Four friends rigged a 420-foot highline across the face of Vernal Fall, and three of them walked narrow webbing through wind, spray and the waterfall’s roar before the Secret Service forced them to abandon their adventure.
“No other line in Yosemite that we are aware of is rigged out in front of the water like this,” Ryan Jenks, who first tried the Vernal line, said this week. “Normally we’re above it all, not right next to it. Breathtaking. Walking the line was just the cherry on top.”
It was the first time anyone’s rigged Vernal Fall, said Jenks, who’s been slacklining and highlining more than a decade. Each person had a climbing harness and a leash to keep them attached to the highline. They needed the backup safety.
No one made it all the way across without falling before Secret Service personnel cleared the Mist Trail on Father’s Day for President Barack Obama and his family. But it was unforgettable for the challenge and the experience.
Before they tried to walk the line, with the howl and thunder from thousands of cubic feet of water per minute rushing by and crashing on rocks 150 feet below, Jenks, 32, his girlfriend, Kim Weglin, 23, both of Lodi, Scott Hong, 27, of San Jose, and Michael Melner, 34, of Sacramento, hauled 300 pounds of gear up Mist Trail to Vernal Fall.
“We hiked in Friday and set it up Saturday,” Jenks said. “It took four of us five hours to rig it.”
They had more than 3,000 feet of rope, webbing, string, anchors and hardware. Melner did an extra trip to bring up 1,600 feet of webbing.
Weglin said they’d tried to rig the same location back in May, but there was so much water then they’d had to rappel both sides of the fall and their initial rope kept getting stuck.
“Water pushed our line behind a flake of rock and the force of the water pounded the rope on a sharp edge and cut it,” Weglin said. “It was 8 millimeter static rope, really strong.”
This time they used a fishing pole to cast a line across the river below the falls to get their first line in place.
Walking the line
Once the finished highline was anchored in place, Jenks went first, then Hong and Weglin.
“The middle of the line was surprisingly dry most of the time, but the wind would pick up and you’d get soaked,” Weglin said. “It was soaking wet on each end of the line.”
Photos and video show their comparatively tiny figures and their thin line of safety against the magnitude of the falls. But images don’t capture the vertigo and other effects, Weglin said.
“I think the water next to you makes you feel real sick, like being seasick, nauseous and off balance,” Weglin said. “It’s hard to find a point of reference when there’s so much water moving so quickly, with the wind and noise. Lots of distractions.”
Weglin said the experience was special for her because Vernal Fall was the first major feature she visited when she came to Yosemite for the first time. Jenks said he’d dreamed of rigging Vernal Fall for two years and it turned out even better than he hoped it would.
“Excited to see an impossible turn into a reality,” Jenks said.
Potus in the park
On Sunday morning two weeks ago, the highliners at Vernal Fall and nearly everyone else in Yosemite were unaware that President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and their daughters, Malia, 17, and Sasha, 15, would be walking up Mist Trail.
Obama’s two-day visit to the park was billed as a Father’s Day getaway and chance to promote the 100th anniversary of the national parks system’s creation. On Saturday, the Obamas spent time at Lower Yosemite Fall before the president gave a speech to invited guests next to Cook’s Meadow, walked Sentinel Dome near Glacier Point and descended Four-Mile Trail.
Most of the president’s Yosemite itinerary was not disclosed by the White House and the Park Service to news media or the public.
So Jenks was making more attempts on the Vernal highline, and Weglin was high above taking photos when Yosemite rangers and Secret Service personnel ordered them to take their line down.
“I didn’t even think Obama would be still be in the Valley,” Weglin said. “The Secret Service were kicking everyone off the trail.”
“Apparently Secret Service thought it was a security threat,” Jenks said. “We derigged so Obama could hike up but I betcha he would have wanted to watch!”
It took time to dismantle the highline and its safety anchors, and to pack it all wet for descending.
“We started running down the trail,” Weglin said. “Ryan and I get down to the fork with the John Muir Trail and there were eight to 10 Secret Service guys there. One of them told us ‘Stand over there.’ They were not in sync. They wanted to search us, then all of a sudden the president walked by with his family. He waved. The Secret Service hadn’t searched anyone.”
Hong and Melner came down the trail minutes later. The president recognized their heavy loads and said, “Looks like we’ve got some serious climbers here.”
No selfies but stoked anyway
There was no opportunity for selfies with Obama, but the highliners felt they’d had a weekend to remember.
“It’s not fun getting shut down, but everyone’s stoke outweighed the bummer,” Jenks said. “The trip couldn’t have been better.”
Reflecting on his first attempt to cross the Vernal line, Jenks recalled being “completely floored by the intensity of it all. The noise. … I found peace intensified.”
Hong said the moments before he stood up on the line and trusted himself were the apex of his experience as a highliner.
“I’m green at this sport, but that is the totality of the experience,” Hong said. “Everything all comes together. It’s a very flowing activity. There’s meditative movement. Everything is so big and I’m so small, I’m so high up and everything is so far away. I find I’m focused, seeking balance and trying to find your center.”
The Vernal Fall highline as Jenks, Weglin, Hong and Melner set it up is now the second-longest established line in Yosemite, Jenks said. Jenks has rigged previous lines at places including Taft Point, Upper Yosemite Fall, Eichorn Pinnacle and Nevada Fall.
They rigged it “all natural” by using a tree and metal cams that fit into cracks in the rock next to the waterfall.
“I doubt this line will get repeated anytime soon,” Jenks said. “I didn’t give beta and I don’t know many people who can get to those anchors, build those anchors and get the line across . . . at least while water is raging.”
Jenks said he and his friends named the Vernal Fall line “Longer than the Secret Service Allows.”