The High-Exposure World of Yosemite Big-Wall Adventures

The High-Exposure World of Yosemite Big-Wall Adventures

It started with Dan Osman in Yosemite Valley in the mid-1990s. That’s when the long-haired, heavy metal rocker from Lake Tahoe tied his ropes together and flung his body off the side of 3,000-foot El Capitan and the 1,100-foot Leaning Tower. Back then, Osman was the climbing god who starred in the Masters of Stone film series. He climbed hard—including free solo—plus he skateboarded off cliffs and performed enormous rope-catching falling cartwheels.

The films immortalized Osman, who died when a record-breaking jump went awry in November 1998. But his spirit lives on in Yosemite, where today more than 20 years after he set the bar, vertical thrill-seekers follow his vision.

These locals include Ryan Sheridan and his partner Priscilla (Prilla) Mewborne. They both live and work in Curry Village, CA, where Mewborne is a bellhop and Sheridan tends to the bike and raft stands. In their free time, they’re on El Capitan, 1,700-foot Liberty Cap and 700-foot Rostrum. Here they rig highlines, aerial silks, and rope jumps.

Earlier this year, Sheridan, dressed in a giraffe onesie, triple-backflipped off the Rostrum.

Yosemite is the birthplace of slacklining, a sport that started with walking chains in the Camp 4 parking lot. It requires walking along 1-inch webbing stretched or draped between two formations. Where slacklining takes place only a few feet off the ground, highlining takes place hundreds or thousands of feet in the air. Just like with climbing, the sport is allowed in the park as long as users follower guidelines. (Learn more here.)

Ryan Sheridan

Instead of relying on bolts drilled into the stone to secure his highlines, which is common, Sheridan’s goal is to build bolt-free anchors. Like a vertical technician, he relies on his background in physics and mechanics to build equalized anchors that rely on cams (spring-loaded removable rock-climbing protection), which he sets behind enormous flakes. Once the rigging is complete, Ryan is the first to live-test the line. Here he suppresses vertigo caused by overwhelming exposure, takes a few steps on the line, and dives off. His body falls several lengths before his harness tether catches the line.

“That first fall that is the scariest,” he says. “That moment between when you’re falling and before the system catches is the wildest part. After that, it’s always fun.”

Once he’s in balance and walking the line, he says, “The ground is so far away that you can’t tell that you’re swinging 20 feet, side to side. The reference points on the ground are all messed up because you’re moving so much. I get seasick because of the swinging.”

This month Sheridan is rigging a bolt-free highline across the Heart feature on El Cap’s southwest face. He aims to cross the abyss from one side of the feature to the other, a distance of 300 feet. If successful, this may be longest highline on El Cap. It will be first time someone has walked this portion of the wall.

Yosemite National park el capitan

“I went up last night, and I found a perfect crack system,” he says. “I’m 100 percent sure we can make it work.”

Another use Sheridan has for rigging highlines is to create a suspension point for Mewborne to perform aerial silks. These acrobatics are done by wrapping and unwrapping one’s body from hanging fabric made from poly tricot that is attached to the slackline above. Moves include inversion spinning, knee hooks, splits, foot wraps and dynamic drops.

aerial silking Yosemite
Ryan Sheridan

“Aerial silking brings joy to my soul, and a smile to my face,” Mewborne says. I can’t get enough of it. It’s a very special feeling taking up space thousands of feet off the ground and using my own strength to wrap my body in elegant ways.”

By practicing their sport among a backdrop of immense waterfalls and shimmering golden stone, these highliners and aerial silk performers connect with nature in a way that few others experience in the national park. Up here, “you have a relationship with the mountain,” Sheridan says.

This connection to the vertical environment is what keeps Sheridan and Mewborne coming back year after year. “Up here on the walls,” he says, “you take something beyond your imagination and make it a real thing.”

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