Scharnitz 1. International Slacklining Festival

I didn’t know what to expect when I found a flyer for the first international slackline event to be held in Scharnitz Austria, but I knew I was excited about it and I was going! I couldn’t find any friends to join me but had no problem going alone either. I got hooked on slacklining in October after trying it for the first time, but didn’t have much opportunity to practice during the winter. When the spring started, I tried it every now and then on a 5 meter luggage webbing line I bought at the hardware store for 5€. I had never even seen a line set up other than in pictures.
Saturday July 1. I steered my car down the crowded B17 towards Austria in the best of moods. Still a little tired from watching the World Cup the night before, I had started off driving leisurely but the closer I got to the festival, the more excited I grew and thus, the faster my little Peugeot plugged along. Some dark rain clouds clinging to the mountains had me questioning my plan to camp outside that night as I pulled up to the sports field. I could see some lines set up throughout the forest and people pitching tents as I made my way to the registration. I had pre-registered online, so just had to pick up my bracelet. A few days before the start, there were “only” 50 people registered; an intimate group size; but the parking lot was full and the organization had pages of spontaneous registrations. All in all, it turned out to be about 225 people taking part!
I took a stroll around to check everything out a little: there were lines set up all over the place! They were all different lengths, different materials, different systems to set it up and a lot of pretty talented people. A line had been set across the soccer field, 100 meters long! The line “hung” about 2 meters in the air, a long drop for a misstep I thought. There was a very short and wide line set up which the guys were using to jump on. A few particularly adept guys were throwing acrobatic tricks on the jump line which was very impressive. I found a nice short line to try out myself. There were a few people in line and we just rotated through. I got up onto it and found it much stiffer than my luggage webbing, it tossed me off after 2 steps. There was a 7 or 8 meter line set up right next to the shorty, and I seemed to do much better on that one. A couple of guys were practicing jumping onto the line as a starting method… I caught their fever and tried it also. The atmosphere was very open, friendly and supportive with lots of encouragement and cheering each other on. It was already just awesome!
A little old white-haired man, Sascha, began drawing a crowd around a concoction he assembled which had 2 wooden circles covered in fake grass carpeting, spinning in opposite directions. Sascha, a Russian tightrope walker, elegantly stepped onto one disc and “surfed” to the middle where he stepped onto the other disc, bringing him around to complete a figure 8. He kept increasing the speed and the spectators cheered him on. He “surfed” several figure 8’s before stepping off to let the curious crowd give it a go. He turned the speed down low but only a few brave souls tried it out while the shy majority had a laugh at our failed attempts and ungraceful stumbling. He gave us some feedback and we kept at it, Sascha started turning the speed up on us. I had a blast trying it out: it almost felt like summer camp. The faster the discs went, the worse we looked and the funnier it was.
The organization, headed up by pro climber and photographer, Heinz Zak, called everyone together for an official welcome and went through the basic schedule. He introduced Chongo, one of the very first slackliners from Yosemite Valley. The whole concept evolved from rock climbers balancing on metal chains to kill the time. The chains turned into nylon webbing and the slackline was born. The 2 men demonstrated their abilities a little before having a few younger festival participants (gymnasts) show some of their skills on the jump line. Backflips, splits, handstands… you name it; these kids could do it! After that, the group split off to try the various lines themselves. I had the chance to keep practicing some longer lines as well as also managing a split on the jump line (holding on to someone of course, and even then it was really hard). Some were practicing a sitting start which looked difficult. I was curious to try however, and started working on that for a while. When I got tired of slacking, I grabbed my 5€ plastic soccer ball and went over to the field to juggle it around a little. The perfectly groomed grass felt like a dream compared to the mix of roots, pine cones and rocks on the ground in the woods under the slacklines! There was a food and drink stand as well as some beer tables and benches set up between the woods and the soccer field. Groups of people started gathering on the grass for some food and sunshine. Some others started gathering over by the start of the 100m line, but no one made it very far. A guy came over and asked to join me, but he wasn’t very good at keeping the ball up and quit soon thereafter. I kind of zoned out juggling the ball and enjoying the sunshine until Michi, a soccer player from the Vienna countryside, joined me and demoed a few