Daredevil Nik Wallenda: 'No room for error' in high-wire Grand Canyon walk
When daredevil Nik Wallenda attempts to become the first person to walk across the Grand Canyon on a wire Sunday, he will battle unpredictable winds and updrafts, all without anything to catch him if he falls.
A seventh-generation member of the famous “Flying Wallendas” family, he joined Willie Geist and Natalie Morales at the Grand Canyon on TODAY Friday morning in advance of the big moment.
“A lot of it is the mental preparation,’’ he said. “As I come out here, my heart’s beating with excitement because this is a dream becoming reality. There will be nerves right before the walk for sure, but some of the greatest entertainers in the world, the best entertainers in the world, get nervous before they go on stage. This just happens to be a very unique stage.”
Unlike Wallenda’s high-wire walk across Niagara Falls in 2012, he will not be wearing a tether or safety harness of any kind and there will be no net at the bottom of the canyon to catch him. The 2-inch thick steel wire will be all that separates him from the ground when he makes his attempt during the Discovery Channel's “Skywire Live’’ special starting at 8 p.m. ET on Sunday. Wallenda will be wearing an earpiece and a microphone to be able to talk during his attempt, which will be broadcast live but with a 10-second delay. A fall would almost certainly be fatal, but Wallenda would rather not have any safety net or harness.
“The biggest purpose is, or reason is, because I’ve never worn one before other than that Niagara Falls walk, which I had no training for, so it’s something that’s very uncomfortable for me,’’ Wallenda said of not wearing a harness. “It’s like telling you to get in the car and drive on the other side of the road today, it’s something that you’re not accustomed to.”
The stunt will not technically take place inside Grand Canyon National Park because authorities declined to grant him permission to perform it there. Instead, it will be held on the eastern part of the Grand Canyon within the Navajo Nation territory. While the wind is always an X-factor, another element that creates uncertainty are the powerful updrafts of hot air that can emanate from the bottom of the canyon.
“It’s hard to prepare for that,’’ Wallenda said. “We’ve done our best. We’ve tried to create some updrafts, but you’re right, when it comes down to Mother Nature, we’re not in control. It’s the one thing that I’m not in control of, and that’s the only thing that really concerns me are those winds.”
Sunday will also be the first time Wallenda, 34, has walked across this particular wire, which is 1,400 feet long, approximately the length of four football fields. The wire will be 1,500 feet above the ground, approximately the height of the Empire State Building. He will be using a balancing pole that is 30 feet long and weighs 43 pounds.
“There’s no dress rehearsal in my business, but it’s extremely exciting,’’ Wallenda said. “No room for error. Not in my job. You’ve got to be 100 percent on.”
His father, Terry Troffer, and his uncle, Mike Troffer, are serving as his safety coordinator and chief engineer in charge of the rigging of the wire. Terry Troffer will be able to communicate with Wallenda during the attempt via Wallenda's earpiece. The two Troffers also appeared on TODAY Friday to talk about the stunt.
"I'm really not that worried,'' Terry Troffer said. "I know his capabilities. I've been through it. I walked the wire for 38 years, so I kind of know what's going through his mind at that time. I'm just kind of watching everything and how he's feeling. We communicate back and forth. If he's got a question, I try to look for the answer for him right away."
Also on site watching his walk will be Wallenda’s wife, Erendira, who is an eighth-generation circus performer, and their three children, Yanni, 15; Amadeus, 12; and Evita, 10. Wallenda will be making the walk in jeans and a T-shirt while wearing his special high-wire shoes, which are part moccasin, part ballet shoes, and were custom-made by his mother, fellow wire walker Delilah Wallenda.
“It’s extremely important that I make it to the other side,’’ he said. “What’s at stake? Clearly, my life is on the line, but really it’s about fulfilling a dream and that’s what’s at stake.”
The air temperature is expected to be upward of 90 degrees on Sunday and the steel cable could potentially be 110 to 120 degrees before Wallenda steps on it. His special shoes have elk skin on the bottom that help to protect him from the heat, and he has been practicing in his hometown of Sarasota, Fla., on days with a heat index of more than 100.
"I feel the heat, but it's not overbearing,'' Wallenda said. "Actually, the top of my feet from the black shoes were hotter (during training) than the bottom of my feet because of the sun bouncing off of them."
In addition to the heat of the wire, Wallenda says he's prepared for a wide range of weather conditions.
“I’ve trained very, very hard in my hometown of Sarasota, Florida,’’ he said. “I’ve trained during tropical storm Andrea with wind gusts of 52 miles per hour in a torrential downpour. I’ve trained with my wind machines, 91-mile-an-hour winds last week on the wires.”
Wallenda also has trained to deal with the nuances of the wire itself. His uncle will be tightly holding on to one side of the wire and the head rigger from his crew will be holding tight to the other side to act as shock absorbers.
"It has a life of its own,'' Wallenda said about the wire. "It's important that I change my rhythms because I can build a frequency into this cable that will become larger and larger, and I have to slow down, speed up and adjust my step sizes, which is a key reason why my father and safety coordinator is in my ear as well. A lot of it is peace of mind as well.
"Really, it's about focusing on the other side. Because it's so long, I'll actually look about halfway across, and I'll kind of change my focal point as I make my way across."
Mike Troffer is the one who engineered the wire. Wallenda has not practiced on it, and it will be only used one time for the stunt. While Wallenda has practiced in wind and rain, he has not practiced on a wire 1,500 feet off the ground.
"I start with the end state that I'm after, and that's giving Nik a platform that will allow him to succeed,'' Mike Troffer said. "I know if I do that, he will succeed, because he has the talent."
"The height really doesn't change anything,'' Wallenda said. "It's, of course, very impressive, but the wire is the same whether it's two feet off the ground or 1,500 feet off the ground."
Wallenda first stepped onto a wire when he was two years old, and has since set seven Guiness World Records. For 32 of his 34 years, he has trained on walking a wire for three to four hours per day, five days a week. Wallenda’s personal hero is his great-grandfather, Karl Wallenda, who fell to his death in 1978 while performing a high wire act in Puerto Rico at 73 years old.
“The truth is, it’s life or death, and when I make it to that other side, we all know that it’s life,’’ Wallenda said. “My great-grandfather probably said it best. He said, “Life is on the wire, and everything else is just waiting.’”
While Karl Wallenda lost his life attempting a high-wire walk like the one Nik is about to try, he sees Sunday as more of a tribute to his hero.
"It honors me, to be honest, more than anything,'' Wallenda said. "We know the reasons why he lost his life. I'm not in that situation. I've trained for this distance. I've trained for holding on to that cable if there is an emergency.
"If there's a problem, I will go down and hold on to that cable. I've got rescue teams on both sides, (and) there's helicopters standing by. They can be to me within 30 to 60 seconds. When it's your life, you can hold on for a long, long time."