Highlining, in the grand scope of sports, is really, really young. It began in the early 1980’s, which means the forerunners and record holders of the sport are still around.
Most of them still work the craft.
Among the famed is Faith Dickey, an Austin, Texas native whose repertoire includes the previous world record of the longest female highline, and current records of the longest female free solo highline, most female first ascents in highlining, most female highlines walked and the longest female highland walked – in heels.
I’ve quietly followed her career on YouTube. I was astonished to catch her serendipitously at a highline set up on San Luis Obispo’s Bishop Peak. She was visiting old friends she made while she lived her a few years ago.
Dickey’s rap sheet is astounding. She’s a full-time mountaineer, climber, surfer, high liner, environmental and social activist. In a moment of her free time (few and far between), she told me what it’s like to dedicate a life to passion, be at the mercy of nature and your own abilities, and her thoughts on social issues within the outdoor industry.
What is highlining?
“Highlining is a form of the sport slacklining, which is a balance sport where you walk on a flat, woven band stretched between two points. So the difference between highlining and slacklining is that a highline is a slackline – high off the ground.“
In what ways has it changed your lifestyle?
“Highlining changed everything about my lifestyle. Previously, before getting into slacklining and highlining, I was planning to live in New York City and study fashion design. Instead, I went traveling and I discovered these sports that took me outside. It really introduced me to fear management, so learning to manage my fear and not make it an enemy, but rather learn to walk through it.“
What has it taught you about life and yourself?
“Well, I would say highlining is really about myself and that we all have an ego and there’s no escaping it. Ego is just a part of being a human being. However, I think it’s important to become aware of your ego. Highlining has really given me a new value for presence, for being mindful, for really paying attention to what I’m doing, but also to separate myself from the constant thought stream that I have all the time. It also taught me that I’m capable of a lot more than I give myself credit for.“
With sponsors such as Deuter, Leki, Balance Community, and Goal Zero, Faith has managed to find a way to make highlining her living –– with live performances, stunts, slackline instructing, writing and public speaking. At 10 million views, her most renown video, sponsored by Volvo, is of her walking between two semi-trucks cruising down a European highway headed straight for a tunnel that would kill her if she didn’t cross in time. Scroll farther down a Youtube search of her name, and you’ll find frames of a determined athlete’s face, an impossibly balanced athlete in a red dress flowing far above the peaks of evergreen trees and a Tedx Talk on fear. She’s constructed her passion into a viable way of life. She’s good at what she does. So good, in fact, she’s confident enough to risk her life for it.
You’re also really well known for free soloing, that is walking highlines without anything attaching you in the event of a fall. How do you postpone the fears that you’re talking about when you’re on the line?
“When I practice free soloing, I’m definitely not able to get rid of the fear.
Actually, if anything, I’m much more afraid when I walk without a leash. However, it’s really introduced me to this process of understanding the difference between fear and a gut feeling, because intuition is really different than the kind of head fear we have in most situations.
Anytime I’m interested in walking without a leash, I try to be really still and really listen to what’s going on inside of myself and decipher if it’s fear or something deeper telling me, “Don’t do it.”
I reserve it for special times when I feel really confident in my training and confident in my management of fear.“
Is there any mantra you’re saying to yourself while you do that?
“I go through a lot of different mantras as a highliner. In the past I used to say, “Breathe. Control.” And now, when I’m really struggling on a line, I say “Come on!” It’s simpler, but sometimes I have to scream it myself.“
And what do you have to say to the people who think you’re insane?
“Usually I tell people who think I’m crazy that one man’s crazy is another man’s sane.“
I’m assuming that being a professional highliner, you’re in association with a lot of people that are doing extreme sports. What characteristics or mindsets do you find people who dedicate themselves to potentially dangerous sports have?
“I think, there’s some differences in extreme sports. Highlining is a very self-reflective sport. It usually forces the person to kind of look at their own mind and what’s happening inside of it.
Mountaineering and other sports where you’re really vulnerable to the elements forces you to get in touch with your own mind and your own relationship to fear. You know you’re not going to succeed if you let fear overrule you. But it’s also impossible to be fearless. We all have fear. So I would say a lot of similarities in people I know is this self-reflective relationship they have with their own mind.
