Synthetic nylon was invented in 1935, but it took a long time for climbers to discover its application as a balance apparatus. Dean Potter’s article, The Space Between, written for Alpinist magazine, accounts for what happened next: Not too much later, “In the early 1980s, Adam Grosowsky, a student at Evergreen College in Olympia, Washington, made one of his regular trips to Yosemite, where, he recalls, ‘I was getting the normal thrashing and thought, fuck this place, I’m getting hammered. As I was going through Camp 4, I saw this bronze god walking a slack chain. He was buffed as hell and I thought, is everybody in this place superhuman? Later I found out it was Ron Kauk.’ When Grosowsky went back to Evergreen, he set up his own line. [He couldn’t find a chain to walk on, so he stretched a piece of nylon webbing.] ‘At first I tried walking three-eights-inch climbing rope but it rolled and didn’t feel right. There was some super tape [climbing webbing] laying there so I tried it…and was like, ‘oh my God, this is the bomb!’”
The flat, grippy surface of the webbing, along with its elasticity and lightweight properties, opened up a new universe of balance possibilities. Soon, Grosowsky hooked up with classmate Jeff Ellington, and the two found a way to rig tubular webbing and add tension with what is now called the “primitive system” or the “Ellington system.” A precursor to today’s pulley and ratcheting systems, the Ellington utilizes search and rescue techniques, replacing pulleys with climbing carabiners to create a mechanical advantage.
The two became inseparable, practicing “thousands of hours” on the tensioned, bouncy, webbing they called “the slack wire.” They both preferred to walk on 3/4 inch, flat, nylon lines at a length of about 20 feet. Adam became extremely skilled in performing handstands on the line, while they both became skilled in surfing, juggling, and just about every other circus skill you can imagine. They even created a three-club passing (juggling) routine between themselves while balanced simultaneously on the same line.
As much as they loved practicing on the nylon, the two were fascinated with wire walking history and circus culture from the start. In 1981 they performed leashless on a 30-foot (9 m) highwire cable strung 25 feet (8 m) over a concrete floor as part of a project to recreate a traditional one-ring circus in The Evergreen State College's main performance auditorium. According to Scott Balcom, sometime after that, the two mentioned that they also set up a small highwire in Joshua Tree somewhere near the Real Hidden Valley, but it wasn’t very high or long.
Dean continues: “They’d cruise to the Valley whenever possible, but on one extended trip in the summer of 1983, their longest lowline was confiscated by the Park Service, who considered it abandoned property. Ellington chuckles, ‘We needed to let the Valley floor cool down… [So we] headed for the safety of the Lost Arrow Spire.’” [Instead of rigging on nylon, they attempted to rig the spire using a steel cable, and ended up breaking a bolt on the Spire tip in the process.] “Ellington recounts his first steps on the Lost Arrow highline: ‘The anchor on the Tip was rusted [quarter-inch] bolts with ancient hangers. After we tensioned the line I went for it. I was just standing there a few steps out, when the line sharply twanged. One of the bolts had broken, shock loading the other crap!” The two were understandably done, but their attempt was a breakthrough. Yosemite locals, used to thinking of their lines in vertical terms, realized suddenly that another frontier existed in between the sheer walls.”
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