Feds, locals worry annual Moab event creates ‘circus atmosphere’ in scenic Utah land

Slackliners flock to canyon outside Moab, but as the Bureau of Land Management gets involved, some wonder if Thanksgiving festival is adding to town’s ‘circus atmosphere.‘

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) l-r Groups of GGBY highline riggers begin the placement of the 12 highlines in lengths of 47, 63, 88,102,120,130,190, 330, 428, 560, 730 and 900 feet, November 18, 2017. GGBY showcases some of the world's best athletes for a week of highlining during the 10th annual GGBY festival, November 21-25, 2017 at the Fruit Bowl highline area near Moab.

Hundreds of slacker athletes are gathering this week on the rim of a once-quiet canyon outside Utah’s Moab, a site that has become one of the world’s most well-known venues for slacklining.

More than a dozen lines of webbing have been carefully strung across the side chute to Mineral Canyon, known as the Fruit Bowl, creating a kind of inverted cathedral for those who like to strut their balancing prowess hundreds of feet off terra firma.

“It’s as close to a church as a lot of us have,” said Sonya Iverson, a nomadic slackliner currently based in Moab who is helping organize the Thanksgiving gathering known as GGBY. “There is something special about that location.”

Fueled by GoPro cameras and social media, the Fruit Bowl’s popularity as an extreme-sports venue has forced the Bureau of Land Management to impose some order to keep human and dog waste and car tires off fragile desert soils — and to prevent people from falling to their deaths.

For the past decade, the gathering has coalesced at the spot without much oversight from federal land managers, but that changed this year.

Because GGBY had been an informal gathering, it didn’t need the permits land managers normally require. But the impacts and safety concerns started mounting and the BLM insisted on some level of structure. Slackline U.S. stepped in this year to formally sponsor an “event” within the larger gathering, requiring participants to sign up, pay fees and adhere to certain rules about where to park, camp and relieve themselves.

In the meantime the BLM worked out a lease arrangement for the section of state trust lands at the head of the canyon where most of Fruit Bowl’s action is staged from.

Another goal of this year’s festival is it to steer back toward a focus on slacklining and safety. To that end, organizers assigned Jerry Miszewski, a gear provider from Chicago, to coordinate the rigging with a team of expert volunteers.

The Fruit Bowl offers yet another example of how public lands around Moab serve as a stage for new and photogenic sports that mix ropes, gravity and towering geological formations in ways that previous generations of climbers would never have imagined.

And not everyone is psyched.

Moab activist and traditional climber Kiley Miller contends events like GGBY and their celebration on the video site YouTube just add to the “circus atmosphere” infecting the scenic lands around town.

“It’s incredibly heart-breaking for me,” Miller said. “They have a large impact out there. I put pressure on the BLM to get those guys to be more responsible for that area.”

And it’s not just disturbing other backcountry users, but also wildlife. Mineral Canyon is vital lambing habitat for bighorn sheep, which the BLM is trying to protect.

Iverson said she is sensitive to such concerns and hopes to redirect the slackline event’s image.

“We are trying to shake off this reputation of being stoner idiots out there doing death-defying stunts. We are actually an organized and careful community in terms of rigging and safety,” she said. “In the past few years we made really big strides toward being better stewards for the sport and for the places we use.”

Iverson’s group, Slackline US, has taken up management responsibility for the festival that runs from Tuesday to Nov. 25.

GGBY was a launched a decade ago by Terry Acomb, a Colorado geologist who was among the first to rig and traverse lines across the chasm that would become known as the Fruit Bowl. (The gathering’s acronym stands for Gobble, Gobble, Bitches, Yeah!, with the meaning not entirely clear.)

With the help of online mapping site Google Earth, Acomb had identified ideal spots for rigging highlines, a variant of slacklining where the webbing is stretched between precipices. An accessible spot on Mineral Canyon, just a few miles of State Route 313, proved to be ideal in many respects.

“There are few place in the world where you can have that many lines in a close arrangement,” Iverson said.

The origins of the Fruit Bowl name are not clear. Iverson thought it came from Acomb’s hometown Fruita, or from some of the lines’ names, such as Chiquita and The Cherry, the shortest line that is a first-time route for many novice highliners.

In its early stages, GGBY drew about two dozen friends enjoying Thanksgiving together. But by 2015, it drew crowds of adrenaline junkies coming to get their fix BASE jumping, rope swinging and using a catapult-like launch known as a Russian swing.

Slackliners had kept the place under wraps for several years, but four years ago, a video of a rope swing at the Fruit Bowl went viral and people began flocking to GGBY. Moab BASE jumper “Sketchy” Andy Lewis came up with the idea of the Space Net, a web of parachute suspended in the middle of the gap like a massive hammock.

Miszewski said as the gathering grew, “safety had gone down hill. My interest was to increase the safety from the rigging standpoint.”

Using draw cords, his team has pulled the webbing across the gap and tethered it tight between anchor points bolted into the rock. The longest reach is about 900 feet.

“Getting the line across is the hardest and most dangerous part of setting up,” Miszewski said. For the first time at GGBY, he erected A-frames that elevate the webbing a few feet off the rock.

“The biggest danger is abrasion. This will mitigate that” by preventing the webbing from rubbing against the sandstone, Miszewski said. Highliners, at least prudent ones, wear a harness tethered to the slackline. The longer the line the more stable it is, but beginners usually start on shorter lines that are more prone to wobble.

Last year, Slackline US also began bringing in camp toilets and hauled out 35 gallons of human waste. A nearby parking area off Mineral Bottom Road has space for 15 cars, but during the peak of last year’s festival, the BLM counted 220 cars and 450 participants.

“We knew it should be officially organized and permitted, but it was a Catch-22,” Iverson said. “We couldn’t get a permit because permits requires insurance but no one issues insurance for highlining because at the time no one knew what it was.”

But the International Slackline Association, another group Iverson helps lead, began publishing reports last year analyzing accident data from the 60 festivals that now take place around the world. Now insurers know what they are getting into.

“We talked to 10 companies, but got a reasonable quote from only one. It was cheaper than we expected, but it’s only spectator liability, which is less than ideal,” Iverson said. “You sign a waiver that once you are on the slackline you are on your own.”

This year, portable toilets are set up at the parking area, firewood will be hauled in, camp sites are designated and parking will be available at nearby abandoned mining sites where shuttles will run people to the Fruit Bowl. Tickets for the five-day festival cost $150, less for one-day passes.

But people have been gathering on the Fruit Bowl’s rim for the past several days before the event’s official launch. On Monday, a couple exchanged wedding vows over the void.