Florida aerialist Nik Wallenda has completed a quarter mile tightrope walk without safety harness over the Little Colorado River Gorge in northeastern Arizona.
Daredevil Nik Wallenda performed the stunt late on Sunday on a 2-inch-thick steel cable, 1,500 feet above the river on the Navajo Nation near the Grand Canyon.
He took just more than 22 minutes, pausing and crouching twice as winds whipped around him and the rope swayed.
“Thank you Lord. Thank you for calming that cable, God,” Nik Wallenda said about 13 minutes into the walk.
Nik Wallenda didn’t wear a harness and stepped slowly and steady throughout, murmuring prayers to Jesus almost constantly along the way. He jogged and hopped the last few steps.
Winds blowing across the gorge had been expected to be around 30 mph. Nik Wallenda told Discovery after the walk that the winds were at times “unpredictable” and that dust had accumulated on his contact lenses.
“It was way more windy, and it took every bit of me to stay focused the entire time,” he said.
Nik Wallenda, 34, is a seventh-generation high-wire artist and is part of the famous “Flying Wallendas” circus family – a clan that is no stranger to death-defying feats.
About 600 spectators watching on a large video screen on site cheered him on as he walked toward them. A Navajo Nation ranger, a paramedic and two members of a film crew were stationed on the canyon floor and watched from below.
The ranger Elmer Phillips said Nik Wallenda appeared to be walking like any normal person would on a sidewalk. But he said he got a little nervous when Nik Wallenda stopped the first time.
“Other than that, a pretty amazing feat. I know I wouldn’t even attempt something like that,” Elmer Phillips said.
“Very nicely done.”
Nik Wallenda told reporters after the walk that he hoped his next stunt would be a tightrope walk between the Empire State building and the Chrysler building in New York. But he said he would give up tightrope walking altogether if his wife and children ever asked him.
Before the walk, a group of Navajos, Hopis and other Native Americans stood along a nearby highway with signs protesting the event.
The event was touted as a walk across the Grand Canyon, an area held sacred by many American Indian tribes.
Some local residents believe Nik Wallenda hasn’t accurately pinpointed the location and also said that the Navajo Nation shouldn’t be promoting the gambling of one man’s life for the benefit of tourism.
Discovery’s two-hour broadcast showcased the Navajo landscape that includes Monument Valley, Four Corners, Canyon de Chelly and the tribal capital of Window Rock.
“When people watch this, our main thing is we want the world to know who Navajo people are, our culture, traditions and language are still very much alive,” Geri Hongeva, spokeswoman for the tribe’s Division of Natural Resources, said before the walk.
Nik Wallenda says he has wondered what it would be like to cross an area he considers the Grand Canyon since he was a teenager.
Sunday’s stunt comes a year after he traversed Niagara Falls earning a seventh Guinness world record.
Nik Wallenda wore a microphone and two cameras, one looking down on the dry Little Colorado River bed and one facing straight ahead. His leather shoes with an elk-skin sole helped him keep a grip on the steel cable as he moved across.
The event was broadcast live on the Discovery Channel with a ten-second delay. He was watched by 1.5 million people compared to the 8 million who watched Felix Baumgartner jump from space.
The vertigo sufferer’s ultimate nightmare, the Grand Canyon, is as deadly as it is awe-inspiring. Of the 700 lives it has claimed in the past century, most went over the edge, plunging thousands of feet to the rocky base of the Little Colorado River.
People have slipped over by accident, jumped over on purpose and inadvertently backed over while taking a photo. Some have badly misjudged trying to relieve themselves over the rim for a lark, while a father from Texas pretended to fall to scare his daughter – only to lose his footing and do it properly.
But nobody has ever dared go over the edge balancing on a two-inch thick steel cable.
On paper, the canyon crossing makes the Niagara expedition look like a stroll. There Nik Wallenda was 200 ft above the falls, this time he was 1,500 ft (higher than the Empire State Building) above the ground.
Although the distance Nik Wallenda walked was shorter – 1,400 ft compared to 1,800 ft – every inch of the way had a crucial difference.
This time, Nik Wallenda a devout Christian and father-of -three, did not have any safety device.
The TV company that broadcast the Niagara stunt – loth to confront viewers with a sudden, dramatic death – insisted he wear a harness. Nik Wallenda, who never usually wears one and had threatened to shrug it off if he felt it was hindering him, later said he hated wearing it, and vowed never to do so again.
Like safety nets, harnesses give you a false sense of security which increases the likelihood you will lose concentration and make a mistake, he says. They might also stop you from getting nervous, but Nik Wallenda, who already holds six Guinness World Records, doesn’t seem to know the concept of anxiety when he is on a high wire.
It may be in his genes. He is a seventh generation member of a dynasty of circus aerialists known since the Twenties as The Flying Wallendas. The troupe never used safety nets after one of them bounced out of a net and died.
Nik Wallenda’s great-grandfather, Karl, the troupe’s founder, was killed aged 73 while attempting a tightrope walk in 30 mph winds between the ten-storey-high towers of a Puerto Rico hotel.
For his latest challenge, Nik Wallenda chose a desolate and relatively narrow part of the canyon known as Hellhole Bend.
Here the view – featured in various TV commercials – is as stunning as anywhere along the entire length of the canyon, as the sides fall instantly away into sheer cliffs and a butte (like a fat skyscraper) juts out from the canyon’s north rim.
Nik Wallenda was ferried by helicopter to the isolated butte from where, leaving the pinyon and yucca scrub, he took his first tentative steps over thin air.
The first couple of steps are always the worst, he says, as clad in soft leather shoes custom-made by his mother, he moves slowly towards the canyon’s south rim in what is more of a slide than a walk.
As usual with these finely-calibrated operations, the tautness of the cable is crucial. Freak winds have been known to bring down helicopters in the canyon, and could play havoc with Nik Wallenda’s progress.
Counter weights were suspended along the wire to keep it stable in gusts he anticipates could be as strong as 35mph.
The 8.5-ton cable – of a type usually used for undersea dredging – was suspended from four anchors that have been drilled and cemented 15 ft deep into the limestone rock on either side.
Organizers promised that the only weather condition that would delay the walk was lightning anywhere within a 15-mile radius – Nik Wallenda, after all, carries a 43 lbs metal balancing pole attached around his neck by a brace.
If he got stuck in the middle, prevented from advancing by high winds, a rescue crew could get to him in 30 seconds by sending a small metal basket along the cable in which he could take shelter.
Nik Wallenda had anticipated the walk would take 20 to 30 minutes. If it took longer and the light started to fail, he could have been in trouble: a big danger for a funambulist – the proper term for a tightrope walker – is not being able to see the wire ahead.
Another danger is the cable starting to bounce. Curiously, this can happen if he walks at an even pace because that can set up a rhythmic movement along the cable, so he will try to vary it, speeding up and slowing down.
He’ll was on an empty stomach – hiccups could be disastrous.
The canyon walk was broadcast live in 200 countries by the Discovery Channel – albeit with a ten-second delay in case of disaster. Two cameras strapped to Nik Wallenda’s body gave viewers the same hair-raising vistas he saw on his way across.
Nik Wallenda has been training for months at his home in Florida, conducting walks of similar lengths to the canyon crossing twice every day over a local lake, using the same sort of wire he will employ in Arizona.
He’s practiced walking in 52 mph gusts during tropical storms, and last week even managed to stay up as wind machines pounded him with a steady blast of 92 mph.
His parents – both highwire walkers – used to ram home the importance of being prepared for the unexpected, pelting him with pine cones as he swayed on a practice wire in their garden, or coming up behind him and shaking the wire.
His father and mentor, Terry, was the reassuring voice in his earpiece when Nik Wallenda stepped out over the abyss.
Still, Nik Wallenda admits that some eventualities can never be foreseen out on the wire. He was once stung by a bee and has had birds land on his balancing pole. Out in the Arizona desert, that could be a vulture.
As to how he copes with the extraordinary mental strain, Nik Wallenda, an unshowy performer who usually does his walks in shorts and T-shirt, doesn’t shed much light on the subject.
It’s basically all he knows, he says. There’s certainly an otherworldly quality to a man who claims to get “very peaceful” out on the wire.
In the past, Nik Wallenda has hung from his teeth from a helicopter, and ridden a motorcycle up a steel cable. But he doesn’t like being called a daredevil.
“I do consider what I do an art,” he says.
“And I consider a daredevil more of somebody who says: <<I’m going to do something that’s never been done before but I haven’t trained for it>>. I train and train and train and over-train for this.”
Nik Wallenda’s wife Erendira, 32, is another wire walker. He got down on one knee to propose when they were both on a high wire.
Erendira Wallenda and the children watched him succeed in his breath-taking stunt on Sunday night.
They always say a family prayer, but there is no real ritual before his walks, Nik Wallenda insists.
“I’m not superstitious. I give my wife and kids a hug and a kiss, and say: <<See you in a few minutes>> – just like I do when I go out to get groceries.”