Tuesday, 10 May 2011


A Lion’s guide to Waterlining


Monday mornings are supposed to be predictable. Unless you’re in Switzerland with a secret weapon.

As I attempted to rig my weapon – the slackline - in the University of Lausanne’s campus grounds, Alain appeared in my peripheral, crash-pad-packed and ready to go.

I thought we’d rig a waterline today,’ he casually let out, with a hint of a smile that suggested fun and nothing short of it. Whilst a sea of Swiss students cleared the nuggets of sleepy dust from their eyes, preparing for their early morning lectures, Alain, a 22yr old prodigy from Lausanne, had other ideas on how one should perform the dull, Monday-morning, wake-up ritual.

There’s an amazing spot just down by the lake that I have got to show you before you go,’ he added.
And amazing wouldn’t win the award for understatement of the day.

A waterline is essentially a slackline, rigged at high-tension between two points, over water. The bit Sherlock didn’t tell you was that this water could have a visible depth, or continue into the murky realms of Poseidon’s lair. It could be soft sand under foot, or you might be calibrating your balance skills over outcrops of rocky talons with the potential to sink a fleet. The water might be warm, but until you take a good, unexpected dunk, you’re balls aren’t gonna know whether it’s necessary brace’n’gloat or just grace’n’float. There is really no end to what conditions exist when one rigs a waterline.

I was expecting to send a 30-35m longline over dry land, and had only gone as far as to mentally affirm to myself the previous night, that whatever went down, I would send the line before returning on the cross-country train ride back to Italy.

I had no idea what to expect when Alain suggested the waterline - that’s the beauty of spontaneity. All I was sure about was that I was keen as a mere cat to give the waterline a shot. That might not have come across as genuine as I had intended.
My line of vision was constantly being fractured by my jumping attention; towards pieces of hot, Swiss-ass, left, right and centre.
And the female levels of distraction weren’t going to stop there.
If there’s one place you want to practice improving your concentration, set up a slackline pretty much anywhere in Switzerland and try not to notice how many gorgeous women protrude your peripherals, innocently crossing your sights and yet putting you off in such a way that you’re convinced their scheming on you.

As my neck jarred itself back to centre like a spring-loaded stocking toy, Alain signalled that this was our metro to catch.
I decided to bunk the journey to get to the lake – I had managed to reach day 3 with only 24 Francs in my possession, and my last 5 weren’t going on tickets – not when there was Swiss-cheese and beers to grab.

A moment or two later, and we had arrived at La Tour De Peilz, a sleepy little shepherd’s port that quite casually sat itself on one of the largest lakes in Europe, soaking up one of the most majestic views I’d ever seen to date.

A brief detour through the supermarket to stock up on slack-snacks was in order. Alain, I could tell over the weekend, was already a seasoned-pro when it came to picking out European snackage that came at an impressive price but at an even more prestigious taste. The basket seemed to fill itself with an array of breads, cheeses, fresh strawberries and cold beverages – along with a fat Hazardous smile as I pictured the future outcomes of mixing waterlines with alcohol.
I trustily handed over my last 5 Euros with gratitude.
I was privileged to be in on some insider-knowledge, at how to eat Swiss-style when setting up a line for the day; which really is an art in itself once you experience it.
Believe me.

Shuffling out of the supermarket, back into the sunlight, like the end of a winter’s hibernation, and there it was in front of me. I unfolded upon the most breathtaking of images. All I could do was utter a sheepish ‘Wow’ towards one of Nature’s greatest visual accomplishments, humbled like a peasant amongst costumes of emperors.
I won’t proceed to try and describe what I saw.
I’ll let the pictures do that.
Besides, stringing words together would probably only offend those very mountains. They seemed to encompass me, like those intimate hello-hugs at a train stations.

Alain took it all in his stride.
He told me how his friends’ grandparents had been backpackers passing through many years ago, only to now be the owners of a humble building which would easily fetch a million or two on today’s property market. He mentioned how he would spend most of his summers down there, just chilling by the lake with his friends, his guitar or his slackline. And apparently the sunsets, each and every one, were heart-stoppers – the depth of which they penetrated one’s being, I could only just begin to fantasize.

