When the world goes quiet: A highliner’s journey across Durango landmarks

Highliner Sean Englund prepares to cross a 500-foot gap between Twin Buttes outside Durango, Colorado.Weston Brock

Great highliners have vision. In their world, geography takes on a whole new potential. They’re always looking for the next one – the next improbable project that just might be possible. They’re looking for the one that hasn’t been done. When it came to rigging a highline (think a tightrope but 1-inch tubular between two natural objects) between Twin Buttes north of U.S. Highway 160 just west of Durango, Colorado, that vision was years in the making.

Marshell Thompson envisioned the highline three years ago when the highlining community in Durango was beginning to gain ground. Thompson knew it was going to be big. Doing something that has never been done before always is big.

The San Juan Riggers is a group of highliners that has developed various “lines” over the last four years, honing their skills around the mountain community, setting up lines at the climbing areas and canyons. Their goal is to push the limits for what is possible. Different from slacklining, highlining is done far above the ground where a ground fall would be fatal, or at least catastrophic. Most wear a harness, tethered for safety.

To set up an objective like Twin Buttes requires an extensive anchor system and a team to properly secure, tension and position the webbing in place.

A bird’s eye view of the highline at Twin Buttes.Sean Englund

Dizzy with the vision

Thompson said he whenever drove by Twin Buttes, he imagined the highline between them. Three years ago, he installed bolts for the anchors only to have the objective unfulfilled. The group’s first attempt was abandoned when the weather was unfavorable. The next attempt, there weren’t enough people to properly rig the line. Some lost sight of the challenge. Years passed. Thompson rekindled his vision with positive visualization. Then in November 2018, the pieces finally came together.

To rig a 170-meter line, it requires two lengths of webbing that will span that distance. One is the primary line that will be walked on, and the second is a backup. Two people – each with one of these lengths of line – had to come together, along with a team of six other people, to get the gear to the top and rig the line in a day. Cliff Moser brought one piece of webbing to match Thompson’s. Then, Sean Englund hosted a four-hour taping party at his house to prepare the webbing and all the gear. Early the next morning, Thompson, Moser, Englund, Eli Roberts, Chris Mendoza and myself took off with our loads and headed for the buttes.

Up rope

With a team on each butte, we started by walking a strong nylon thick string, called para-cord, from one butte to the other. Then a much heavier static rope was attached to the para-cord and pulled across. The team would hold this rope like a deadly tug of war from one butte to the other. Communication and focus are key in these moments. Finally, the two lengths of webbing are attached to the static rope and pulled across, elevating $1,600 worth of webbing that can’t be dropped into the brush below for fear of damaging it. This special webbing is designed for highlining and can hold thousands of pounds; but if it is damaged, it’s no longer safe. With the webbing in place, the primary and secondary lengths of webbing were individually anchored to the rock.

It was Nov. 9 when the line was officially up. The wind picked up at that time and a storm front was in the forecast. Efforts were bold, but no one walked the line. The weather pushed the team back home.

There were two days left. Word spread that the Riggers were set on a project, and it drew a crowd. Highliner or not, the community came out.

On the line alone

Early on a Saturday morning, just as the wind eased up, Englund got on the line. Slowly he started to walk. His confidence was clear. He said he loves highlining because it is where his mind completely turns off.

“It’s kind of like a forced meditation,” he said. “And I’m the kind of person who is always moving at full speed. But when I’m on a highline, everything slows down.”

As Englund walked the line, slow and steady, everyone fell silent, their eyes watching his continuous counterbalance, their ears listening to his music on repeat. When Englund’s shadow and his body started to get closer to the other side, it was becoming real. The ground rose to meet his body in the air. He sent the line and walked off.

The moment his feet left the webbing and landed on the top of the west butte, everyone let loose with excitement. Englund was alone on the other side, with tears of joy in his eyes. As Englund took it all in, Thompson yelled, “I love you.” With the La Plata Mountains in the background, lightly covered with snow, Englund became the first person to send the Twin Buttes highline.

Highlining is an activity that requires a team. But when a person is on the line, they are all alone. With their eyes trained off in the distance, and their feet on a strip of webbing hundreds of feet above the ground, a highliner has to embrace the moment and focus.

“It’s like the whole external world goes quiet,” he said, “and all there is to do is walk.”