Well Balanced Physics

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The Perfect Alpine Highline

Posted on 29 Jun, 2020
Tagged highlining, trip report

September 21st, 2014. The mission seemed to be thoroughly hosed. As we drove higher into the mountains, the classic Pacific Northwest mist was becoming more of a downpour. Around here, you can miss out on a lot if you stay home every time there is a “chance of rain”, so we’d committed to an attempt despite a less-than-perfect forecast, and it was looking like we’d made the wrong call. We were already 2 hours into a 3 hour drive, so we just kept going.

We got to the trailhead parking lot, and sat glumly in the car looking at the raindrops splash on the windshield. I’d been dreaming of this project for years, and hustling for weeks to get all the right people and gear to this point, apparently all for nothing. We were all disappointed, but nobody wanted to just turn around and drive home. We decided to do a “training hike”, so we’d at least stay in shape for next time, and maybe learn a little about the approach. To make the training more realistic, we all grabbed our already full packs, stuffed with webbing, ropes, climbing gear, and cameras. The weather was so bad that the day had become a joke, and we all thought it was hilarious to set off up the trail wearing our rain gear and bags full of equipment that we wouldn’t be able to use.

There were four of us: Carl, who back then was the only person I could always rely on to join in on my increasingly ambitious alpine projects. At the time, Carl and I were nearly the entire Seattle area highline scene. We also had a new guy, Jacob, who I’d talked into coming along with us. Jacob had a lot more stoke than relevant experience, but he’d done some climbing, and we really needed the extra set of hands. Finally, we had Krystle, an adventure photographer from Australia. Krystle and I had met on another highline project, and I was impressed by her ability to capture the feeling of highlining in her images, as well as being a positive and competent team member who could handle herself in the mountains. We were lucky that she was passing through the area and agreed to join our speculative project.

We trudged through the rain for about 45 minutes, discussing how the climbing and rigging would have gone if it was dry. The trail meandered and climbed through the woods, up to a point where the trees abruptly ended, giving us our first view of the meadows, ravines, and scree fields that lead up to the granite spires that we’d hoped to scale. Or rather, would have given us that view if we hadn’t been essentially hiking inside of a cloud. We stood at the last tree, the last shelter from the weather, and weighed our options. The joke of hiking in the rain with our full bags was wearing a little thin. Looking back on it, I have a hard time understanding what I was thinking, but through some combination of optimism and stubbornness, I spoke up that we should keep going. It is even harder to say why everybody else agreed to join me. I guess I’m usually the thoughtful, cautious one, so when I had a bad idea, nobody else was ready to step in as the voice of reason.

As it happens, that moment at the edge of the trees was the turning point of the day. It was like crossing a watershed; as soon as we hiked on from that spot, everything started to flow in our direction. The rest of the day unfolded like a dream. A few minutes after we left the trees, the rain stopped, and the clouds lifted from around us, though they remained as an ominous layer far above. A breeze came up, and by the time we reached the base of the spires, the rock had somehow dried off. Nobody could be sure that the bad weather wouldn’t come back, but we quickly racked up and started climbing anyway, feeling like we were getting away with something and not wanting to break the spell. Carl and I swung leads through two pitches of easy technical climbing, and belayed the rest of the team up. From there, we put the ropes back in our packs and we all scrambled 4th class terrain to the summit of South Early Winter Spire (SEWS). The climb was glorious, following an exposed ridge, but with secure grippy granite. Though I was climbing with a heavy pack, I felt incredibly free, choosing my route as I went, and floating up the mountain.

We reached the top, and took a quick moment to enjoy the wild 360 degree view of craggy peaks, but we needed to keep moving. Carl and Krystle stayed on the south spire, with Carl wrapping boulders with rope to make the highline anchor, and Krystle scouting around for the best perches for shooting photos. Jacob and I rappelled off the south spire into the notch between SEWS and North Early Winter Spire (NEWS). It was a committing 70 meter rapel on a single strand of climbing rope, carrying another 70 meter rope, climbing gear, and highline anchor material in our packs. Jacob belayed me while I led two pitches to the top of NEWS, and when he followed me up, he kept the end of our rappel rope fastened to his harness, with the other end still attached to the south spire, so that when he reached the top, the connection between the spires was established.