I had burnt calories just absorbing the landscape in all is superiority. Before our rigging, it was time to tuck in to our dejeuner – an education. The Swiss-army knife seemed to pull itself out of Alain’s pack – what could be more Swiss, than to reaffirm your utility within an image conquered from a postcard?
This, after all, was what the knife was made for – cutting cheese to put in your French-stick.

We weren’t the only one’s to encompass the flavours and visuals for lunch time. Countless youths appeared to be spending their lunch break down by the lake, the elite few staying on beyond the bell, bunking the days’ classes, as Alain did, in order to experience life with a little more substance.

My lectures today were with a ‘Pessimist-Environmentalist’ anyway, so I think I can afford to miss his words,’ Alain confessed in a grin, only to be validated by our surroundings, at how minute the sin he had committed really was.

With only a couple of hours until I had to catch my ride back through the valleys, we patched ourselves up in our jackets, in order to work up as much a sweat as was possible before getting dunked. Within a few minutes, the churning Swiss-cow mouths of the local public paused, as they tried to configure what on earth these two loons were doing with some string and key rings.

Do you want to try first?’ Alain asked me, once he had flicked the line, like an oversized cello-string, to check the tension.
Sure, why not?’ I replied with a semi-break in my voice, masked only by the thick throat I’d achieved from eating so much cheese.

At this point it’s important to note that this is a Lion’s guide to waterlining.
I’m a Leo by nature, and last time I checked, I didn’t see Aslan battling Phelps for a podium finish.
Neither has the Lion of Judah shed any wisdom on how to cross a waterline, so I figured it was my vocation to do so. The astrological fact in itself, for those of you in the know, should clarify why I went through what I am about to describe to you.

Until I actually began to mount the line, the build up of nerves had been solely on a sub-conscious level. In hindsight, as beautiful as the setting was, I think the water had the biggest part to play in rocking my boat. Along with being in the company of someone much better than you, naturally wanting to make a good, macho-impression at how capable and non-pussy you are.

I wouldn’t realise the water bit until much later.

For those of you that have never sent a splashline before, and for those of you with Lion-legged tendencies, allow me to fill you in on this water aspect:

What scared me most about the depth was that I had no idea just how deep the water was. Despite the clarity of the water – apparently some of the clearest in Europe – ¾ of the way down the line you couldn’t see beyond 2 feet deep.

In conjunction with not being able to see into the unknown, we were surrounded by rocks. Not just rocks, but boulders that acted as erosion defenders to the country’s lakeside populace. They positioned themselves both in and out of the water, exuding an attitude of mercilessness. Somehow, your subconscious decided to conger up these flash-card images in your head; you fall in, smash yourself on something you didn’t even know was sleeping subsurface. Broken and bruised train ride home.

This wasn’t so much of a big deal. However, later on I would experience the sheer speed at which your core temperature would plummet after a good dunk. ‘Don’t fall in or you’ll have to spend ages warming up again,’ started to play on loop, in my internal-dialogue collection.


This aspect wasn’t just me being a pussy. I assure you it was actually real. This I figured by Alain asking me ‘Does the sun’s reflection bother you?’ If he sees it, then it’s there!
The only way I can describe this effect was like there was an invisible man sat subsurface with his own signalling mirror. He’d flash your retinas with laser rays, right when you least expected it.
In time, the only solution I found to work; to accept it. And frown. Frowning seemed to narrow your eyes just enough to cut away the major part of the flashes.
Alain suggested that if I sent the line from the other side, there would be no mirror issues. However, there was a stunning bronzing-blonde with her arse out, so if the water’s reflections weren’t going to put me off, reflections off the Swiss-buns would.

