Shawn Snyder leaves the world behind and finds new realities in the air above Terrebonne, Oregon.

My introduction to the world of highlining took place in the fall of 2004 at the Monkey Face Highline in Smith Rock, Oregon, near the small town of Terrebonne. Smith rock is a massive cluster of cliff faces surrounded on three sides by a giant U-turn of the Crooked River, with a large quantity of easily accessible climbing routes of all types and difficulties. The rock is mostly high quality welded tuft, a sort of mud-looking texture filled with little pebbles of hard rock which is altogether deceptively solid. Upstream a ways, the river has formed a deep gorge sided with basalt bluffs which supplement the towering cliffs of Smith Rock proper with more excellent climbing on a slightly different medium. The whole place is situated in an Oregon desert, giving climbers few rainy days and a long season on the rocks that stretches year-round for a hardy few.

The Monkey Face is a looming tower of rock standing proudly just off the end of a small ridgeline, with all aspects slightly overhung and several boulders and notches at the top giving the distinct appearance of a monkey's head atop a long neck. The top of the tower is approximately 400 feet off the Crooked River, giving a prospective highliner massive exposure with very little visually stable elements to help maintain balance during the crossing of the bouncing wavy line. A sharp abutment of the nearby ridgeline, called the "Diving Board," points straight at the mouth of the Monkey about thirty feet away, a teasing enticement which makes crossing this gap almost a necessity for any adventurers who happen by. This is the empty space that frames the Monkey Face Highline.

The Monkey Face Tower, Smith Rock, Oregon.

Larry Harpe drops a knee on the Monkey Face Highline.

Through my postings and browsing on I was invited to join Larry Harpe, Chris Hill, Shawn Snyder, and Scott Balcom in rigging and walking this line, which is one of the most beautiful and intense highlines I had ever heard of or seen in pictures. I had corresponded with all of these guys online, browsing their impressive photo albums of incredible balancing acts on some of the most amazing rock features in the world, and was stoked to have a chance to meet and to learn from them. Larry and Chris were climbers of an enviable caliber, living the dream of working a little and climbing a lot from their home base in Moab, Utah. Shawn was purely and undeniably a dirtbag climber, which is also a lifestyle with no small attraction to my personality. He wandered from job to job and crag to crag, making just enough money to get by and concentrating his intense character on incredible feats of skill and nerve on highlines. Scott Balcom was one of the early pioneers of the sport, inspired in Yosemite by Adam Grosowsky and Jeff Ellington to begin a slacklining career that would see the very first walk of a highline ever, as well as the first walk of the Lost Arrow Spire, a walk which is still a goal for most every aspiring highliner in the world. Now Scott engineers and sells slacklining-specific equipment from his home in southern Oregon, some of the most innovative and quality gear available to the sport.

As for me, I had recently graduated from high school, turned eighteen, and acquired a free airline ticket on Alaska Airlines, so life was practically loaded and cocked for adventure, and I jumped to pull the trigger. The few weeks of preparation went by and I found myself standing next to my bag of gear in front of the airport in Bend, Oregon, where it didn't take long for Chris to show up in a minivan and bring me to meet Larry and Scott. This was the weekend of the first ever Smith Rock Climber's Carnival, a gathering of climbers and gear vendors with competitions, gear giveaways and general climbing-related fun, and we made our way to a field near Smith Rock and helped set up booths for the event. Then we headed up to the Monkey to rig the highline.

The trail to the Monkey Face is called "Misery Ridge" and ascends to the very top of one high formation before dropping down the other side and ending up on the Diving Board. We made it this far expecting to find Shawn with the line already partially rigged, but Shawn was nowhere in sight, so we started rigging ourselves. Huge bolts and metal plates dating back to the eighties are the anchors for this line. Originally they were installed for a highwire walk with an A-frame and a tremendous amount of tension on a metal cable, and later when the A-frame was dismantled the conveniently placed anchors were adapted for use in climbing tyroleans and, of course, highlines.

I had never experienced exposure like that on the tip of the diving board before, so when the others suggested I join Chris and cross to the mouth of the Monkey to rig the line, I nervously accepted the assignment. In our case a group of climbers had just reached the Monkey's mouth, so they kindly accepted a line thrown across and anchored it on the other side, allowing us to just tyrolean across the gap instead of climbing the first two pitches of the Pioneer Route to get to the mouth. After a lesson from Chris on solidly securing a highline the two of us climbed the last pitch to the top of the Monkey, which will probably always rank high among the most airy and exposed pitches I've climbed in my life, yet is easy enough that Chris climbed it in his skate shoes. Standing atop the summit, I experienced for the first time a sensation that would later become familiar and welcome; the awe of reaching a place that appears quite impossible to reach, and standing on ground that relatively few people will ever walk.

