“Wanna try?” Joe Adams calls out to a few students who are intently watching him and his group of friends. The students quickly shake their heads as shy smiles creep across their faces before they hurry past Melville Library towards Stony Brook Union.
Adams shrugs and turns back to watch Harrison Pugh slowly walking along a stretch of blue tubular webbing. The line is suspended a few feet above the ground and anchored by nylon spansets looped around two trees. Pugh walks the rope with his eyes fixed on one of the anchors, arms extended at his sides, and his doing so doesn’t go unnoticed. Students constantly stop in their tracks to gawk at this spectacle, which is a sport known as slacklining
Slacklining is a subdivision of rock climbing that is similar to walking a tightrope. Slackliners use the same equipment as rock climbers, such as the tubular webbing and spansets, but tread the line like tightrope walkers at a circus. The sport requires full concentration and balance, as well as tranquility, to achieve the desired effect: making it smoothly from one end of the rope to the other.
“It’s kind of something climbers do when they’re bored,” Pugh says. “I feel like it’s a kind of walking meditation.”
Adams and Pugh, both Ph.D. students studying math, and a small group of about 10 others have been slacklining on campus since last year. They started off behind the Physics building but now meet on the shady lawn in front of the library multiple times a week. Pugh credits Adams, a rock climber, to getting the group interested in the sport.
“People seem intrigued,” Pugh says of slacklining. “Of course, to be willing to do this you have to be willing to fall.”
To start, a slackliner must bring his knee up to his chest and set his foot on the rope, which is stretched tightly between two anchors, and then push himself up with that leg to bring the other foot onto the line. This requires tremendous balance and coordination, so Adams, Pugh and their fellow slackliner Chris Dillon will take turns helping newcomers their first couple of times. A beginner will usually be shaky because, Pugh says, there are muscles in each foot that are not accustomed to the type of balance slacklining entails.
And with shakiness comes unsteadiness, as several Stony Brook students who tried to slackline for the first time on a recent Wednesday evening experienced when they lost their balances and fell, causing the line to snap at their legs in the process.
“You need lots of practice, it seems,” says Ravi Dey, a Ph.D. student studying material science who tried the sport for the first time. Dey, unlike many others who came through this evening, grasped the concept quickly.
Although the Stony Brook slackliners only brought this activity to light on campus within the past year, slacklinking in general has been around for decades. It stems from Yosemite Valley in California back in the mid-twentieth century as a hobby rock climbers took up during downtime. They experimented with their equipment and eventually began tying rope between trees and walking on it. Soon after, professionals in the sport expanded their options and went as far as to slackline over the Lost Arrow Spire gap to the Yosemite Valley rim—a 2,900-foot deep crater that spans over 50 feet across.
And the more advanced a slackliner is, the easier it is to do tricks. Pugh experiments with balancing on one leg and even tries getting on the line with his eyes closed. He and Adams mention that one of their friends can handstand on the rope.
With its success in attracting the campus community—Dillon says professors and families visiting campus have tried slacklining in addition to other students—the Ph.D. candidates are in the process of forming a club dedicated to the sport. Adams says that after a police officer approached them about a complaint last November, they thought of forming a club so they would be able to freely slackline on campus without getting in trouble. The effort, however, has been fruitless.
“They push us around to different people,” Adams says of Student Activities, as the grad students cannot form a club under the Undergraduate Student Government. “We still don’t know what’s wrong.”
Adams says the group has not been given definite reasons as to why they are denied from becoming an established club, although they do have written permission to slackline. But the possibility of a negative encounter with authorities again is something Adams doesn’t ignore.
“The bigger risk is the police,” he says. “If they tell us to stop, of course we’ll stop.”
Still, the group continues to come out to slackline. Many of them see it as a stress reliever from their rigorous Ph.D. curricula. They also say it’s a great way to meet new people because the sport is always grabbing someone’s attention.
Alex Van Loo, a freshman majoring in marine biology, is one of those people. Van Loo says she saw the group slacklining the day before and immediately wanted to try it. Pugh and Dillon help her stand on the tubular webbing and guide her as she walks the stretch. As expected of a beginner, though, she has a hard time keeping steady.
“I feel like my balance is too off to do this,” she says, with a laugh.
Unfortunately, Van Loo falls with a snap of the line against her back.
“It was different,” she says, after she gets up. “It was fun.”
Pugh says slacklining doesn’t require much physical fitness, except maybe increased leg strength, but it’s something he encourages everyone to try.
“Anyone can do it,” he says. “It may seem intimidating, but we’re always welcoming new people.”