In 2005, Ben Donnelly, now a local adaptive ski instructor and the owner of Vail Pedicab (vailpedicab.com), was a 21-year-old college kid who got an idea. After seeing a rock climbing movie that featured a moment of highlining—slacklining at elevation between two high points—Donnelly dove into the sport. He trained for a year, “all with the idea of wanting to span this particular gap in North Carolina, in the Linville Gorge.” He pulled off that feat, and last summer set his sights on a new gap. Along with Vail highliners Mauro Poletti, Patrick Fee, and Josh Teter, Donnelly rigged the longest highline ever attempted in Colorado, above the town of Minturn.
I’ve been dreaming about that gap for years. It’s a spectacular gap, just ginormous, so obviously it caught my eye. When I first started dreaming about it, it was a joke: it was beyond the realm of human possibility. Nobody had ever done anything that big. And then around two years ago I started to see other people do things that big, and I was like, Oh my god, this can be done. All I have to do is figure out how to get that rope across. If I can get that rope across, I can make it happen.
Getting the line across is often the make-it-or-break-it part of a project. That one is so long: it’s 1,300 feet. We hiked up and just looked at it over and over and over again. Eventually we found trees that we thought might be able to work, and we found other big boulders. We had different ideas and then changed them over and over again.
I got this hundred-pound Spectra fishing line, and my friend Zach [Mahone] flew it across on his drone. I was sweating when he was flying his drone across, freaking out, I was so excited. He got the fishing line across and then immediately used a drill with a spool on it, spooled it back in, and left a piece of paracord, which is like a really thin rope. We just left it there for like a week and a half until we got our weather window with no storms and no winds. The line sags like 100 feet down and 100 feet to the side, and it was horrifying! Once we got the weather window, we jetted up there. We had 10 people who agreed to hike all the way up there with us, carry hundreds of pounds of stuff, and pull—they were just pulling this rope for hours. Eventually we had something strong enough to pull the slackline across with. It took 10 people about 10 hours to get the thing done.
Somewhere in the middle it just kinda clicked. I looked behind me, and I couldn’t even really see my friends—they were little specks. I looked in front of me, and I wasn’t even halfway there. I talked to myself a little: “You’re here now. What are you gonna do?” Out there you’re so profoundly alone, and you know there’s no rescue. You know you have to walk off the damn thing. I found this deep calm, but it had a gravity to it. I was calm because I had to be, like an icy calm is what I found out there.
The rest of the way I still fell, but I was trying to walk a hundred-plus feet at a time, which to me was amazing. I just started to feel joy. By the end my friend Patrick had walked all the way around to the other side. All of a sudden he appears there, and he’s way bigger than I expected him to be. Dude, you’re only 200 feet away! I thought I was an eternity away. I realized I was close, I had a friend there. I was just on it after that; I crushed the rest of the way there. I was pretty stoked.
It’ll be faster this year. We’re gonna do it again. Yeah. I wanna send it. I wanna do it without falling. I don’t know if I can, but that’s my next goal. I don’t really have any other big goals. I feel like I did it. Now it’s about aesthetics.