How would you like to walk through a cloud on a highline a mile above the ground? For Ryan Robinson and his team, it took four years of research, planning, setbacks, and one failed attempt to cross a thousand-foot highline rigged to Dedo de Deus, or Finger of God, in Brazil’s Serra dos Órgãos National Park. “I can tell you that there just aren’t very many places like this is the world where you have a finger shooting straight out of the ground, into the sky, that’s this tall and this sharp, and this drastic,” says Ryan, who started highlining eight years ago. The sport has taken him to unique features around the world, but none compared to this spot.
Footage and photos by Ryan Robinson, Jerry Miszewski, Rafael Bridi, Pablo Signoret, and Antony Newton with support from Black Diamond
Highlining is not exactly a mainstream sport. How did you get started?
Ryan Robinson: My first experience on a slackline was in a gym on a short, low slackline. I waited until everyone left to try it. When I did, I immediately fell off, cut my leg, wrote it off as a stupid sport! About a year later, I saw a video about highlining in Norway and it blew my mind. Since then I’ve been obsessed with it.
Was your mom worried as this became your passion?
Ryan Robinson: Yes, terrified at first. But a couple of years in, I told her that she had to figure out how to trust me because if she didn’t trust me, it would be very hard to trust myself. I had her come watch me highline, and it changed her perspective completely. She said it was beautiful and very much trusts me now.
How did this Brazil highline project come together?
Ryan Robinson: My first contact with Finger of God was actually on Instagram. Some random person that I did not know had posted a picture of the rock, and it blew my find.
I sent a message to her, asking where this place was. She messaged me back. From that moment, I started researching, studying, and trying to figure out where specifically it was in Brazil, and what the access potential was of the place.
This was about three or four years ago. Three or four years ago, we weren’t even walking highlines this long, so it was quite seemingly out of the range. But I still continued to pursue it. Unbeknownst to me, there were a couple of other people that were also eyeballing this location, one of whom was Rafael, the Brazilian guy on the team.
We share a similar story. He was a little bit more familiar with it, being that he’s from Brazil. He knew about the rock. We ended up coming together, realizing a similar dream, and made it happen.
Why was this location unique?
Ryan Robinson: This location is unique because rock formations like this don’t exist in very many places in the world. I’m not an expert on rocks, but I can tell you that there just aren’t very many places like this is the world where you have a finger shooting straight out of the ground, into the sky, that’s this tall and this sharp, and this drastic. This is shooting straight out of the northern part of Rio de Janeiro. There are many features in this area that look like this. This location in Brazil is incredibly unique to the world.
Figuring out a place to put a line up between two features is hard enough because you have a lot of logistical things that occur—setbacks, whether it’s bushwhacking or even having rocks that are impeding your ability to have a line there. This one just has two peaks that stand very starkly independent of anything else in the horizon line.
That alone puts it really in sight to be the perfect place for a highline. That’s really difficult to find, unless you’re in some sort of canyon, like a big slot canyon or something like that, where it makes a little bit more sense.
How did you get to the spot?
Ryan Robinson: We got to the spot with nothing more than an incredible amount of hard work. The trail is actually pretty gnarly on one side. It’s a really steep hike with some fixed ropes. Very muddy, very sloppy, pretty sketchy in several areas. On top of that, we’re hauling up 100-plus pound bags full of gear, webbing, steel to establish the line. So, it was not an easy task. Multiply that by rain, fog, wind, over and over and over, these gnarly conditions, so it was very difficult.
On the other end, it was a multi-pitch climb to the top. Not graded very difficult, but when you multiply that by the same things—weather, rain most specifically, mud, all of those things. It becomes incredibly difficult, and basically impossible to summit. So, it took a combination of very good, very close-call clear days, to get the line established.
The fog looked pretty heavy. What was it like walking through that?
Ryan Robinson: The weather conditions in Brazil are fascinating and also incredibly frustrating, because one moment, the sky will be clear—not a cloud in view—and within 15 minutes, you can be completely whiteout, covered in fog, unable to see your hand in front of your face. This is just something that you have to learn to deal with in an environment like this because there’s no getting around it.
Walking through the fog is such a strange experience because you can’t see below you, but you also can’t see in front of you. So, you’re not experiencing the same fear as you would from being up high. Instead, you’re experiencing this sort of quiet loneliness or solitude that feels very strange because while you’re alone out there, you also have this piece of webbing underneath your feet, underneath your body. And you know that that piece of webbing is connected to a rock that you’re familiar with
Tons of rope, static and dynamic
A lot of steel parts, shackles, carabiners, etc
All of the climbing gear
75 pounds of camera gear
Total: 600 pounds of gear
Talk us through what this experience was like?
Ryan Robinson: The Finger of God was such an incredible project. From the moment I saw a picture of the Finger of God, I knew that this place was one of the most spectacular places in the world. Realizing the dream and realizing that my feet were on that piece of webbing, and it was happening, was just totally mind-blowing.
From the second that I stepped out on the line, my senses immediately heightened. I was seeing in full color. It kind of comes and goes, the things that you hear and see. A lot of times, I’m inside my head, while other times, I’m able to appreciate the beauty. But for the most part, the experience is really what sticks with me, when I’m on the highline.
When I stood up on the highline, I felt a sense of accomplishment, even before I had taken a single step, because this project was so hard to put together. It was so difficult to rig and establish this line. We failed trying the year before. So, going into it this year, I had a lot of apprehension and anxiety with the things that could have potentially gone wrong. But the moment I stood up, it was this perfect realization that we had accomplished what we wanted to do.
How do you stay focused the whole time?
Ryan Robinson: In highlining, the thing about focus is that it doesn’t stay the whole time. Focus comes and goes. It ebbs and flows with the experience that you’re having. One moment, everything can be perfect in my mind. I feel my muscles firing perfectly. My mind is communicating with my body. Then, all of a sudden, it stops wanting to communicate, and you lose track, and you start to possibly lose control.
It’s this constant feeling of being completely in control, but realizing that you’re not entirely in control of everything that’s going on around you. I think that’s the beauty of highlining, is that it’s taught me that I can’t always be in control, but that it’s completely okay that I’m not.
The line isn’t perfect. It moves. It sways. It pushes. It pulls, with the wind coming in, and if rain comes through. All of these experiences affect our focus. But I think it’s been a really important lesson for me, to realize that focus isn’t this static thing that I have to control all of the time.
Describe the feeling of highlining.
Ryan Robinson: Holy cow! The feeling of highlining is like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. It’s this solitude, but also this complete release of everything that you experience in life – that I experience in life. On the line, there’s nothing else that matters. The only thing that matters is you, in that moment, and your relationship with the webbing underneath your feet.
I like to refer to it as being one inch from flying. We’re not quite there, but there’s this elevated experience, where once you stand up, and your feet are touching the webbing, but your body is lifted, and in that moment, you feel this duality of nothingness and everything, at the same time. If I can get to the point where I feel comfortable on a line, that allows me to pick my eyes up off of my focal point, and experience the environment around me.
Seeing a bird fly underneath the line, for example, is one of the most beautiful experiences, because you realize in that moment, how high up you are. In that moment, you also afford your mind the opportunity to let fear in, because of the realization of how high you are.
I would say that highlining is the complete balance of any feeling that you can experience. It’s love and hate. It’s hot and cold. It’s peace and complete chaos. I think walking across the line requires those two things, because without both of them, there really is no experience.
That is one of my reasons for the obsession I have with the sport, is it invites that beautiful dichotomy into my life, and allows me to experience it in harmony.