inside of me, good and bad. A meditative mindset is one I constantly strive for; no thought stream, just pure focus. Moments like these remind me that the dialogue in my head does not necessarily represent who I am, and that I don't need mental words streaming in order to experience something amazing, achieve what I set out to do and be fully aware during the experience. Those moments where I achieve that clarity, be it solo or with a harness and leash, are ultimately what pushes me to keep highlining. Fear and intuition are difficult to decipher, but soloing brings me closer to understanding the difference.
|Faith perfectly balanced on the line above Ostrov (CZ)|
Highlining is a sport, an art, a lifestyle and a spiritual experience all wrapped in one bundle. I found that walking highlines without safety took me to my outermost limits and forced me to stare my fear, my flaws and the clutter of my mind right in the face. There might be a scientific, chemical process that explains what and why it feels the way it does; however the benefit of the experience is far beyond any brain patterns. Highlining is how I collect myself; center my ego, my intuition and my body. Walking solo is the concentrated form of what I seek.
Ego can be like a friend that grabs your hand and takes you on a fun but destructive adventure. Though I truly feel I started soloing for the right reasons, I am not immune to cameras or praise. Since I entered the world of professional slacklining, I have to be ever more in tune with my mind, body and intuition in order to make choices based on my own reasons and not for attention or fame. Free solo seems so crazy and ethereal to the general population that it easily becomes a focal point of highline media coverage. It is entwined with what I am passionate about and I will not hide it from the public, but I aim to express it truthfully and not to mislead people as to why I do it. I jump at the chance to explain the diligent mental and physical training that goes into being a soloist, as well as the ethics I believe in, rather than accepting media's false labeling. I am no daredevil.
Free solo has it's own energy. When I've been raging in a group of people who were all soloing, I almost lost myself in the power of it and was unable to adequately estimate my own ability. I pushed my limits at a faster pace than I might have normally. Being in a group like that can be far more dangerous than publicity, in my opinion. While I do believe it is mostly all in my head, soloing is dicey and the risk is not broken bones, it is death. The risk is part of the motivation, and accepting that is part of pushing my limits.
To write about soloing I feel lost in a sea of words and thoughts and it is difficult not to end up on novel-length tangents. How funny to describe an experience high in the air as something so very grounding. I am no junkie, but highlining is a healing medicine and to spend a few minutes in that magical dimension of focus has addictive qualities. It has to be in moderation, like anything else. There are no free solo competitions and for good reason; it is a very personal endeavor, not something to be done for anyone else.
Learning who I am, who I want to be and how to improve myself is quite an endeavor. I could work on it on the ground, but frankly it is way more fun a few thousand feet in the air. I often say "One man's sane is another man's crazy," and to some (like my mother) I might never be able to truly explain the why of soloing. As I continue trying to peel the layers of the onion down till I can see my soul, I hope to also keep a pace at which I can live a long and happy life."
Well, I'm hoping you enjoyed that read as well as I did. There will be couple or few more in that series and if you liked that article you might be interested in other insides from (click on the name to go to the article):
- Andy Lewis,
- Jordan Tybon,
- Spencer Seabrooke,
... and myself.
Peace & SlackOn!