Imagine being hundreds of feet in the air. You look around and see there is nothing to hold on to. You walk through the air on nothing but a piece of webbing not even as wide as your foot. It’s springy and the only thing between you and the ground. Now imagine doing this all the time, just for fun.
Meet Bryan Sipe, a forestry junior and highlining extraordinaire.
Sipe joined the highlining community after coming to Cal Poly. He started by slacklining on the lawn behind Business (building 3). Slacklining is a sport where a long piece of webbing is tied between two anchors, such as trees or large boulders, and then pulled taut enough for someone to walk on. It requires significant balance and focus, both traits that Sipe posseses.
After practicing slacklining, Sipe set his sights even higher and researched highlining. It is essentially the same as slacklining, but much higher in the air. Through his research, Sipe came across a group of highliners planning a get-together in Humboldt, so he decided to go check it out.
“I was drawn to the sport just because of how insane it looked,” Sipe said. “When I first saw videos of the sport, I thought it was just for professionals with huge sponsors, but after learning that really anyone can do it with the right knowledge, experience and gear, I wanted to be all about it.”
At the gathering, Sipe learned how to mount the line without falling. Once he felt he had it somewhat mastered, he took his first go at the highline.
“The first time I got up on a highline, it was the most nerve-wracking, untrusting thing I had ever felt,” Sipe said. “I didn’t know much about the gear, but just had to trust what everyone was telling me.”
His first highline was about 20 feet in the air, but was a relatively short length. Even though he knew he could make the distance, he said it still felt like a “one-inch piece of fiber that was extremely wobbly and, quite frankly, impossible to walk.”
After the gathering at Humboldt, Sipe knew he wanted to be a part of the close highlining community he had experienced.
“The people in the community are some of the nicest and most welcoming people I have ever met,” Sipe said. “I can go across the world and trust that there will be a slackliner that I have never met before, but will let me sleep on their couch and will be more than happy to show me some of the local lines.”
Despite the nerves he felt on his first few highlines, Sipe continued to practice. He said the sport made him a much stronger person, both physically and emotionally, and credits it for taking him to some unbelievable places, like Yosemite National Park.
“I get to be in pieces of space that only a few people have ever been in,” Sipe said.
This is a sentiment shared by many highline enthusiasts. Within the San Luis Obispo highlining community, there is a tight knit group that enjoys the places their sport has taken them.
“It brings me to the most insane places,” environmental earth and environmental earth science junior Douglas Platt said. “I want to go to all these awesome places anyways, but with highlining it gives us a super rare and fun way to fully celebrate a beautiful location.”
Platt is another local highliner who often highlines with Sipe.
He credits Sipe with teaching him everything he knows about highlining.
Sipe also took several weekend trips to highline in different places, including Moab, Utah, where Sipe said he saw his first “real” highline, as in the first line that was extremely high above the ground and not in the teaching environment of the Humboldt gathering.
He said he was pretty nervous during his first highlines, and at times felt like the sport may not be for him, but after continuously pushing himself to do it, he slowly gained confidence. Then his trip to Moab brought back that same feeling of doubt. He got up on his first “real” highline and found himself about 400 feet in the air.
“It felt like I was starting all over again,” Sipe said.
However, he kept pushing and practicing and can now highline at those heights with ease.
Blaine Quackenbush, a math graduate student and another highlining friend of Sipe’s, said he loves everything about highlining and the way it has shaped him.
“It teaches me about failure and how to deal with it when I know I can do something, but it’s just not clicking for some reason,” Quackenbush said. “It also teaches me not to have expectations, because that can only let me down. My best walks and longest highlines have been times where I expect nothing from myself and my worst experiences have been when I am really confident I’m going to do well, but then I completely suck.”
Now, Sipe is fully integrated into the community he so badly wanted to be a part of. He is currently working on a project with other San Luis Obispo highliners to put in a line on Cerro San Luis Mountain (Madonna Mountain) that would be about 600 feet in length and 150 feet in the air. If they can finish this project, it will be the longest highline in San Luis Obispo.
“When you’re 1,000 feet up and on only a piece of webbing, but you feel as comfortable as being at home, that’s an amazing feeling,” Sipe said.
Correction: A previous version of this article identified Douglas Platt as a soil science major. The article has been corrected to identify Douglas Platt as an environmental earth science major.