The first step is the hardest.
That’s when the fear hits Mia Noblet, before she’s even out over a great abyss with nothing beneath her but air and earth and death. That’s when she has to convince her body to do a thing it knows people shouldn’t do — walk on a thin piece of plastic over a height that would surely kill her if anything goes wrong.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re not afraid of heights at all,” says Noblet, who spent her childhood in Nelson. “When you get on the highline, you’re so out there, you’re so small, you’re so trusting of your gear and suddenly when you stand up… you have nothing to hold onto. Your arms are in the air, you only have your feet on a one-inch piece of webbing and that is a very free, very away-from-everything feeling.
“No matter how unscared you are of heights, you’re going to be scared the first time.”
She’s still scared, even though she’s also a world record holder in highlining.
Highlining is similar to tightrope walking, but differs primarily in the equipment used. Whereas a tightrope is sturdy, highlining uses slacklines that, depending on the material, will dip under the walker. Balance is also trickier. A mistake will send a vibration down the slackline to the anchor, which then boomerangs back.
Looser rigging helps eliminate the vibrations, a recent discovery that in turn has led to world records skyrocketing according to Noblet, because it’s easier to walk when a line is long and relaxed.
Noblet set the women’s record on August 24 for walking 222 metres across Hunlen Falls, which is Canada’s third-highest falls located in Tweedsmuir Provincial Park.
Noblet is 21 years old, and has only been highlining for a year. But when she crossed the falls, which features a 400-metre drop to the bottom, the fear faded and she felt at peace.
“In my mind, it was just so enjoyable to walk that line,” she says. “It was so peaceful, so calm, I was in the moment just walking and it was probably one of the nicest feelings to be able to walk for so long. It was just a perfect, perfect walk.”
Still, she doesn’t think highlining is an insane activity. Noblet wears a harness with a rope attached to the slackline, with a backup line in place as well.
“We always say that the most dangerous part of the highline weekend is driving down the Sea-to-Sky Highway.”
Noblet was born in Vancouver but moved to Nelson when she was two. When she was eight, she went downstairs at Snowpack on Baker Street and saw a poster of Dean Potter highlining. (The picture is in fact still present at the store, although it was just recently moved to the wall of a storage room.)
The image stuck with Noblet.
“I had to do it. I saw it and was like, one day I want do this,” she says. “That was where it first began, where the first glimpse of what it could be was.”
At the time, however, Noblet was heavily involved in figure skating. She bought her first slackline at 13, but didn’t give it much attention.
Noblet left Nelson at 15 to focus on figure skating in Vancouver, where she ended up swapping blades for speedskating. Then in August 2015 she went on a trip to visit her family in France and tried highlining in Switzerland and Italy. Her skating career was dead after that. When she returned to Canada she told her speedskating coach she was quitting to focus on highlining.
Her first priority was getting over an unexpected fear of heights. Noblet’s father Thierry owns Kootenay Lake Aviation and took his daughter on enough flights during her childhood that she thought she was okay with being up in the air. Her first walk on a highline ruined that assumption.
“The height on highlines would get to me,” she says. “I would stand up and be so terrified. I’d just stand there for a minute without falling, that’s the hardest thing to do.
“I’d be too scared to go take a step. In my mind, half of me was just like, ‘you’ve gotta just walk.’ And the other half was like, don’t even take a step, just stay there.”
She began working with Slacklife BC as the company’s first athlete. Two weeks before her walk over Hunlen Falls, Noblet and the company attended a two-week highlining festival in Squamish. That’s where she figured out the best way to get over a fear of falling was simple — fall.
At the festival, Noblet practised walking to the middle of a line, turning and falling forward on purpose. Then her harness would catch her and she’d sit dangling underneath the slackline.
Think about how difficult is to fall forward without stopping yourself. That’s because the act runs contrary to the vestibular system, which gives humans a sense of balance and helps keep us upright.
Now consider falling over and over again as Noblet did. It didn’t help her conquer her fear, but it did help her understand it.
“The fear is still there, but it’s not controlling me anymore. It’s there, you feel it, but you let it go and it doesn’t block you [from doing] what you know you can.”
Noblet also makes a point of looking down, which she says helps her body understand where it is.
“Even to look down, it’s hard to understand the height you are at,” she says.
“Your brain doesn’t quite comprehend everything completely. You know you’re high, you feel it, you feel the height, you feel everything, but at the same time it’s so far down.”
Once her feet are moving, Noblet takes her time. Before she gets on the slackline, she tells herself she will be on it for a long time and won’t get off until she’s across, which can take an hour of walking.
But that’s how she likes it. She wants her life to be slowed down, and on the line there’s no phone calls or distractions. It’s just her, the line, and the void below.
“It forces you to be in that present moment and I think these days in this world, we’re always scattered and not in the moment,” she says.
“Highlining brings you to this peaceful, relaxed, almost a forced meditation in that moment and you’re just with yourself, just enjoying that moment.
“That’s what highlining brings to me. To be in nature, to be outside, you’re where you’re supposed to be.”
Photos and video by Levi Allen.