Tomorrow Nik Wallenda steps out on a thick steel cable to make a 1,800ft journey from the U.S. into Canada. His will be a border crossing like no other as he becomes the first tightrope walker to try to walk from one side of Niagara to the other. Wallenda will spend 40 minutes being buffeted by strong winds, blinding spray and, if he really unlucky, attacks from the peregrine falcons who nest nearby.
But if anyone can do it, it is probably Wallenda, the 33-year-old American holder of six Guinness World Records titles for his tightrope heroics, and the powerfully-built heir to seven generations of the tightrope dynasty, the Great Wallendas.
Yet his challenge is considerable. Nobody has previously tried to tightrope walk across the lip of America‚ most powerful waterfall for two very good reasons.
First, tightrope acts around Niagara have been banned for more than a century, and second, even when they were permitted, the bravest daredevils stayed well clear of the Falls themselves, where 200,000 cubic feet of water rush over the edge every second, crashing down at speeds of 70mph as the Niagara River drains Lake Erie into Lake Ontario.
This spectacular demonstration of nature’s power has claimed many lives over the years, and some local experts have spent recent weeks predicting with sombre certainty that it is about to claim another.
The Wallendas have never used nets or safety wires, a tradition that has claimed the lives of three of them already. But ABC, the Disney-owned TV network which is paying handsomely to televise the walk live, has now intervened. It doesn’t want to broadcast a man plunging to his death and is insisting the reluctant Wallenda wear a safety harness.
After spending two years persuading local U.S. and Canadian authorities that allowing his attempt would help their struggling economies, Wallenda needs the sponsorship from the TV deal. Thus, he appears to have accepted that he must wear a harness with a wire attached to the tightrope.
But don’t be surprised if he slips off the harness and trusts his life to skill, which he says he will do if it impedes his movement at all. Now that would leave the TV controllers with a nasty dilemma.
Wallenda certainly isn’t planning to fall, and points out that his acrobat wife Erendira (he proposed, of course, while they were both on a tightrope) and two young sons will be watching.
He’s a born-again Christian family man and consummate professional, he says, not one of those eccentrics who have lost their lives in hare-brained Niagara stunts.
Some might have trouble appreciating the distinction, but Wallenda, who stays calm on the wire by talking to God, says he is putting his faith in a lifetime of training, which started when he was two, and in the 100-ton weights that will anchor the cranes holding the wire at each end 25ft above the top of the Falls.
When he’s not conversing with God, he can speak to his biological father, half of his two-man support team, through a microphone earpiece.
Wallenda said this week: “I don’t even think about failure, That I’m doing is a natural wonder”.
Last-minute training has involved balancing on a wire with his 68-year-old mother Delilah on his shoulders to focus his mind, while being sprayed with fire hoses and blasted by wind machines to replicate conditions over the falls. (His mother even sewed him the special elk skin suede shoes he will wear to provide good grip, but not so much grip that they stick.)
He has also substituted the usual 24ft pole he carries for a heavier 40ft one to counteract the strong winds, which he supports with a brace strapped around his neck.
Around a dozen funambulists, as tightrope walkers are correctly named, have made it across the Niagara River gorge before. But, as the competitive Wallenda is at pains to emphasise, none dared venture across the top of the Falls, but crossed the more tranquil, narrower sections of the gorge downstream.
- Tags: Walk death Niagara Falls Nik Wallenda American Guinness World Records Great Wallendas River Lake Erie Ontario ABC Disney-TV network Canadian authorities God mother Delilah