British Columbia·Analysis

Daredevil Spencer Seabrooke soars on slackline between heroism and death

An act of highlining daredevilry by Spencer Seabrooke has earned international acclaim as Canadian parks officials struggle to bring his fellow slackliners down to earth.

Parks around North America are grappling with how to regulate rapidly growing sport of slacklining

Spencer Seabrooke crosses the gully near Squamish, B.C., on his way to setting a world free solo slackline record. (Zackary Moxley/YouTube)

Of the many things that might be said about me in the event of my premature death, the one I hope most to avoid is "he died doing what he loved."

I enjoy many activities — biking, hiking, drinking, reading — all of which, with the exception of reading, could probably kill me if taken to an extreme. But most of all I love living.

And I just can't see myself, as a totally avoidable accident hurtles me toward oblivion, saying: "It's too bad I ignored all those warnings, but riding a bike down a mountain with no brakes beats dying in bed of old age any day."

'Is it legal?'

But not everybody thinks the way I do. Spencer Seabrooke, for example.

The B.C. man's act of daredevilry took place as jurisdictions across North America grapple with the regulation of extreme sports.

In a viral video, the 26-year-old slips, grunts and miraculously toes his way to a free solo world record along a 2½-centimetre-wide piece of nylon webbing spanning a 64-metre gap at the North Gully of Squamish's Stawamus Chief Mountain.

He's 290 metres off the ground. And he's not wearing a safety harness.

Most people react with one of two questions: "How does he do that?" and "Is it legal?" The answers: a lot of training, guts, nerves, and self-confidence; and it depends where you do it.

B.C. Parks says it strongly discourages people from highlining or BASE jumping, but unless a specific closure notice has been posted people are free to do what they want — for now.

"When accidents occur there is a high probability of serious injury and even death. Rescues in remote or difficult to reach areas can challenge search efforts," B.C.'s Ministry of Environment says in an email.

"While we have no current plan to ban slacklining or BASE jumping, it is an issue we may revisit."

That's in part because of attention gained by stunts like Seabrooke's and the recent death of extreme sport pioneers like Dean Potter, who died in an accident in Yosemite in May after jumping off a cliff in a wingsuit.

Potter was a well-known figure in B.C.; he filmed himself crossing a 30-metre line without a harness in the same gully where Seabrooke set his record. It's still known as "Dean's Line."

'We discourage the practice'

It's important to differentiate between highlining and the sport of slacklining, which has exploded across North America as followers string lines between trees and poles at heights much closer to the ground.

"What I do should not be what represents slacklining," Seabrooke says. "It might inspire people to get out there and try it, but I don't encourage people to get out there and free-solo."

But Vancouver's Park Board cites one of Seabrooke's adventures in its concerns about slacklining. 

Spencer Seabrooke slacklines across Siwash Rock at the Stanley Park seawall in Vancouver. (Bill Hawley Photography)

Seabrooke slung a line between Stanley Park and Siwash Rock one sunset in April; he was accused of violating First Nations sacred ground, an offence for which he says he has since offered an apology.

"Slacklining is an increasingly popular activity in our parks and we have significant safety concerns about its impacts on park users, ecology and slackliners themselves," says park board general manager Malcolm Bromley.

"We discourage the practice, and our park rangers are working with city colleagues and legal on new measures to limit slacklining activity in future."

Cities from Seattle to Miami have struggled to regulate slacklining, mostly on the basis of damage done to trees and potential liability. The sport is banned from all of Portland's 209 parks.

"Height is certainly a consideration, but so is just doing it at all," says Portland parks and recreation spokesman Mark Ross.

"It's a concern enough for people who are experts in risk that they thought it's not a good idea to permit."

'They wouldn't have it any other way'

Which brings the issue back around to activities, like highlining without a harness, that carry a high risk of death. 

Kyle MacDonald-Wolochatiuk, 40, was killed in Squamish after hitting a tree in a speed-flying accident. The extreme sport is similar to paragliding. (Kyle MacDonald-Wolochatiuk/Facebook)

Last month, Squamish resident Kyle MacDonald-Wolochatiuk died on Stawamus Chief Mountain in an accident while speed-flying, another extreme sport, similar to paragliding, that B.C. Parks says it discourages, but doesn't prohibit.

Like highliners and BASE jumpers, the 40-year-old filmed his flights. But the videos that go viral are the ones like Seabrooke's that end in success, not tragedy.

Seabrooke knew MacDonald-Wolochatiuk well. But he says risk is part of the sport, and he was back on the Chief the week after his friend's death, setting a record.

"I accept the fact that something could happen. But I would rather live my life doing what I want to do, instead of living in fear," he says.

"You have to understand that people died doing something that they loved, and they wouldn't have it any other way."

About the Author

Jason Proctor

@proctor_jason

Jason Proctor is a reporter in British Columbia for CBC News and has covered the B.C. courts and mental health issues in the justice system extensively.

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