As a curious newbie slack liner with an obsession for learning how to high line, I contacted Australian High Line record holder Shawn Mclaren from Feet Off Ground and rocked up on his doorstep one weekend to interview him in his garden. Needless to say, he wasn't weirded out by my camping hair and scattered interview style and we had a lot of fun. Hope you enjoy!
Alethea: How did you start slacklining?
Shawn: How did I start…I started in Tonsai.
Alethea: Where’s that?
Shawn: Tonsai is in Thailand. It’s like a climbing….
Shawn: Yeah exactly…on this island…all these climbers go there and they have a whole bunch of slacklines set up at the various guesthouses and bars. So I tried it there for the first time, not realizing how…I mean it just looked like nothing. My friend just showed me and I was like that looks easy and I could not even stand on it.
Alethea: It’s so hard at first!
Shawn: Totally. I was wobbling all over the place. I actually just wrote it off you know ‘cause I just assumed that’s like a skill that you either have it or you don’t.
Alethea : It can be one of those things that you think people are naturally gifted at but it really takes work and you have to train those stabilizing muscles and activate certain parts of your glutes and legs and core and areas that you don’t think about in everyday life really.
Shawn: Yeah! I teach it now and we have gymnasts and dancers and people with lots of movement training and no one has ever just got on it and been able to walk it. We just don’t use those muscles at all in anything else. You may use some of them for stability (in another activities) but nothing like what you need for this. It’s not something you just acquire.
Alethea: Totally. Where does slacklining originate from?
Shawn: It started in Yosemite. That was like a rest day activity that people used to do when they weren’t climbing. They would just hook up their slings between the trees or they walked on the chains.
Alethea: So it just kind of morphed from there in a way?
Shawn: Slowly but surely they set up the first high lines there – some epic, crazy stuff. But that was in the ‘70’s and it took ages for anything to get momentum. It probably took til like the mid 2000’s or maybe the start of 2000 where people were doing it a bit more and trick lining started to emerge. From say like 2010, that’s when high lining got really big…I wouldn’t call it mainstream but a lot more people were doing it. I tried it for the first time in about 2010 and then wrote it off and was like no way, can’t do it. I went home after that trip and I think it was a few months later and the seed had been planted and I just has this idea, ‘I’m gonna to buy a slackline. I’m gonna figure that thing out’.
Alethea: "I can’t let it conquer me."
Shawn: Ha ha yeah exactly. I set it up in the backyard and it was horrible again but I just did it every day. Then after a week I remember I was able to walk this tiny thing which was about 7 metres and it was just felt so satisfying to get from something that felt so impossible.
Alethea: How long have you been slacklining for?
Shawn: About 5 years and I was dabbling with it for about 3 years and then I found out about the high lining community in Sydney and as soon as I saw that, I was like that’s what I want to do for sure, and that was a whole other learning curve. It took ages to overcome… there was like FEAR involved in that.
Alethea: I have one of those wider, beginner slacklines and I ratchet it pretty tight but I see people on thinner ones a bit looser and like surfing almost (makes motion side to side) and I see people who trickline…roughly how many types of lining are there?
Shawn: Tricklining is one that’s popular that is on two inch webbing which is what most people start on.
Alethea : For tricklining do they ratchet things differently?
Shawn: The tricklines will have two mega ratchets, bigger than the standard ratchets..they’ll tension it from both ends so you get a lot more power in that. So those lines are super high tension. Then you have a one inch line which is what we call the primitive set up. It’s what they started with in Yosemite. They went out of favour when Gibbon came in and Gibbon introduced all the ratchets. Then people started bringing it back in and were like no we want to walk on this stuff and now all of the long lining which is the progression of that is where you are walking longer lines in the park and the high lining are all done on 1 inch webbing.
When we do our workshops, we usually teach on one inch webbing so people are already ready for that. It doesn’t matter what you start on ‘cause it’s going to be difficult either way. It’s just what you get used to. Get used to this ‘cause if you want to progress to this you want to be used to this anyway. That’s why we just teach on that most of the time. That's basically the divisions. You’ve got trick lining, high lining and then people kind of combine other things into it like yoga lining.
