Community. That is the word repeated by Squamish residents when asked what drew them to the sport of slacklining and highlining.
The thrill of balancing dizzying distances above the ground, the views, reaching flow state, and the technical aspect were also factors for folks.
For most in Squamish, using a long lens or binoculars to spot highliners working across lines set up on the Stawamus Chief is likely about as close to the sport as they get.
But these days, many in the slacklining community — most in their 20s or 30s — gather on Thursday evenings at Junction Park downtown.
Locals can wander down and watch them in action or ask questions — they are a friendly bunch.
Slacklining or highlining?
While folks can use the term slacklining to mean the overall sport, there are differences between slacklining and highlining.
The first, of course, is the height.
Slacklining is closer to the ground, while highlining is what you see happening up on the Stawamus Chief.
And the line is different.
"With highlining, you use strictly a one-inch webbing made from nylon or polyester. And then in slacklining, you're using between two-inch webbing — for most beginners — and then you go down to the one-inch webbing as you get a little bit better," explains local Mat Bolduc, who does both forms of the sport. •
Another way to think of it — according to a participant at the park — is if you are highlining, you are still slacklining, but if you are slacklining you aren't highlining.
Thursday night meet-ups
It is just after 5 p.m. at Junction Park on a recent and rare sunny Thursday.
There are a rainbow of coloured slacklines stretched from tree to tree.
In addition to relaxing locals and visitors, little pods of slackliners have formed.
Some sit on the grass in loose circles, chatting and working on equipment.
Others are sitting on benches, chatting while snacking. Several people are up on slacklines, all with at least one person nearby talking to them or just watching.
One 20-something man is up on a slackline near the sidewalk and he's struggling to maintain his balance.
Another man of about the same age is encouraging and guiding him.
There is lots of that: encouraging.
It becomes clear the man doing the guiding doesn't know the newbie slackliner.
He is just helping him.
In other pods, more clearly experienced slackliners are talking technique and trying things out on lines stretched higher than the beginner's — about a metre or so off the ground.
Bolduc, 30, sits in a red lawn chair, one foot in a boot cast.
He broke his foot recently (not slacklining or highlining) but still comes to the meet-ups to hang with friends.
For Bolduc, a youth full of other balancing sports — skateboarding, snowboarding — made the transition to slacklining somewhat natural.
"I kept hurting myself skateboarding. I was living in Toronto at the time... I had bruised palms, bruised heels, and just like couldn't skateboard and couldn't really do too much. I was driving by a park one day and saw somebody walking a slackline," he recalled.
He set up a ratchet strap at the park and gave it a whirl.
"There were a couple of people there who actually slackline, and they kind of looked at my ratchet and laughed and said, 'That's a pretty interesting set-up you have there.' I just met the right people," he said with a chuckle at the memory.
Slacklining isn't a sport anyone really starts out good at, several athletes now skilled at the sport told The Squamish Chief.
"It's just something where practice makes perfect," Bolduc said.
Like many in town, Bolduc made the permanent move to Squamish a few months ago after spending all his weekends here since he moved from Toronto to Vancouver in 2018.
Unlike some Squamish sports — mountain biking comes to mind — the barrier to entry for slacklining is $100 to $150.
"The nice thing is living in Squamish, there are permanent slacklines set up throughout the city," Bolduc said.
However, Bolduc said that once immersed in the activity, there are plenty of opportunities to spend more cash.
"If you're kind of looking to make more of a plunge then from there, it can get really expensive, like I'm at the point where I've spent thousands of dollars on gear, but I got pretty hooked on it and went through all the variations and styles of slacklining over the years," he said.
How it started; how it is going
"In May 2021, I was often messaging lots of people to meet up at the park after work and realized that so many people were always keen to meet up to slackline at the park," she said. "We thought that we should establish a weekly slackline meet-up and picked Thursday and [it] turned out quite big in no time: it's not only about slacklining anymore; it's also about aerials, acro yoga, spike ball, juggling, etc."
She estimates between 20 and 120 people come to practice one of these activities each week.
