Friedi Kuhne is one of the best highliners in the world. In this interview you will know how he set two world records in Russia, what is the worst enemy for slackliner and what was harder: to set 2 km highline or to walk it.
Photo by Kyle Lovett
How did you start? When and where did you try slackline for the first time?
I started slacklining 10 years ago when I was 20 years old during the climbing vacation in Italy. My climbing friends had a small slackline between two trees, very short and very low. When I tried slackline, it was very hard at the beginning. I failed, I could not do it. And than I really wanted to conquer the slackline. And so I practice, and practice, and practice, and when I came back home from Italy I bought my own slackline and than I practice every day.
Please tell us a few words about your climbing background.
I start rock climbing at the age of 16 but even before that, when I was a child, I was always climbing around. You know, trees, little rocks, houses, and the voice of my parent “Oh my God, come down here!” when they saw me on the roof of our house. But I started sport climbing with rope when I was 16 with my friends from high school. And the same friends introduced me to the world of slacklining and highlining later.
One man told me that every kid is a climber because he or she is a kid.
Yes, it is a very smart saying. Kids are more natural, they are very unchained in their being. So we, human beings, we descended from monkeys, and those climbed all day every day. So it is in us, it is in our nature – to climb things and to move through the natural environment up and down and sideways. And I think it is very healthy and joyful to submit to that nature and just do it.
Do you practice rock climbing now?
I still rock climb from time to time. Not as much as I did when I just climb. When I found slackline and highline I have got completely addicted so now I spend more time slacklining than climbing. But I still love climbing, and very often two sports combined for me. Because I do many alpine highline projects in the mountains, where you have to climb in order to get to the highline. And you have to do all sorts of rope work and rappelling. So it is very interesting, and I’m happy that I have a climbing background for highlining.
Was it hard for you to make a step from slackline to highline and how long did it take?
About one year after starting on the ground the same friend of mine and me, we went to a canyon and set up our first highline by ourselves. We have done it with very little experience. And the first steps on the highline were super hard. Because even if you climb it is a different feeling when there is nothing in front of you or around you. You have full air around you and the fear of height still kicks in. So almost every climber will be scared on the first highline. The fear of heights is natural for us, it is inside us. And despite being already good on the ground it was hard to take it to the air. Because you have some kind of a block in your head of the fear of heights. But that can be trained and then you get better on highline.
Tell us a few words about highline community. I think not so many people in the world who just do it. How many highliners are on our planet?
It is a very difficult question. I don’t know how much highliners or slackliners are in the world. The big highline groups on Facebook are about 15-20 thousand people, but of course, not everybody who walk highline are in those groups. I think highlining now is like rock climbing was 20 years ago maybe in terms of community and activity. So it is a very tight community. If you travel to a different country, in a different city and you meet somebody who highlines you share something that not so many people do so it is a strong connection. And you not that person have gone through the same challenges and has a similar mindset, so it is very easy to connect and make friends. It is a very friendly, loving global community and a big difference to the climbing community for us this time that we have full help of the Internet to connect worldwide. So I think the progression could be a little bit faster because of that. But the spirit and mindset is very much the same as an early climbing community had.
Photo by Aidan Williams
How do you train?
I try to spend on slackline as much time as I can. Highlining of course is difficult. Very few people have a highline in their house or in their backyards. So I practice on small slacklines and rodeo lines – the very lose ones. I try to put the balance to the limits. I stand sideways, on one leg, close my eyes, juggle on the slackline. Juggling is good for coordination and reflexes. And obviously a lot of other sports just happen in my life. For highlining you usually have to hike or mountaineering, in summer sometimes a little bit of swimming and running, in winter I like skiing.
To stay fit I do 2 hours yoga session 4-5 times a week. A little bit of gymnastics or calisthenics workout, maybe one or two times a week, but very functional and mindful. Pull up variations, sometimes campus board, endurance training, everything, that trains the body in a balanced way.
Do you train somebody?
Yes, it is a part of my job as a professional slackliner. I do shows and speeches, but also do a lot of workshops and trainings for both slacklining and highlining. I show how to set up the slackline, it is the first step for beginners. It’s always better to learn something the most efficient way. Of course you can learn it by yourself the same way as climbers learn how to climb, but it can be very helpful for your mind and for safety if you learn something from the professional.
So in my highline workshops I set up the highline for beginners who have never stood upon it. And then I help people to get their first highline experience without getting nearly traumatized like me. Because when I started highlining nobody showed me how to do it, and I was really scared. But in my workshops I organize top rope safety, and you can familiarize yourself with the height. And then you can advance it step by step and take away the top rope and be secure to the highline, and learn how to fall down and climb back up. This is how I try to make highline more accessible to other people. But most people that do these workshops with me have a little bit of climbing experience. You have not to be super pro but you should be able to lift your body up.