I quickly built the highline anchor on the north spire by wrapping a large boulder with a pre-built double strand of static rope in a tubular webbing sleeve. Minutes later, we were ready to pull the webbing across the gap, and complete the rig. This would be our first highline rigged without a pulley system, tensioning only with a linegrip and one home-made webbing pulley to make a simple 3-1 at the weblock (which was also home-made). This made it a loose highline for the standards of the day, but to the eye of a 2020 highliner we still got it pretty tight. Making the line even more old school, at that time we were still separately tensioning the backup webbing. No backup loops! This was a full value rig.

As soon as the line was up, it was time to walk. We had moved smoothly and efficiently all day, but we were still on a mountain top on a day with unstable weather, and we didn’t want to linger. I tied in on the north peak, and scooted out on the line. All the uncertainty of the day dropped away, and I was just hanging in space. I tried to quiet my mind, and stood up. Staying calm on a highline is always a challenge, but out there, hours drive from the nearest town, hours walk from the nearest road, at the top of a multi-pitch rock climb, and standing on a heavy highline with nothing to absorb the oscillations that a nervous body puts into it, well, it is another level of intensity. I’ve been told that I look calm while I’m highlining, but in those situations, I don’t feel calm, and it takes a huge force of will to keep my body from expressing anxiety with shakes that could throw me off the line. On that day, I wasn’t calm, but I was ready. I focused, breathed, and walked across the line to the south spire. When I arrived, I got off the line, untied the leash, gave Carl a high-five, and he tied in and set out for the next leg of our team send. He also crossed the line without issue, reached the north spire, and then returned. I tied back in, and walked back to the north spire, completing our team send, and leaving us each back where we started. Krystle was on the south spire, working her magic this whole time. The clouds that had soaked us and nearly ended the mission lingered in the background, creating another layer of drama above the nearly incomprehensible jumble of peaks that surrounded us. Krystle told us that as far as capturing images, she was pretty sure that she had nailed it.

Yellow raincoat
The perfect alpine highline, photo by Krystle Wright

After I got back, Jacob tied in and sat on the line for a few minutes, but he wasn’t ready for that level of highline. So just like that, only a short time after we finished rigging, we’d accomplished what we went there to do, and it was time to skedaddle. Everyone stayed on point, and we quickly got the line packed up. When we finally dropped the last connection between the two spires, NEWS and SEWS went back to being separate peaks with only empty inaccessible air between them, and we were just two climbing teams, one on each peak, with way more gear than usual. Carl and Krystle downclimbed and rappeled off the south spire, while Jacob and I rappeled a different route down the notch between NEWS and SEWS. We met back up at the base of the spires, and arrived back at the cars in the last light of the day. From the moment it had stopped raining, everything had gone perfectly.

I’ve done many alpine highline projects since this one, but I keep coming back to this day as something really special, which is strange given how badly it started. I also think we probably made objectively the wrong decision to keep going when it was pouring rain. There was really no reason to think the weather would turn around like it did. But for whatever reason, we did keep going, and when the window opened, we were in just the right spot to jump through it. We had just the right crew to get up and down the mountain efficiently and safely, rig a solid line in almost no time, send it, and capture one of the coolest highline photos I’ve ever seen. I have a lot of favorite highlining days, but I don’t know if I’ll ever top this one.


The line

Location: Liberty Bell group, Washington Pass, WA.
Name: You SEWS you NEWS.
Length: 181ft.
FA: Plotkin-Swing/Marrs.
Established: September 14th 2014 (this day was a whole other adventure).
Repeated: September 21st, 2014 (this is the day described here).
Webbing: double Aero from Balance Community.

Since then, we’ve also established a second line between SEWS and NEWS called the SNEWS line, 238ft, as well as the Old North Bridge, a 194ft line between the nearby Lexington and Concord towers, all on natural anchors.

The image

One of Krystle’s photos from this trip was published in the December 2014 issue of Outside magazine.

The people

Krystle continues to be a badass adventure photographer, you can follow her here: https://www.krystlewright.com.
Carl is holding it down climbing and highlining around Seattle https://www.instagram.com/carlmarrs/.
Jacob, I think he had a good time, but we never heard from him again.
For myself, I’m still dreaming about beautiful highlines and waterlines in the North Cascades and elsewhere.

More photos

Crossing from North to South Early Winter Spire, photo by Krystle Wright
Carl getting some exposure, photo by Krystle Wright
Goats on the approach. These guys are near the top of SNEWS, far above the climbing that we roped up for. Photo by Ben Plotkin-Swing