"The park sessions are about sharing the stoke around slacklining, learning from others, meeting new people and growing the community," she added.
There's a Facebook group called "Squamish Community — Park Sessions" that helps arrange the get-togethers.
Comeau got involved with the sport when she was working in Adelaide, Australia, in February of 2020.
"I got invited to go highlining with the Adelaide crew, and I loved it," she recalled. "When COVID hit, I had to go back home and had in mind I had to find where I could keep doing this in Canada and heard that Squamish was probably the best place for it. I moved to Squamish in August 2020."
Like all the others The Squamish Chief talked to, Comeau agreed that a sense of belonging and community is a central part of the local slacklining world.
"It's just like a big family where everyone shares their stoke for the sport, love and respect for the nature that surrounds us," she said.
"When you highline, you share lots of time with the people you are highlining with; rigging a highline can be a mission itself that requires multiple people and then, depending on the highline spot, we could spend all day together as everyone is taking turns one after the other. As much as highlining is something you mostly do on your own — since it's one person normally at a time on the line — everything else around it is about spending time and working as a team with the highline community."
Avid rock climber Erik Jackson, 24, said another aspect that helps build the sense of community is the lack of competition.
"Most sports, you're kind of pitted against people," he said.
"That doesn't really exist in slacklining. It's very individual. And because of that, everyone's at different levels, as well. So everyone's really excited for people to get involved. And you can see people progress very quickly. And that energy, being able to see people get excited about progressing and just doing well, to me, that is really special. There's not really any competitiveness to it."
More women welcome
"I tried it and I loved it," she said. "I like the progression of it and you're setting goals... but especially the people around because it's people who like to be outdoors and who like the same things."
She said the sport didn't come automatically to her.
"I was terrible when I started," she said. I thought I was not going to be able to do it."
She bought a slackline to practice on her own, and it paid off.
She hasn't looked back.
Bernabeu, who sat on the grass near Jackson on Thursday night, said while there were few women when she first started, more and more have gotten involved.
"It's super inclusive, it's just that we need to encourage more women to do it," she said.
The local slackliners say a main misconception about the sport is that it is a "daredevil sport," for adrenaline junkies who disregard safety.
In fact, the opposite is true.
Safety comes first.
"We try and focus on redundancy," Bolduc said.
"In every part of the rig, there are redundancies in order to be safe. Everything has backups. Everything is rated. We know what kind of forces we're putting on the anchor points and what kind of forces our lines are rated up to. So it's all about educating yourself in knowing what your gear is rated for," he said, noting the sport is like rock climbing in that way.
"We always have at least two points of failure."
The high of highlining
Highliners describe the sense of quieting their minds and finding peace while being out in the middle of a line slung between cliffs.
And the views are epic too, several said.
Jackson said that flow state — being fully immersed in whatever you are doing — can happen in lots of sports, but is easier to access in highlining.
While you are highlining the world slows down and comes into focus, in other words.
"We started in the spring talking about it. And we already started filming it," he said. "I'm not exactly sure when they'll be released, but we're definitely filming everything over the summer."
The episodes will be released on InBound's social media channels.
Ratte-Leblanc echoed that many think the sport isn't safe, but from his vantage point of being both on the inside and outside, it is safer than most.
"I'm not sure if people think we're a little crazy, but I think it's just you have to try it for yourself and just try to push your limits. It's all about pushing limits."
Pushing through fear
The slackliners all talked about pushing through initial fear to a place where you trust, and the fear dissipates.
"You are somewhere you shouldn't be, so your brain is triggered in all different kinds of ways. And it's telling you that you shouldn't be there. But when you're able to push through what your brain is telling you, you fall into a flow zone and everything just works really fine," Ratte-Leblanc said.
Locals who want to know more about slacklining or highlining can come out and talk to folks on Thursdays at Junction park or look up at the Stawamus Chief during the Squamish Highliners Gathering happening. Aug. 12 to the 14.
In its ninth year, the event draws about 150 people from far and wide to walk its lines.
*Please note, this story has been corrected since it was first posted. The webbing is made out of nylon, not Teflon as was first stated. We regret this error.