cool moves. We had been playing for a good chunk of time before we noticed that someone had made it to the middle of the soccer field up on the line. He seemed to be walking mid air as the line wasn’t always easy to see, it looked amazing. His white pants, tanned body and the lush green grass caught the light of the setting sun and was magical. We played a little more soccer until he was closer to the end of the line when we stopped to watch in awe. As he finished the 100m, everyone around cheered with admiration. Michi and I resumed playing once he was finished as the crowds trickled out of the woods and onto the soccer field. A local band, “Cavemen,” was getting ready to preform in front of a little wooden hut out of which I could distinctly hear the sounds of a penalty shoot out going on. I had intended to watch Portugal vs England that day but had so much fun at the festival that I changed my mind. But the sounds of a shootout drew me into the totally packed little hut to watch the final moments on a small TV. Following Portugal’s victory, Michi and I played a while longer until I was so hungry that it was impossible to ignore it. I ate a muffin, ok, 2 muffins before checking out the forest to see if I could find Georg, who had pretty much missed the whole first day. Finally meeting up, we ran to a nearby gas station where I found a flavored water bottle aptly called “Balance” and somehow an ice cream made it into my hand. Back at the festival some other guys wanted to play soccer and I was easily persuaded to take part. This round thoroughly lacked the grace and elegance of playing with Michi and it turned into basically kicking the ball as far as possible and running around like madmen. As the sky grew dark, the band began their performance and we finally joined all the others relaxing on the field with a cool beer. The soothing smell of the burning logs wafted through the air; I went into the forest area to check the bonfire out before grabbing my camping cooker and noodles to make some dinner. At some point Chongo joined the group on the grass and I got to talk to him for quite a while about his real profession, writing, as well as his interests in math and physics. He talked about some of his experiences living in Yosemite Valley and about some of the wild and crazy people he had encountered in life. I could have listened to his stories for hours without getting bored! I hope to have a portfolio of wild adventures too some day! A few guys began setting up a big projections screen for the screening of “Highliners,” which we were looking forward too. Once the band was finished and the movie was about to start, I wanted to grab a small sleeping bag since the air had cooled off quite a bit. I looked for my car key which I thought I had with my camping stove but it wasn’t there. I could feel the nervousness rising as I checked my shoes, cooking kit, around the circle we were sitting… all to no avail. I was using one guy’s headlamp and still had no success. The guys offered to help look after the movie but I didn’t want to put it off. I went to look for Georg again; where on earth did he disappear to this time?! I finally found him in the little hut grabbing a beer and asked him if he had any idea of where my key was. “Of course” he answered in German as he pulled it out of his jacket pocket. A wave of relief poured over me and I rushed back to the movie screen with my cozy sleeping bag. The movie was produced by Heinz and featured a free solo highline of the Lost Arrow Spire in the US by Dean Potter, a legendary climber and slackliner and overall natural sports athlete. He was actually supposed to be at the festival but came down with the flu and cancelled his trip to Europe. I translated from German for Chongo and a Kiwi who was there as Heinz introduced the film. After Highliner, we watched a movie about Heinz’s free solo climb of the route “Separate Reality” which wasn’t any less impressive. The Cavemen entertained us with another set of music while some went to enjoy the bonfire. I brought my cooking stuff over to the fire to finally made some dinner which I hadn’t gotten around to yet. I was absolutely famished regardless of having had a few beers which usually take the edge off. I shared some noodles with the Kiwi who didn’t have anything with him and was pleasantly surprised when he offered to do the dishes. I happily accepted and headed to the car to get some socks and shoes, and soap! My feet were getting pretty cold but were the dirtiest you could possibly imagine, so I thought it would be wise to wash them first. Once I was away from the campfire over near the cars, I caught a glimpse of the most magnificent starry sky you could imagine. Billions of twinkling little diamonds in the eternal darkness… it was breathtaking! I decided I would be sleeping out in the middle of the soccer field to see as much of the sky as possible that night. I saw Georg at the washroom while I was cleaning my filthy feet and he asked to use the air-pump I had with me for the air-mattress. By the time I set my bivy up and pumped the mattress up, he had, once again, disappeared into thin air it seemed. The last thing I remember was enjoying the beautiful stars and constellations in the sky before drifting off into a very deep sleep.
