By Paula Hammond | Images from the film Lapporten Skyline, showing in the Banff Mountain Film Festival Tour.
“The idea was that we’d come up here, in the midnight sun, and we’d rig a highline between the two mountains. It is with a mixture of horror and delight that I imagined myself being out there, alone.” (David Sjöström)
Known to the northern Sami people as Čuonjávággi, meaning Goose Valley, the u-shaped mountain pass that forms the gateway into Swedish Lapland, is perhaps one of the region’s most iconic sights. More popularly called the Lapporten Gate, this area of staggering natural beauty has it all: epic skies, moody weather, and brutally big mountains.
It’s an area that has been on Swede David Sjöström’s radar for years, thanks to his intriguing hobby — highlining. “I live with my wife and three kids. When my middle daughter was four, I realised that I needed to be more physically active. So, I found a slackline … and that really married with my previous interests in yoga and meditation very well. It became the perfect activity for me and I became very passionate — sometimes obsessive — about it,” says Sjöström.
Slacklining involves walking along a length of flat webbing suspended between two anchor points. Highlining takes that and suspends the webbing across canyons and between mountain tops. It’s not unusual for highliners to cross lines that are hundreds of metres high, but Sjöström’s idea of walking across the Lapporten gap meant constructing a 2,130 kilometre-long line, suspended 600 metres in the air.
A record-breaking feat
The attempt was to be filmed by fellow Swede, Emil Sergel, whose documentary, Lapporten Skyline, followed the record-breaking attempt. “The logistics,” Sergel says, “were a huge challenge. We didn’t know what the weather would be like — and what you really don’t want for highline crossing is wind, as it’s a thin highline. Enough wind will rip it apart, so everyone was stressed. We didn’t know if we had 24 hours, 36 hours, or five days. Basically, people were working around the clock for the first 36 hours, without sleep, until everything was set up.”
At 600-metres in the air, the highline is almost invisible and, because of the distances involved, once you reach the halfway point — the ‘dead zone’ — a rescue becomes incredibly hazardous. There’s literally no going back. The attempt was made all the more dangerous by the sudden appearance, in restricted airspace, of a helicopter, which missed the highline by metres.
Despite the risks, David was the first to try the line, followed by Quirin Herterich, who became the first to make the three-hour-40-minute crossing without falling — setting a new world record in the process.
“When Quirin was walking those last few metres,” Emil recalls, “people started cheering and Quirin shouted for them to stay quiet. He was at his limit and, at that point, there were no second chances. As a filmmaker, that was the biggest stress, and also the biggest rush. I was crying and shaking behind the camera.”
Eventually, eight highliners, including Sjöström, walked the gap, four successfully making it from end to end without falling, to share the world record with Quirin.
David’s day job as a clinical psychiatrist, means that he’s well aware of the need for a positive mental attitude, and while many of us may shiver at the thought of highlining, for David, ‘joy’ is the key to the whole experience.
“To be the first one trying to cross, brought a lot of fear online for me. But it’s important to make the right choices. If it doesn’t look good, you have to have the maturity to turn back,” David says. “ On my second attempt, however, I felt very confident. When I walked out, I could sense the exposure and beauty of this line. The challenge was to keep that focus and what I do is think about things that I really enjoy in my life. Go through my mind, again and again, imaging what I’m grateful for. It’s a surprisingly effective way of staying positive — also it’s a really lovely thing to do for a long time. I felt very happy, really marinading in the good fortune of my life.”
He rounds off: “Thinking back now, it’s hard to imagine that we all did walk across the gap on this little thing. It was really overwhelming, but I felt a lot of joy walking it.”
Lapporten Skyline is showing in the Banff Mountain Film Festival, which is touring the UK until the end of November, and will then will be available online. See www.banff-uk.com
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