Gracie Niswanger and Griffen Gilbert met on the south side of Missoula for beers on a chilly November night two years ago. He was a highliner. She was an aerialist.
As they sipped their beers, they discussed the logistics of suspending Niswanger over a canyon by attaching her long panels of silk to a narrow highline stretched between two cliffs. It was a lot of trust to place with someone she hardly knew.
Niswanger had seen posts of others doing similar aerial stunts on Instagram. So when a mutual friend suggested that Niswanger reach out to Gilbert, she decided it was worth a shot. She was curious, but she was also terrified. She’d only been rock climbing once and she didn’t understand how the equipment worked.
But as she and Gilbert talked, she felt her trust building. And she found him incredibly handsome, with brown curly hair, piercing blue eyes and smile lines that creased when he laughed at her jokes.
Gilbert, meanwhile, couldn’t help but admire Niswanger’s determination to try something that would terrify most people, and he found himself smiling every time she laughed. One beer turned into four beers and soon the two started dating.
The couple solidified their rigging plans and Gilbert took Niswanger climbing, teaching her how to tie herself in with a harness. He proposed going to a spot over Kootenai Creek in the Bitterroot National Forest where he regularly rigged a highline. Niswanger was still apprehensive when it came time for their first run and Gilbert was worried about her ability to manage her safety leash and not get tied up in the silks. But she quickly overcame all of that when she was out on the line.
Gilbert and Niswanger have been dating for two years now and they make an effort to rig a highline with fabrics a handful of times each year while the weather is nice. On Monday, Oct. 10, the couple set out again for Kootenai Creek for the fifth time this season. They parked at the trailhead and grabbed their equipment-filled packs from the trunk. Niswanger admitted she’s not much of a hiker and trailed behind Gilbert throughout the 15-minute hike.
When they reached the top, the two climbed over boulders to get to a rock where Gilbert had inserted bolts in the spring. Before installing the hardware, he discussed the ethics of drilling with the local climbing community and the Western Montana Climbers Coalition, both of which work with the Bitterroot National Forest to address access issues.
Gilbert became involved with the climbing community after he moved from Greensboro, North Carolina, to Missoula four years ago. He enjoyed slacklining, which involves balancing a few feet off the ground on a thin nylon line stretched between trees in the park. He wanted more of a challenge and, shortly after moving, met a friend who taught him the ropes of highlining. He learned about the gear he would need, how to set it up and what safety protocols he needed to follow. He began practicing more frequently and soon, he was setting up his own lines. He also started rigging equipment for local concerts and working in sales at REI, where he amassed climbing gear.
One look at the gear Gilbert has accumulated is enough for most people to get the sense that he knows what he’s doing. His pack turned into something out of Mary Poppins as he asked Niswanger to hand him various ropes, carabiners and pulley devices. He also asked for help from Chris Niswanger, Gracie’s dad, who came to watch. “It’s reassuring as a parent to see all the safety measures they’re taking,” Chris said, adding that he went out on the line once, but that was enough for him.
Niswanger and her father watched as Gilbert threaded a rope through the bolts to create an anchor that he attached to a metal tape dispenser-like gadget called a weblock. He explained that the weblock keeps the nylon webbing he walks across flat.
He hiked to the other side of the canyon and pulled the webbing across the gap and attached two lines of webbing to the weblocks. One is called the mainline webbing, and another is a backup “in case anything goes wrong.” Once anchored, he attached a tension system and pulled the slack until the line was taut.
As Gilbert added backup anchors, Niswanger stepped into her harness and tied a rope leash around a belt loop into a figure-eight knot. She pulled her shoulder-length hair back into a ponytail, draped her fabrics around her neck and climbed over the boulders to meet Gilbert, asking, “You ready?”
“As ready as I’ll ever be,” he said.
The rig overlooking Kootenai Creek is about 240 feet long, with about 120 feet of direct exposure, the distance from the line to the ground. It’s not the highest or the longest line that the couple has rigged, but the height is still enough to make anyone with a sense of gravity feel a little uneasy.
As an aerialist, Niswanger is used to suspending herself from heights. She became interested in aerial four years ago when she started teaching acroyoga – which combines acrobatics and yoga – at MASC studio in Missoula. She traded her knowledge in acro with other teachers’ knowledge of fabrics, and she fell in love with the art. “It’s really the only manner in which I can express myself,” she said. “Some people play music, some people write, I dance and beat my body up.”
