When a niche outdoor adventure festival's popularity grows, so too does its challenges in preserving our natural playground. Outdoor investigates the management of GGBY in the US.
GGBY is a week long gathering of highliners, BASE jumpers, fire spinners, musicians, yogis, and any other folks inclined to head out into the beauty of Utah’s canyon country to spend time with their chosen family and friends instead of with their biological counterparts. The acronym stands for Gobble Gobble Bitches Yeah, so named by a ragtag group of adventurers around a fire way back in the inaugural year. The gathering takes place at an area dubbed the Fruitbowl, a couple of days before and after the US holiday of Thanksgiving. This area was found in 2007 by a local named Terry Acomb. According to Terry, the first GGBY took place in 2008, roughly 45 minutes away from its current location at an area known as Gemini Bridges. There were 28 people in that first year. It hopped around for a couple of years, just to change up the scenery, until the crowds swelled to over a hundred people and it became necessary to bring it to the Fruitbowl in 2011.
The Fruitbowl lends itself perfectly towards a highlining gathering. It is a side canyon to the larger Mineral Bottom canyon, itself a branch that eventually leads into the Canyonlands National Park. Think about it like a branch off of a tree root. Starting at the narrowest point, it gets bigger, recruiting more branches and gaining mass until it reaches the Grand Canyon. The beginning of the Fruitbowl itself is around 10m wide with an astounding vertical drop of 120m. What is special about the Fruitbowl is that it makes a gradual transition from 10m to 400m, making it very easy to increase the length of highlines by simply walking further toward the mouth. This is beneficial because highlining is extremely demanding mentally, and being able to convince yourself to get on a line that is only a few metres longer than your best walk is significantly easier than taking massive leaps in length.
In 2015, my first year at GGBY, there were nearly 400 people enjoying the festivities at the Fruitbowl. BASE parachutes exploded in the sky, highliners filled the air, and people ran around with giant smiles on their faces. I was blown away by the excitement, love, and support that these people shared with their friends, new and old. I’d never before seen such an enriching and positive environment. Instead of competition and ego, the vibe was positive and encouraging.
As I explored the area and filmed with my friends, I noticed some things that weren’t very inspiring: toilet paper and human waste on the ground, dozens of vehicles trampling vegetation in an effort to find (create) parking, and trees near the camping area becoming distinctly bare of dead wood. In an area like southern Utah, the eco-system is incredibly fragile. Footsteps on the cryptobiotic crust (an amazing cooperation between algae, fungi, and bacteria that create a medium to hold moisture and sustain life) can last decades. Faeces can stand undisturbed for lifetimes as there is no water or microorganisms to break it down, and the scars of trees ripped apart for fires on cold nights leave a sad wound on the land. It was clear to me that however inspiring and beautiful this community was, GGBY had outgrown its humble roots and management of the event was now necessary.
I spent a total of three days out at the Fruitbowl this year and was there for most of the festival. I interviewed and talked to a total of 10 people about their perception of the event. All had nothing but praise for the organisation and the turnout of the festival. As a festival goer myself, I have to agree. The changes from my first trip there in 2015 were amazing. Slackline US did an amazing job to mitigate the detrimental effects on the land. By designating parking in two lots near the entrance road and organising a shuttle in and out of the event, they prevented the 200 or so cars trampling the desert vegetation near the tiny parking lot at the Fruitbowl. By delivering massive quantities of firewood (and resupplying after their initial estimations were incinerated) they mitigated the further destruction of the native Juniper pine trees. By having port-a-potties at the parking lot and portable toilets by the highlining area itself, they cured the issue of human waste and hauled out hundreds of gallons of faeces that otherwise would have made it into the Colorado River. And finally, by requiring dogs to be on leashes, they saved many a hungry highliner from losing their lunch.
The other major feedback that I received wasn’t about conservation issues, it was about the rigging. Jerry Miszewski of Balance Community, a company that manufactures and sells slacklining and highlining equipment out of Chicago, Illinois, volunteered to be in charge of rigging this year. Every person I talked to praised him and his expert team of volunteer riggers for their hard and brilliant work setting up lines that were easy to assess, safe to walk, and resilient enough to withstand hundreds of highliners over nearly a week. A excellent achievement considering that in the past, half of the time was spent criticising and critiquing the different styles of highline rigs that people had set up, which ranged from beautiful to downright unsafe.
ORGANISING THE EVENT
While there were those who voiced opinions online about how this year’s organisation was “killing the vibe” of GGBY and that it would be the downfall of an otherwise awesome gathering, none of this was witnessed by me or those I talked to at the event. I’m sure that people who had that opinion weren’t willing to pay the $150 entry fee, so I wasn’t likely to see them anyway. But really, there aren’t any downsides to having safe highlines to walk, and preserving the unspoiled character of this desert location. The fact that 200 people came to an otherwise pristine desert location for nearly a week and left almost no trace of their actions is astounding.
When I asked Sonya what the reasons were that she worked so hard to organise this year’s GGBY she said, “For me, one is community. I really love seeing how connected communities can be and I think festivals facilitate that.
“Otherwise we end up with pockets of slackliners in Seattle and pockets of slackliners in North Carolina and they never meet each other. And so having gatherings like this I think really helps connect people.
“And also, the Europeans that are over here are a nice link as well. But just creating a space where people can play and be free and have this gathering.
“The other side of it and what we’ve seen a lot of the last couple of years in Europe is how useful the festivals are for communicating information. So those are the two reasons: communication of knowledge and community.”
I spoke to festival goers and they largely echoed Sonya’s sentiments.
“I come because the slackline community is unlike anything else,” said Shane Hickman of Steamboat Springs in Colorado.
“I’ve been into a lot of random niche sports and different activities my whole life and out of all of those the slackline community is so strong.
“This is the event of our season, you know, you have all summer to practice and prepare for stuff like this and then you come out here in the fall and hang out with your friends. Most of these people are from around the world and you haven’t seen them since the last time you were here.”
The 2017 GGBY represented a milestone in the highlining world of the United States. From a close knit gathering of friends for Thanksgiving to an all out festival in the desert, GGBY has progressed to finally become an officially permitted event.
The future is bright for highlining and land conservation in the US. We are all stronger when we work together. Here’s to keeping it moving in the right direction.
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