Disorientating Flow
This element was just weird, something I didn’t even experience until I started hitting the half-way mark.
You’d focus your gaze so intensely, on one fixed point on the other side of the line. But then it seemed like your brain’s spatial-awareness centre would begin to meltdown, like post-pocket chocolate at lunchtime. Trying to combine a fixed point, over a matrix of moving, shimmering water, proved to smother my mind’s ability to cope.
It was like trying to compete in an arithmetic competition, during a coastguard emergency.
Not happening.
You’d have split seconds where you’d become cloaked in dizziness. It was like having a bag over your head then being punched square on the chin. At this point, you’re relying completely on your muscle-memory to keep you from taking a dizzy dunk in to that icy bath below.
You’d either bail; potentially lethal over a geological obstacle course.
Or you’d successfully fade back into reality, like opening your eyes underwater and surfacing again.

The above outlines some of the water’s crippling components.
The very substance that can seem so innocent when poised in a glass, yet so menacing when you add some rocks and reflections.
Most of all, I think my nerves trembled most from the rocks and depth elements. The other elements started to present themselves as I began to relax.
But this wouldn’t happen until much later on, and they’d still be wearing masks.

Everyone has 20:20 vision in hindsight.
Somehow, we’re able to pinpoint everything we did wrong, yet at the time of committing the crimes, we’re oblivious.
Whilst documenting this waterline session later in the week, I realised how I could have debunked my water worries with one simple question to Alain;
How deep is it?
Funny how that never even occurred to me during the day.
Perhaps I did ask, and his answer of ‘Less than your height,’ just wasn’t convincing me. Or maybe I registered his answer but my macho-ism took over. A man would rather not look a pussy, than prove his fears to be ridiculous, right?
A strange species plagued by paradox, is man.

With what felt like a medieval battalion kicking off in my stomach, I tried to compose myself and mounted the line. Alain was spotting me, just in case I lost control and split my melon on one of the granite widow-makers. That provided some relief. But to be honest, in the state of macho-ism, the last thing you want to do is end up in your spotter’s arms, like a scene from Cabaret.

In a nutshell, it didn’t happen. So much for first-go glory.

Alain attempted, then concluded that the tension was a little off.
My failure wasn’t all due to my incompetence. I could at least cast some of the blame on physics.
Line re-tightened and Alain full-manned it (walked all the way, and back) straight off the cuff.
No more blame could be shed on the conditions.
Like a whining workman with a new box of tools, it was time to man up and take control of myself.

Easier said than done.

I proceeded maybe 10 or so times in a row trying to mount the line.
But then I would just shake uncontrollably, like a cheap pudding on the back seat of a 4X4.
The biggest shock of all was my inability to breathe.
Taking a full deep breath just proved to be impossible.
Somewhere, the connection between brain and breath must have been severed.

It was a notable moment for me. Never have I felt so restricted in my cardiovascular department. It was like you’ve just completed a bleep test, wearing a straight-jacket.
Except I hadn’t even been running.
All I was physically doing was standing up, on a line, over water.
And I couldn’t even breathe.

The unintended result was that my body froze like a cryogenic tragedy, creating so much unnecessary force, the line just ricocheted it all straight back at me. It was like a human catapult proceeding a drum roll.

Hindsight later showed me that I was refusing to admit my fears welling up inside me, and there was only so much resistance I could provide. The fears persisted with even more force. They weren’t going anywhere.

Alain noticed that it wasn’t going to plan.
The irony of trying to hide my fear from my company only meant that he picked up on it even more.
Just sit, chill and meditate for five minutes,’ he suggested.
At some stage or other, every slackliner has been at the point where composure is the only factor that will bring success, but the only skill not in your arsenal.
Alain’s advice would prove to do something quite powerful.
Cue meditation.

Before I describe how I conquered what arose within me, I’ll break the fear down for you, again into its components.

Imagine a room, big enough to fit 1000 people in it. They’re all voicing their opinions in a low voice. Not too loud, not too quiet.
Now for every one of those opinions, include a sentence, explaining exactly why you shouldn’t be doing what you’re attempting to do.
Transfer this room to your own head and you’ll be experiencing the kind of dialogue-soundscape I felt I was trying to navigate.
Trying to quiet this noise takes up a good chunk of your concentration reserve.

Out of nowhere, adrenaline just starts to dump itself throughout your body. As it courses through your veins, your heart starts to pound with such force your throat feels like a subwoofer.

