The Art of Balancing

When students walked into the AMS Nest building one afternoon this March, they saw something unexpected overhead: a 15-metre-long line of nylon webbing stretched between two tall columns, and someone wobbling his way across it. Suddenly, the walker fell. He dropped straight down, dangling midair from a rope that attached him to the line. He whooped, climbed back up, and then, slowly, steadily, began to walk again.

It was the first time anyone had set up an indoor highline on a Canadian university campus, and a crowd gathered to marvel at the action overhead. The idea came from student Adam Mertens, who wanted to give the growing slacklining community on campus a chance to (quite literally) take their sport to new heights.

Three years ago, when Mertens set up his first slackline at UBC — a couple of feet above the ground, between two trees — he had a far humbler goal: he just wanted to make friends. He was a newcomer to Vancouver, and obsessed with the sport of slacklining.

Slacklining is a little like tightrope walking, only instead of walking on taut wire with a balancing pole, slackliners walk on a loosely tensioned piece of webbing. It’s much harder than it looks. The first time you step on a line, your leg shakes, your balance wavers, and you end up falling — often. But the reward is the practice of being in the moment, the intense joy of being exactly where you are. “You can see it in people’s faces when they try it,” says Mertens, a 23-year-old Global Resource Systems major.

The Nova Scotia native’s own introduction to slacklining began in Singapore, where he was attending an international boarding school. Mertens wasn’t new to the art of balancing; he’d picked up the “unconventional sport” of unicycling in 9th grade, even taking his cycle with him to Asia, where he also dabbled in circus arts — juggling, aerial silks, stilt walking. But when he discovered slacklining, the hobby soon turned into an addiction. Instead of studying during the week of his final exams, he spent five hours a day walking and playing on the line. “It’s like taking up a TV show right before exams and binge-watching the whole thing,” he says. “I killed my exams anyways.”

After Mertens left the college, he spent a gap year working and travelling around Southeast Asia and New Zealand. He carried two huge and heavy slacklines in his backpack. “I put them up whenever I could,” he says. “I was slowly coming to that point where [slacklining] was the main thing that I wanted to do.”

He learned to walk across progressively longer lines, graduating from a wobbly walk to performing tricks.

For Mertens, there’s something “greatly satisfying” about experiencing the progression of the sport. At its core, it’s simple: “all you’re doing is walking in straight lines.” But he learned to walk across progressively longer lines, graduating from a wobbly walk to performing tricks. The sport was becoming a way to reimagine spaces, to turn “a meadow with trees into [a] playground, and to view your world through anchor points.”

When Mertens arrived at UBC and started setting up slacklines on campus, he discovered a new benefit of the sport: building community. Curious students often stopped to watch him walk, and some tried the lines themselves. Mertens decided to make sharing the lines easier. He began the Slackline UBC Facebook group with fellow slackliner Alex Toews in 2013, and that October the group organized its first official event: the Slackfest. It was the “blow up point,” Mertens says. Campus newspapers and filmmakers noticed the eight slacklines set up on campus, including a 30-metre-line, the longest line Mertens had seen at the time. More than 100 people stopped by, curious. “What is this?” They asked, and, “Can I try it?”

As the group expanded, Mertens debated whether they should take the next step towards gaining legitimacy. In April 2015 Slackline UBC finally became a recognized AMS club. The club required a more formal structure, but the members maintained their community-driven, peer-led spirit. Mertens stepped down from his post as president of the Slackline UBC club last year, passing it on to recent graduate Krista Cawley, who in turn handed the reins to Aidan Middleton, a second year evolutionary biology major. Today, it is a thriving community that boasts more than 680 members on Facebook, an eclectic bunch ranging from skiers and surfers to hardcore engineers.

Despite passing the torch as president of the club, Mertens spearheaded its most ambitious project yet — rigging a highline across the second story of the massive open-plan AMS Student Nest building. He knew he would have to use all his powers of persuasion and had a stellar pitch: the unconventional sport matched the spirit of an unconventional university, one that is proud of “innovation” and “bold thinking.” But gaining approval for the project was a difficult process, full of red tape and legal liabilities.

Highlining looks precarious, but when the lines are properly rigged, and the walkers tied in with climbing harnesses, the sport is actually quite safe.

Highlining looks precarious, but when the lines are properly rigged, and the walkers tied in with climbing harnesses, the sport is actually quite safe. Nevertheless, the AMS went to great lengths to ensure stringent standards for the event – from making sure the line was impeccably rigged to reviewing the weight-bearing capacity of the building’s structural columns. This painstaking approach satisfied all of the exacting insurance requirements, and the event was finally given approval. But it wasn’t until he stood up on the highline for the first time that Mertens believed it was actually going ahead.

“Everyone in the building just stopped and looked,” Mertens recalls. By noon, the Nest was packed with spectators watching from every tier of the building, applauding and gasping. Some 15 slackliners braved the highline, many of them attempting such a challenge for the first time. The AMS highline was meant to be part demonstration, part participation. Mertens thinks the mix of experts and newbies created a more inviting environment. Not only were leash falls from the highline dramatic for spectators to watch, but it also made them more comfortable with the notion of falling. There were beginner slacklines set up close to the ground for anyone to try — an easy start, with the promise of what was possible overhead.

Slackline UBC is planning to rig another highline in the Nest this September, but Mertens doesn’t want to stop there. His dream is to set up a highline between Gage Towers, three concrete high-rise residential buildings on campus. He came close to securing permission last year, but liability concerns from student housing stopped him. He hasn’t given up hope: “That would top off the university experience for me. Gage Towers, 2017.”

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