Sunday 2. July 06
“Those dogs are mental!” I thought as I was ripped from a peaceful sleep by, what sounded like, 200 dogs gone mad. I forced one eye open and took a look around; only a few blurry figures off in the distance were enjoying some breakfast and coffee. Georg was enjoying a bite sitting on a log and I waved over to him but he didn’t see me. I crawled out of my cozy sleeping bag and mosied over to the hut where there was breakfast and coffee. One of the guys brought a coffee for our small group in the middle of the field which was a welcome morning greeting. We got up and packed our sleeping gear back into the cars to get ready to leave for the gorge where some highlines were set up. I looked for Georg on the way back from the car before grabbing a pretzel at the hut, but he was no where to be seen. I practiced the jump start onto the slackline a little before the group gathered to walk to the gorge. Heinz told the group that he was going to call taxis for us all to save time since we would be walking over an hour: the announcement was well received in the group. Since I didn’t have a tent to pack up, I had a little time to kill and ended up hanging out with Sven from Freiburg who told me that he had pulled a really cold all-nighter after not finding his buddy with the car key where his sleeping bag was. Sven was the guy who managed the 100m line yesterday: he didn’t think he could manage a highline after the all-nighter but was going to go check it out anyway. I figured if he was capable of a 100m line in general, he’d likely manage an 18m highline drunk and blindfolded! I was really enthusiastic to try a highline even though I had only just started slacking… I wasn’t at all intimidated by the height of it as many people seemed. I knew I wouldnt make it cleanly since yesterday was my first time even on a line longer than 5 meters, but I was up to give it a try anyway thinking, when would I get that kind of opportunity again! Either way, it would give me the chance to see if my seeming lack of fear was legit or self-imagined. The taxis began arriving to collect the approximately 100 people who had gathered. I took the time to practice some more on the lines set up thinking it would be a while until the waiting line was worth standing in. At some point a large chunk of the waiting line decided to just huff it which made us next in line. As the taxi driver returned to us, he said that all of the allowed taxi rides into that region of the national park had been used up already so we were out of luck. He did drop us off at the parking lot marking the entrance of the park at least. We ended up arriving at the parking lot just as the group who walked instead was arriving so we joined up with them and hiked on a nice wide path. I had my mp3 player with me and shared the headphones with Sven on the way in. We reached a small ravine where a bridge was full of onlookers. 2 highlines were set up there in about 15 and 25m height. We joined up with Chongo who suggested crossing to the opposite side of the bridge where we could sit on a hill and watch everything; or as he put it, get used to the view of the gorge. Various participants tried to cross the highline and the spectators cheered them on. The gorge itself was just exquisite: crystal clear, light blue rapids, lush green trees and vegitation and dramatic rock walls. A delightful breeze fought back the heat of the strong sunshine and we relaxed with some good tunes and cool people enjoying the surroundings. The highline was bucking pretty much everyone off on their first attempts, which forced them to try to do a hanging pull up to get back onto the line. Scrapes and abrasions from the nylon webbing were inevitable. After many others had tried their luck on the line, we crossed over to wait for our turn. Chongo, who hadn’t walked a highline in 7 years, decided to slide his way to the middle of the line and perform a sit-start, impressing the crowd. Some people started the long walk back to the festival camp as the day went on. I hiked down to the waters edge to freshen up. I made it up to my knees in the icy cold water before my feet went totally numb and I was instantly refreshed. I returned to the hillside and took a seat in the shade to wait my turn. When I was up, I climbed up the starting tree and clipped my carabiners into the slackline and got up onto it. It had been set up very tight making it feel hard rather than flexible. Finding it a challenge to just hold my balance without walking, I opted to use the cheater line in one hand to cross the line, to avoid the very long and cumbersome process of climbing back up onto the line after a fall. I walked straight across without any problems, the cheater line made it simple to maintain balance. I tried to add the element of fear by looking down at the bottom of the gorge but the height didn’t bother me at all as I had suspected. I was aware that it didn’t really count as a legit highline since I used the cheater, but felt that with some slacking practice in general, it would be do-able. I scrambled back down the tree and joined up with Sven and Richy to hike back along a narrow trail through the beautiful park. A small group was waiting at the parking lot for the taxi transfer but we all started walking and flagged the taxi down when it returned. Most of the cars had left the parking lot by the time we returned, I looked around for Georg again but didn’t see his car either and figured he had left. I returned to the fire-pit area where a 15m line was set up that I had been practicing on earlier that day. I was motivated to make it further along that line than I had so far. I actually even managed to complete it a few times before heading for the hut for a cold drink. I ran into Michi and a few of his friends there and joined them to hang out for a while since no one really wanted the weekend to end. A while later they packed up to start the long drive back to Vienna and I returned to the lines to try to learn how to sit-start. I was struggling pretty bad with it and Heinz was clearly amused. He tried to show me a variation of it but that wasn’t working for me either. At some point, a Smart Forfour car pulled up and 9, yes, 9!!! people with backpack piled out of it. Only around 15 people were left over as we all unpacked our camp stoves and made some dinner together. It was a cozy crew and we ended up chatting long into the night. We rekindled the fire and gathered around it again as the evening began to cool off. With a 2 hour drive home and important meeting in the morning at work the next day, I had to tear myself away from the group around 12:30am and begin my trek home. I said my goodbyes and relished the new impressions of the absolutely unforgettable weekend on the drive home. It is shocking how much you can experience and how close you can grow to others in such a short amount of time!

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