The most important element, and definitely the most profound of the day; not being able to breathe complete and deep breaths.
Your heart’s pounding so hard, when you breathe in, you just stutter. It’s like a silent speech impediment.
You become gassed, which compounds so much you eventually can’t ignore it any more. Lack of air is the first thing the human body notices. I felt like the majority of my supply had been confiscated, yet there was still a task to complete.
This shocked me a little, as my Pranayama practice had shown good results of breath control.
Not quite the case when your bedroom floor is swapped for a lakeside mountainscape, with a line through the middle of it.

As a result of incomplete breathing, your body tenses up. It’s like you connected eyes with Medusa, the stone is setting in.
That tension drastically reduces your ability to calibrate yourself to a dynamic environment such as a waterline. Instead of absorbing any shockwaves that come through you from the line, you repel them. They magnify until you’re no longer in the way. I felt like a statue, dropped on to a trampoline, and then commanded to not bounce off.
This whole process creates even more dialogue – ‘You can’t do this, you haven’t got a chance,’ etc and the cycle repeats itself again and again.

Fortunately, having someone with more experience in my company, meant that they understood what was happening and could advise on how to go about calming down and regaining a sense of composure.
I sat up straight on the rocks, half-closed my eyes - through which I focused on a point in front of me - beginning to pay attention to my breath.
Sit and observe.
That’s all.

The process is so simple but so profound, like raising a flag in surrender. I finally became aware that I couldn’t even take a complete breath inwards without there being jitters in my cadence.

Something had to be done!

I only began focusing on my breath out of habit. When I have meditated in the past, that’s the first port of call. But to my horror, I couldn’t even breathe as I intended to, so my mission for the next few minutes was simple; to take one, single, in and out breath. It sounds easy, but so does climbing Everest, when you boil it down to putting one foot in front of the other.

Gradually, I began to take a hold of my diaphragmatic spasms. My body began to obey. First, one complete breath, then 2, 7, all the way until 10 complete, deep, in and out breaths were no longer an issue.
Although this only took 5 or so minutes, I felt a new sense of capability begin to brew within, like an alchemist on the brink of transmutation. Somewhere inside I knew that if I could control my breath, I could accomplish what I’d come to the lakeside to achieve.

Now I could actually breathe. The stuttering slithered away like a serpent in hunting company. My heart was assured its casing was no longer giving up on life, and it too began to taper it’s beat. Then the tension started to drain from my limbs, as if I had been a plasticine model exposed to the heat.

With my new found, breath-led composure, I set off on my new journey of conquering my fears.
I wanted to feel like a warrior victorious. I wanted to return to Italy as if my train was chauffeuring me home. I wanted to experience what it would feel like to have my face crochet in on itself, from grinning so hard at reminiscent thoughts of success.
If I really wanted to prove myself, and prove that I could send this line, then I would have to up my focus.
That meant blocking out the beautiful, gallery-standard mountains.
It meant reigning in subtle neck turns to check out hot girls’ bums.
Most of all it meant asking myself one question; ‘How bad do you want it?


Conquering the Fear

Sitting on the rock with Buddah-eyes, paying internal attention to my breath, was the starting point. For someone interested in meditation and its applications to various aspects of life, this approach would seem obvious. However, in the heat of the moment, wanting to cross the line so bad, meditation was the last technique I thought that would get me there.

Breathing Completely
After sitting, when I mounted the line, breathing how I wanted was no longer an issue. My lungs felt liberated. The straight-jacket had been removed. Breathing as you wish would prove to be worlds apart from what it’s like being subjected to shortness of breath.
Results presented themselves immediately. I began to get further across the line; 8,9, 10 steps. Not too far from half-way.
Cue confidence-surge.

Removal of Tension
Once you’re in control of your breath, the tension has no foundation. It is then up to you to calibrate yourself to your environment. Instead of repelling those shockwaves, I started to resonate with them, until they dissolved. I felt like a Tai-Chi master, floating on a polyester dojo.

Trusting the Line
This is difficult to explain.
With the body's tension removed, you begin to fully trust the line to be able to take your weight. Factually, you know that the rigging is strong enough. Yet if you’re tense, you can’t commit your weight to your steps. Now I felt I could place each foot with almost gymnastic definition.
This is what relaxing feels like,’ I would tell myself, as my kinaesthetic centre began smiling.

