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Sky Walking in the High Sierras

Photos: Krystle Wright / Story: Preston Alden / Written by: Pat Kinsella

All is movement and noise. In a field of supersized scree, stone stacks around us tremble like terrible towers in a giant game of Jenga. Rocks fall relentlessly from above and below the glacier is popping and exploding in a fantastic, cacophonous symphony.

I look across at my climbing buddies Wilson Cuthbert and Cody Tuttle. We’re climbing Thunderbolt Peak in the Palisades, scouting out an alpine highline that will crown a project a year in the planning.

Thunderbolt is spectacular, but while excitement flutters in my gut, a shard of doubt is also digging into my brain. Perhaps this isn’t the right time. Not the right group. There are too many people in the team down below. It’s my call and I’m going to have to make it soon.

We’ve been in the Sierras for several days, but the seed for this project had germinated in the scorched earth of the Giant Rim Fire that burned outside Yosemite in the summer of 2013.

I’d planned on running a highline on Eichorn Pinnacle with a team then, but we got smoked out. Instead I put together a small backpack and embarked on a 24-hour non-stop solo scrambling mission into the Palisades to see what I could scout out. What I discovered was a whole new level of inspiration.

Over the last few years I’d covered a 300-mile-long section of the crest with my work, tracking foxes, but this was one of the few places in the High Sierras I hadn’t been.

The Sierra Nevada is known for incredible white alpine granite, but the Palisades is different. It has its own geological history. Volcanism helped shape this place, and the rock is darker and more chossy. People die here. It’s a serious place. But it also presented a fresh challenge – triggered a new itch.

Revered by mountaineers and climbers for its stunning crags and peaks, the Palisades has some of the loosest rock I’ve ever encountered. It requires real glacier-travel style technique to move around on. It’s full on – and that’s what I liked about it. I knew then that I’d be putting together a team and coming back.

All is movement and noise. In a field of supersized scree, stone stacks around us tremble like terrible towers in a giant game of Jenga. Rocks fall relentlessly from above and below the glacier is popping and exploding in a fantastic, cacophonous symphony.
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For me it’s part of the experience to go to these remote crags, rig my highline and then leave no trace that I was there. It’s about style points and wilderness ethics.
I rig with a regular crew, and we have evolved a special style. We’re not the best highliners in the world, and neither are we the best climbers, but we do the two together more ambitiously than other people and that has put us at the cutting edge of the alpine highlining scene.

With my buddy and mentor Bradon Mayfield, I did the first alpine highline in the Sierras two years ago, and ever since then – with a select few others – we’ve been on a rampage establishing new lines, each one more ambitious than the next.

Typically our missions take place after one of us has scouted a spot, then we put together a small team and go out for two or three days. This one evolved a little differently. More people became involved and it was a longer expedition. But the ethos was the same.

With every project we specifically seek out the ultra remote locations that others think are too ambitious. That’s where the inspiration comes from. It’s not just walking a line, it’s about the adventure involved in getting there in the first place – and, importantly, leaving nothing behind. No bolts. No scars.

The alpine highlining community is tiny. Very few people do it in the United States, and there are maybe a half dozen core guys in Europe that do stuff like this regularly. There are some very cool alpine highlines in the French Alps and in Austria, and a couple in the Dolomites in Italy, but most of these lines are all bolted. In some places in Europe they literally ride gondolas to the top.

In the Sierras and other areas high up in Yosemite, there are lots of natural anchoring options, plenty of opportunity to place gear, it just takes a little bit of homework. But I believe we are the only people – here or anywhere else in the world – regularly establishing trad alpine highlines.

Many slackliners have come into the sport having never done any rock climbing, so they’re not familiar with other, more natural ways of anchoring into rocks. And there is a lot of fear – which is legitimate. But for me it’s part of the experience to go to these remote crags, rig my highline and then leave no trace that I was there. It’s about style points and wilderness ethics.

Most slackliners aren’t into epic approaches and alpine-style suffering – a lot of people set lines above canyons – but I’m a big mountain person. That’s where I want to be. I’ve been climbing since I was 12, and slacklining for 15 years, but when I was introduced to highlining – during a climbing trip in Thailand three years ago – it was a revelation. From there it was a natural progression to bring the disciplines together and start pushing the boundaries in an alpine setting.

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I’m not the best slackliner, so I struggle sometimes to see myself at the forefront of the sport, but it’s about the style. We’re not interested in the length of the line, for us it’s about the beauty and the remoteness of the high wilderness setting. It’s also a problem-solving thing. How do you rig a line out here without bolts? How do you get 10 miles out to this location and then climb it? The difficulty of the challenge adds to the reward.

As a warm-up we ran an epic line on the Eichorn Pinnacle in Yosemite, and Jerry Miszewski walked it. I was burning to get into the Palisades, though, to put a line on Temple Crag and to go to new heights. So we hired a mule train, hauled all our stuff out there and ultimately ended up rigging an awesome line in exactly the spot I’d scouted out a year before.

Highlining in these locations is as much about art as it is sport. When you work with a photographer like Krystle, and they get those images – it’s like you’ve created a work of art together.

But it can’t always go to plan. For a finale, our sights are set skyward. The aim is to do a line at 14,000 feet, and that’s why we’re on Thunderbolt, the notorious ‘hardest’ 14,000-foot peak in the Sierra, requiring 1,500 feet of really delicate climbing over loose rock to the summit.

Wilson, Cody and I scout it, but ultimately I make the call. It’s too dangerous to try and bring a team of nine people up here. We turn back without walking a line on Thunderbolt. It didn’t feel right. But I’ll be back with a slimmed-down team of four or five. It might not be until next spring – or maybe we could ski mountaineer in – but either way, I’m itching again.

Pat Kinsella has long specialised in adventure journalism as a writer, photographer and editor and is a regular writer for Sidetracked. Pat is currently in New Zealand taking on the NZ9 Challenge.

Website: adventuretypes.com | Twitter: @paddy_kinsella

Krystle Wright is a pioneering Australian photographer who is accelerating the awareness and visibility of the most extreme sports and adventures to the world.

Website: wrightfoto.com.au | Twitter: KrystleWright

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