Sometimes, things just don’t work out. Try hard we might, the complex physics of nature are simply out of our control. Armed with this powerful and pragmatic mindset, two disparate groups met on a whim and came together to shoot for the moon. This is the story of their successes and failures—and perceptions of both—in attempting an astronomical feat.
A Chance Encounter
In August 2020, photographers Jesse Thornton and David Johnston were shooting the Perseids meteor shower at Seneca Rocks. The next morning, Thornton was exploring the base of the famous formation when something caught his eye: a line spanning the void of the iconic Gunsight Notch that was anchored on Seneca’s north and south summits. He watched a group pull the line taut on both sides and, to his astonishment, start walking back and forth. “I had never seen anything like this before,” Thornton said. “In my mind they were tightrope walkers, but I had no idea what I was looking at.”
Thornton drove to a better vantage point and spent a mesmerizing hour shooting photos and video of the walkers precariously perched on the highline. He posted the images and footage on his Facebook photography page, prompting friend and fellow photog Perry Bennett to encourage him to find out who these wild walkers were. Through some social media sleuthing, Thornton discovered the balancing act was performed by members of the Steel City Slackers, a slacklining group based in Pittsburgh. Slacklining is the act of walking on a one-inch-wide piece of webbing that is tensioned between two anchor points. This particular line spanning the Gunsight Notch was a highline, denoting a slackline higher than ten meters above the ground. A slackliner typically walks a highline with a harness and safety tether attached to the line to catch a fall.
Bennett also sent Thornton a short film featuring a slackliner walking a highline in Utah during a full moon. Thornton and Johnston already had big plans of returning to Seneca to shoot the blue moon—the second full moon in a single calendar month—rising in the Gunsight Notch in October that same year, leading Thornton to a serendipitous epiphany. What if the photography team collaborated with the slackliners to shoot them walking the line across the Gunsight as the moon rose through the notch? Thornton put out the call on his social media channels. Within a few hours, he was in touch with Wade Desai, a founding member and team leader of the Steel City Slackers. “Wade was in immediately, he didn’t ask for any other details,” Thornton said.
The project was born, and the teams came together. The ground photography and videography team was comprised of Thornton, Johnston, and Bennett, each bringing a unique skillset to the table. The slackline team, led by Desai, featured members of the Steel City Slackers and nationally known slackliners Davis Dailey and Mat Dunkelberger.
There have only been two successful full moon highline projects, both well-known and critically acclaimed among the niche slacklining community. The first was late climber Dean Potter’s groundbreaking moonwalk on Cathedral Peak in Yosemite on July 12, 2011. In the short film, Potter free-solo climbs (sans rope) up a small spire as the moon rises above the peak, then free-solo walks (sans harness) the line, appearing as if he is treading upon the moon itself. The second came in July 2020, when famous slackliner Andy Lewis free-solo walked a highline to the backdrop of the full moon between rock towers high above the Utah desert. After spanning the line, he BASE jumped off the cliff with a parachute.
It’s common practice for the first person who walks the length of a highline to name it. Strangely enough, Hai Thai, the first highliner to rig and walk the length of the Gunsight highline nearly five years ago, named it Shoot The Moon. Inspired by the films and the name of the line, the team found no reason why they couldn’t create the third moonwalk. But unlike the previous successes out west, they faced a unique set of challenges. While the desert features massive landscapes and near-guaranteed clear skies, the relatively small scale of the Gunsight Notch and notoriously unpredictable weather of the West Virginia highlands would require absolute precision and timing to pull off the stunt.
Johnston embarked on an epic journey to calculate precisely when and where the photography team needed to be to capture the moon rising in the Gunsight Notch while fully encompassing a slackliner on the middle of the highline. If you’re suddenly picturing a math montage from the film A Beautiful Mind, you’re not far off. He began with a smartphone app called The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE), which helps users predict where the sun, moon, and other heavenly bodies will be at a given time, date, and location. He dug in, finding October 28 to be the date to shoot the blue moon. “If we’re in the right location, the moon should rise in the proper part of the notch almost exactly at sunset, meaning the rock and slackliners should still be bright in the twilight,” Johnston said.
But the journey was far from over. Johnston soon discovered that TPE, which uses latitudinal and longitudinal data from publicly available maps, couldn’t calculate the perfect location. Near its summit, Seneca’s fin of quarzitic sandstone dramatically rises 220 vertical feet in the horizontal space of just a few feet. “Even the best satellite maps have trouble detecting this sudden rise of contour and sudden drop on the other side,” Johnston said. “It’s critical to know exactly where the notch is above the horizon. There was no way that I could locate the exact location of the U-shaped notch on a satellite map.” The photography team’s precision was crucial because the moon rises and exits the notch in a span of just five minutes, meaning they wouldn’t have time to adjust if the location was off. “Even if we had to move 10 feet, it could affect the success of the shot,” Johnston said.
Johnston took the matter—and the math—into his own hands. He contacted Luke Yokum, manager of the Princess Snowbird Campground, and Janet Hedrick, owner of the cow pasture adjacent to the campground. With permission from both landowners, he spent several nights in September shooting photos of stars rising in the Gunsight Notch from what he considered the best location for the October 28 shoot. “It was crucial to have the scouting and location support from the Yokums and Janet,” he said.
