There isn’t a hint of intended irony in Nik Wallenda’s voice as he responds to That Question, the one thousands have asked him, the one he’s probably tired of addressing but entertains patiently, knowing that it is key to his reputation as King of the High Wire.
It’s the small matter of why he would rather risk death than wear a safety tether when he walks between skyscrapers 65 stories above the streets of the Windy City this Sunday, on an uphill high-wire three-quarters of an inch wide, at night, in near-freezing temperatures. Oh, and did we mention the blindfold?
“It’s nerve-wracking wearing a tether,” he shudders, in the way ordinary mortals shudder at the thought of him not wearing one. “The truth is, the dangers are real—I know; I’ve trained for them, I’ve prepared for them, and everything I do is calculated. I’m doing this because I love what I do. I know it’s hard for people to comprehend.”
Dragging a safety line behind him on a clip—an accessory he was forced to adopt for his 2012 crossing of Niagara Falls, at the demand of the official broadcaster ABC—changes the whole dynamic of the high wire—a medium that he has conquered quite happily for the last three decades without one. It was also eschewed by six generations of Wallendas before him.
Yet even the first family of the high wire has had its calamities, most notably his great-grandfather’s live-on-television death plunge as he attempted a crossing between two ten-story buildings in Puerto Rico in 1978. Chilling footage of 73-year-old Karl Wallenda’s final seconds shows him trying calmly to redress his balance on a swaying, wrongly-rigged wire, sinking to his knees then fumbling hopelessly for a grip before falling 121 feet to the concrete below.
Sixteen years earlier, Karl was injured, his son Mario paralyzed from the waist down, and two other family members killed when their signature formation—a seven-person pyramid, performed on a wire 35 feet in the air—collapsed during a show in Detroit.
Wallenda, 35, whose feats also include crossing 1,500 feet above the Little Colorado River gorge, classed by the U.S. Geological Survey as part of the Grand Canyon, knows that millions will turn on their televisions to see him this Sunday not only for the sheer thrill of human endeavor, but also because of the potential for another tragedy.
“That’s why people watch,” he notes matter-of-factly. “There’ll be more hits on Facebook for an accident then there’ll ever be for making it safely, because that’s what people want to see. As much as they say they don’t, they’re fascinated with it and that’s why we break records every time I do these TV specials.”
His own quantification of the risk involved, and his attitude to it, differs significantly from that of anyone who has not spent their life since the age of two performing on a wire. “My whole life has been that way…I don’t say ‘Oh, I could die tomorrow like my great-grandfather.’ I realize that’s a reality, but so is dying on a plane, or driving in a car, or being on a train that derails,” he says.
Wallenda’s walk will take part in two stages. The first will start at the top of the 587-foot Marina City west tower and take him across the Chicago River to the 671-foot summit of the Leo Burnett building—a distance of 454 feet. The height difference means that the wire will be rigged uphill at a 15-degree angle—a challenge that he has not faced before, other than in lower-level training sessions.
He will then take an elevator down to the ground and head for Marina City’s east tower, on whose 587-foot pinnacle he will don a blindfold before walking a wire back across to the west tower.
Like the uphill incline, the blindfold is a new challenge for Wallenda; the two factors combined make this the most intimidating challenge of his career.
“I’m not real pleased with the blindfold,” winces his mother, Delilah Wallenda Troffer, 61, who, as a legendary high wire performer herself, is usually more at ease with risk.
In 2011, she joined her son in recreating her grandfather Karl’s fated crossing between the twin towers of the Condado Plaza Hotel in Puerto Rico, this time with a more successful conclusion. As the pair met in the middle of the wire, the point from which Karl had fallen 33 years earlier, she sat down while her son stepped over her, drawing nervous gasps from below.
The blindfold is “not my favorite thing for him to do because if you do get off balance you don’t have your vision to help get it back; one of your senses has been taken out of the equation,” she says.
Being in the same profession, however, has allowed her to counterbalance her concern for her son with an appreciation—and, remarkably, even a little envy—for what he is doing. “As a mother, I’m concerned. But then, he’s living my dream. I’d love to be up there doing these incredible feats as well…It’s challenging, it’s the excitement of pushing yourself to your limit and knowing you can do more and more.”
She adds: “We know what we’re doing. We can’t focus on ‘what-ifs.’ We have to respect danger, but we can’t be afraid. We have to be wise, focus and not overreact. If your equipment is good and your talent is up there, nothing should be stopping you.”
Wallenda’s wife, Erendira, is also a performer. The pair married in 1999, a week after he proposed to her on a 30-foot high wire, and they live in Sarasota, Florida, with their three children.
“They understand the reality of it, there’s no question…Ever since they were born, I’ve been doing this. It’s not like ‘Oh, Dad’s doing something crazy this time.’ No, Dad’s just doing what he does, and that’s where it’s hard for people to relate to it…For my kids it’s life, it’s not abnormal,” he says.
Wallenda’s feat will be broadcast live on the Discovery Channel, which, unlike ABC two years ago, made no demands for the inclusion of a safety tether or net. Nor did the City of Chicago, despite an Illinois state law that requires aerial performances above the height of 20 feet to include such measures.
“We see the primary focus of the law as protecting aerial performers from being forced by unscrupulous employers to work in unsafe conditions against their will. That scenario clearly does not apply to Mr. Wallenda, who belongs in a unique and elite class of performers, and whose decision to perform without a net is entirely his own,” the city said in a statement.
Wallenda’s final weeks of training at a park in Sarasota before he headed to Chicago on Wednesday drew gaggles of locals keen to see their hero in action. They set up deckchairs at his daily sessions, craned their necks skywards, and waved enthusiastically as he stopped on the wire around 100 feet up, reached into the back pocket of his shorts, pulled out his cellphone, and took a ‘selfie’ on every practice run.
Wallenda receives mail and messages from thousands of people telling him that his ability to conquer what may seem impossible has inspired and strengthened them through their own challenges, such as struggles with cancer. His own inspiration comes from his deep Christian faith; his sureness that he will go to heaven if he falls gives him peace when he’s on the wire, he says.
“I’ve had an incredible life. I love every day that I wake up in the morning and I would not get on that cable if I didn’t feel I could do it, or if the winds were too strong that they could blow me off,” he says.
But in a video posted to the event’s Skyscraperlive website, he notes: “I’m not Superman, I’m not Batman….I’m not magic, I’m not invincible.”