Perserverance – The Tale of a Thailand Highline

I’ve been slacklining for some time now, but I mostly stay pretty close the earth when I go bouncing around on a narrow strip of webbing. A while back my crazy friend Peter set up a line up in the trees by the river for us to play on for his birthday barbecue. It was about 10 meters up, but still pretty heady; despite being leashed to a safety line overhead I couldn’t help but feel incredibly exposed up there–my palms sweaty and the line fluttering unrelentingly in the delta breeze. With some encouragement from Peter, I took a deep breath and dove off the line–taking the whipper, as it’s called. To my relief, I didn’t plummet to the earth; the safety line did its job and arrested my fall, forcing me to roll upside down and heave myself up the leash to hook my feet back on the slackline. Sometimes, you have to take the fall the learn to trust your gear; to relax and forget where you are.

Height has a way of getting in your head; despite evolving from a family of brachiators, humans have developed this innate fear of what used to equate safety from predators. Vertigo is the result of the evolutionary imperative that brought man down from the trees and across the plains. We have shunned our life in the canopy in favor of a more grounded existence, and it’s the most daunting obstacle for climbers and slackliners who want to break free from the chains of gravity, to fly again.

I’ve had an irrational fear of heights since I was a kid. Scratch that, I’ve had a fear of falling. It’s less the falling itself, or even the landing that gets me, it’s the anticipation, that apprehension of the moment where you lose control and your fate is in the hands of Newton’s second law. rather enjoy freefall–if my roller coaster and bungee jumping experiences have taught me anything–but that fear of losing my balance and plummeting back to the earth has been my Achilles heel. I guess I’m keen on facing my fears, what with all the extreme sports in which I partake. I hide my phobias well.

So, when my new friend Grischa started talking about his new highline project on the back of Thaiwand wall, my reaction was a mixture of excitement and anxiety. It all started over drinks (as most crazy ideas do), where a pile of tourist pamphlets lay on the bar next to him. He picked one up and scrutinized the image on the front of the majestic Thaiwand wall, easily the most recognizable, proudest feature on the coast. He pulled out a pencil and drew a line between the backside of the cliff and the feature behind it, a sharp pillar of karst that had no climbing on it and was mostly covered in foliage. He then drew a little stick figure in the middle of the line. That was his schematic.

I quickly learned just how much a labor of love it is to set up a new highline. Every day Grischa set off for Railay beach, trudging up to the Candlestick, turning off the trail, bushwhacking his way to scope out potential anchor points. He did this with a machete he borrowed from the locals, which he received along with some advice against the endeavor; bets were made against him. Ultimately he decided on a point at the top of a ballsy 30-meter traverse leading into about 6-7 meters of free-climbing on sharp limestone, and he plowed through a thicket of cactus and climbed up the razor spires that nobody ever bothers climbing. The terrain was obscured by the thick foliage, so he was disheartened to find that instead of a straightforward cliff face, he had to climb over endless razor-sharp towers to reach the second anchor. He had to borrow a bolt gun and glue from some Russian guys who were rebolting some of the local routes. He made a makeshift bow and arrow out of found items, climbed up to the first anchor and managed to fire a fishing line close enough to the other cliff. He had to down-climb then go back up the other side, retrieve the line and take it up to the second anchor, tie it to some webbing and pull it back across to string up the line. Of the entire week it took to do all this, only on the final day did he enlist our friend Preston (who had been out of town up until this point) to go up and help, which expedited the rest of the setup. On the seventh day he tensioned the line and pulled himself hand-over-hand with the safety rope in tow, setting it up underneath the webbing. Usually webbing is used for the backup, but there was none to spare so climbing rope would have to do. He undid the webbing so he could thread both the slackline and the safety through the leash ring before retensioning the slackline and tightening (but not putting any tension on) the rope underneath. He had to then pull himself back across to tape the safety to the main line every couple of meters. As the sun began to set, Grischa took his first steps on the new line.

I had been playing on the waterline (slackline setup over water) around the corner of Phranang Beach, but since the line wasn’t visible from there I decided to swim back in and begin the hike back. In order to get a good look I’d either have to walk all the way up Phranang towards the Escher wall (the backside of Thaiwand) or walk around to Railay beach where I was sure to get a good view of the action. Sunset was drawing near so I opted for the latter, as it was on the way home and I’d forgotten my headlamp. When I got to the beach, I could see Grischa slowly shimmying across the line, and I knew it was going to happen then. There was a wedding party getting ready to have a romantic sunset ceremony; little did they know that we were all in for an awesome show. I walked around the beach, chatting up anyone within earshot, drawing their attention to the backside of Thaiwand. “You might want to keep an eye on that gap,” I’d say with a wink. I waded out into the ocean to get a better angle, as the second anchor was slightly obscured, making the line look shorter than the 30-35 meters that it was. I waited for what seemed like an eternity, and I hoped that Grischa was really going to walk the line, and I didn’t just tell a bunch of people to watch a cliff for nothing.

Then I saw it. Everything seemed to calm down and the line gently sank under the weight of a yet-unseen person. He emerged from behind the spires and slowly but confidently strode across the line towards Thaiwand. I could hear gasps and murmurs from the crowd. I couldn’t contain my joy for him, and just as he reached the wall I let out a whooping holler and called out his name. I’d never been in the presence of such a proud line, and it was a really emotional moment. I could only imagine what he felt like as he turned around and completed the first full man (walking from one side to the other and back). The sun sank beneath the sea and I headed back for Tonsai to wait for the boys to arrive at the Small World bar, singing praise for the new slackline prince of Tonsai.

Of course, I am only relaying the generalities of my second-hand knowledge of his endeavor. Grischa has just finished his own account of this epic project on his own website here (sorry it’s in German, but Google Translate handles it relatively well). The day-by-day struggle of it all is really engrossing; reading it put me right there next to him, almost ready to throw his hands up in despair. But he had a vision and come hell or high water, he was going to see it through! He had the biggest shit-eating grin on his face that night, and we all celebrated well into the night. The line was christened “Perseverance.”

If I thought that I could have been any help to him I would have bandaged my feet back together and followed him up, but my lack of experience with highlines would probably have been more hindrance than help. I think Grischa understood this and didn’t ask me for assistance, but he encouraged me to come up with him to try it myself. “You’re really good on the line, I think you can do it,” he clearly had more confidence in myself than I did, but my interest was piqued, I wanted to get up there and see it for myself. I’d get my chance.