never die

words: laura yan

photography: michael overbeck, zachary moxley


Spencer Seabrooke takes a deep breath. He’s up high—290 meters, or about level with a 70-story skyscraper. If he dropped a rock, it would take eight seconds before he’d hear it land. Before him is a slackline stretched between a gaping gully. He steps on the line and falls almost immediately. He catches himself, hands and ankles clasped around the line, and swings back up to sitting, then standing. His harness is not secured to the line. If he loses his footing and doesn’t catch, he’d fall all the way down. 

He lets out a roar. He starts walking, a tiny figure silhouetted against the distant mountains, arms swimming for balance, grunting as he takes step after step toward the other side.

It’s August 2, 2015, and Seabrooke is on the north gully of the Stawamus Chief, a granite dome in Squamish, BC. He’s here to break a world record by walking 64 meters across a highline: a loosely tensioned, one-inch-wide piece of polyester webbing, and he’s doing it untethered, without the protection of a safety leash.

The very first time he came to the gully, before the line known as “the Itus” existed, he remembers telling his friend, “This is the record. This is the one, for sure.” Then he laughed. It seemed impossible.

Seabrooke saw highlining for the first time at a film festival in May 2012. In one documentary, he watched American daredevil Andy Lewis (nicknamed “Sketchy Andy” for his questionable antics) trickline, longline, highline, waterline, BASE jump, and perform various tricks with a macho bravado and a brassy sense of humor that Seabrooke admired. Lewis is only two years older than Seabrooke, but his long list of death-defying exploits has earned him a reputation in the adventure-sports community that borders on legendary. In 2012, Lewis brought slacklining to a mainstream audience, tricklining in a gladiator-style dress next to Madonna during the Super Bowl Halftime Show.

It was Lewis who coined the term and the philosophy of the “slacklife.” In 2011, he’d set the free solo highlining world record, crossing a 55-meter-long, 60-meter-high line in the rust-colored Highlands Bowl of Moab, Utah.

As Seabrooke watched Lewis on film, he began to imagine himself highlining in the mountains around BC. “I walked out of there a different person,” he says.

Two weeks later, he went to an outdoor supply store, bought a slackline for $80, and set it up in his best friend Brent Plumley’s garage. He spent an hour or two struggling to get across. “I expected that it would be easier,” he recalls. He would go inside to watch a video of some-one doing tricks on the line, then get frustrated with his own progress. But he kept at it.

After a few days, Seabrooke could walk back and forth. Three weeks later, in July of 2012, he set up the line in a park, high in the trees. Three months later, he went to North Vancouver with an inexperienced friend to rig his first exposed highline. 

“He’s never experienced pain like other kids,” says Maureen Kimble, Seabrooke’s mom. She is a sprightly woman with bright eyes, a closely cropped pixie cut, and an enthusiasm she clearly passed on to her son. She tells me about an instance shortly after he started kindergarten when he was run over by a bus. He had multiple fractures in his arm and tire marks in his skin. Kimble met him in the emergency room. “He was so not worried about it,” she says. The tread marks were etched in his flesh for weeks.

While he was getting his cast changed, a stranger saw him in the elevator.

“What happened to you, little boy?”

“Oh I got ran over by a bus,” Spencer lisped. “But it was just a little bus.”

Kimble laughs. “That was when I knew he was a special kid.” Seabrooke was born and raised in Peterborough, Ontario, a city of about 100,000 that felt like the biggest small town in Canada. He has two older sisters, each a year apart. The siblings grew up close. Kimble described it as “having a sleepover every night at your house.” The kids shared two bedrooms—the girls on bunk beds in one room, Spencer in the other—but she’d often wake up and find all three of them curled up on the large bottom bunk.

He hated to sit still. His favorite winter sport was snowboarding, and his favorite summer activity was running off to the woods with a hammer, building forts high in the trees. Seabrooke became the provincial snowboarding champion in Ontario, but couldn’t go to the nationals because he was too young to qualify for the insurance (the minimum age was 15, and Seabrooke was only 13). He got into skateboarding—though he was never good at the technical tricks, he could leap off big sets of stairs without trepidation.

