At the end of September 2016 an international team of adventurers headed to Todra Valley in Morocco. In this unique canyon they wanted to set spectacular highlines of different heights and lengths – including also the longest highline that has ever been rigged. The previous highline world record was held by Nathan Paulin (F) and Danny Mensik (CZ). In the south of France they had rigged and walked a line of 1020m in length.
As it takes hundreds of kilos of gear to do such a project, Samuel Volery (CH) – the project leader – decided to drive with his van from Switzerland. He started his drive together with Tijmen van Dieren (NL) and Daniel Laruelle (GB). Except for some beautiful sunsets in the south of Spain and good juggling and slackline sessions on the ferry, not many exciting things happened on the trip to Morocco. At the harbour the culture change was imediate. Different officials tried to explain that they'd need permission to get the van into the country and that they'd only have to pay them a bit of money and they would arrange everything for them. But as they refused to pay they were finally allowed to enter the country just as well...
So the European group continued their way south, passing beautiful landscapes and further amazing canyons. They met Nomads, Berbers and other folks from Morocco, and it was a fun trip with good music and motivated expectations to Todra Valley.
It took them three days, then they arrived. Like a bunch of kids they jumped out of the van and ran up the red rocks to enjoy the impressive landscape. Also they couldn't help starting immediately to figure out where they would be able to rig the lines. „The place seemed even more perfect than we'd imagined in our dreams, and after an hour we had figured out a good spot“, Volery remembers.
By the time it was getting dark they went to their hotel nearby to check in. It was much smaller than they had imagined. There were five rooms and the hotel was led by moroccan climbers. „All in all, the hotel called Dar Tiwira was a little disorganized but super nice.“
Over the next days some more highliners arrived and so the project could finally begin: A team of six people started rigging the lines. The first task was to drill the anchor points and let down a 4mm-connection-rope from the one side which they had named „Scorpion“. It was a 150m vertical drop, and the 650m rope then needed to be pulled to the middle of the valley. There, in the middle, part of the team had prepared the slackline. Heavy boxes – the main slackline weights 48g/m and the back-up-slackline weights 26g/m – had to be carried there. Then the main slackline and the backup – more than a kilometer of webbing each – had to be taped together.
From the anchor point it was then time to pull up the rope. This rope was fixed with a pro traxion, so it could be redirected with almost no friction and was prevented from sliding back. The forces at the beginning where really small, but shortly before the webbing arrived at the anchor point, the forces where decreasing 1 kN (= 100kg).
So after the connection was done, it was time for the second side. There they could find steep scrambling only, no vertical drop. The plan was to send a team of two, equiped with heavy backpacks containing the untaped webbing. They where hiking up with the line being fed to the ground out of the bags. Two others followed them to arrange and uncoil the webbing and to tape it afterwards.
After the entire connection was done without too much troubles, it was time to tension the line. „We were scared that it would get stuck in the rock at many places, but only a few minutes after we started pulling, the line was not touching the ground anymore! What an incredibly joyful moment to realise, that we had just managed to rig the biggest highline in the world with a small group of six!“, Volery tells smiling.
Now they just had to bring the line to the right tension. From the moment the line had left the ground, the force was already on 1 kN. And still they had to pull about 100m of webbing out of the system until the right tension was reached. Two labour intensive hours later, the work was done. They had reached 2.5kN which they thought would be about the right tension to walk the line. Like this they still had a big safety factor, considering that the breaking strength of the line was at 29kN.
So the team just had to check both anchor points again and to have a good rest. All team members decided, that Sam should have the first go on the line, as he had organized the whole trip and provided all the gear necessary to make it possible. So the morning after two days of rigging the big moment of mounting the line biggest highline in the world had finally arrived.
„First time in quite some time I was scared to mount a line“, Volery admits. „It was intimidating to see more than a kilometer of webbing in front of me. The far anchor point was about 50m higher than where I was sitting.“ That means that it would be hard work to get out of the line as the end would be really steep.
„I stood up. From the very first moment I had to fight with big shakes. I almost fell on the first few meters, but I just tried to fight myself through. Every single step on the first 150m showed to be really difficult. I thought it would be impossible to send the line if it wouldn't become any easier. And finally – after 15 minutes of walking and fighting – the line was not as nervous anymore. The next 200 meters where quite relaxed. But I couldn't walk as fast as I had hoped. There was a big movement of the line rocking back and forth due to small differences in tension in front and behind me. A couple times I almost lost balance to the back. Holding balance to the side was now much easier. But at that point suddenly the wind increased big deal, pushing me up to 30m sideways. It took a lot of strength to not fall at these moments. But I felt really good that day and was willing to try everything I could to keep standing on the line. Another 400m of walking showed to be not extremely difficult, only interrupted by some gusts of wind.“ Whenever Volery tells about his adventures, one can feel his excitement for his sport.