He looked for individual stars in his photos that were adjacent to an identifiable feature in the notch, then used an astronomy program to identify the stars. He coordinated the timestamp on each photo with the timestamps on astronomical charts and was able to calculate the azimuth and altitude angles of various points in the Gunsight Notch. “Once I had that information, I was able to pinpoint where the notch is on the satellite map,” Johnston said. He manually entered the coordinates into TPE and found the exact shooting location in Hedrick’s cow pasture.
Johnston, who is retired and pursues photography as a hobby, became absorbed by the project. “There were some days where I did nothing but puzzle over things,” he said. “I created a spreadsheet to collect my star data and do calculations using trigonometry that I hadn’t used since twelfth grade.” The slackline team was taken aback. “The photography team on the ground are leagues ahead, from both an expertise as well as a creative standpoint,” said Dailey, who shot photos of the spectacle from the South Peak of Seneca.
A Game of Physics
While the photography team was working at the astronomical level, the slackline team was playing a game of inches. But the slackers had to be just as dialed in terms of their execution on the rock and on the line. Given the time window of five minutes to get the shot, the pressure was on. Highline riggers can choose from an array of webbing materials that offer varying levels of stretch. Desai used a special calculator to figure out what type of webbing would place the slackliner perfectly in the notch congruent to Johnston’s point of reference in the Gunsight.
The Gunsight highline is just over 100 feet long and nearly 150 feet above the bottom of the notch—shorter than a typical highline, but long enough that the slackliner would have to be in the right place at the right time, still standing of course. “I can count on one hand the number of people on the East Coast that I would trust to do this kind of execution, where the stakes are not necessarily high but we need to get it in one shot,” Desai said. “You can’t do this over and over.”
A Hurricane Came
A protracted dry spell over the Potomac Highlands gifted seemingly endless bluebird days for climbers at Seneca. But on October 26, Tropical Storm Zeta reached hurricane strength as it plowed toward the Gulf Coast; the storm made landfall in Louisiana on the 28th. While the heart of the storm was nearly one thousand miles away, its massive spiraling arms of clouds were not.
The slackline team gathered early on the morning of the 28th, going through the plan and divvying up gear. The forecast showed overcast skies and a chance of rain—the “R” word, as Bennett called it. He quickly banned its use on the day of the shoot. The slackers scaled the cliffs and dropped a line to haul up the gear bags. Two groups climbed to each summit, built an anchor, and threw a rope down to a slacker in the notch, who tied the two ropes together and attached the webbing. The tied ropes were used to pull the webbing up to one anchor, then straight across to the other. Once the webbing was attached, a backup line was sent across, and the slackline was pulled taut.
Walking the Line
The rain didn’t come, but the clouds did. Wave upon wave of soupy, gray clouds incessantly roiled over North Fork Mountain to the east. Tensions were high, literally and figuratively, both on the highline and on the ground as the projected moonrise moment of 6:23 p.m. approached. The photography team radioed to the highliners, and Steel City Slacker Marshall Scot set out over the void.
It’s safe to say that millions of people have stood atop either summit of Seneca over the last century, but very few have stood between the peaks, suspended on a one-inch piece of webbing. “That’s the gift, the cherry on top,” Dailey said. “You get to find yourself in places that no one else has before. There isn’t that much adrenaline that comes into play, I’m usually pretty levelheaded and quite calm.”
“Every time I’ve been on the Gunsight highline, I tear up,” Desai said. “It’s just so iconic in so many ways. It’s scary and exposed on both sides. It truly does feel like you’re a thousand feet up because you look out on either side, and all you see is rolling Appalachia.” For Desai, it all boils down to trust, especially because he didn’t have a chance to inspect the anchors before stepping onto the line. “I’m looking out as I walk towards these two guys thinking how much I trust them. The moment I fall, my life depends on the work they just did.”
Occasional changes in the color of the sky offered hope that perhaps the glow of the moon would appear, but the break never came. The photography team shot hundreds of photos from an arsenal of cameras with telephoto lenses, all to the backdrop of a monotone sky. For a moment, it felt as if Johnston’s strokes of genius were all for naught. “I know the damn moon is right there, right now,” Johnston said with a humorous sense of frustration.
But was it a failure? Johnston correctly calculated the precise spot to get the shot, and the photography team captured fantastic footage. The slackline team successfully rigged the line, and everyone got up and down from Seneca’s dangerous terrain without incident. “If we hadn’t been concerned about the moon, we would be viewing this as a huge success right now,” Johnston said.
“There was obviously disappointment, but it was tempered by the fact that we were still there seeing something incredible that not many of us have seen,” Thornton said. The slackline team also struggled with the emotional balance at first. “Even though there was a sense of failure to some degree, it wasn’t a failure of our character or our ability,” Desai said. “I still felt a sense of accomplishment that this team made this happen. It was almost flawless.”
Considering everything that could have gone wrong, from a line rigger dropping a piece of gear to a camera battery prematurely dying or even heavy rain, everything went off without a hitch. Everything, of course, but the clouds. The team joked that the event was so epic that the clouds traveled thousands of miles to come watch. “It’s pretty apropos that it was clouds that shut us down,” said Desai.
“During the hike down in the dark, the only thing I was thinking about were the silver linings of this whole thing. There truly were a dozen silver linings throughout the whole project. That’s what a silver lining is, right? Looking at the edge of the clouds and realizing there’s something back there.”
Dylan Jones is publisher of Highland Outdoors. He once slacklined like three feet off the ground between two trees in a park and wished he had a safety line.
Steel City Slacker Bronson Lockwood made a short form of the saga called We Failed. Check it out here: