Justin Olsen on Adventure, Highlining and Living in an Adult Summer Camp

August 22, 2023

Justin Olsen is an adventure photographer and lover of the outdoors. He climbs, mountain bikes, skis and dirt bikes all over the world with his camera in tow. He calls Yosemite his home base but tends to move with the seasons or whatever is inspiring him in the moment. 

His deep love and appreciation for exploring beautiful places has led him to highlining, an extreme sport in which people are attached to a thin line fastened between two high points in the air, like cliffs or buildings.

We recently caught up with him to chat about his latest adventures, the ins and outs of highlining, photography and why Yosemite is like living in an adult summer camp.

Can you tell us about yourself?

I’m 32 years young. I was raised in Northern California with my three brothers in a small town called Cottonwood. Our parents were very active with us, constantly going on camping trips, road trips and other adventures. We were always outside, playing in the mountains or boating on lakes. 

I’ve lived in Yosemite National Park and other outdoor areas since 2016… I kind of just move around depending on the season and what I want to do. I’ve been climbing, mountain biking, skiing, dirt biking and taking photos all around the world. No stopping soon. 

Last time we spoke, you were teaching ski lessons at Heavenly… where’s home right now?

Home now is back in Yosemite Valley. This place absolutely changed my life. I left for a few years to travel around and spend time back at home near my family, but I moved back after the crazy winter of 2023. My heart was aching to be back in the valley I love most. 

When’s the first time you visited Yosemite?

My mom took my twin brother and I there when we were one-year-olds, and we’ve made a trip back to Yosemite every year since. That’s probably why this place has always felt like home to me.  

What’s your day-to-day like right now?

Work days are actually pretty chill. I work bike rentals and raft rentals, so I get to play in the river a lot. Weekends are where it gets incredible. I have three-day weekends and fill all three with adventure—backpacking trips, climbing, fishing, highlines, mountain biking, lots of BBQs, camping, etc. I like doing a variety of things outdoors, ranging from casual to extreme. It’s a good balance. 

Summer will be over before you know it. What’s next on the docket?

Big Sky, Montana. My best friend that I met in 2016 in Yosemite is a manager there. He’s been bugging me for a couple years now to head up there and work with him and ski. I've got a big group of good friends from Yosemite that are coming along too. So it should be good fun, and I'm looking forward to exploring a new area and getting on Big Sky’s famed triple black diamond runs. 

Love it. Now, let’s pivot to highlines. What sparked your interest to get involved with that?

While living in Yosemite, I would see the highliners up in the sky attached to a thin line between two cliffs. Seeing that intrigued me and I wanted to know more about it and witness it up close. I love seeing people doing extreme activities in beautiful places. The first highline I experienced up close and was able to get on myself was The Lost Arrow Spire in Yosemite. It was actually the first highline ever put up in history, so that was special to be on. 

Do you have plans to get on a highline again soon? 

I've been on many. I'm just not good at it, hah. I've been practicing so I can surprise my highline friends and walk more than just a step or two before falling off. I'm mostly out there to help rig, climb, take photos and just watch my friends do incredible things. 

Who makes up your climbing/highlining/rigging crew?

It changes depending on where I am. I would say my main crew is Ryan Sheridan and Priscilla Mewborn. They’re a couple in Yosemite that I've done tons of climbing, highlining and rope swing projects with. They are both brilliant and, to me, the best in the game when it comes to rigging all those things. 

How’d you link up with them?

I met them both in Yosemite—it’s a small community. I think I met them at an employee party or something and we got to talking and scheming ideas.

How do you choose a location for a highline?

We typically go for big, epic lines and beautiful backdrops. And we try to do them in places it’s never been done before. 

What’s the process of setting up a highline?

It really depends on where you are. You need to get a line from one anchor to another. In most places, you can attach a small line to a drone and just fly it across. Drones are illegal in Yosemite, though, so we have to walk it across. And that can be very difficult. We end up doing a lot of climbing, rappelling and hiking to get the line across.

Are there any other park regulations that make the process more difficult?

You can’t have lines over roads or over waterways or waterfalls. Also trying to do big highlines that take multiple days to rig can be hard since you can’t sleep in the areas overnight. So it involves a lot of hiking in and out each day. 

Are there any other challenges of getting the line across?

We are really safe and make sure everyone is in a harness and on an anchor if close to an edge. Other risks are snagging the line on rock, bushes or trees. 

What safety measures are in place for the person walking the line? 

The person is always in a harness and on an extended leash. When they fall, they only fall about three feet and are just hanging on the line. We also have a backup line, so there are always two highlines they walk on in case one breaks for any reason. Everything is backed up twice and redundant. 

What kind of skills or training do you need to make the climb and rig?

You need knowledge of ropes, knots, climbing, mountaineering and common sense. A lot of lines are different and it’s like cracking a puzzle to get them up and going. It’s super fun. 

How do you test the sturdiness of the line?

The lines and all the gear are rated for massive amounts of weight. A simple carabiner can hold up to around 20,000 pounds. Everything is overbuilt and mega safe. Sometimes we use a device that can measure the weight being put on it, but usually only if we’re doing rope swings off the lines and putting much more pressure on it.

Are there any disruptions to the natural landscape? How do you take measures to preserve the landscape?

The only disruption would be putting bolts into the rock. We don’t typically do that. We always use natural anchors when we can. That involves using trees and wrapping big boulders or using climbing gear called cans that anchor into the rock that are removable and do no damage to the rock.

Why is highlining so popular in Yosemite?

The 2,000+ foot cliffs and surrounding landscape. It’s a highlining playground.

Your photos speak to that, and we love seeing them. How much camera gear are you hauling up with you?

Honestly, not much. I take one lens and just my camera and a GoPro Max. I'm usually hauling out tons of rope, climbing gear, food and water for the crew. So I keep my camera gear pretty light. 

What’s your go-to camera setup for shooting highline?

Sony A7riii with whatever lens I feel like using that day, depending on the line. I always take a GoPro max with a long pole to shoot with, too. 

Where are you typically shooting from? The edge of a cliff? On a rope?

All of the above. Again, it depends on the line. I love when it requires me to get on a rope and drop in for a shot. So much fun! 

Does photography influence the highline location?

Typically no… we do it for the sport first. Images and videos are just things that come after.

What’s your favorite shot?

The most recent one I did. It’s at The Lost Arrow Spire (my favorite location for a highline), and it captures three of my friends all on separate lines coming off the spire at once. I rappelled in on the edge of the cliff to get the shot. You can see the entirety of the spire, the three walkers and upper Yosemite Falls with the background of the valley in it. Dream shot for me. 

Beautiful. Anything else you want to mention about your photo process and highlining?

Always have good communication with the athletes, always bring them snacks and always offer to help out. Especially if you’re just going out to take photos. They obviously love getting images back, but be sure to help out. They put in so much time and money for these projects—so even bringing them a bag of gummy bears can really help out. 

As for my photo process, I’m not sure if I have one [haha]. I just keep it easy going and go out there and have fun. I never expect to get an image… if it happens, it happens. I go to see people pushing the limits and doing something incredible. If I can capture that with my camera, that’s just a bonus. 

Want to chat about partnering with Spot? Ski with Justin at Big Sky? Climb with us at the Mesa Rim or Bouldering Projects in Austin? We’d love to hear from you.

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