“I logged onto World of Warcraft more than a whole year of my life. 370 days, to be exact. That’s 24 hours, multiplied by 370. 370 days on World of Warcraft; on a video-game! I used to make money playing video games! I’d go hunt pigs, and witches, and get gold. And then I’d sell that gold online. That’s basically how I paid my way through school, and college."
As an origin story for a slacklining pioneer, BASE jumping legend, and all-round daredevil it’s not exactly textbook stuff. But then the Californian “Sketchy" Andy Lewis, as he’s commonly known to those on the scene, is anything but textbook. In fact, he’s so far removed from the textbook that you’d need a pair of binoculars just to see the library building within which the textbook was situated.
"I was the only person in high school without armpit hair. I was like, for sure, a loser."
We’ve come to South Tyrol, as part of the International Mountain Summit, and are crowded into a cafe at the halfway point of a hike with one of the event’s main sponsors GORE-TEX. Andy Lewis, beer in hand, has the room hanging on his every word. It’s a testament to the crazy life he’s led, and the insane adventures he’s had along the way, that a room full of thirsty adults are much more interested in what Lewis has to say than they are in getting a beer for themselves.
I think back to the beginning of the day's hike, when Lewis first rocked up at the meeting point, and crack another smile at the effervescent nature of this man’s character. Lewis, you see, is woefully unprepared for the hiking aspect of the day. He’s wearing colourful skate trainers, and light-up bunny ears that flop down ludicrously either side of his head.
The hike is full of serious hikers, serious about hiking, with serious shoes and serious faces. Two minutes in the company of Lewis, and his wacky hat, however and the mood has completely changed. Unsurprisingly, a man who could easily die tomorrow doing the sport he loves likes to live in the moment and not take things too seriously.
"I like to have as much fun as I possibly can," and "Living is the best part of life," he tells us at various points during the day. The concrete faces of the hiking-enthusiasts are no match for this positivity and so they melt away, replaced by childlike grins.
Lewis poses for selfies, and acts the court jester, before we’re all given our briefing for the day’s activities and get herded into one of the numerous minivans parked up outside. We head up to the gloriously snowy start point, exit the vehicles accordingly, and start hiking. There’s a crowd gathered around Lewis from the get-go.
At one point, Lewis stops to make friends with some fenced-off farmyard animals. Soon after this touching little Dr Dolittle moment, we’re treated to a slacklining demonstration from Lewis and 8,000m-peak conquering mountaineer, general wonder woman, and South Tyrol native Tamara Lunger. Lewis plays up to the crowd by busting out a few of his tricks, and engaging in some light-hearted banter with like-minded adventurer Lunger.
“It’s too hard!" Tamara says as she struggles to balance on the slackline.
“That’s not what you said last night," replies Lewis with a cheeky smile.
Lunger throws a hefty-snowball, and everyone has a right good laugh. Once the slacklining demonstration is done, we make our way to the midway cafe where Lewis opens up about his early beginnings, the origins of slacklining, and his passion for BASE jumping.
“I was always into sport, but I was never really the biggest kid. It took a long time for puberty to kick in. I don’t know when your balls dropped, or when you guys started shaving but for me it took until I was about 23. I was the only person in high school without armpit hair. I was like, for sure, a loser. I didn’t have my first girlfriend until I got to college, so I was like way behind the scene. Like so far behind the scene, it wasn’t even funny," says Lewis while smiling at the implausibility of his transformation from teenage nerd to superhero.
"I felt like I could be myself through my characters more than I could ever be myself in real life."
“It’s around that time, I got more and more into climbing," continues Lewis, “When I was really into videogames, and computer programming, and learning how to be online, and having my own character; I felt like I could be myself through my characters more than I could ever be myself in real life."
"I don’t think I realised before how much of my life I was wasting. I was just spending so much time on the computer. But after I learned to slackline, I was just going out a lot more. I was seeing so many beautiful places. Like, I’d always loved climbing up rocks and trees but used to cut that short for video games. Slacklining changed that, it changed me."
“When I quit playing video games, that’s when I really started to look for something else in life. I started to view life as a videogame. Although, it did take me a little time before I realised that you don’t get an extra life in real-life like you do in videogames. When you die in a videogame, you resurrect. You come back to your body, you’re a ghost, and then you resurrect."
Despite Lewis maintaining that positive, sunny, west coast persona throughout there’s a notable shift in the tone of the conversation and the road in which it's heading down.
The sport of slacklining, which as the hike's group leader keeps reminding us was basically "invented" by Andy Lewis (whose numerous tricklining accomplishments since 2008 have helped to establish it competitively), and BASE jumping are capable of throwing up sad moments just as readily as the life-affirming moments that can make them so addictive. When the highs of something can make you feel unbelievably awesome, I guess it's only natural that the lows mirror this in their extremities.
"Now that kind of shit is really sad, and it’s really horrifying, but it’s also beautiful."
“After I saw a couple of people die, and I saw my best friend die" says Lewis to a room where the hear-a-pin-drop silence is intermittently interrupted by the loudest coffee machine in Europe, “...I was like ‘well that’s your body...that’s not going to come back.’ And, you know, that’s a very intense, very harrowing, experience."
"I closed my friend’s eyes, and his eyes opened again. So I closed his eyes, and his eyes opened again. Now that kind of shit is really sad, and it’s really horrifying, but it’s also beautiful. Because you’re looking at your friend die, and then you look around, and you’re like this is one of the most beautiful places you could ever leave the earth."