There’s a massive life lesson in trusting what’s around to take you’re spiritual weight. I felt I’d just graduated my first class from Life-on-the-Line school.
A state of effortlessness cannot be reached with effort.
Previously, I was trying to relax into the line by being tense. That only reveals itself as truly absurd when you spell it out, but that’s exactly what I was trying to do.

Alain shredded the line some more. He busted out some fat tricks midway, taking the line as his prisoner. And what way to entice a lion’s appetite than to dangle the kill in front of its face?

In the time Alain was busting his moves, I felt my core temperature cruise into the glacial realms. It was a strange feeling. I knew I should be hot. Everyone around me had skin to bare. I just couldn’t seem to start my internal fire.

After what felt like half the afternoon, I reached a point of warmth that would suffice to become semi-naked once more. There were 25 minutes on the clock until I had a train to catch; a journey that would either be a cruise through landscapes of elation, or dragging through passages of regret.

Personally, I thrive under pressure.
I used the absence of time to my advantage. I recognised the effort I had put in to make it to Switzerland. I calculated just how much I had been practicing.
Most importantly, I asked myself ‘How bad do you want it?’.

Fucking bad.

When the boys ask me back in the UK ‘So, did you do it?’ I want to be able to pause, escalate the suspense, and then crush it all with a fat-grinned ‘Of course I Diddddd!’
My body wasn’t exactly at the desirable temperature, but waiting for the perfect moment only helps to ensure that it never comes.
I proceeded on my epic journey, mounting the line, breathing out like a cross-wired vacuum.
Still I fell off.

The dialogue started to rear its ugly head once more.
What if you don’t make it across before you have to go?
How’s it going to feel to have come all this way, only to fail?

All I could do was answer the little devil on my shoulder blade with a fat ‘Fuck you. Not crossing is not an option.

And with that I just hit Terminator mode. I would plummet into the icy lake, resurface, wading out like I had just seen T1000.
Again and again this went on, each time a fragment of my fears was smashed and left to sink beneath me.
For those next 25 minutes, that’s all I did. I got further along each time. But my feet were aching. My lips felt like I’d been making out with charred embers. And my skin was making the lake’s crustacean population jealous.
My inner biceps looked like the better end of a train wreck where I had caught the line’s recoil, repeatedly.

In a montage moment of recollection, I remembered how a teacher of mine long ago had once said to me ‘Sometimes you just have to conquer your daemons. You know what I mean by that?’ Back then, I didn’t. Now I was about to find out.
I mounted the line with all I had left. Breathing like a god of tornadoes, frowning like my eyebrows were mid-bench press, and drifting in-and-out of states of dizzy-induced delirium, I channelled every last molecule of oxygen towards my point of focus.

Line sent.

I sprung onto solid ground at the other end, for the first time. I couldn’t quite grasp if this was reality or not. Gradually, the reassurance of elation started to flood in. I began to realise that my internal battle had been won.
I had conquered the waterline.
I had conquered myself.
Man, I was so stoked!
I yelled some cries of manly success, pumping my fists, like donkey kong upon a drum kit. The smile that charged its way to my face would stay with me for the rest of the day.

The whole saga of crossing that waterline could be summed up with two points.
In order to know if you’re capable of doing something, you only have to ask yourself one question; ‘How bad do you want it?
And once you’ve asked yourself that, and achieved what you set out to do, you’ll understand that it really is all in your head.

All your hopes, your fears, your expectations. All a selection of brainwaves that take place behind the mask.

In the end, sending the waterline was not a question of skill.
When you want something bad enough, the skill will create itself.

Right after I made it across, I walked back around and got on the line again.
About ¾ of the way across, Alain moved himself in the background, crossing from one segment of concrete to another. I fell off.
Was it me that made you fall?’ he called out, preparing himself to be the cause for my failure.
No,’ I bounced back. ‘I was just thinking about how good it felt!

And that’s the beauty of it; once you know it’s all in your head, you can actually begin to enjoy it.

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