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She became especially interested in a hanging hoop apparatus known as a lyra, but she also teaches fabrics classes. “It started for me as something I never thought I’d be good at. I was awkward and fumbling and had zero dance or gymnastics background. It brought me out of a low place in my life and gave me so much confidence.”
Niswanger said one of the most rewarding aspects of teaching is watching that same confidence blossom in other people. “The excitement they feel when they do their first climb or first trick on an apparatus is pretty awesome to witness.”
Even with all of her experience, the prospect of hanging hundreds of feet over a canyon took some getting used to. She said the scariest part is unclipping her climbing harness from the line — even though she still always is attached to a safety line — but she doesn’t let that hold her back. Having an equally adventurous partner encouraging her doesn’t hurt, either.
Gilbert stood by Niswanger at the edge of the cliff, checked her knots and watched as she slid out on the line, holding the burgundy braided silks between her legs. She called back to Gilbert to ask if she was centered. “Go about five more feet,” he said.
She pulled herself out a little farther and sat in her harness, her bare feet dangling over the canyon as she unraveled the fabrics. In one swift motion, they dropped in a display of gravity before billowing in the wind.
Niswanger lifted her body and hooked one knee over the line while wrapping the fabric around her other foot in a “foot lock.” Taking a deep breath, she prepared to unclip the carabiner attaching her harness to the line. Despite all of the safety precautions, there’s always the chance that something could go wrong. Equipment could fail, something could break, the knot on her safety leash could come loose. There’s only so much of a safety net when you’re suspending yourself over cliffs.
Without hesitation, she released the clip. Instead of tensing up, she eased into different positions, appearing relaxed as the wind twisted and turned her body. She wrapped her wrists around each of the silks and inverted into an upside-down pencil position from which she wrapped each of her legs around the fabric to get into a move called "invert with crochet legs.
She paused between poses to sit in her harness and rest before inverting again in a pose called an "arrow" with her back parallel to the ground, one knee hooked around the fabric and her other leg extended. From there, she unhooked her top knee and slid her top foot up the fabric as she grabbed above her and rotated her body into a standing split.
Throughout the process, she didn’t appear intimidated by the height or the potential for something to go wrong. But it hasn’t always been that way. Once, she and Gilbert highlined over Blodgett Canyon. The line was 600 feet long and about 2,000 feet from the valley floor. A thick fog enveloped her, and she couldn’t see more than 10 feet in front of her. She felt sick and disoriented and decided she wouldn’t risk going out in that weather again.
After about 15 minutes in the air, Niswanger pulled herself back in with Gilbert waiting for her at the ledge. He draped her fabrics around his neck, taking the weight from her. “Yeah, babe,” Gilbert said. “Have you gotten used to the exposure a bit more on this one?”
“Yeah, it doesn’t bother me,” she said.
“Yeah, it doesn’t seem like it does. That’s awesome.”
Niswanger’s dad also greeted her. “Good job, bug. Were you having fun? Glad to see you.”
She sat down on the rocks while Gilbert stretched in preparation for his tightrope-like walk. He put in earbuds to help him drown out noise that would distract him, rolled up the legs of his khaki pants, clipped himself to the line and sunk into his harness so he could sit and pull himself out on the line about 20 feet from the edge of the cliff. Eyes drilled to the slackline, he lifted himself up into a crouched position and placed one bare foot on the line. His other leg low, he extended one arm to the side for balance, and fixed his gaze slightly in front of him. Slowly, he rose to stand and began walking, knees bent, both arms extended, swaying in a motion that resembled something between a conductor before an orchestra and a child pretending to be a tree in an interpretive dance.
Gilbert lost his balance a couple times as he got used to the tautness of the line. Each time, he would catch himself by hooking one of his knees on the line, rolling his body, and getting right back up. He regained his balance and walked to the other end of the line and back, throwing in a few tricks known as "knee chongs" where he would twist his body and dip his knees until they touched the line. Niswanger cheered him on, although she noted that he might not be able to hear with his music. On his way back, he smiled the entire time.
Niswanger and Gilbert don't always practice gravity-defying feats by themselves. Usually, they have a few friends join them who are other slackliners or aerialists. Gilbert said he would like to rig some longer lines in the future, but for now having a spot to share with Niswanger and friends is enough.
"It started out as a great trust building exercise in the beginning," Niswanger said. "Now it’s just a really fun activity that we can do together that combines our two favorite things."