THE LINE WALKERS
In 2011, Guillaume Rolland walked his very first slack line. Seven years later, “SDD Slackline”, the team he created, gathers some of the world’s best highliners. Their hobby? Balancing themselves on hundreds meters high taut ropes. TARGO spent a day with the founder of the team during a festival in a national park in France: the Troglodyte Highline Tour.
Under a trail sign, three sticks on the grass draw: “THT”. During this weekend, you can spot those three letters everywhere in the national park of the Cévennes, in the south of France. They direct the participants of the THT to the highline spots.
The “THT” festival brings together hundreds of hobbyists each year. They’re all addicted to highline, a sport rooted in slackline, created in the 70s by American climbers from Yosemite. Highline isn’t about tighting a rope between two trees in your local park but rather walking on a thin line a hundred meters above the ground.
Down below the sign “Dargilan Cave”, a small camp was set up right next to the first spot. A dozen of highliners are assembled in tents and trucks. It’s already time to lunch for the organizers. A fork full of quinoa in his mouth, a raincoat on his back and a cap on his head, Guillaume, 34 years old, is racing around the camp. He’s one of the oldest in the group and also a founding member of SDD Slackline, the national team. The team has some of the world’s best highliners and holds the world record of length in the sport: a 1662 meters long line crossed in 2017.
Guillaume is in a rush, he needs to finish the anchoring of several lines before the participants arrive. In equilibrium on his rock, he’s making sure all the lines he set up yesterday are by the book. His duty accomplished, he practices on a little line just for fun. “I’ve just secured my self on two ropes. The red one is the main one, it’s the one we usually walk on. The green one is the back-up, the safety one. It’s here in case the first one breaks.” Focused, he crosses in a few seconds, barefoot, one of the ten lines tightened between the cliffs of the Dargilan grotto.
“My very first slackline was in 2011, tells Guillaume. At this time it was really restricted. If you wanted to do highline, you had to install your own lines. Now you can find many events where you can do highline without setting up lines. The organizers will do it for you, like here at the THT.”
Guillaume dedicates a great part of his life to highline but he can’t make a living out of it, unlike some of his french teammates. “I am an air traffic controller”, he explains. “At the beginning my colleagues were surprised, ‘why are you walking on a line in the air?’ I told them I was going camping for several days in grottos without showering etc. They were like ‘okaaay’.”
In France, highlining was popularized by major events (a highline between the Eiffel Tower and the Trocadero in Paris, world records beaten by french highliners). However, the sport remains widely unknown, to survive the French team often travels to China for paid shows.
In his little white car packed with ropes, Guillaume, the dean of the group, drives on the second spot of the festival, 20km away from the first one. There, a dozen of highliners are already slacking.
In the middle of a 200 meters long line, a highliner just did a ‘leash’, he fell from his line and he’s suspended in the void by a rope which secures him. “The very first fear, it’s the fear of dying. Unconsciously that’s it, you’re afraid of falling, that the equipment isn’t strong enough and fall from dozens, hundreds of meters”, admits Guillaume. In France, no laws supervise this sport. It’s extremely impressive but the risks are minimal says Guillaume: “Most of the time you get hurt because you fell in a bad way”.
Guillaume admits that after a few crossings the fear fades away. “At the beginning you’re always afraid. You’re scared, you’re shaking. With the experience you’re not scared anymore” he explains as he’s sitting on a 170 meters long highline. “Anyway, it isn't a conscious fear anymore. Even if in the back of your head there is still this little something that tells you it isn’t totally normal”.