Shortly after Seabrooke moved to Vancouver in 2011, he and Brent Plumley became excited about rock climbing. After climbing short sport routes with pre-bolted anchors, and mostly in gyms, the two decided to drive about an hour north of the city and embark on an ambitious project on the Chief: a multi-pitch, traditional route (which requires the climber to place protection into the rock as he climbs), using brand-new equipment. They actually ended up climbing the wrong route, and Seabrooke didn’t place his first piece of protection until the third pitch. Some climbers would call this reckless; Seabrooke and Plumley called it “adventure climbing.”

In October 2012, Seabrooke and his friend hiked up Crown Mountain, just above North Vancouver, carrying a heavy bag full of gear. They’d planned to bolt the anchors for a highline, then rappel their way down. But a windstorm hit while they set up camp. They were perched on a small, flat ledge in a cheap nylon tent. “Behind us was a 1,000 feet drop, in front of us was a slope that led into death,” Seabrooke says. They worried that the wind would topple them over the edge. They checked the weather, a little frantic. The winds were going to die down at 2am, which meant they had 12 hours to wait out the storm. They huddled inside the tent, and took shots of whiskey to get through the night.

In the morning, the clouds were so thick “you couldn’t see the city, you couldn’t see anything,” Seabrooke says. He hiked up to rig the line. He’d never set up a highline before, but he understood the concept: tie the slackline to a main anchor point, backup the anchor, and backup the line with a climbing rope underneath it. He made a leash using a steel ring and a length of rope that he hooked to his harness.

He felt the vertigo as soon as he stepped out. He tried to calm himself as he scooted forward little by little to secure the climbing rope. When he finished, he stood up back on the cliff. The fluorescent lime-green of the line glowed against the clouds. “It just got to the moment where I had to push myself,” he remembers. Walking away wasn’t an option. “I was there, I’d put in the work, other people had put in the work. I was going to fucking do it.” 

He began his first real highline walk. He fell right away, latching himself onto the line. He hoisted himself up and tried again. “Every step was completely a fighting battle,” he says. The line swayed from side to side, mirroring his shaking body. When he finally made it across, he sunk to his knees. Then he stood up and raised his hands to the sky. When people watch highlining, the most common reaction is: That’s crazy. Why would anyone ever do that?

“Well, why wouldn’t you?” Seabrooke replies. To Seabrooke, free solo highlining is simply the “natural progression” of the sport: you start on lines close to the ground, then you walk up high, then you walk unleashed and free. But he’s one of only a handful of highliners around the world who walk untethered, and one of the only ones who do so in BC. 

Though the history of rope walking traces back thou-sands of years, modern-day slacklines were developed by Yosemite Valley rock climbers in the 1980s as a way to train for balance. Unlike a tightrope, which is thin, taut, and unmoving, a slackline is nylon or polyester webbing with slack in it, which demands even greater balance. 

In the past five years or so, slacklining has blossomed into a sport of its own, separate from rock climbing. You may have seen barefoot slackliners wobble across lines rigged in parks in San Francisco or New York, or seen mini-lines set up in climbing gyms. There are subgenres of slacklining: tricklining is all backflips, spins, and handstands on thicker webbing; some slackliners surf and sway on long, loose, parabola-shaped rodeo lines, while others test their balance and focus on longlines, or raise the stakes with midlines and highlines. Slackliners learn to trust the line with their body weight, training muscles and gaining coordination. The one constant is that as soon as you step on an exposed highline, everything changes.

The psychological block, that clinging fear, is the hardest thing to overcome. Jonathan Hill, an ex-rugby player turned self-described “mindful slack guru,” describes highlining as 90 percent focus, 10 percent ability. “You feel so small in the open,” Hill says. The exposure changes everything. “You have to train the mind like a muscle. Be completely in the present.” A slight waver in your focus, a slight inkling of fear, and you’ll fall. Highlining is being present taken to the extreme.

Before he became a full-time slackliner, Seabrooke spent five days a week driving to construction sites around Vancouver. He’d sip coffee, smoke cigarettes, and joke with the other guys as they waited for a lurching concrete truck to show. His work was to turn the liquid mixture into a smooth, buttery surface, and wait for it to harden into foundations and walls and sidewalks.

Seabrooke discovered a knack for working with concrete when he was in high school, and he’s been doing it to make a living ever since. He finds joy in concrete: “It has such life to it,” he says. For a while, he even had his own concrete company in Calgary, with friends and family who worked for him.

