David Kingston, 25, of La Caada Flintridge, walks the 70-foot-long highline… (Dan Krauss / For The Times )
JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK — On a bright Saturday morning, Nathan Huerta is struggling to keep his balance as he walks slowly across an inch-wide length of nylon line suspended some 200 feet above a heap of granite boulders in a rugged patch of desert terrain known as the "Hall of Horrors."
With the line oscillating beneath his bare feet and strong gusts of wind hitting him on all sides, Huerta's lofty goal is to reach the other side of the precipice without falling.
Huerta is halfway across the 70-foot-long line when he misses a step and tumbles over into the void. Despite the heart-stopping effect his mistake has on spectators below, a tether attached to his waist and the line catches his fall.
PHOTOS: Highlining in Joshua Tree
Dangling 5 feet beneath the line, he laughs nervously, yo-yoing to a stop. He pulls himself back up, regains his footing and proceeds to the far side of the canyon.
Shaking his head in awe and pride, Huerta, 24, of San Luis Obispo, shouts, "Nice! That was really nice."
Huerta was among a dozen young men who gathered on top of a massive jumble of boulders Saturday morning in Joshua Tree to hone their skills in the extreme but increasingly popular sport known as "highlining."
Unlike a tightrope, a highline wobbles and sways several inches in all directions. Whereas tightrope walkers carry a pole to help maintain balance, highliners rely on measured breaths, intense concentration and slow yoga-like movements to keep their footing and suppress their instinctual fear of falling.
The sport emerged from "slacklining," which involves acrobatic tricks on nylon lines close to the ground. Slacklining attracted national attention after Andy Lewis' acrobatic performance Feb. 5 as part of Madonna's Super Bowl half-time show.
"The ultimate goal is to find your center of balance on the highline and in your life," said Jon Fait, 26, a Southern California sales representative for Gibbon Slackline Co. "Each and every move you make must be perfect. Every thought must be focused on the moment — and not on distractions like swallows flying past your nose or spectators shouting words of encouragement from below."
In California, highline enthusiasts yearn to sky-walk over the chasms of hot spots including Stoney Point in Chatsworth, Big Bear Lake, Yosemite Valley and Joshua Tree National Park.
Some specialize in tricks including highlining without a tether. Then there is the maneuver known as "lawn dart," which involves walking to the center of the line, then leaning off into, as one enthusiast put it, "the exposure."
"I've thought about unhooking the leash — even had dreams of doing it," said Phillip Thomas, 24, who is studying mechanical engineering at Cal State Los Angeles. "I don't know if I ever will. That's a calculated risk I'm not ready to take. Yet."
Some members of the group arrived Friday and systematically surveyed the pinnacles to pinpoint the best spots to anchor the highline with bolts embedded in granite. Among them was David Kingston, 25, of La Cañada Flintridge, who rigged the line between the rock faces.
On a day when the morning sun filled the canyon lands with a golden glow, Fait was the first to hook the tether to his waist and step out on the line. Halfway across, the line began to sway up and down and side to side. Fait stopped and stared straight ahead, breathing slowly and using every muscle from the tip of his toes to his neck to remain standing.
Less than two minutes later, the trim young man with aviator sunglasses stepped off the line and onto firm ground.
"It's like walking on air," he said.