Monday, November 25, 2013

Andy Lewis - take on free soloing

Currently I was working on the new article for "Slackline Corner" which will be published next month in "GÓRY" climbing magazine. The title is "Free-soloist mind, what hides in it; motivation, preparation and realization". In that piece I will be sharing my thought about free-soloing, how I got into it, what motivates me and reveal some methods I use to prepare myself physically and most importantly mentally. The article will feature two other athletes which free solo a lot or I should say almost all the time. I am talking about Andy Lewis and Jordan Tybon. I would love to include all the other big names like Michael Kemeter or Petr Kučera (and others) but I am limited with two pages so I will have to cut a lot of material in order to make it work. I got the interviews from Andy and Jordan and they are quite a read. I thought it would be great to give you opportunity to read the whole thing. I enjoyed it a lot and thought you might too. After publishing the article I will post it here and translate to English. OK then, check what Andy and Jordan have to say about freesoloco.

Andy Lewis (Age 26)

Raging together with Andy and Hayley Ashburn in Fisher Towers (photo by Jordan Tybon)
Andy together with Terry Acomb and Jerry Miszewski in Moab during GGBY in 2009. You can see "Bongzilla" in a background. It was rigged then for the first time (photo by Jordan Tybon)

"Free Solo highlining is the act of walking across 1” wide webbing strung flat between two tall objects with no external safety. Your only safety is internal; focus, reaction speed, control. Some people think a free solo isn't a free solo unless it is a 100% chance of death in the case of an uncontrollable fall. Some people think anything over 30-50ft counts as a free solo, because realistically you most likely would die. Free solo however, isn't a number, it isn't a height, and it is complex to define entirely; because in fact - it is a mindset.

When you first start slacklining the control is hard to find. You are unsure, shaky, and the balance necessary to stay in control feels foreign. You can't even take a single step at first. This journey to control from chaos takes time and effort. The more time and effort you put in, the faster you find control. If you need 120 hours of practice, and practice 12 hours a day, you will fill your hours needed in less than 2 weeks. If you practice 25 minutes every three days, the time needed will take you multiple years. This is the exact same journey as free solo; however the journey of free solo is riddled with risk of extreme consequence around every turn.

When I started training free solo mindset I focused on catching the line. I wanted to be able to catch the line in any direction, under any circumstance, even with a blindfold on. I practiced catching in every way shape and form hundreds of times before I did a death solo. I knew that the best solution to being successful was to NOT fall ever, but that catching was the only back up I had. And I needed to train it. When I became confident with my catches I began to focus on training my mind. I started to tie into the line with a safety leash that would save my life in a fall, but kick my ass in doing so. Which was the point. If I was to take a fall in practice I wanted to be punished because I should have just died. The seriousness of the sport could not be overlooked for a single second, a single step, and ultimate focus. This was what started to draw me to free solo.

Double freesoloco with Andy. Even in a exposure turn, making silly faces ready to catch at any time (photo by Jordan Tybon)

I continued to practice free solo mindset. A “swami belt,” a leash tied only around your waist, provides as a safety, but in a fall may break your back or your ribs. “Shackles,” tying the leash from ankle to ankle under the line, saves your life but maybe break your legs in return. A “ball and chain” is the leash just tied around 1 ankle, and most likely in the case of a fall, you may still die when your ankle snaps and falls through the leash. I never took an uncontrolled fall on to any of these leashes, ever. What was and is still really crazy to me is how much different the lines feels when u take off what minimal protection you have. The difference between walking in an ankle leash and walking free solo... seemed miles apart. Just the chance of living, changed the mental game. Bridging this gap, pun intended, was the real challenge. Convincing yourself that you could do it safely, getting the courage to try, and always being forced by your friends, colleagues, fans, random people, and loved ones to answer the only question running through everyones head: “why?” “Why do you want to do this?”

"Ball and chain" in a bit more radical version (photo by Jordan Tybon)

Throughout 2008 - 2011 free solo slowly turned from hobby into lifestyle. Freesoloco became my catchphrase and all I wanted was to walk the longest highline in history without a leash. The hardest part was that I had no reason to do so, other than the fact that deep down inside, it was all that I wanted to do. Was it for fame? History? Respect from my fellow athletes? Was it to get sponsored? Was it because I wanted to die or that I wanted to live? Honestly, the reason why didn’t matter to me. It, and it alone, was my reason. And that was all I needed. I started to push for the record. I started to walk lines that I knew I might be forced to take a catch on. I started making it a goal to free solo at least once a week to stay current. In 2011 I had already free soloed more than 60 different highlines when I laid my eyes on “Bongzilla” Highline. I had walked 100+ feet line OS-FM free solo. I had walked 132ft free solo successfully, which was the current world record, but to me it wasn’t good enough. It wasn't long enough, or high enough. I wanted a record that I could 100% satisfyingly say, was a record. That's just about when I saw the line, and it scared me. This was it. This was my challenge. This was the manifestation of everything I had been doing the last 2 years. Trusting myself was the challenge. Continuously fighting my thoughts. Questioning my intuition. “Dying would be so easy,” I thought. Slip once off of any part of the line; and that’s it. You are dead.