However, there are some friends that practice other extreme sports where I think it is more about adrenaline and pushing boundaries. The ego can take over any job or any activity we do. It doesn’t necessarily have to be your profession for the ego to rule your choices and the reason you’re doing things. I think especially in the world we live in now, which is so tied into social media, it’s really important to keep a sense of self because you’re promoting what you do, but that in itself is an egotistical action.
I know for myself, being a professional athlete, I want to be recognised for my achievements, but I don’t want to get lost in that egocentric motivation.
So I would say what I notice about most people who practice highlining or basejumping or mountaineering or some other extreme sports, it is for themselves.
They really have a motivation that’s rooted in their heart. It’s not for other people.“
Faith is not alone in the full-time pursuit of her happiness, self-defined. In fact, there’s an increasingly popular term for it: a dirtbag. As eloquently defined by urbandictionary.com, a dirtbag is “a person who is committed to a given (usually extreme) lifestyle to the point of abandoning employment and other societal norms in order to pursue said lifestyle.”
You may have seen them emerging greasy-haired and dirty-footed from their tricked-out Ford Econolines, complete with DIY bookshelves filled with maps and local climbing guides. Or they may look like Faith, with a fully-inked passport, many hours clocked on the road, and a mindful presence. Dirtbagging is the goal of many dedicated outdoor athletes. After all, it’s rare that, in the routine weekly grind, one gets to become well-acquainted with the self inside them that comes of actualizing the lifestyle they pursue.
Although the modern manifestation of a bohemian ideal, dirtbagging is not a romantic daydream. No matter how much passion can drive a person to extremes, you still gotta eat, even if that’s a can of beans heated over a portable flame. Harnessing one’s inner self-control to walk across a patch of sky in between two rock spires in the Czech Republic (as Faith periodically does) requires just that: a harness. In the outdoor sports world, good, functional equipment is necessary and expensive. Even more important than the equipment is the knowledge and time practicing this knowledge of how to use it.
Being a dirtbag, therefore, is only really accessible to those with the knowledge, time, and money. And how does one acquire knowledge, time, and money?
What do you think stops most people from participating in outdoor sports?
“I think there are a few reasons why outdoor sports aren’t more diverse for one thing. We still have a huge lack of women participating. Even more so, we have a lack of diversity from a racial standpoint. I think that being able to go outside and appreciate the outdoors is a privilege, actually, especially in the United States where intercity kids don’t have that privilege or access.
People who don’t have money don’t have the privilege of buying the gear, either. Their parents were probably in the same boat. I recognise that I really was privileged to grow up with an appreciation of nature and to be able to choose to travel. Even being a dirtbag is a privilege, you know?
I don’t have a lot of money, but just by being white and American, I’m already leagues more advantaged than a lot of people. The whole social system prevents a lot of people from getting in the outdoors. Then you have this problem of it being multi-generational. So, if a kid’s parents don’t go outside and never had that privilege, they’re unlikely to pass on that enjoyment to their children. When that child becomes an adult and he or she hasn’t spent any time outside or in nature, it doesn’t come naturally.
I think it takes all of us working together to share the privilege of nature and the appreciation for it.“
Socially advantaged sectors of society, usually middle to upper class whites, that have the ability to participate in nature, seem to exclusively populate the outdoor industry. If anyone remembers Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, to reach the point where one can pursue self-actualization, such as pursuing creative and personally challenging activities, one needs their physiological and safety needs met first, followed by feelings of belonging and confidence in ability.
Participation in outdoor sports is effectively ruled out for those hung up on working towards their next bill payment, and those who can’t visualise their success in an activity or belonging to the community surrounding it. And the latter point brings us to the root of gender and racial inequality in the outdoor sports industry.
How are you supposed to identify with and feel confident in pursuing an outdoor sport if you never see anyone of your race or gender doing it? A lot of people can’t picture themselves pursuing an outdoor sport intensively because the images of athletes that permeate the media we absorb don’t look anything like us. They have broad shoulders, rugged jawlines framed with stubble, North Face puffies, and a crew of handsomely disheveled, white skinned mates sitting around their campfire.
