In 2012, the first International Highline Meeting festival was held in Monte Piana, Italy, and attracted "thrillseekers," eager to showcase their slackline skills in a more extreme environment and feel a sense of community. Austria-based outdoor adventure photographer Sebastian Wahlhuetter teamed up with hammock manufacturer Ticket To The Moon to add a rather distinct twist to the event, and to help put on the event in various locations each year. We sat down with Sebastian to learn more about this ongoing unique event, his involvement with it and what makes someone climb into a hammock thousands of feet above land.
Aurora Photos: Unfortunately, it looks like this great event was canceled this year. How long have you been involved with Ticket To The Moon, and how long have you been involved in planning these events?
Sebastian: Yes, unfortunately the "Monte Piana Highline Meeting" was canceled this year and last; however, we still created hammock gatherings those 2 years. In 2016 it took place in Bosnia at the "Drill and Chill," and this year we moved back to Italy again but to a different place, a festival called Bismantova. So far there have been 5 big gatherings. I have been involved with Ticket to the Moon for around 6 years now and planning these events for around 4 years.
AU: How did you first get involved with the event and the hammock company? How do you choose the location for each year?
SW: The manager of TTTM Europe, Igor Scotland, is a good friend of mine and also a highline athlete. That's how we initially met - through a highline photo shoot many years ago. When I heard about this hammock project I was totally taken by the idea and together we developed the initial project further. There is no fixed plan for where and when the gatherings will happen, but since the organization takes a lot of time and energy, we usually combine it with festivals that highline athletes are attending anyway. This makes it easier, since these athletes usually know what they are doing on such a set up and how to deal with the exposure and still have fun. And fun is an important part of this whole thing!
AU: I imagine organizing something like this is a huge process. Are there any special permits you need for the hammocks? I believe there are a few places it’s illegal within the US to slackline; are there any places you’re unable to slack / high line in Europe?
SW: There are no special permits for the hammocks, outside the permits we're already getting for the high lines as part of the festival. Highlining itself is quite a gray area. It is mostly tolerated but there are also places where it is not so easy. Further, in Austria you need to clear every single highline a couple of days in advance with the aviation authority since there are a lot of rescue and supply helicopters around that need to know about such obstacles. It's pretty simple though and just an online form to be filled out. Other countries have other rules. One of the more problematic parts is building new anchors since you can not come everywhere and just bolt a couple of anchors to set up your line. There are also areas like Saxon Switzerland, where bolting or any use of cams, etc. is prohibited, so you can only set up highlines with natural anchors (usually loads of slings around a tower). So there are different regulations for different areas.
AU: Last year, you said there were 17 hammocks with 19 people, and the majority are professional athletes who are all pretty comfortable in this situation. What’s the craziest thing you’ve seen someone doing at this event?
SW: Hmmm...craziest thing? Not sure about that. I don't think that there were lot of "crazy" things happening. Once one of the participants tried to surf the line while all the others were in the hammocks. That looked pretty sketchy. The coolest, most impressive thing I've gotten to witness was the live performed music at the rainbow gathering in Monte Piana 2015, where some people brought instruments and actually jammed incredibly well together!
AU: Most people think of high liners as daredevils. On the other side of things, it looks to me like they are calculated risk takers who prepare extremely well for an adventure. Can you tell me a bit about what kind of personality / makeup / skills a person needs to be successful at highline or slackline?
SW: Yes, I totally agree with the latter. Highlining is probably one of the safest sports I know. Since they have to take so much flak for being risk takers the whole sport is extremely well calculated, down to every last detail. I don't believe there have been any fatal incidents. So as long as we are not talking about free soloing or the hunt for the next world record (probably something like 2 miles), I am confident to say that this sport is solid safe. However, that does not mean that highlining is not totally mentally demanding. Sitting on a one inch webbing exposed hundreds of feet in the air and thinking/trying to stand up is psychologically still one of the most challenging and intense things I have done. Even though you know nothing can happen.
For example, the setup for the hammocks on the highline is a quite sophisticated rig with multiple redundancies to keep the whole action extremely safe. There is also live force measurement done with a force cell to always see how much workload is on the line. Bottom line: It's safe and all the people involved are secured and attached directly to the line. No one is "just" laying in a hammock.
About the personality – well I think this depends as in any sport on ones ambition. If you want to make a career as an athlete (not that there would be many who did), you have to train and practice and step up your mental game quite a bit with a solid strategy and training. In general, literally everyone can step on a slackline and learn to walk a decent amount of meters. However, before you try to step on a highline you have to be quite solid in your ground skills - otherwise you have no chance to even get up. In my career I met all kinds of athletes - those who treat it more as a hobby and enjoy the mere art of balancing. For those people distance and records are not important. But there are also those who are totally focused on getting better, higher, longer and who follow more the competitive approach just like in any sport.
AU: All adventure sports require a unique mentality / different gear set ups to capture great photos. Do you have a favorite set-up?
SW: That depends on the project. I usually have to carry my gear some distance in an alpine environment or even climb with it so I always think twice what I take. Basically I work with a Canon setup of fixed (35, 50) and zoom (16-35, 24-70, 70-200) lenses and I usually bring some external lightning. Recently I started using two Elinchrome ELB400 setups with Spot-Reflectors since they are small but powerful and fit together with my other gear in one backpack (yes it took me awhile to find that position where everything fits in one bag!). I work with several Mindshift gear bags since they have a great line up with different bags for different needs (hanging on a rope, hiking long distances, etc...).
AU: Do you slack line or highline yourself? If so, how did you first get involved in it?
SW: I used to slackline pretty much in my past several years ago and did it long before most people here in Europe even knew what this is. It all started when a climbing colleague came around 15 years ago with a photo of someone walking the spire in Yosemite and so we did some research and built our own version of a slackline. I also walked some short highlines in my life, mostly so that I can say I've done it! But nowadays I almost don't slackline anymore since the photographic part consumes most of my resources when on such projects. Also, my personal focus shifted more towards climbing over the years.
AU: Have YOU ever gotten in one of the hammocks?
SW: Yes - if you managed to get on the highline in the first place than being in a hammock is not the problem 😉 Probably the most difficult part is to get into it but once you have managed that you just enjoy the view.
Sebastian Wahlhuetter is a professional editorial and commercial photographer based in Austria who has been featured on National Geographic's site, Red Bull Adventure and Illume, and in magazines like Rock & Ice, Men's Health and Outdoor-magazine. His personal focus is on the outdoors, and environmental themes ranging from alpine photography to urban adventures. See more of Sebastian's adventure photography, including highline, urban slackline, and free running here!