With the East Fork of Lolo Creek gurgling hundreds of feet below, a group of ecstatic slackliners carefully traversed inch-wide webbing spanning a canyon in the forest a couple miles away from Lolo Hot Springs on Friday morning. With eight highlines stretched across various gaps, one of which hung 985 feet long and 250 feet up in the air, at least a dozen aerialists spent the morning focusing on the sport they love. The Lolo/Montana Highline Festival began in 2019.
Organizers took a year off during the pandemic, but every year since then it has attracted some of the best highliners in the country. Griffen Gilbert, one of the organizers, said they use drones with fishing line to start some of the highlines. Once the fishing line is in place, they get paracord strung across.
Then, the highline webbing is put into place with anchors. “I’ve been doing it for a decade now,” Gilbert said, explaining why he started the festival in 2019. “And essentially I’ve never had a community to slackline around. It’s always just been trying to get friends that are outdoorsy to come help out and just like have a good time outside and do something different.” Now Gilbert has friends from Boise, Colorado and Washington, along with locals, that come out for the festival every year.
They’ve been able to establish a variety of highlines, including one that’s attached on one end to the top of a large tree. Others span the canyon over the creek, while others stretch between rock pinnacles. “I’ve always tried to get people excited to see the potential of what you can do, and I’ve got everybody stoked on this area,” Gilbert said. The local crew sets up a few lines and then other people travel in with gear to help set up more. “It brings that community aspect together,” he said.
“So I’d say it’s all about community and having fun outside.” The sport takes a lot of focus, he said. “So it’s finding that state of flow,” he added. “So being in the moment. You’re in the zone in sports like football and other sports, and you’re just so in the moment, everything else you forget about.
You’re just focused on that moment. It’s sort of like meditation. But then you get that extra little bit of excitement when you fall.” Everyone uses a safety harness tethered to the line. And there are redundancies in the system so that even if a portion of a highline were to break, the highliner wouldn’t take a serious fall.
A second backup line is built into the system. And the highliners do fall often. That will happen when you’re balancing on a piece of inch-wide (or less) webbing that’s shaking, vibrating, swaying and sagging. “You really have to push yourself,” Gilbert explained. “When you fall you get back up and you’re really having to force yourself to get back in that zone again.
But when you do find it, it’s very enjoyable.” They’ve worked with Lolo National Forest rangers to make sure they’re following all the rules of gathering on public land. They had an official come out with them the first year. Gilbert said they haul out all their trash and human waste and don’t get a large enough gathering to require a special permit. Some of the best highliners in the country come to practice their craft at the festival. Philip Queen, from Colorado, said he spends a good amount of time during the year traveling to set up or get on highlines. “For me it’s just like the most meditative I can get,” he said.
“Really clear mind, focused. While being super fun and using my body. Like, it’s the only thing that ticks all the boxes. There’s really nothing, like when I get back from a really good session, that gives me that feeling of release.” Queen said he loves the Montana festival because it’s smaller and has a really dedicated local crew. “We also go to festivals that are like big, that people come from all over the country and the world,” he said.
“It’s really fun to come to ones like this.” David Erickson is the business reporter for the Missoulian.