“Now, he was only 22 so he was a little young to die. But those kind of experiences, while they’re horrible in the moment, and they make you cry, and people get sad about death. All I can I say is that if something makes you happier as a person, later on in life you’ll be thankful you had those experiences. It’s all about perspective."
Lewis wraps things up by cracking a few more jokes, answering a few questions, and posing for a few more photographs. Much to the group’s disappointment, he won’t be joining us for the final leg of the hike. His inappropriate footwear seems to have got the better of him. He apologises to everyone in the group, wishes us luck on the rest of our mountain adventure, and says he’ll catch up with us later.
The next time we see him, Lewis is up on stage in front of a packed out conference hall of South Tyrol locals, mountaineering enthusiasts, and adventure journalists. He’s the big headline act for the evening, and there’s a palpable sense in the room that this frizzy-haired slackliner from the States is going to serve up something different from what's gone before.
There are more than a few technical difficulties with the laptop connection, but Andy’s bizarrely watchable presence means the audience's confused sense of intrigue remains constant. They don't know what's coming, nobody does - possibly not even Andy, but it's unstructured fun and that, you sense, is precisely how Sketchy likes it.
“So, as you can see, that’s my PornHub tab," says Lewis, nonchalantly hovering his mouse over the infamously recognisable logo, while searching for one of his slackline videos.
Some people laugh, some people furrow their brow.
“Come on guys! We all watch it!" continues Lewis.
Those who were laughing before, laugh harder. Those who weren’t, join in. Lewis seems to be the type of public speaker who’ll drag you along for the ride whether you’re up on the wagon or not. Here's a man who enjoys lightening the mood; someone who wants to make people feel as alive as he does when he's slacklining over canyons in Utah or jumping off casinos in Las Vegas.
“I should say now that if you’re offended by full-frontal nudity or criminal activities, you probably shouldn’t watch what I’m about to show you. In fact, thinking about it, I probably shouldn’t show you what I’m about to show you," says Lewis before clicking on a video of him slacklining in the nude. The screen behind him is absolutely enormous and, as a result, his genitals appear to be roughly the same size as a Vespa scooter.
The conservative and reserved locals of South Tyrol don’t know what’s hit them. Hands over mouths, hands over eyes, howls of laughter; Andy Lewis has brought some shock and awe tactics to the party and the International Mountain Summit attendees are lapping it up like a bunch of thirsty puppies.
Lewis is excellent at telling stories. Although, one could argue that being a really great storyteller is a hell of a lot easier when your day-to-day comings and goings are so utterly outlandish that they're effectively unrecognisable to the average Joe working nine-to-five. Most people, of course, want to be surprised by the anecdotes they’re told and Lewis is packing so many of those up his sleeves that you’re half expecting his t-shirt arms to rip under the weight of all those stored-up surprises.
"If Madonna wants Andy Lewis to be her tightrope bitch, it’s going to cost her."
He discusses what it was like to slackline for Madonna during her Super Bowl halftime show in 2012. A performance that, in the US alone, had viewing figures of approximately 111.3 million. Madonna, he reveals, offered him one million dollars to join her on her world tour but he turned her down because he didn’t want to give up his adventurous lifestyle and become, as he put it, Madonna’s “...tightrope bitch."
More laughter from the audience, but the inspirational message is unmistakable. Live your life on your own terms, not on someone else’s. Three weeks after Madonna, Lewis went to the southern islands of Thailand for a month where he, you guessed it, spent the majority of his time climbing, slacklining, and BASE jumping.
Lewis, it’s clear, has a genuine love for what he does but he’s also not oblivious to the personal dangers of being hooked on something with so many inherent risks built into its fabric. “BASE jumping," he tells us, “...is like the heroin of action sports. The hardest thing about it is keeping your addiction in check."
After serving up a couple more inspirational humdingers to the audience, Lewis leaves the stage to thunderous applause. The crowd has a new hero, and he’s nothing like the kind of archetype hero you might expect guests of an International Mountain Summit to have. We catch up with Andy in the bar after his presentation, and discover that travelling all over the world and living your life at 200 miles per hour can have its downsides on an interpersonal level.
“BASE jumping is like the heroin of action sports. The hardest thing about it is keeping your addiction in check."
“I’ve been travelling and travelling and travelling. Making connections with everyone but not really connecting with anyone," he tells us. There’s a smile on the lower half of his face but, and maybe it’s just the lack of light in the room, also a hint of sadness in his eyes. I shake his hand, wish him all the best, and let him get back to having fun at the party.
In the case of Andy Lewis, a man who knows that either himself or one of his close friends could die at any time while BASE jumping, I guess it’s easier to handle death if you never get too attached to people, places, or locations. But as I leave town the next morning I find myself thinking, are those of us who don't risk death on a daily basis really any better at forming relationships?
I’ve very much enjoyed my time in South Tyrol, and the day I’ve spent in the company of Sketchy Andy Lewis. I’ve discovered the origins of a professional daredevil, and developed a greater awareness of slacklining and the man who's evolved it to the place where it’s at today. Perhaps most importantly, and rather surprisingly, I’ve learned that Madonna doesn’t always get what she wants.
Here’s to Andy, an eccentric innovator and true original.
For more on origins, check out the Mpora Origins Issue.