Working with concrete can be hectic, stressful work, but he enjoys the hard labor. “I like suffering,” he says. It’s the same when he’s hiking steep trails, carrying a backpack with 100 pounds of highlining gear, and there comes a moment when he’s halfway up and his legs are burning. “You’re like, fuck, what am I doing?” he says. “That’s what I live for, to get to the top after that. What is it? You’re tired? What does tired mean? Just keep going. Keep putting yourself through that. Is this fun? Yes, yes, this is fun.” 

Seabrooke currently lives in a van parked outside of the garage of a house full of highliners in East Vancouver. He’s been living in his van for two years now; the money he saves from rent goes toward gear and travel, and he’s managed to make a cozy living room out of the garage. Slacklining and climbing equipment hangs on one wall, and his collection of hats on another. A friend made him a carved wooden skull with the inscription never die on the back. It sits on a shelf. In the wet, dreary days of winter, Seabrooke gets restless. He’s been recovering from a knee injury—a torn meniscus from slacklining last November.

On a gloomy winter’s day in December of 2015, I asked him about free soloing, and whether he was afraid of death. “No, are you?” he replies immediately. “We’re all gonna die someday. I’m not reckless. I feel more in control free soloing on a slackline than driving down the highway.”

Six months after walking his first highline on Crown Mountain, Seabrooke bolted the anchors for his most difficult and most ambitious highline yet. He spent a whole weekend in the north gully of the Chief, simply trying to get the line across. Normally, he spooled string around a rock, and with a few confident throws, could land it on the other side. This time, he tried using a fishing rod, then a bow and arrow. He climbed up and down, seeking better spots, but nothing was working. That weekend, the Itus earned its nickname. “It became this disease to me, this problem—I just couldn’t get rid of it.”

Seabrooke sought a cure. He went to a Carleton Rescue store and explained that he needed a way to get across a 60-plus-meter gap. They had just the thing: a rope gun made for chairlift rescues called the Line Launcher. Seabrooke bought a canister of string—some 950 feet of it—and hiked back up the Chief with a few friends. There were a few promising launches. The third time, he got very, very close. He had enough string left for one last shot.

It arced perfectly across the gully and caught in a tree. His friends burst into cheers—as Seabrooke watched the string on their end slip off the edge. “I think I cried then,” he admits. “I was really, really disappointed.”

A few weeks later, two highliners from Seattle, Ben Plotkin and Karl Marrs, came to town, interested in rigging a bigger line. Seabrooke told them about his struggle on the Itus. With the help of the Americans—and the Line Launcher—they finally rigged it. Seabrooke envisioned himself soloing the line that weekend, but instead, he faltered and decided to wear a leash. The Americans had used a nylon webbing that he wasn’t used to. “It was ridiculous,” he says, “so loose and so high.” The line was harder than anything he’d ever tried. “It was really humbling.”

By the end of the day, he’d made it across the line, albeit with many falls. He’d crossed it—but so had the Americans. “Part of me was a little upset that I didn’t get to be the first one to walk it, but I saw it was possible.” Plotkin and Marrs left the string across the gully, so the next weekend, Seabrooke returned to re-rig it. His friends camped on one side of the gully while he hiked to the other. It was a treacherous trail: he had to bushwhack his way through the trees, tiptoe across ledge traverses, and climb up fixed ropes. But he successfully pulled the webbing across and rigged the line. This is it, he thought. victory-journal-8

On the way back, he stumbled, and a sharp stick pierced his palm. When he tried to pull it out, it snapped. He jerked out the last stub of the branch with his teeth. Blood gushed from his hand. He thought about where he was, thought about calling for help. He needed to stay calm. He slowly trekked back, bleeding the whole way.

After his friends bandaged his swollen hand, Seabrooke decided not to take any painkillers. “I wanted to make sure I could feel the pain, see how bad it was,” he says. His friends suggested going back down, but Seabrooke wasn’t ready to give up. He dismissed his injury as minor. “It’s a long way from the heart,” he told them. “I’ll be okay.”

An hour later, he tried walking the line. He was doing surprisingly well. He walked a little, and when he fell, he caught himself with his hands. When he looked down he saw that the blood had soaked the bandage, and was dripping through the line. “Needless to say,” Seabrooke says, “I was defeated.”

