Daredevil Nik Wallenda, King of the Highwire, tightroped across Niagara Falls in 25 minutes on June 15, 2012. He was the first to cross in 116 years. Others have crossed Niagara Gorge downstream from the Falls, but he was the first to cross right above the thundering Falls.
Niagara stunts have been illegal for over a century. Steeplejack Clifford Calverly (1893) scooted across in a record 2:35. Charles Cromwell (1884) sat on a chair on the tightrope. Maria Spelterini (1876) crossed backwards wearing peach baskets on her feet and a bag over her head.
Most famous of all is Charles Blondin’s 1859 show. He crossed multiple times on a 1100-foot, 3.25-inch tightrope 160 feet above the Niagara River: riding a bicycle, somersaulting backwards, in a sack, blindfolded, pushing a wheelbarrow, backpacking his manager, on stilts, cooking and eating an omelet in the middle, and standing on a chair with only one leg on the tightrope.
Wallenda’s project was two years in the making as he worked to persuade governments and park authorities on both sides of the river to authorize his stunt.
ABC televised the event live internationally and required Wallenda to wear a tether in case he fell. But he didn’t need the tether, walking steadily without a hitch along the slippery swaying cable dripping with water. Toward the end, he knelt to the wire, pumped his fist, and then ran the last few yards.
Wallenda reluctantly agreed to the tether, because he needed ABC’s financial sponsorship for part of the $1.3 million cost of the event. “I have never in my life walked with a harness,” Wallenda said. “It feels like I’m dragging an anchor behind me.” He felt safer without it because the tethered harness impaired his movement and weighed him down.
Some encouraged Wallenda to remove the tether once out on the wire. But Wallenda said he wouldn’t, because “I have given ABC my word.”
Wallenda Family History
Nik’s great-grandfather Karl brought the family to the US to star in the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus with a 4-man, 3-level highwire pyramid. Karl balanced on a chair on a bar between the shoulders of two men on bicycles on a 50-foot-high wire. Karl’s wife stood on his shoulders. The act debuted without a net at Madison Square Garden in 1928 and earned a 15-minute standing ovation.
Wallendas are famous for acts without nets; seven have died in highwire accidents. In 1962 in Detroit, after 15 years of successful 7-man 3-level pyramids, the lead man stumbled. The pyramid collapsed as three men on the wire fell. Only the rear anchorman remained standing. Karl and brother Herman fell from the second level to the wire. The girl on the chair at the top fell on Karl. He hung onto her until a makeshift net could be held beneath to catch her. Two died and Karl’s son Mario was paralyzed for life from the waist down. Karl was hospitalized with a cracked pelvis and internal injuries, but he escaped the hospital and performed the next night because “the show must go on.”
In 1998 Nik and his parents, Terry Troffer and Delilah Wallenda, re-created the act anew in Detroit after 21 years of no pyramids. In 2001 in Kurashiki, Japan, after 5 months of intense practice, Nik and other Wallendas performed the first ever 8-man and then a 10-man pyramid.
Karl said, “Life is being on the wire; everything else is just waiting.” He did Sky Walks between buildings and across stadiums: Busch, Veterans, JFK, Three Rivers, Astrodome. In 1970 at age 65 he tightwired 1200 feet across Georgia’s Tallulah Gorge. Thirty thousand people watched as he did two handstands 750 feet above ground.
Karl died falling from a poorly-rigged highwire in Puerto Rico in 1978 at age 73. In June 2011, granddaughter Delilah and Nik re-created Karl’s stunt. They crossed simultaneously from opposite ends with Nik stepping over his mother.
In 1999 following a 7-man pyramid feat, Nik went back out on the 30-foot-high wire, knelt, and proposed to Erendira before 18,000 people in Montreal. They now have 3 children.
The Walk over Niagara
Wallenda walked 1800 feet (five footballs fields) from America to Canada 200 feet above the churning water at the base of Horseshoe Falls. Wallenda said walking on the 2-inch diameter cable “feels like a sidewalk” compared with his usual 5/8-inch highwire. He wore elkskin shoes handmade by his mother designed to grip the cable.
He offered prayers and praise to Jesus Christ throughout his walk. The television audience heard these through his mike.
Wallenda battled turbulent winds. “The wind was wild. It’d come at me one way and hit me from the front, and hit me from the back.” Winds gusted at 14 mph over the Falls during his walk. Near the end he said, “That mist was thick…It was definitely quite a challenge…Fighting that wind wasn’t easy and my hands are going numb. I feel like I’m getting weak.”
Other difficulties included the dripping cable, impaired vision, and arm cramps. Swirling winds, heavy spray, thick mists, and rushing water made it difficult to see the swaying cable.
Wallenda walked after dark to facilitate worldwide viewing. After dark, half the water going over the Falls is diverted for power generation, so the mist is reduced.
After crossing Wallenda was met by Canadian customs officials who asked for his passport and the purpose of his visit. At first he pretended to start back over the wire as if he had forgotten his passport. He told officials, “I’m not carrying anything over. I promise.” But he successfully smuggled a 30-foot-long, 40-pound balancing pole into Canada in full view of 125,000 people plus one billion TV viewers worldwide.
Nik Wallenda first saw Niagara Falls at age six and started dreaming then of tightroping across the Falls. Twenty-seven years later he did it.
What’s next for Wallenda? He plans to top Niagara with a mile-long tightrope walk across Grand Canyon. He has already secured the permits.
Pictures and Videos
This Daily Mail Online site has many superb pictures of Wallenda walking the wire and shots of the Falls. There’s also a picture of the Wallenda 7-man pyramid.
Here are ABC News videoclips with segments of Wallenda walking the wire over the Falls. There are 4 clips of lengths 2:18, 6:19, 5:27, 2:56 with 30-second ads surrounding the clips.
Here’s a 5-minute YouTube video of some of the Flying Wallendas performing the 7-Man Pyramid highwire act. Often the girl on the top tier stands up on the chair in the middle, but she doesn’t in this performance.
Soli Deo Gloria.
Read the sequel:
Wallenda’s Witness at Niagara (with video)
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©William T. Pelletier, Ph.D.
“contending earnestly for the faith”
“destroying speculations against the knowledge of God”
(Jude 1:3; 2 Cor 10:4)
Wednesday June 20, 2012 A.D.
Read my June 2012 newspaper column:
Hike the Bible 2 – Nazareth
Ascribe to the LORD the glory due to His name. Worship the LORD in holy array. The voice of the LORD is upon the waters. The God of glory thunders. The LORD is over many waters. (Psalms 29:2-3)