Finishing current world record highline free-solo (photo by Jordan Tybon)

I found myself sitting on the highline free solo; hovering hundreds of feet high. I backed off the line without even standing up. Beautiful. Endless. Magnificent. My confidence shrank in front of the massive red desert cliffs that fell away into the exposure. Enthralled; hypnotized by the idea of the solo walk. But, this was not just any free solo. This was THE free solo -180ft long and 200ft high. If I were to walk this line free solo, it would be longest in slackline history. No cavaleties. No net. No safety leash. It was really simple; just my slackline, the emptiness, and me. “All year,” I thought, as I paced around our base camp. I have been soloing all year. I wanted to walk 52 different highlines free solo up till this moment; 1 for every week of the year. Couple days ago I finished walking all 52 solos more than a month early. I had no need to solo this line. I had achieved my goal. I had not been thinking about walking this line specifically. Nor, would I have ever dreamed that I could walk it solo. But then it hit me. I had been walking all these lines - just for this moment. This wasn’t time to think about goals, or numbers, or what my body would sound like when it hit the sandstone hundreds of feet below the line… It was time to be me. It was time to do what I do best. It was time to show myself what I had trained all year to accomplish. Even though I hadn't planned to walk this line free solo… I had to walk this line free solo.

Double free solo with Andy (photo by Jordan Tybon)
Andy free soloing "It Had To Be Snakes" Highline in Fisher Towers (photo by Jan Gałek)
Little and fun free solo on the "Medieval Turd Tickler" Highline (photo by Jan Gałek)

After 7 hours I scooted out just past the edge like the many times I had done before, but this time I stood up. I gained control and took step after step. My eyes locked on the anchor across the canyon. I was nearly half way out on the line when it happened. I miss stepped… I instantly lost control and all my worst fears came true as I fell. Being in mid air felt like slow motion. I was forced to catch myself! I screamed at the top of my lungs! Not out of anger or frustration, but pure exhilaration. I had a smile from cheek to cheek and I couldn't believe where I was! Dangling literally by a thread in the middle of space. I felt trapped and so free at the same time. I was alive, but couldn’t stand up again, and I was 100ft from either cliff edge… with no rope. It took me a few minutes but I scooted back safely. I felt so relieved to be back on the cliff, but I was ready to try again. I felt so solid; the rig was perfect, and I just new I could walk it. I wasn't scared this time, but I also wasn't as focused. I started out stronger and faster than the last time, but got about 15 steps out and fell and caught again! I came back to the ledge noticeably peeking on adrenaline. I could feel my whole body pulsing with power. I kept pacing and my mind was racing. Everyone around me could see my eyes were glazed over with something powerful. I was questioning whether or not I wanted to walk this line, but I couldn't stop thinking about the edge, the mount, the line, the tension, the focus, being in the exposure, being free, being perfect, being attentive, being alive.... I had to try again. An outside force pulled me. I was going to send this line. I just knew it.

I scooted out about 3ft and stood up on the line again. I forced myself to focus, take my time, and started walking. Then something started happening, something really strange. My vision started to change and go crazy, and I couldn't do anything about it. I was literally losing control of my vision but at the same time I was accessing some other higher mental state. I couldn't focus on the end of the line like usual. I was having a hard time breathing smoothly, and everything started blurring out... slowly being banished from my focus. Everything except for the brilliant white of the highline beneath my feet vanished. The exposure, the background of the hills, even the sky was absorbed into this uncontrollable blurs. I felt as if I was not fully able to control my own actions. My own brain was subconsciously controlling me. Like my heart and my lungs working without thinking, I felt as if I was being walked across this line by my subconscious. By the time I reached the end of the line I was so far gone into this mental state that I couldn't get back to normal for hours. I couldn't eat, or stop smiling. I felt like I could run miles, or climb Everest. I wanted to scream across the valley. I have never felt so alive, so in tuned, so mentally and physically effected by only 2 minutes on the line. Even later that night I couldn’t sleep. “Something powerful walked me across that line,” I thought lying in bed that night. I didn't know what it was, or how it worked… but I had never felt so potently in touch with myself. I closed my eyes, and continued to try to settle my mind to sleep."

OK, That's it. If you want to see more crazy videos from Andy check out his channel on YouTube or Epic TV. Stay tuned for another athlete Jordan Tybon talking about his experience with free soloing. Coming up soon!

Peace & SlackOn!

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