He couldn’t stop thinking about the Itus. He wanted to go back right away, but friends persuaded him to take some time to heal. For the next few weeks, Seabrooke trained on the ground, in parks, on other lines; he practiced walking that height, that length, and longer. In August 2014, he hosted the second annual highlining festival on the Chief. They rigged six lines in two gullies. He walked the Itus with the leash again, with a few falls. He knew he was too distracted to give it his full attention. He wanted a clean send with the leash—to walk across without a single catch. He returned to the line using better webbing, and finally got the finish he wanted. “It was glorious,” he says.

The day Seabrooke planned to free solo the Itus, there were highlines set up in both gullies on the Chief, but most of the highliners left for the other gully as Seabrooke got ready. They were too frightened to watch. Three close friends and two videographers with drone cameras stayed. Seabrooke started to grunt and pace. Everyone around him went quiet.

Seabrooke walked the line once with the harness on and the leash trailing behind, connected. As he walked, he imagined himself without the leash. His heart was racing.
He felt desire boiling inside of him. I can do this, he thought.

He stepped back onto the cliff, and untied himself from the line. Even though he was untethered, he decided to keep the harness on. He had a carabiner clipped to it, a last-ditch backup plan that gave him the determination to continue.

When he got on the line again, 290 meters off the ground with no safety cord, his body reacted immediately. Before he fully stood up, he collapsed. It was an overwhelming, instinctive reaction—evolution overriding and telling him, Don’t walk off the edge of the cliff. He breathed deeply, pulled himself up, and took a step. His body was shaking. He felt his nerves all the way down to his toes. He sat back on the line, gathered everything within himself, and let out a roar. “I screamed as loud as I could. And then I just stood up and started fighting for it.”

The first step was the hardest. Then, everything slowed down. He sunk his weight on the line. He grunted. He took a step. He took another. He smelled a fire from the woods, heard the drone buzzing around his head. He breathed. He did not think. He especially did not think about falling.

When he stepped off on the other end of the Itus, Seabrooke was alone. He laughed so hard he cried. He felt overwhelming joy and relief. It was a feeling unlike any other. “It’s one in a million,” he says. “It’s unreal.”

Maureen Kimble was sitting in her house in Peterborough, looking out at the lake, when her phone rang. “Hey Mama!” Seabrooke said. “I just broke the world record!” She froze. “You did what?” “Yeah, I just free soloed and broke the world record.”

Kimble quickly changed the subject. She told him that they’d just lost out on a condo they’d been interested in buying in Vancouver, and Seabrooke consoled her. She’d always been supportive about her son’s adventures until she started seeing the highlining photos online. “I was scared shitless,” she says, “and that was when he was wearing a tether.” She made it a point to never like any of his posts on social media. When Seabrooke called before a free solo, Kimble would say, “I don’t feel good about this.” She became bad for his mojo, so he switched to calling her after. That afternoon, she could no longer pretend to be okay with what he was doing. “It felt too real,” she says. “I just wanted it to go away.”

To an unknowing onlooker, the falls and catches in the first part of the two-minute world-record video look terrifying. For Seabrooke, it was a way to reset. Besides, he wanted the video to include him catching: “There’s no way it could have grabbed the media’s attention the way it did otherwise.” When Andy Lewis broke the first record, he caught the line three or four times, but the video edited out the falls, showing only the “amazing finale.” The Itus is nine meters longer than the line Lewis free soloed in 2011, and the video of Seabrooke’s walk quickly went viral—it’s been viewed almost 2 million times. (Seabrooke held the world record for a year. On August 24, 2016, German slackliner Friedi Kühne walked a 72-meter-long, 400-meter highline, setting the new free solo record.)

Kimble didn’t understand the magnitude of what her son had done until she watched the video. She finally clicked the like button. So proud of you, she wrote. The next day, she was alone at home when it hit her, what could have happened. “Right out of the blue,” she recalls, “I just started crying and crying and crying, and couldn’t stop.”

She is still haunted by her response to his phone call, even though Seabrooke hardly remembers it. “He was on top of the world—and I was just flat,” she says, her voice heavy. She will never encourage him to free solo, but if something ever happened, she says, she’d want him to know that she supports him “one hundred percent.”

From the balcony of her new apartment in North Vancouver, Kimble has a perfect view of the Lions, two snow-covered peaks with a 345-meter gap between them. Seabrooke has told her that he wants to walk across it. She looks out at the mountains and smiles uncertainly. “How can I not think about him all the time?”