Alethea: That’s hectic. I’ve seen where people are doing the splits on a line and I’m like oh man I can barely just stand on it! It’s really impressive. And did you learn from anybody or did you learn within the community of slackliners?
Shawn: I just taught myself. Just doing it everyday. It wasn’t that big at that point or if it was I certainly didn’t know about it. There was no one to really learn from and I didn’t even know that there was a community at that point. I was mucking around on my own for a couple of years. I learned to walk it and wasn’t sure what to do with it. After that I had been travelling and using it on my travels and that was really fun ‘cause people come up and want to have a go. It’s a great way to interact. Anyways so I came back to Sydney and I found the Slackline Sydney community and that’s when I saw about long lining which I hadn’t seen and I hadn’t realized it was a thing so that was another progression which piqued my interest.
Alethea: Would rock climbing experience help to know how to rig things in slacklining or am I assuming that?
Shawn: No the climbing definitely helps with the rigging and slack lining helps improve your climbing in the way of balance. I felt that I was much more efficient when I was climbing thanks to my slacklining. I could trust my feet a lot more and my balance a lot more. That was a cool side benefit of it. Once I met the Slackline Sydney crew I just joined in on one of the high lining missions.
Alethea: What was your first time high lining like?
Shawn: I was just petrified. My hands were sweating and I needed to chalk up just to get rid of the sweat on my hands. I really couldn’t do anything. I managed to stand up ‘cause you start from sitting so I managed to stand up which was just a total fluke. I mean I just stood up and my mind went completely blank and I totally whipped off about 5 seconds later. That was kind of it 'cause there were so many people there and I only got one go. Then that started this kind of obsession with it. With high lining the conditions have to be a certain way so I couldn’t do it everyday. I could only do it on the odd weekend when other people were going ‘cause I didn’t have my own high lining gear so it was super slow progress. In fact there was pretty much no progress for about a year. I was just trying this one objective – I just want to walk one high line. I was trying all sorts of different lines, whatever was there. I just couldn’t do it. I got to the point that I thought this was impossible, That only other people can turn off their fear and do it. By that stage I wasn’t actually scared but something was holding me back. I don’t know what that was but then by this stage I had bought my whole rig as well. I thought if I’m going to learn this thing I need to have it all myself, be able to set it up myself and do it when I want not just when other people are going. I went 6 months of just doing it here and there and trying it a little bit..so I wasn’t feeling any progression so I got my own. I was gonna go every weekend and set it up and try it out and nothing was working. I could stand up and take a few steps and fall. Nothing felt in control and I was trying all these different simulation exercises in the park. I was trying to simulate what it was going to be like.
Alethea: Do people have to train for ages on a normal slackline for ages in order to build up to high lining?
Shawn: You definitely have to train for it. Your body has got to be ready. You have to know that your body is going to be ready to walk that length, that you can walk that tension in the line. That was something that I hadn’t figured out yet… that it was the difference in tension between high lining from slacklining in a park. There’s much lower tensions on a high line. That’s why you see in a park people now just rigging them up super slack. It’s just something you get used to over time and that was one way that I actually started to figure something out. And I remember taking a friend out and he had never done any high lining, he’d only done a little bit of slacklining and he was like getting up there and giving it a real good go and he was just trying it and he wasn’t afraid at all and I could kind of see THAT.
Alethea: Did that spark a bit of a healthy competition in you, were you like "wait, I've got to break through this 'cause he can do it?"
Shawn: It wasn’t like a competition thing but more like how is he doing that? I just needed to tap into that so I went straight after him and was emulating his confidence. I knew I just had to try and at the end of the day it’s just a slackline…something I have set up in the park and have done like 20 times already. So I just went with that mindset and was like I’m not afraid anymore and wouldn’t be controlled by that. I remember standing up and walking it. And it was a bit wobbly and knew I could handle that.
Alethea: So you had to just reframe it in your head a little bit?
Shawn: Yeah I went all the way. That was the most satisfying feeling for sure. I’ve never had a feeling like that where you’ve had to overcome so many obstacles and doubts and fears. So that was really satisfying.
Alethea: Do the fears come back sometimes and if they do, do you have a way of talking yourself out of it?
Shawn: Fear doesn’t come back. It was sort of …it didn’t go away instantly, it was reduced enough so that I could get into the zone and walk it. I would have the fear before getting on and I’d still have a bit of a fear walking it for a bit while I was getting used to it. You know I have a friend actually who was in my boat, really struggling. He was a really good slackliner – like walking 100 metre long lines in the park and he couldn’t stand on any high lines. He was totally controlled by fear. It was a year it went on like that for him but when he broke through and walked his first high line it was like the fear was instantly shattered. Every high line he has gone on since then he just stands up and walks it. For me it was a little bit of a slower progression. The fear was there but I could control it and get through it and then I think about after year of that I am now at a place where I don’t get scared.
Alethea: It’s almost like a rite of passage - everybodys got to bust through it.
Shawn: Yeah everyone has it in certain doses – I have another friend who managed to walk his first high line on his second day. That’s like super rare although it’s happening more and more nowadays which is frustrating (laughs).
Alethea: Those people are doing some sort of NLP training of hypnosis before it haha.
Shawn: Ha! I think people are just training in the right way that’s all – on the right tensions…which was something I wasn’t used to and so if you train in the right way I think it’s definitely easier to transfer the skill over as long as you can control the fear. Otherwise you are trying to do too many things at the same time. I was like scared, I didn’t have the skill, I wasn’t used to the set up-
Alethea: You’re over a big canyon.
Shawn: Yeah there’s too many variables there.
Alethea: You just have to break it down and manage each area until you are comfortable…
Alethea: Is there a minimum length for high lining? What’s the average length somebody would do for their first time?
Shawn: 20 metres of 30 metres is pretty common. It’s hard to get less than 20 metres just ‘cause the gaps in the cliff – you aren’t going to bother with something that’s like 2 metres. I think in Sydney the shortest is like 20 metres. There might be a 15 as well.
Alethea: Where do people do it in Sydney?
Shawn: Places around North Head. You’ve got places in the Eastern suburbs along the seacliffs.
Alethea: This is exciting to me now. I’ve been waiting to see it start getting more popular...’cause you know I’m not part of this kind of community (meaning Blue Mountains outdoorsy/climbing community) and didn't know it existed.
Shawn: It’s still a bit of an underground scene to an extent. If you go Facebook you can find us and get involved pretty easily.
Alethea: How long ago did you start the company?
Shawn: I think two years ago now. We conceived of it two years ago and then it took 6 months to get all the ideas in place and speaking to webbing manufacturers and all of that. So it was May of last year that we launched and we launched it at Climb Fit and its been going pretty cool since then. It’s been cool to watch it grow organically. We get all these really interesting calls from people.
Alethea: Do you see a certain demographic mainly coming through?
Shawn: It seems to be a lot of climbers and funnily enough a lot of mums! Mums love it!
Alethea: I think it’s because it’s like a forced meditation and to get rid of the noise in your head for a even few seconds is priceless. It really is. I talk to other mums and it’s even been written about. As mums and wives you’re not just doing your day to day, you are projecting forward all the time, prepping and making sure that things are lined up...literally you are projecting so far ahead and you have to get out of your head or you’ll go a bit crazy and you drain yourself mentally. So you can have that point where you can have no noise, it’s just you and your breath and your focus point and it’s physically challenging. My first time I went slacklining (this is embarrassing to say) but due to my pelvis being a bit too mobile and my glutes needing a bit more work, I was able to walk the line within the first two hours due to having a great teacher but I couldn’t walk properly for about an entire week after that one session. It nearly killed me for a week – I was so sore. I just cranked magnesium each night. And although it caused me so much soreness it was exactly what I needed and I think strengthening the core and all those stabilising muscles is really great for mums. So it’s really cool to hear that demographic is getting into it.
Shawn: It’s been super surprising and it’s really nice teaching them – they’re always psyched.
Alethea: Do you do anything else to sort of cross train for slacklining?
Shawn: I wouldn’t call it cross training but I do yoga. I’m a yoga teacher as well. I teach Hatha and a little bit of Power Yoga.
Alethea: And do you do meditation or do you find this is your meditation?
Shawn: I actually started with meditation. It was the first thing that I found. Then I found yoga.
Alethea: Most people go the opposite way.
Shawn: Yeah I don’t know how I found it the other way. That was how it worked out and yoga was a really good extension of my meditation practice. Combining those two together and then I found slack lining and then I was like this is even better meditation. Like I got really forced into it and now I try and do all of them.
Alethea: Is there a particular style of meditation that you practice?
Shawn: I started with Vipassana.
Alethea: Whoa go big or go home! (laughing)
Shawn: Haha yeah just threw myself in the deep end.
Alethea: Did you say that you teach at one of the climbing gyms in Cammeray?
Shawn: No, we just do events there. We do our workshops scattered around – we do them in Milsons Point and in Surry Hills…
Alethea: (whispering urgently) Come to the beaches.
Shawn: Haha yeah well we actually have – you live in Manly?
Alethea: Actually Mona Vale – a few beaches up.
Shawn: Ah Mona Vale. We have a friend in Manly who just did her instructor training.
Alethea: You can do instructor training?! With you guys?
Shawn: Not with us. With Slackline Australia. Kind of in conjunction with us. We help organize the whole thing. It’s really fun. Actually we have an annual general meeting in December and we are just going to talk about where we are going to move forward to with slacklining in Australia and what’s going on with our instructors. And we might shift things up a bit there.
Alethea: I was going to ask you on a more personal level, where you want to see your slacklining progress to. Are you pretty stoked with where you are at? What are you working on for you? Or are you mainly focusing on the business?
Shawn: At the start of the year, my objective was to be the Australian high line record holder. That was my goal. Actually the goal was something I wanted to do last year but for various reasons I wasn’t really ready and I was trying to walk longer and longer lines but was missing some skills and so started to put that together last year. At the start of this year I was really wanting to get this record which was 90 metres at the time and I wanted to do over 100 metres. There was a 130 metre high line just up the road from here just at Mount Vic. First we had the Blue Mountains High Lining Festival which is a big gathering with a bunch of professional slackliners in March. Check it out – it’s really fun and so many people get involved and we have so many lines set up. Such a spectacle. Anyways so I used that as an opportunity to try everything out – we had all kinds of lengths of lines and different sizes. But like went hard at it for three days and was completely thrashed. Took a bit of a break and then in May I set up this 130 metre high line and the objective was I’m just going to leave this there until I walked it. So it was pretty much every day but I took certain rest days. I remember walking it and that was kind of like how I was telling you about the first long line I ever walked like really satisfying. That feeling again. Maybe it was even bigger cause I had built it up in my head a little bit. It was also that I was on the line for so long. It took me like half an hour to walk the line so that I consider that real meditation. You cannot waiver. If you waiver you’re going to fall off. You have to be in the zone the whole time. It was such a nice feeling to feel super controlled that whole time and I remember getting to the last 20 metres and…
Alethea: Do you get a bit too excited when you were almost at the end?
Shawn: That’s what had happened to me previously. I’d get three quarters of the way and then I’d just think I’m almost there and then I’d fall. I took that last 20 metres and knew I wasn’t going to fall. I was so confident. I don’t know how. I just knew I wasn’t going to fall and walked all the way to the end. No problem. At that stage you are just so used to the frequency of the line. it was such a nice feeling.
Alethea: So to make a record or break a record , if you fall, you have to start again?
Alethea: It has to be continuous.
