“I’m definitely afraid of heights,” says professional highliner Ryan Robinson. “Some people have a natural fortitude for heights and not being afraid of them. That's not me. I have those fears, I'm normal, they exist.”
Considering Robinson’s line of work, this statement may come as a surprise. As a professional highliner, the Folsom, California native spends a good portion of his days walking on a one-inch-wide tension rope strung between trees, cliffs, or buildings.
The former runner-triathlete got turned onto the sport at a rock climbing gym—turned on and then immediately turned off. “I got on a slackline that was rigged in the climbing gym after everybody had gone home. I was embarrassed to even try it. I fell off of it and decided that it was a stupid sport, never wanted to try it again. And then about a year later I watched a video of these French guys highlining in Norway and it just completely blew my mind. Basically from that point forward, I've been obsessed with it and haven't stopped.”
Physically, the sports demands a total-body fitness with a heavy emphasis on core strength and balance. “When you're on the slackline, your arms are usually up really high. Keeping them up requires a ton of shoulder strength. So after twenty or thirty minutes on the line, it becomes incredibly tiring,” Robinson explains. “You learn ways to mitigate it, but if I were to have to pinpoint three areas of where that strength comes from, I would say core is probably number one, keeping your body straight and tight. Shoulders is the second really big one. The third is probably inner and outer leg strength.”
When he’s not on the line, Robinson returns to his multisport roots, incorporating running and swimming as well as rock climbing into his training regimen. “I end up doing a ton of climbing, hiking, and things that promote balance, proprioception and just overall body strength. I also never underestimate the value of going to the gym and just spending some time putting in work and making sure that those specific muscle groups, like the core, are targeted.”
It takes much more than this holistically fit body to reach these (literal) heights. The throughline connecting all successful highliners, according to Robinson, is mental fortitude. “I would say the biggest source of strength for highlining comes from within,” he says. “Most highliners that I know come from some sort of past that has either been difficult or they've been tested mentally.”
In the moment, on the line, that mental fortitude is strengthened by what Robinson describes as a ‘constant system check.’ “I liken it to the computer in a vehicle that's always checking everything that's going on in the motor. It keeps my mind away from fear and it also keeps me safe. So I'm thinking about the setup, I'm thinking about making sure the webbing is attached properly to the trees. Above and beyond equipment is internal checks. ‘Are you okay?’ ‘Yes, you're okay.’ ‘Are you freaking out?’ ‘Yes, how do we fix that?’ ‘Are your legs shaking?’ ‘Why?’”
Having satisfactory answers to those questions is a matter of trust—not only in those he rigs with, but above all others, trust in himself. “Knowing that, "Yes, you did tie your knot right, because you're good at this. You know the specs on this equipment. And don't forget that you know these specs when you get on the line and start freaking out.’ You have to remember that all of these things are things that you've done before,” says Robinson. And when he’s feeling shaky about a particular technique or advancement, Robinson seeks out friends and mentors to help fill the gaps.
Robinson is certainly a citizen of the world—home is a 1985 Chevy G20 Horizon Edition van named ‘Stacy’s Mom’—and highlining has brought him to far-flung places including China, Tasmania, Brazil and Europe, as well as local haunts like Oregon’s Samuel Boardman State Park, where the video above was shot. But in addition to stamps in his passport, the sport has brought him new perspective. “I see [my highlining career] providing opportunities to help other people, to inspire them not just to highline but to live life differently. It doesn't have to be you dreaming or seeing someone doing it on TV, you can be that person doing those amazing things. I'm not special or talented. Any capabilities that I have, I’ve honed and trained and every day, grinding.”