Competitive slacklining. If that sounds like an oxymoron, you must not have been in Vail this past weekend, when the sport made its debut at the annual Teva Summer Mountain Games. No one brought his A-game more than Alex Mason, a 14-year-old wunderkind from southern California who edged out big-name rivals, including Japan’s Gappai Osug; reigning world champ Michael Payton, 24; and wild man “Sketchy” Andy Lewis, 25, to win Teva’s inaugural Gibbon Games event.
Slacklining, in case you’ve been in a cave for the past year, entails balancing on a narrow, flexible piece of webbing that’s rigged a couple of feet off the ground between trees or other stable anchors. It was born in the 1970s, when bored climbers in cut-off jeans and weeks-old beards, looking for something to do on their days off, tied their climbing ropes between trees in Yosemite Valley and tried to walk them without falling off. Since then, it has evolved from a dirtbag’s fringe hobby into, well, a flashy halftime show at the Super Bowl (see Andy Lewis’s performance with Madonna earlier this year) and the extreme sport of choice on late-night talk shows (check out Mason on Conan O’Brien and Payton on Carson Daly). Athletes now wow crowds with freestyle jumps, acrobatic flips, and tricks, not to mention sheer vertical: High liners like Lewis and Dean Potter routinely rig their lines hundreds of feet off the deck.