„I always count my steps and one moment I had reached 2200 steps. I started being optimistic that I could really send this huge line. But at the same moment my gaze became blurry, my brain started shutting down, my shoulders started buring and my mouth began to dry out completely. It was 25°C and the desert sun was burning down relentlessly.“
When Sam reached 2500 steps, the line became really steep uphill, and holding balance to the front and the back was becoming more difficult even for the professional highliner. „I had already spent more than sixty minutes walking on the line and the send was within reach! Only a bit more than 300m to go! But now I also started stepping on the slippery backup webbing from time to time and slid down a few centimers every now and then. It became harder and harder to stay focussed, and new movements in the line where causing problems.“
He was off balance a few times but still had the energy to fight himself back into position. Only 200m parted him from the end when his powers failed. „I had to give up the fight, taking a catch... I was surely disappointed that I couldn't work it out – but still there were many days left! And I finally had time to look around and enjoy the stunning views.“ After a couple of minutes of relaxation he got up again and walked another 80 meters. Then the line became too steep. „So I clipped in my HangOver and pulled myself out with my arms instead.“ Imagine: 120 meters with about 35m height difference. This was tough work, but after 96 minutes on the line Sam Volery could finally tie out. It must have been incredible: „I didn't have the strength anymore to stand on solid ground and my friends had to support me“, he tells.
But already a few minutes later he sat happily at the anchor point: „It must have been one of the only times in my life that I actually enjoyed drinking a hot beer that had been standing in the sun for a couple of hours“, he sais grinning. „I knew that this line was absolutely possible to send and that I just had to increase my walking speed a bit. The tension felt good. In the middle I had around 100m of sag. The biggest problem was, that the line was too much off-level. But this could be fixed within the next days. Also the Half-Marathon webbing that had been developped from Slacktivity specially for walking long highlines felt really good. I was convinced that in one or two more tries the line would be sent!“
Now was Tijmens try. The Dutch wanted to start from the Scorpion anchor point. Having sent 2 different 500m+ highlines recently they where super optimistic that he would manage to walk a good part of this one too. But it turned out differently: „Sliding out over a 150m high vertical drop he was suddenly so intimidated by the surroundings and the fact that he had to walk more than a kilometer before he could relax again, he couldn't even manage to stand up. He was simply lying on the highline for 40 minutes before giving up slightly frustrated of himself“, Sam remembers.
In the meantime the sky had turned darker and darker and wind was picking up. This was a sign for the team to not letting anyone go onto the line anymore as it seemed that a thunderstorm was building. So they thought to take a break of a few hours and try again later. After one hour some rain started to drop and they found a dry shealter. The rain became more intense, thunder and lightening joined it and within moments they where in the middle of a big thunderstorm. Later peolpe from town would tell them that this was the first thunderstorm in 5 years! Very bad luck for the international slackliners.
"Our biggest fear became reality - again!"
And so it happened as they had feared most: Suddenly Can, a turkish slackliner, jumped up: „ The line is gone!!“ The whole crew looked up – and indeed, the main line was slowly sliding down on the backup. What a nightmare after this huge effort! „We where convinced that the whole session was over. But we had to find out the exact reasons for the failure.“ So still in heavy rain they pulled up the part that was torn apart and it showed that it was burned due to lightning or another sort of electrostatic loading. „We decided to lower the line down and call it a day. Finally we could warm up in the hotel as in the meantime everyone was shivering and soaking as we hadn't been not prepared for such a heavy rain.“
The next days they regained their motivation and new people arrived to accomplish the team. „So we decided to check every single meter of the webbing and backup for further burning traces.“ It took them nearly 8 hours to check all the 2.5km of webbing and they indeed found another 7 places where the webbing had been burned. „We directly cut those parts apart to make sure that they won't ever be used again.“ But as another one of Sam's world record projects he had started in Switzerland more than a year earlier had already been blown by lightening, he was prepared for such a situation this time: „This time we still had enough webbing to reestablish a similar line. And even more important: We still had enough time left to do so!“
Some fun lines in between two world record attempts
So the international slacklining crew started checking the weather forecast carefully but the oncoming 2 days didn't seem promising. So instead they spent the time rigging 2 shorter highlines of 45m and 120m and climbing some multi-pitch routes. „2 days later we finally decided that the next day would be our day to restart the rigging.“ But something we hadn't taken into account was the moroccan food their bodies weren't used to. „That same night we woke up one after another and the house turned into a huge mess as people started puking every now and then due to food poisoning.“
The second attempt!
