Picture yourself balancing on a two-inch wide, 585-foot-long rope suspended 300 feet above Lake Superior. The backdrop: handsome, pine-strewn cliffs of Palisade Head. For 31-year-old Minneapolis resident Mark McKee, this type of activity is a pretty regular occurrence.
A few years ago, a photo of McKee’s high-wire act got picked up by a couple of newspapers and blogs and was met with the kind of incredulity usually reserved for UFOs. But it was all real. By day, McKee works in masonry construction, and in his spare time he runs MinnSlack, a nonprofit working to organize clinics and trainings for the activity.
If you immediately thought somebody attempting such feats would be quite the adrenaline junkie, you’d be wrong. “If you see a person successfully walking a big, beautiful, scary high line, they’re going to be very focused, and displaying a heightened sense of awareness, but it’s not necessarily a thrill for them,” McKee explains.
“They’re in a deep state of focus and meditation. What they’re seeing is obviously beautiful, they look down and see hundreds of feet of space below them, but you have to get to a point where that doesn’t register as panic.”
Slacklining shares its origins, and a fair amount of its equipment, with rock-climbing and tightrope walking. Made from nylon webbing, a slackline’s relatively minimal tension causes it to sag and sway as one attempts to traverse it. The longer the line, the more pronounced this trampoline-like effect becomes. Experienced slackliners walking longer lines learn to surf with the line’s movements to help generate force to keep themselves balanced.
“People compare it to a deeply meditative state, kind of like yoga,” McKee says. “With slacklining, if you break that focus, you also are very likely to fall off that slackline.”
His journey to slacklining Zen began with a single, wobbly step onto a stranger’s line when he was an undergrad at the University of Minnesota.
“When anyone first steps on a slackline, your foot shakes uncontrollably,” he jokes. “That’s what happened to me.”
A few months later, McKee purchased a beginner’s slacklining kit, usually around 10-30 feet in length, and found himself trolling the internet for tips and practicing solo for hours on end. Soon after, he linked up with a friend and mentor who introduced him to the complex art of rigging and walking increasingly longer lines. The two moved to Utah for the better part of a year to study with the established slacklining community there, and brought their knowledge back to Minnesota.
Mark’s advice to aspiring slackers is simple: Breathe, be patient, and ask for help when you need it.
“The gratification you get from every victory, every step along the way is equal,” he explains. “At the time, I was as excited about walking across that first 30-foot line that I set up as I was to cross the 355-meter line that we set up last summer. It doesn’t get boring.”
Learn more at slacklineminnesota.org, follow @minnslack on Instagram, and listen to the latest episode of McKee’s Web Slackline Podcast, about events and news in the slacklining world, here (or go to webslackline.libsyn.com):