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“Should I grab the stalactite with my hands or turn around on my feet like a real pro?” recalls slackliner-photographer Jared Alden of this moment on an unusual stalactite highline on Koh Yao Noi island in Phuket, Thailand.
Lured by the country’s unique limestone, ten slacklining friends spent a month in Thailand establishing new climbing routes and highlines—and partaking of the local culture’s fresh, healthy food, world-renowned massages, and friendly scene. “We really got creative with our shenanigans on this trip,” says Alden, who lives with his family in Pennsylvania. “We rigged slacklines at the beach, waterlines off piers and cliffs, high waterlines with tourists kayaking below, and even a highline between the masts of a pirate ship.”
Adventure: What were you thinking at this moment?
Jared Alden: The wonderful thing about highlining is that it facilitates coming down out of thought and into feeling, a state of responsiveness and acting from instinct; this is an activation of kinesthetic intelligence in the brain’s cerebellum (the ancient part of the brain), stopping thought involves shutting down the cognitive processing of the brain’s frontal lobe (a newer part of the brain). It’s like becoming a monkey again, or any wild creature, once you are on the edge of survival you just “do it” without thought of consequences or fear of failure; this for me is most liberating and extremely human in experience.
It usually takes me some serious time on a slackline to pause the dialogue in my head and tap into a deeper state of mind that is best described with Zen Buddhism or the Taoist idea of Non-action. Scott’s photo was taken just a few minuets after I got on this highline for the first time. My thoughts were dying but I do remember feeling these things:
A: Where are you exactly? And why were you there?
J.A.: Onsighting a highline Andy Lewis named “Just the Tip” one short rock climbing pitch from the top of the Big Tree Wall on the northern end of Koh Yao Noi, Thailand. I was in Thailand living the dream as I like to joke with friends back home. Some really stellar friends from the highlining community decided to collaborate on a trip to Thailand based on a very generous invitation from Braden Mayfield. Braden has great resources in Thailand along with years of experience there climbing and scouting epic highlines such as “Just the Tip” – probably the first stalactite highline ever rigged. When you receive an invitation to Thailand from someone like Braden, the guy with all the beta, talent, motivation, and willingness to put up with Slacklife shenanigans you say YES and buy yourself a ticket – even if you have a two and a half year old daughter and a wife in law school.
A: Is it still called highlining if you are over water?
J.A.: We do consider the word waterline to be an accurate description of slacklines rigged over water. In Thailand we played around with waterlines 25 to 30 feet high and walked them without safety leashes. As soon as you tie into a safety leash people start assuming it’s a highline but highliners often discus a true highline as being taller in height than it is long in length – so a 100 foot long slackline 99 feet above the ground is not a true highline. It’s never really mattered to me what people call things; names and terminology aren’t useful as soon as you step out onto a highline. Let’s just say that when you’re highlining super high it doesn’t really matter to you exactly how high you are or what’s actually happening on the ground i.e. water or ground. The reason we highline up high is to feel amazingly one with the universe; there’s no intention to go splat and die on the ground. The element that impacts the highlining experience most is the exposure i.e. how much empty space there is surrounding the highline. It’s harder to maintain focus and balance when one’s vision lacks physicals features to grasp.
A: How did you all secure the highline to this rock formation? Looks a little precarious!
J.A.: We prefer the word sketchy over precarious, and yes perhaps there was an element of sketchy to this highline – not the sketchiest thing that happened in Thailand. In fact, the sketchy meter was quite low in my mind. It really only looks dangerous. There wasn’t enough tension on the highline to worry about breaking off the tip of the stalactite, plus the anchor on the stalactite side was supposedly backed up to another anchor directly on top of the cliff – you can’t see it in the photo because it’s on the other side of the stalactite. Perhaps I was a bit trusting of Andy and Braden’s work but then again they both walked it before me, which is why riggers usually take the first walks I guess. In my mind the only element of danger was if the whole stalactite suddenly decided to fall, that or if Zeus’s lighting bolt hit our highline. For the record, I didn’t rig this highline, nor did I fully inspect the rigging on the far stalactite side of the highline. Andy and Braden did all the tedious rigging on the stalactite side of the highline. It was actually a bit crowded with seven people sized monkeys all wanting to hang out up there. I mainly stayed out of the way and prepared different photography compositions. I’m pretty sure I didn’t even do much to help tension the highline when it came time – we didn’t put that much tension on it.