When you pushing the limits in highlining, is it more about mental or about physical?
It’s both, but I think the mental part is a little bit more important, especially in my achievements, goals and projects. When we walk 2,8 km slackline, the longest line ever, it is super physical. You have to practice months maybe years to walk, to balance with your arms up for 2 hours without taking them down. You need to have very good breathing, body control, reflexes, but that is only the base. Because all that does not help you if you get scared. The body should be strong, but the mind should be strong too to control the body and to guide it through the highline or through the climbing route. And especially in free solo it is much more mental than physical.
Let’s talk about the longest highline that you have ever walked. What was harder: to set it or to walk it?
It is a good question. It was both for sure. Setting up the line was a team challenge. Completely impossible to do it alone. And the team was quite big – 30 people worked for a week to set the longest highline in the world. But that was only on the location. There were months of planning and scouting before it. And that highline is an exception, it’s 2 km long, it was ridiculous, and it’s probably not gonna happen again for some years because it was so hard.
So the logistic challenge was crazy, but for me and three other athletes who crossed the line the personal mental and physical challenge was also crazy. I really can’t say what was harder, it was both hard in its own way.
What about the world records – I know you have four of them?
I have three that I’m still current, but throughout my career I set 11 or 12 world records. And two of them I set in Russia.
What was the hardest one to set for you?
The longest free solo highline was the hardest one. It’s not as physical as walk 1 km. But building confidence and maintaining confidence was really hard. When you are taking a decision to get up without a leash, a lot of things happen in your head. It was very interesting and very intense, and that was the hardest for sure.
Friedi after he set free solo highline world record
You have been in Russia several times. Can you share some memories?
The first time I went to Russia was exactly two years ago. It was in Kislovodsk in 2018 near Elbrus.
Friedi on Red Fox Elbrus Race 2018 festival. Photo by RedFox/Andrey Chepakin.
I took part in Red Fox Elbrus Race that year when you did your show at the festival.
Really? That’s so funny! That was very impressive for me to watch. Very inspiring, impressive race. So I started by going to the festival and then connected with the Russian slackline community. I travel around a little bit, and obviously Russia is huge, and I have seen only one corner on my first visit. I make some friends and then I came back to do some professional shows in Moscow and in Perm.
Next year in April 2019 at highline festival in Kislovodsk we set up a 1 km long highline. We walked it, the longest highline in Russia, two Russians and me. And after a couple days of training, I put a blindfold on and walked the whole distance without seeing anything. And it is a current blindfolded highline record for now.
Friedi with Russian highliner Aleksandr Gribanov
It is crazy!
Yes, it was awesome. When it happened there is almost no difference compared to seeing. It is not a completely different world. You try it and maybe eventually you succeed. So that was the first world record in Russia.
The next record was set in Moscow in September 2019. Moscow slackline community, the people I have made friends with through my trips before, invited me to join them on the very big urban highline between two skyscrapers – Oko tower and Neva tower in Moscow. That’s where I’ve got this sweater, you see – Moskva, it is from that event.
We set up the highline high above the streets 220 m long, 350 m high. That was the highest slackline ever that was set up in the city. We have an official referee from the Guinness World records book. And he fixed our record immediately after it was set.
What is the worst thing for you in highlining? Maybe you don’t like rigging or waiting for the good weather?
I enjoy rigging most of the time if it is with a good team. It is like problem solving, like puzzles, so it can be interesting. I think my worst enemy in all of my big highline projects has been the wind. The wind can change everything. You can become the strongest in the world, but if the wind says “No, you are not highlining today” or the wind says “No, I’m gonna destroy your highline, I’m gonna break everything you built” – it’s over. You cannot do anything. So for me, it is the wind, or in general the force of nature because the highline of one of my friends was destroyed by lightning.
And the last question is what is the best thing for you in highlining? Why are you doing it?
Oh, it is a big question. It’s so difficult to decide one thing. One day I feel the best thing is the community, the friends around me, and also the time around the slackline – campfire, hippie spirit, camping in a desert. Another day, when I’m walking long highline, it feels like meditation. You become very much one with yourself and nature around you, you forget about your past and your future, you are just in the moment. It is hard to get this incredible feeling somewhere else in everyday life, I only find it in slacklining usually. Free solo is the peak of that feeling, of being in the moment. It is connection with nature, with other people, with yourself, it’s just moving and playing, it’s everything.