The Dawn of Skylining

Within a few weeks of an unsuccessful attempt by French adventure athletes, “Sketchy” Andy Lewis and a small crew of daredevils put up and walked the world’s highest highline. At more than 4,000 feet off the ground this amazing feat was achieved with the dramatic assistance two hot-air balloons. As part of a remarkable display organized by arial artist Jona-Marie Price above the desert near Las Vegas Nevada, this high altitude highline walk included a exhibition by Cirque de Soliel entertainer Michael Lipari, acrobatic BASE jumps from the balloon baskets along with wing suit fly-bys. The entire experience was captured on video. And a short teaser reel appears this week on the Vimeo channel of the production company Fenom Creative.

Though the French team, known as the Skyliners, posted their hot-air balloon video to the Internet on February 6th, Lewis and Price had already set in motion plans to create a similar project. Having connected in January at the Outdoor Retailer Show in Salt Lake City, Utah, Price shared with Lewis her idea of conducting her signature arial dance performance while suspended from the top of a balloon in flight.

“I just asked her if we could rig a highline, too,” Lewis said.

Since 2010 Price has created a unique series of photographs and videos called Rivers of Ribbons. The act features her hanging from a bridge or tall rock formation while draped in long colorful ribbons of fabric. The bright bands of cloth sway gracefully to her movements or waft on the currents of a swirling breeze. The project was inspired four years ago by Tibetan prayer flags that Price saw hanging from suspension bridges while trekking between Everest Base Camp and Namche Bazaar in Nepal.

“I had this vision of wrapping myself in all those colors and hanging with them,” Price said. Now she puts together these elaborate stunts high off the ground each more ambitious and technically challenging than the last.

Working with professional rigger Trask Bradbury Price executed a plan to create a safe system to lower a series of suspension lines that could withstand the heat generated by a balloon’s propane powered jets. Temperatures that can reach as high as 250 degrees at the top of the canopy added to the list of hazards that had to be accounted for. Bradbury also included a backup line attached to the passenger basket so that Price and Lipari could be pulled to safety should anything go wrong.

The highline between the two balloons were set up by Lewis himself. Assisted by his fiancé and stunt partner Hayley Ashburn, author of the Falcon Guide book How to Slackline, Lewis took every precaution to create a flawless system and corrected a few of the oversights made by the French team.

“The Skyliners’ video really helped because it let us analyze their rigging,” he said. “We had the line come right off the basket instead of the burn rig below the canopy the way they did it.”

What seemed to be a minor variation apparently made all the difference in the world. The placement of the line on the basket provided the highliners with a much more stable platform to begin each attempt to walk across. Lewis also had the added advantage of working with father and son balloonists Doug and Dougie Campbell of Las Vegas Balloon Rides.

“They were a huge benefit to us because they knew their flying styles and they knew their balloons,” Lewis said. “They could keep themselves (and the highline) pretty level for the most part.”

Lewis and his team also took the time to practice first. They set the system up with the balloons tethered to two parked cars and only 10 feet off the ground. Then after several successful walks they went even higher but to only 600 hundred feet.

“We had leashes on at this point and BASE rigs (parachutes) too just in case,” said Ashburn. “I don’t know if the Frenchies did that too, but I’m sure that Andy wouldn’t have been successful without first doing the practice walks.”

By the time the balloons were lifted up to 4,000 feet above the ground, Lewis was ready to make his first attempt. Several spectators where invited to ride in the baskets for ballast along with a team photographers and videographers. Waiting for there to be absolutely no wind both balloons rose into the air with Price and Lipari hanging below with their ribbons. Lewis walked across the highline several times without the benefit of a safety leash, until finally making a leap from the line in a spectacular reverse swan dive BASE jump.

Quite literally taking highlines to a new level could this be the beginning of a new adventure sport?

“I did the highest ever highline,” Lewis said. “And using balloons? Yeah, I guess you could call it a new sport.”

Inspired by the visionary French athletes that made the first attempt and now having been successfully accomplished by Lewis we may be witnessing the dawn of skylining.

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