At last month's GoPro Mountain Games in Vail, Colorado, hundreds of athletes and spectators gathered for a multiday outdoor sports festival of elite-level cycling, kayaking, trail running and bouldering competitions. But for one moment, all eyes were fixed on the sky.
A huge crowd gathered near the bridge that crosses Gore Creek. With warm temperatures and snowmelt, the creek was more like a raging river -- loud and angry, flowing onto the surrounding grass. There was a line cast between posts, about 25 feet above the pummeling water. The crowd was transfixed, watching a woman balance on the line in a one-armed yoga pose.
For the crowd it was entertainment. For the woman, Heather Larsen, it was a cathartic, empowering rush.
Larsen, who lives outside of Denver, is a slacker. That's code for "slackliner," an athlete who balances and performs tricks on a narrow web line stretched between two points. You've probably seen it in a park near you -- most practitioners position their slacklines between a pair of trees, blocks or playground equipment. Larsen prefers placing hers between cliffs hundreds of feet above the ground. This is called highlining.
"It's more of a mental game when you're on a highline," Larsen says. "As long as your technique is solid, you won't fall. But that's the challenge."
The highest line Larsen has walked to date was last November in a canyon near Moab, Utah, 500 feet above the ground. Although it may sound like an insane, death-defying pursuit, highliners are always attached to the line via harness, so if they fall, they will bob and dangle before climbing back up. But even though a fall doesn't mean plummeting to death or serious injury, it's still scary.
"If you fall the full length of your leash into your harness, it's called a whipper. It's appropriately named," says Larsen, who has a background in rock climbing (in which whippers also apply). "You can also catch the line so you don't fall into the harness, but the line catch can be more painful than a whipper because you're throwing your body into a tense slackline. Whippers are actually really safe. There's not a lot of broken bones in highlining ... mostly bruises and cuts."
When Larsen falls, it's usually the backs of her knees that take the impact. It hurts. This is why she locks into her mental focus zone while on the line and constantly "remembers that's it's easier to walk than to fall."
The 29-year-old is an ambassador for Slackline Industries, a leading name in the sport that has set up slackline parks and facilities across the country. Larsen teaches nuances of slacklining to newcomers in gyms, around Denver and throughout the world at events like the GoPro Games, which, in addition to the highline demonstrations, conducted a trick line competition where athletes were judged on a series of tricks -- flips, cartwheels, dance moves -- on a low slackline surrounded by mats.
One of Larsen's protégés is 15-year-old David Hermes. The teenager from Eagle-Vail was compelled to try slacklining when he first set eyes on it at the GoPro Games a few years ago. Now he is a competitive trickliner and is part of the highline demonstration. He walked his highest line at the age of 12, some 400 feet above the ground in a Utah canyon.
"Slacklining is unlike any other sport," Hermes says. "There's nothing similar; people say tightroping is the same, but when you're on a tightrope, it's not moving. A slackline moves with you. It stretches you and pushes your body in so many ways."
Larsen's tricks -- complex arm balances, jumps, full splits and standing with only the tips of her toes touching the line -- have pretty much set the bar for how people can push their bodies on a slackline.
As impressive as it is, however, there is really no financial reward or competition format for highlining at this point. When she's not balancing on lines and teaching others the art, Larsen has a double life as a full-time investment analyst in Denver.
"There's not a lot of people who make a full living off slacklining yet. The sport is still growing, but there's a lot of potential," she says. "It is something you are starting to see all over the world -- in parks and in backyards, complementing other balance-oriented athletics. ...
"That's what's beautiful about the sport, you can take it in many directions. It can be this extreme thing, this yoga transition, a trick competition ... there are not many boundaries or restrictions. You can make it your own."
Larsen grew up living all over the United States -- in the South and Midwest before settling in Colorado. From an early age she was climbing trees and "extremely active" before scaling walls and canyons as a rock climber and doing her fair share of running and yoga.
These days, slacklining is her primary athletic focus. She says that walking a line provides her with a sense of balance and strength that fills her in every aspect of her life.
"It's become a more meditative practice, especially the longer lines and the higher lines. You really have to be in the moment. You have to be right where you are. You have to be fully present," she says.
"A big part of why people slackline is also because of the community. I have a community all over the world. ... It's really become a lifestyle for me."