Highlining is a variant of slacklining - Friedi Kühne wants to master it to perfection. And he has to, because when he's on free solo, no safety rope helps. Crazy? "No, on the contrary," he says.
Friedrich Kühne's business card is something special. "Professional Slackliner" it says there underneath a mountain landscape, and when you try to wipe the flyspeck off the white cloud, you realize that this little crumb in the picture is the owner of the business card, balancing somewhere in the air on an almost invisible slackline.
Using a safety pin, he has attached some fabric to the card: a finger-length piece of his world record line, polyester, 2.5 centimeters wide. During the conversation, you won't let go of the thing and will certainly shake your head more than three dozen times: On this thumb-width piece of almost nothing he balanced 110 meters across the 200 meters deep Verdon gorge - and even Free Solo, without any safety equipment. Are you all right? How crazy, insane and suicidal is this guy?
When I've practiced enough, there's no reason to fall.
Well, Friedrich Kühne, whom everyone calls Friedi, is not crazy, but a trainee teacher, Maths and English. The 29-year-old isn't insane either, but rather extraordinarily clear in his head, quite eloquent, and he definitely has too many plans and ideas for a suicidal person.
Then why is he doing it? "Because it is the ultimate proof of trust in yourself, a detachment from all dependencies and compulsions, pure, simple, pure slacklining. And when I've practiced enough, there's no reason to fall." Friedi Kühne practiced a hell of a lot. "I always walk with a harness first and often. If I have to catch the tenth time, i.e. grab the line with my hand, then I practice ten more times and only then I put the harness away. I want perfection, I want to control the highline." Right now, there's no one better at that.
Highlining is a variant of slacklining - with the difference that jumping off to safety is no longer possible. Moreover, the highline is only half as wide as the so-called trickline, which is often seen in parks and green fields. The rope dancing developed in the 80s in Yosemite National Park, as a pastime and coordination exercise of the free climbers.
Kühne also gets on the line via climbing: "At first I found it terrible - because I couldn't do it from the start, because it was difficult for me. Nobody can do that from the beginning! You have to practice and go through the frustration phase - I did it with pure with defiance." The learning curve is steep, he says: "Once you can walk, you can also turn around or walk backwards."
First jumps, tricks, flips from the slackline follow, then with a soft mat underneath a flip on the slackline: "At some point I noticed: 'This is my sport! Slacklining makes me stronger.' I was an addict."
Today it doesn't matter if the highline is 50 or 500 meters high. It's more like: the higher, longer and more exposed, the bigger the kick.
For a few years he focuses on the trickline, enters competitions, wins his first sponsor - and ventures onto a highline, in the Wolfsschlucht gorge near Rosenheim: 30 meters high, 25 meters long. "I trembled and was sweating a lot, it took me ten seconds to overcome my fear for one step, stopped over and over again, fell into the harness a few times. Today I would march over there in 20 seconds."
Where's the fun in that? "When you get over there, the reward's huge. The altitude rush is unbelievable, the best kick there is. You get euphoric, like after a hard climb. The summit is worth nothing if you didn't have to work for it, not leave the comfort zone." Those who only have a few hundred meters of air left under their buttocks are indeed far away from the comfort zone. And then there's the fear of heights: "Everybody has that," says Kühne, "I worked on it and got it under control. Fear is a training thing. Today it doesn't matter if the highline is 50 or 500 meters high. It's more like the higher, longer and more exposed, the more kick you get out of it."
Limits? Not in sight. When it doesn't go any higher for Kühne, he starts doing tricks on the highline: swinging back and forth, bouncing up and down, pushing his limit further and further. He says, "Some people see the kick in increasing consequence. I omitted the backup at some point - because there's so much self-confidence and you're convinced that you can run without falling."
He immediately restricts: "But this is not recommended and also not the standard way. You can have just as much fun with safety gear." None of his free solo videos on Youtube therefore lack the written warning that free solo is not the ultimate goal in highlining and he does not encourage anyone to do so.
"In interviews, I always say: Hey, watch it. Free solo is not some coolness-Instagram rubbish. There's a long way to go. Everyone has to find that out for themselves, take personal responsibility. Free solo is the personal decision of each individual."
His decision is not spontaneous. For more than a year, he feels his way, first walks ten meters above the water without safety: "I'll survive this, but I can hurt." Then five meters above ground: "I might break my leg, but I can still control it." Then without a harness, but with safety around the leg: "You survive that, but it hurts so much that you want to avoid it."
The consequence of death changes everything once again, turning Kühne into a loner: His first free solo line four, five years ago in the Czech Republic (20 metres between two sandstone towers) he does alone. "I wanted to find that out for myself," he explains, "I'm doing it for me and for no one else! Free solo means getting to know yourself, learning to trust in yourself. I don't need any other people around. It's my own responsibility, and I don't want to burden anyone else with it."
For years he hides the free solo tours, especially from his family. Only the closest buddies are there: "They know nothing will happen to me." For three years the rule applies to him: Free solo and camera? No way! "It was also about proving to myself that I was doing it for the right reasons, not wrongly motivated," he says. But then this world record in Canada gets in his way.
You know your abilities best, are more at peace with yourself, suddenly have courage for completely different things. In the days after that, everyday stuff can't touch you, you float above it.
Slackline friends, whom he met during his time as an assistant teacher in Portland, Oregon, explored a very special spot: the Hunlen Falls in British Columbia, 400 meters high, free-falling, in the middle of nowhere, only accessible by seaplane. For two weeks, the eleven slackliners balance up and down in front of this natural wonder - until Friedi Kühne says, "I'll do it now! I'm up for it." just before taking his harness off and walking 72 meters free solo, along the monstrous rushing waterfall - world record in front of great scenery.
His feeling? "An euphoria I can't compare with anything else so far. It's like the game where you fall back and let someone else catch you - as if you were playing with your clone. That's perfection. You know your abilities best, are more at peace with yourself, suddenly have courage for completely different things. "In the days after that, everyday stuff can't get to you, you're floating above it."
But since a documentary filmmaker is there, it's time for confession at home: "My mother didn't think it was cool, my father is secretly proud. They both know they can't argue with me. They trust me to the extreme, they know I'm not fooling around. In this respect, there is acceptance and tolerance. But it's not celebrated."
One year after the record follows the next: 110 meters in southern France. "It was always my dream to be the first person to break the 100-meter mark," he admits, "the duration of the ultimate consequence is just longer. You can't mentally give in during those ten minutes, constantly fight against other thoughts. And don't think, "I'm almost there! It's poison. Always stay in the moment! Afterwards, the brain needs a break, because you have to talk so much to yourself inside, because you can't let your thoughts run wild."
And what about the fear of death? "I've never had it! I can't let that happen. Then I'd stop right away."
But he doesn't. Another two to three years at this level he reckons, doesn't rule out another free solo record, but does not want to force anything. Even the world's best slackliner won't get rich. Sponsors finance trips to China, Brazil or Russia, but Kühne pays his bills with shows, workshops and lectures on risk management, the step into the unknown or overcoming limits.
And after the lecture it's off to the slackline: "I always witness experiences of happiness and success, which in turn makes me happy when I can pass on my experiences and motivate people". And he can, this Friedi Kühne. The line in the garden is already up...