A: I see you are tethered, but how high are you from the water? Or maybe it’s not water beneath you?
J.A.: It was three or so climbing pitches above the ground, which then became a steep tree-covered slope heading down to the water. It was definitely hundreds of feet high. I honestly don’t know and don’t want to look like a fool making an inaccurate guess. Numbers always seem to multiple in my stories. Go there yourself and see how high you feel – this is my advice.
A: What did you do once you reached the end of the line?
J.A.: I reached out and grabbed the stalactite with my hands, turned myself around and walked across the highline again.
A: What kind of rock is it? Did you all set up many different highlining scenarios on this trip?
J.A.: The rock is magical and most definitely sacred. It’s a type of limestone unique to Thailand. We did everything on this trip: slacklines on the beach, waterlines off piers and cliffs, high waterlines over deep and shallow water, high waterlines with tourists paddling underneath, and of course the highlines. There was this stalactite highline, a tower to tower highline, a highline over an enclosed lagoon, and even a highline between the masts of a pirate ship.
A: What other things did you do on this trip?
J.A.: Made friends with some really cool Thai locals and other travelers, walked across wild vines we tied between branches over the beach, eat amazingly fresh and healthy Thai food, listened to Andy and my brother Preston play guitar, had some mind blowing Thai massages, played my wooden flute, rock climbed, drilled and placed bolts, became a pirate aboard the Dragon Heart for eight days and did a lot of photography throughout.
The one Thailand project I did completely solo was a slackline I rigged covertly in the middle of the night over the roof of the Freedom Bar on Tonsai beach. I got in trouble for it first thing in the morning after walking it both ways for the onsight full-man. The owner of the Freedom Bar forced me to take it down immediately but I cajoled him into giving me one final walk for a photo. The Freedom Bar slackline was anchored maybe 30-35 feet high between two trees and one of the anchor spots was right at a wicked red ant nest just above the bar’s outdoor dinning area. Establishing this anchor in silence, in the dark, in the middle of the night, covered from head to toe in red biting ants was a definite overall trip highlight. After my third and final walk I had to cut the slackline with my knife at the red ant anchor. The second time I faced the biting ants they covered my body quicker and denser, perhaps because it was now daytime, either way it was amusing to watch the ants fall down into people’s coffee mugs as they were eating breakfast and I was getting mauled.
A: How long have you been highlining?
J.A.: I’ve been slacklining for 16 years. My first highline was in 2008 on top of the middle finger of the Hand of Fatima in the Timbuktu region of Mali, West Africa. I was a Peace Corps volunteer in northern Mali 07-09 and that first highline was the sketchiest highline I will ever walk. Highlining is actually very safe but only if you know what you’re doing.
A: You are a photographer. Is it a little funny to be on this side of the lens?
J.A.: Yes, it is funny, hilarious really, but I’m not quite sure I know what you mean by funny. I am happy to be on either side of the camera lens when it comes to highlines. Scott is the same way, both athlete and photographer. Scott’s images of me offer me an outside perspective of myself. My images of Scott offer him the same. When you step onto a highline to face yourself, it’s comforting to know someone, a friend, is going to capture the effort for your reflection.
A: Where do you live and why?
J.A.: I live in my parents’ basement in my hometown, Bryn Athyn, PA. I love saying this because it sounds so weak but really it’s so great. My wife is in law school and it’s just wonderful to be somewhere where we can feel a whole community of family and friends supporting us in all our endeavors. My daughter really loves her grandparents and my wife and I love seeing her develop a strong relationship with them. It’s also easy for me to find all sorts of creative work opportunities here in my hometown. My parents’ basement is a perfect base camp for more international adventures. I also have some unfinished projects here in my hometown.