Out of obvious reasons the team had to wait 2 more days to rerigg their world record line losing precious time. But finally they all had recovered enough to restart rigging. „But the energy was not fully back, so the whole process took longer than what we had hoped for.“ On the „Trumpet“- Side they installed a new anchor point which was about 70m higher than the previous one to level the line. Like this the line became 10m longer than the first version. „All in all a more beautiful highline and the anchor points where now almost level.“
In the evening of the same day, shortly before dusk, the rig was finished and Dan, the english slackliner, finally had his first chance for a short session on that massive line. „He reentered solid ground with a huge smile after having walked the first 150m forth and back and enjoying the stunning view from the line. And he was even super stoked to get up early the next morning to cross the line.“
So next morning it was his turn to make the first try. To make sure he wouldn't dry out, he took a water dispensing backpack along which he could drink from on the line. He walked really fast and it took him about 10 catches and 75 minutes to cross the entire line. „Again he came out with a huge smile.“ Slightly exhausted he wished Sam good luck for his second try to send the line.
„This time the line felt much easier. Actually it felt like perfect sending conditions. My only issue was that I had not fully recovered from being sick and my legs still felt very shaky.“ From his first try he had learned that he should always keep his mouth shut during the entire walk to not loose too much humidity with breathing. „I could walk a big part quite easily but after 600m I started feeling dizzy. Still the line didn't feel difficult but my body started feeling weak. I continued walking and it was 120m from the end when I seemed to not having been concentrated for a split second which was enough to make me fall. This time I was quite angry at myself because it was a really unnecessary mistake.“ 30 seconds later he got up again and walked to line up to 2m close to the anchor point. „But this walk really gave me the confidence that the line was actually not too difficult when the conditions where good. So I was still happy about the walk because it had just felt great and like a nice flow. The next day I would be back and hopefully feel in good shape again.“
Tijmen went back on the line a few minutes later and this time he felt better and managed to walk a good part of it. „And of course he felt super happy about that success.“
Extreme wind conditions
When they got up the next day, they were indeed back in good shape. They went to the line early just to see that the conditions had turned very windy again. Definitely no sending conditions – but still worth a try. Sam went out on the line and could walk some parts of 100 meters. Standing in exposure in the middle of the line, he could finally enjoy himself without any sending pressure. And it was also great fun just being pushed sideways by guts of wind. This time probably up to 40m of lateral movement was caused due to the wind! After Sam went down it was finally Andri's turn to try the line, another Swiss slackliner. He didn't have the ambitions to cross the whole thing but would be happy to be able to walk a few steps. And he spent almost 2 hours on the line just trying hard and indeed managing walks of almost 10 meters!
But in the meantime the wind had becomie even more extreme. The line started to go more and more crazy and at some point after Andri had left the line it was blown vertically up to almost 100m above the anchor points! A real storm was about to start. And at the same time some town officials and policemen arrived to tell the crew that they had to see the governor of Tinghir to get official permission for this project. Sam remembers: „I have to add at this point that before starting the project we had asked some locals and all told us that no permission was needed. But after the Morocco TV had passed to film us, suddenly everything had changed and the officials seemed to become nervous.“
An issue with local authorities about highlining
So they went to town to see the governor, but seemed to have more important things to do than to talk to the group and so they returned without any result, not knowing whether their project was now still allowed or not. But in the meantime the wind had gone that crazy that the tapes connecting the main and backup lines were torn apart! „That was the moment when we knew the project was over“, Sam tells shaking his head. „We didn't want to take the risk to step on a line that might have been damaged due to friction of the 2 lines rubbing against each other.“ Both lines where blown in such an extreme way to all directions (up to 200m to the side plus up and down!) that the peak forces where much higher in the storm than while walking. „It was incredibly spectacular to watch it, so we simply sat for an hour at the anchor point to see the forces of nature acting.“ A day later when checking the line it turned out that there was absolutely no damaged caused by the storm, „but we didn't have the man-power anymore to set up the line again as many members of the team had already left“.
To be continued..
Another 5 days they spent (in perfect weather conditions!) in Todra Valley to do some more climbing and highlining on the shorter lines. At one point the police arrived again to tell that it was illegal to highline and that they had to see the Governor again to get permission. Once more they went to town to see him – once more he didn't want to take his time to see them. Morocco... „So for the time being it seems that highlining is not accepted in Todra Vally which is really sad as it is a real paradise for highlining“, Sam concludes. „The weather prevented us from reaching our goal of a new world record. So we won't give up, will try some other ways to get permission for the future and hope to get some positive answers soon.“