In October of 2020, photographers Perry Bennett, David Johnston, and Jesse Thornton met in a field along Seneca Creek to point an arsenal of cameras at Seneca Rocks. Their lenses weren’t focused on the iconic twin peaks of the sandstone fin, but on the empty space in between and what occupied it—a human balanced on a thin piece of webbing, seemingly floating in the void. But disappointment for both parties filled the airwaves as messages crackled between walkie talkies. Although the feat was indeed amazing, it was missing one quintessential element: the full moon.
If you read Once in a Blue Moon in our winter 2020 issue, you’re likely familiar with this story. If not, welcome to the show, for this is one cosmic tale of grit, determination, calculation, and, ultimately, redemption.
A Prophetic Experience
The origins of this project date back to 2015, when prolific slackliner Hai Thai was the first person to walk the distance of a highline strung above the Gunsight Notch—the void between Seneca’s North and South peaks. Slacklining is the act of walking on a one-inch-wide piece of webbing that is tensioned between two anchor points; highlining is the act of walking a line higher than ten meters above the ground, typically with a harness and safety tether to catch a fall.
According to Thai, a 12-year slacklining veteran based in Washington, DC, the moon was full when the team originally rigged the line. Well aware of the potential photography opportunities presented by the Gunsight Notch, Thai prophetically named this new line Shoot the Moon after completing his initial walk. “The aesthetics of a highline are a big part of it,” Thai said. “We’re creating a bridge, and then we’re becoming the artists by being out on the line. I appreciate a line for the experience of being on it and looking out into the view.”
Five years later, Thornton and Johnston were photographing a summer meteor shower above Seneca Rocks. The next morning, Thornton saw the Steel City Slackers—a Pittsburgh-based slackline group—walking the Gunsight highline and was astounded. He posted photos on social media and, with the help of Bennett, tracked down the slackers. Together, they hatched grand plans to realize Thai’s vision and shoot for the moon.
Bennett, Johnston, and Thornton would be the photography team on the ground and the Steel City slackers, led by Wade Desai, would rig and walk the line when the full moon was scheduled to rise within the Gunsight Notch. One major question stood in their way: when would this happen? Moreover, how would the photography team know exactly when and where to be on the ground?
As they dug in, it became clear that this would require a feat of extreme precision. Johnston used a photography app, star charts, and some advanced mathematics to pinpoint the time and location for the shoot. “David’s a magician,” Thornton said. “I think anyone could eventually shoot the moon in the notch just through trial and error, but the degree of precision that David is capable of is on a whole other level.”
On October 28, 2020, the Blue Moon was scheduled to rise in the lower left corner of the Gunsight at 6:23 p.m. The various team members rallied in a field adjacent to Seneca Creek, sorting gear and going through plans for the shoot. The line was rigged, the cameras were set, and the slackliners got into their positions on either end of the line. But the spiraling arms of a tropical storm to the south interfered. Instead of a full moon, the slackers appeared to walk in a thick, gray soup of clouds. The disappointment was palpable. “Is this actually possible?” Desai said.
After the failed Blue Moon attempt, the team held its resolve. Although Johnston saw that the moon wouldn’t rise again in the Gunsight from their exact position in the field for another four years, he had a hunch they’d be able to try again much sooner. “When I expanded to all the open areas where you can see Seneca Rocks, I found a whole lot more opportunities,” Johnston said.
It’s time for a crash course in object relativity. In photography, the apparent size of an object in an image can be changed simply by moving the shooting location toward or away from the object. For the moonshot, it was all about the distance from the Gunsight Notch. The moon is so far from Earth—238,900 miles—that it will look the same regardless of where you stand. “But how far you are from the notch does make a difference,” Johnston said. “The further you get, the notch appears smaller while the moon remains the same size. So, relatively speaking, the moon appears larger in the notch.”
While a larger moon makes for a more dramatic image, it also ups the need for precision. The larger the moon appears in the frame, the less time you have you to nail the shot. “The moon moves approximately one diameter, meaning its lower edge passes where its upper edge was, about every two minutes,” Johnston said. “If there are only two moon-diameters in the notch, you’ve only got a few minutes. If you’re closer to the notch, meaning the moon will appear smaller, you’ve got more moon diameters and more time to get the shot.”
A Missed Opportunity
Johnston and Thornton kept returning to Seneca to test each new spot to validate Johnston’s calculations. “I’ve got a pretty good catalog of the moon rising in the Gunsight Notch under various lighting conditions, but obviously it was missing that final element of the highliners,” Johnston said.
That opportunity came in November 2021 when Johnston had identified that the full moon would rise in the notch on back-to-back evenings right at sunset (optimal for good lighting) and in the furthest possible viewing position along Seneca Creek (meaning the moon would appear larger in the notch). But once again, the notoriously unpredictable weather of Central Appalachia looked to stymie things—at least according to meteorologists. The forecast called for 80% cloud cover, and the photography team told the slackers, who would be travelling from Pittsburgh, to call it off. “We didn’t recommend they drive all the way here and set up and do all this for nothing,” Johnston said. “It seemed like a pretty low likelihood of success.”