Larry Harpe walks into the mouth of the Monkey.

Time stands still as Shawn Snyder treads an impossible path high over the Crooked River.

We finished rigging the highline just as Shawn showed up in an agitated state, quite angry about the events of his day so far. He wanted to just pack up and head home, but with a bit of coaxing from his friends, he relaxed a little and tied in for the first walk. I sat in awe well back from the cliff face as Shawn stepped out on the 1-inch wide nylon and walked back and forth across the line, working a few tricks in the middle apparently oblivious to the vast expanse of nothingness all around him. When he sat down again and untied from his leash, his demeanor had changed completely and he was stoked to be there, super excited to be walking highlines again. I came to find that Shawn fed off the intensity of walking thin air over immense voids, and it seemed to counteract his own intense personality and provide a sort of balance of forces that prevented unstable destruction. I grew to like Shawn a lot without understanding him much at all, and the things I learned from him and the others that weekend remain an important part of me to this day.

Shawn's goal for this trip was to rig and walk a longer line than that already in place on the Monkey. He enlisted my help and we again climbed to the summit of the tower, and then rappelled off the side into another notched cavern on the Monkey's shoulder. The rappel turned out to be unexpectedly overhung and Shawn struggled at the end of the rope for an hour, dangling 350 feet off the ground unable to reach the rock in front of him, before he finally managed to devise a method of getting into the cave. I followed, a rookie to this sort of terrain and careful with every movement. Shawn pulled me in from my dangling position in space and we set to work drilling bolts and placing hardware to anchor this monster of a highline, 125 feet long and with even more exposure than the original line. When we got it rigged, only Shawn and Larry stepped up to walk it, and neither one made it all the way across. At the time of this writing I'm still not aware of anyone successfully walking this line. As for myself, I was content taking pictures of the incredible feats happening in front of me, and trying my hand at the shorter line to the Monkey's mouth.

The hand powered drill makes slow progess as Shawn drills a new bolt hole for a longer line at the Monkey.

Chris Hill takes a swinging fall on one attempt to walk the line.

When I stepped up to walk the highline, I was mentally blown away. At the time I could walk any line I could rig, spinning and jumping and even pulling flipping dismounts, but when I put a foot on the Monkey Face Highline I was back to the basics of learning to walk all over again, shaking like a leaf and unable to maintain balance long enough to get a second foot on the line. My skill seemed to have left me entirely and my numbed mind barely functioned at all, gaping in horror at the void beneath my feet. After much encouragement, some time to relax, and a helping hand to establish balance I eventually found myself standing on the line at the edge of the gap with no visible barriers left to successfully making the crossing, but still I was halted by the sheer impossibility of forcing my leg to take that first step.

This invisible barrier is the bane of all prospective highliners. It is a wall without substance, yet so intense as to be almost tangible. The simple act of taking a single step - something done countless times every day without a second thought - becomes an impossible task no matter how much energy is directed into consciously willing that foot to move. To dismantle this barrier it seems almost as if something has to break in the mind and release the confining chains of impossibility as a whole. It is an enormously difficult mental struggle, but enormously freeing in its result as well. When one manages to thoroughly break down the barriers of ones own mind and push through to success, as in walking across a highline for the first time, the absolute limitations of reality are questioned and suddenly anything at all is possible.

For me, however, success was not to be attained this trip. Over the course of several days I stepped up and stepped down, and eventually managed a few shaky sliding movements over open air and my first falls on a highline, but a complete highline walk was to elude me for a full year. In my days spent on the edge of the Diving Board with this irregular group of society's overlooked incredibles, though, the valuable lessons that I learned were not limited to mechanical advantages of pulley systems or the importance of backing up anchors, but ventured even as far as questioning the foundations of upon which life is built, and proving that many of the limitations of possibility are placed upon us simply by our own minds.

I came home to Alaska that year with the knowledge that there was no such thing as impossible, and I still remain convinced of that today. In 2006 I returned to the Monkey Face with a few other highlines under my belt and walked the highline across to the Monkey's mouth, finally achieving what I had tried so hard to do that first time. In the fall of 2007 I proposed to my wife Tracy at the top of the Monkey Face Tower, and all of these fantastic life-changing events have given that formation a singularly precious placement in my memories. When I think of it, I can still see the vast expanse of nothing on either side, with the crooked river below, the diving board behind, and a single giant shackle supporting the thin nylon band that is my pathway across the void.

Larry's feet carry him closer to reuniting with his shadow on the far end of the line.

Larry Harpe makes the walk back from the Monkey's Mouth with his eash dutifully trailing along behind him.

Larry Harpe makes the walk back from the Monkey's Mouth with his eash dutifully trailing along behind him.