Shawn: Yep from the start to the end it has to be continuous without falling.
Shawn: Yep that’s the rule.
Alethea: What are you progressing to now?
Shawn: Some people always wanna go bigger and bigger and I feel like it' super nice to be satisfied with an achievement you have made otherwise I dunno, well what're we doing it for? So I was totally satisfied with that. Content but not complacent. Now I'm definitely interested in pushing it further. We have some cool projects that I wanna do around the Blue Mountains. We have tried to set a few up in the meantime but we've had bad weather and wind and variables to contend with. And at the moment we are designing a new webbing that we want to use to break the record again. Now it's just a really nice feeling being on these really long lines 'cause you're in a meditative state for so long. I guess now I'm less interested in length, I'm most interested in finding these really beautiful gaps and beautiful natural features.
Alethea: Well you're in the right place for it. This is absolutely stunning up here. Can I ask, how do you get the far end of the line over to where you need to rig it?
Shawn: if it's a really long line, we'll use a drone and fly it across.
Alethea: I thought I heard someone say that the other day and I was like "WHAH? They use A DRONE?!" This is fascinating to me.
Shawn: Drones have made things way more accessible. Other times, you can have just bare canyons where you can walk the lines down and across and make the connections that way. But in the Blue Mountains there are so many trees you can't even think about doing that. So yeah flying to straight over with a drone, that's the easiest way. Then this summer coming up we're going to Patagonia.
Alethea: (gasps) Are you going to Torres del Paine? Everytime I see a photo of that place, it's just mind boggling.
Shawn: Yes Torres del Paine in January and we have all these objective so we are keen to see how that goes. We've trying to get the North Face grant as well which will be cool if they can get behind us.
Alethea: What would be a piece of advice that you would give to someone starting slack lining?
Shawn: Develop a relationship with failure. Don't be scared of failure. That's probably the number one. And learn from someone who has already done it 'cause that will speed up your process a lot. You don't have to learn from your own mistakes, you can learn from other peoples mistakes and get there a lot faster.
Alethea: What would you say personally that slack lining has done for you?
Shawn: It's given me a lot of confidence. In kind of a cliche kind of way, it's made me realise there's a lot more that I can do than I thought. It's given me a good relationship towards failure and using that as a tool of progressing. It seems to translate to a lot of other things...cause how often when you do something and you stuff it up. I now have a completely different outlook on that and I feel much more resilient in the sense that I see things in a much more positive light. Whatever the event is, I can kinda of draw the positive out and see it in a different light and know that I can try it differently the next time. It's an amazing journey. And I think it's opened up my eyes to the world out there...the beauty in nature. Its given me a really nice rapport with nature.
Alethea: You have an amazing job and lifestyle. I mean so many people just work inside under fluorescent lights.
Shawn: Well that was me - I started working in IT...for 5 or 6 years that was my job. I was just in the corporate world and then I found yoga and that was an escape and I started teaching. And I found slack lining and formed this business with my business partner, Max, and so that's worlds apart from everything that I've done before. I've kind of been figuring it out as I go. It's good for me to be doing something I'm passionate about. For so long when I was working in IT, I didn't like it but it enabled me to do things that I liked so I was fine with it in that sense 'cause I could just work for 6 months and then go travelling for 6 months. But then a point came where I actually want to do something that I enjoy and don't have to run away or escape and now I've been teaching for 3 years and running this business for a couple of years and I'm so psyched to teach every day. I mean it's not hard to do...you just have to find what you are passionate about. I know when I got into slack lining I had no skill for it at all and now, not to sound arrogant at all but I'm the Australian record holder...from someone who couldn't even stand on their first slack line. That's a sign that anyone can do it. I'm not a skilled athlete. I was a hermit in school and didn't do ANY sports. In school I was super determined to get high grades and do well and I transferred that motivation into slack lining. I knew that if I did it enough, I would get better. So if are you are willing to try you will get better. You have to be willing to try and deal with failure.
Find out about Feet Off Grounds slack line workshops and events here.