Johnston and Thornton decided to go and see how the scene played out. The first night, the clouds appeared as expected. But the second night, a bright moon filled out the Gunsight Notch with nary a cloud in sight. The one-two punch of the failed Blue Moon attempt and the missed November opportunity galvanized the slackers. “We were kicking ourselves, and agreed the next time we were super committed regardless of the weather,” Thai said.
December to Remember
The next opportunity was December 15, 2021, when Johnston had pinpointed a Gunsight moonrise right around 4 p.m. from a location in a field near the Seneca Rocks Discovery Center. The team started viewing the weather about a week out, seeing a marginal forecast calling for cloud cover yet again. But on the day of the attempt, morning clouds cleared out and a few wispy clouds lingered above North Fork Mountain to the east—things were finally looking up.
Thai and Desai were the only two slackers who could make it down for this attempt, adding to the challenge. With only two people to haul gear, climb both of Seneca’s peaks, rig the line, and tension it, the bar had officially been raised. The dynamic duo, each schlepping a 50-pound pack, headed up Seneca’s sheer rock face. “We had given ourselves four hours of buffer, which seemed like enough, but we didn’t really factor in how long it would take with just two people because that doubles the time to rig,” Thai said.
As the slackers climbed, the photography team set up at Johnston’s precise location. Each photog had two cameras to catch a variety of shots; Thornton also piloted a drone to film a bird’s eye view of the rigging. The slackers executed their rigging plan with precision, but time was passing quickly. The drama, soon to be followed by the moon, started rising. The anchor building and line rigging processes must be done properly, meaning the highliners had no room to cut corners. “While Wade was rigging the North Peak anchor, I was hanging out waiting and felt my stress levels rising,” Thai said.
According to Johnston’s calculations, the line needed to be rigged by 4 p.m.; one of the slackers needed to be out standing on the line minutes after to appear in front of the moon as it drifted into position. “Wade climbed up behind me at 3:55, and we had some final last-minute things to check off,” Thai said. “He went over to check the North Peak anchor, and just as I finished padding the South Peak anchor, it was four o’clock on the dot.”
The photography team radioed to the slackers that it was go-time. To come all this way and set up all this equipment just to miss the moon by a minute was not an option. “There was a lot of anticipation building,” Johnston said. “Watching the slackliners get everything into place literally one minute before, the tension was palpable.”
As if it was scripted by a Hollywood director, Desai got out on the line and stood up right as the shot lined up for the photographers. “There’s this moment when you finally pull the line tight and you feel the tension and the energy out there,” Desai said. “I felt that in the moment we all saw the moon.”
Thornton and Bennett couldn’t believe it was happening. “Even as it’s going on, I’m thinking something’s gonna go wrong,” Thornton said. “Like I forgot to put the memory card in the camera, or I’ve missed focus or something else. But everything came together perfectly. You couldn’t have orchestrated more perfect timing.”
A Cosmic Experience
Although the photographers were focused on getting their shots, the visceral experience of witnessing the event was not lost on them. “When the moon appeared in the notch right as predicted, that was a thrill just as it had been the previous times,” Johnston said. “Seeing how big the moon looked compared to the slackliner in front of it, seeing that actually appear before our eyes, was pretty amazing.”
As soon as Desai knew the team had achieved their first shots, he immediately dropped onto his safety tether and slid to the North Peak anchor so Hai could get out on the line for a few photos. “As soon as I heard David say they got it, I thought ‘This is only 50% done.’ I felt a sense of partnership with Hai. I don’t think it would have been the same without him to share it with.”
Thai got out just in time to get the remaining minute in front of the moon before it drifted above the Gunsight Notch. “There was a lot of pressure on our shoulders with the timing of the day and all the months of buildup,” Thai said. “Once we heard those magic words of ‘We got the shot,’ the weight on our shoulders lifted.”
The photography team was just as ecstatic. After they nabbed enough shots to call it a day, Johnston brought out a couple celebratory beers as the moon continued its upward trajectory among emerging stars. “We were jumping up and down, screaming that we got it,” Bennett said. “It was just so beautiful.”
For Hai, the first person to walk the Shoot the Moon highline some seven years ago, this project was the ultimate manifestation of the lunar cycle. “It was the realization of a dream, of what we had imagined before we ever even rigged the line,” he said. “That dream comes into the mind when you look up at that notch and you imagine a person standing out there on a line in the moon. It was a really good feeling to see it come full circle.”
Dylan Jones was mega bummed to miss this successful event, but vows to be there for future projects (hint hint). Stay tuned!