That said, there’s no reason to doubt that there’s room for anyone who isn’t a handsome, white guy. We just have to enact and promote the changes we wish to make in the world.
Faith Dickey is no stranger to this. She created the G4G Project, with fellow international highliners Ančee Kančee Kuchařová and Jelena Schradi, to help foster an environment that encourages women to get on the line and claim slacklining as a space equally for them as it is for men.
I also read that you helped start the G4G Project, that encourages girls and women to get into the slacklife, can you tell me more about that?
“Well, the G4G project started out as an idea of forming a team of women who would go do projects together. Part of the challenge in outdoor sports in general, especially highlining, is that there aren’t a lot of women participants. There are more and more girls every year, and people always try to say, “Oh! It’s not that bad! There’s lots of girls.”
The ratio is still usually 10:1. And I really aim to change that. And part of the problem is that we need to show the world that it’s normal for women to do these things. There’s nothing special about being a women and doing sports. So, I don’t want people to receive acclaim just because they are a female. I think they should receive acclaim for being badass and pushing themselves. But part of striving to do that is getting more women involved so that we see women doing those things.
Women really respond to seeing other women participate. One of the things I started was the Girls Only Slackline Festival. I started that festival as a place where women could be a majority because 99 percent of the time women are a minority in highlining. If you go to a highline festival, even if there’s a lot of women there, it’s rare that there are many women on the lines. And so I just wanted to give women a chance to be a majority, to interact with one another, to share information, to connect and inspire each other.“
What spurred your motivation to start that?
“Several girls said to me when there were far, far, less women participating, “Oh, I really hate highlining with guys because they’re very aggressive, and they expect me to be aggressive also if I want to get time on the line. So, I often end up taking a backseat to them because I’m more quiet, and I just want to get on the line in my own time, but they’re just, ‘Go, go, go.'”
That wasn’t an experience I had personally. I never thought about the difference between me and my male counterparts. But hearing that from so many women, I thought, ‘Why don’t we just create a space that’s for us? And we can be natural, and be in our own skin without thinking about it.’
The first festival was only six women. But there was a lot of interest in the following year, so I kept doing it, and kept doing it and this past year, there were more than 50 women there. So I’ve seen that it’s grown and it’s really created a unique space where women can be in a non-competitive environment and share knowledge and connect with each other.“
With these projects, Dickey is creating a comfortable space where women can grow together and be represented in an appropriate light for an athlete. This is all-too-important in the digital age where media representation can shape opinions and form subconscious expectations of who belongs to certain categories. In a Backpacker magazine study of gender representation in the most popular outdoor-lifestyle magazines (Outside, Backpacker, Bicycling, Rock and Ice, Trail Runner, and Surfer), males far outnumbered females in staffing, article contributions and in picture representation. Moreover, female athletes are often featured for being a female in the sport, rather than an athlete in it, highlighting further the case that a female successful in the sport realm is anomaly rather than normality.
Why do you think it’s important for women to be more visible in these sports? Not in the light where they’re being acclaimed for being women, but being acclaimed for their talent.
“I think there’s often a lack of media showing women participating in these sports, and that keeps that same pattern of women thinking it’s a sport for men. If you only see men doing something, a little girl doesn’t automatically think, “I wanna do that too.” But when a little girl sees women doing something, they think, “I can do that too.” And regardless of what your political beliefs are in the last election, just having a women with the potential to become president has the possibility to invoke such a huge social change. When I started highlining, I started with all men, but my first question was, “Are there women who do this? What have they done?”
It was so inspirational for me to know what other women were doing. So I think that it’s really important that we show women are doing this. We don’t need to draw attention to the fact that they are women. Rather, just show it. Show it the same way you show men doing it.“
Highlining, as stated, is really, really young. The cultural attributes are there, but not as deeply as with other sports. That put’s it in a hopeful position where, if the right voices are allowed to speak, there is a potential to get women and people of color into the outdoors in a constructive way. Hopefully, that’ll change the commonplace notion of who has what it takes to take on the wild.
Jess Fauria is a KCPR staff member and Cal Poly graphic communications junior. She conducted this interview and wrote all additional copy. The photographs are courtesy of Faith Dickey and the photographers who shot them.