Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Walking in the air

Dean Potter seems, to me, an unusual guy. He is an avid rock climber and in addition he loves to highine. Highlining involves crossing a nylon cord tethered at both ends: a bit like tight rope walking but the nylon is about an inch wide and seems to be usually flat.

Nothing unusual so far. This sort of 'rope walking' might be a great way to improve balance and sharpen focus when attached a few feet off the ground. The unusual thing is that Dean Potter likes to do this whilst the line is tethered between rock faces. Oh yeah...nearly forgot...he likes to do it without any safety harness....!

Whilst this sort of thing seems crazy to me I was drawn into the documentary I saw the other night called 'The Sky Walker' on channel 4 and saw some obvious parallels with the martial arts. I'm intrigued as to the way he deals with the fear. An earlier pioneer highliner who used safety lines spoke of the amazing fear you get, even knowing that when the same line is tethered low to the ground can be almost jogged across! This pioneer took many times before he could get across to the other side. He says that it's difficult to combat animal instincts of fear of falling and self preservation: all his fibres in his body screaming at him to stay on the ledge and not venture out. the pay off of course is the feeling of being alive upon arrival on the other side...

But Dean Potter takes this to another dimension. Sure, he admits nerves and we see him trying out the walk on the highline with a safety harness but he's learnt to control his fear. I think he mentioned that this is what drives him: the feeling of being alive! I don't think he's blase about the risks he's taking; he mentions a good friend who died (doing extreme mountaineering) but he needs to feel this aliveness and has to go through a process of fear to get there. In order to do this he controls his fear through breathing and focus, "I'm focusing on my breath and trying to stay real calm", he says. As well as giving him a massive rush it also heightens his awareness to the extent, he says, that in extreme moments he can see the air move.

Now I think he is unusual, not because he wants to conquer fear but he goes to such extreme lengths to do so. We all want to conquer fear. We all have demons to face (this phrase always mystified me when I used to watch trashy martial arts films but I've solved that now- I don't watch them any more!) but most of us are happy enough to deal with tricky presentations at work or a karate championship. That sudden burst of adrenalin, pounding heart and cold sweat in the hands but despite all this you know you have to perform. Occasionally I can drop out of this cycle by recognising that this sales pitch or kata I need to perform isn't a life threatening situation. It just has to be done. But to be honest I find that this takes the edge off my performance and actually the adrenalin squirt helps keep me sharp. Focusing on the task and breathing regulation as Dean Potter does helps enormously but in his case, it really is life or death.

I watched the documentary with detached interest and admiration for the guy 'til it got to the scene where the camera records his passage across the line at considerable height and it was then that I realised explicitly what sort of situation this guy was putting himself in. See for yourself here: (note, although some of the film shows footage directly under his feet I believe this was due to a downward facing camera rather than him looking directly down)


Sue C said...

I can definately see how controlled breathing might help here! I wonder what motivates people to do these extreme things? And the other thing I would want to know is how do they put the rope in place for him to walk across?

Dan Prager said...

In theory, I would train for such a feat by learning the technique six inches off the ground, then at the same height on a windy day, then some form stress inoculation.

In practice, that is insane.

Amazing footage, and clearly a huge adrenalin rush, though.

Dojo Rat said...

Holy DNA!
That was great!