The Grand Canyon gets almost 5 million visitors a year, but none will experience it quite the way Nik Wallenda will on June 23, when he attempts to cross a 1250-foot span of the mighty gorge on a high wire, 1,500 feet above the Colorado River — without a net. What would possess someone to try this? No ordinary daredevil — a term, in fact, he dislikes — Wallenda is from a long line of wire walkers and acrobats famous for their tightrope talents, but also infamous for a few mishaps, including the 1962 collapse of seven-person pyramid that killed two troupe members. Nik, the married father of three — wire walkers all — is happy to carry on the family tradition, he explained in an interview as he was preparing for his stunt. The event will be shown live Sunday night at 8 p.m. ET on the Discovery Channel.
MNN: Why do you want to do this?
Nik Wallenda: I’ve been training on the wire since I was 2 years old. It’s my heritage, seven generations. I feel like I’m honoring the Wallenda family legacy, in particular my great-grandfather Karl. Beyond that, it's my passion.
Why the Grand Canyon and why this particular location?
I visited the Grand Canyon when I was a teenager. It is an incredible natural wonder. The particular location is visually stunning and is well-suited to the time slots needed for live TV.
How does one prepare? Practice runs?
The 2-inch diameter cable that is used for this walk is different from the 5/8-inch cable that I typically use. In preparation for the walk, I spent 14 days training in Sarasota, Fla., with a rigging setup designed to simulate my walk over the canyon. It stretched 1,100 feet, and I typically walked back and forth twice a day.
Does the live aspect make you nervous?
It doesn’t make me nervous. It is more the anticipation, waiting for the cue to actually get out on the wire.
You aren't using a net or tether. What safety precautions are you taking?
I’ve been taught all my life to go to the wire if I sense that there is something wrong. For the canyon, there are safety carriages on each side of the cable that can reach me within 30 seconds should I feel the need to go to the cable.
How are you preparing for weather or wind conditions? If it's very windy would you call it off?
On opening day of my training run in Sarasota, we were hit by Tropical Storm Andrea. I crossed the cable four times straight in sustained winds in the high 30s (mph) with gusts of over 52 mph. Toward the end of my training, we brought out two airboats along with a ramp that generated winds measured at 91 mph at my balancing pole. Obviously, it builds confidence to walk in these types of conditions, but for the full distance walk over the canyon, the final call would be made by my safety coordinator.
Are world records important to you?
It's an honor, of course, and I'm always looking to raise the bar to that next level, but the accomplishment of that particular walk or performance in and of itself is really the biggest achievement, world record or not.
You hold seven world records. What are they? What are you proudest of?
Perhaps my first three: My first world record was for the highest four-level, eight-person pyramid. I was 21 at the time and it was part of my first major contract where I was in charge of the entire troupe. The second and third, for highest and longest bicycle ride on a high wire in Newark, N.J., have significance as my first individual records.
You're the latest in a dynasty of wire walkers/acrobats. What does it mean to you?
It's an honor to carry on the legacy of the Wallenda name and make it known to new generations.
There has been tragedy amid the triumph. Does that enter your mind at all?
I respect the dangers of what I do, and I know the tragedies in my family's history. But I focus on the positive, the "never give up" philosophy that inspired my family to continue to perform after tragedy is the same that I hold to today.
Have you personally had a close call?
Not really a close call, but perhaps my most challenging moment was during to world record bicycle ride in Newark. Due to the length of the cable, there was a significant incline and not too far from the finishing platform, the rear wheel on the bicycle lost traction on the cable. But I went back to my training, those times preparing or these instances, and I was able to finish and set that record.
You say you don't consider yourself a daredevil. Why not?
I think because of the association people have with the word daredevil as someone reckless and crazy in the stunts they do. I've trained for my walks all my life in order to develop the skill necessary to perform them. Each walk is engineered to the highest safety standards. I train for potential extreme conditions. Obviously there is still risk in what I do, no doubt, but I would call it a very calculated risk.
Heights clearly don't scare you. What does?
Again, I focus on the positive, so much of what I do is mental and fear is a choice. I'd say as a man I faith, I fear God.
Does being in the Grand Canyon give you an appreciation of Mother Nature?
Absolutely. I mentioned that the particular area that I am crossing is visually stunning. As I walk out over the canyon, I plan to look down and take in this incredible sight, God's creation, in a way that no one else ever has before and maybe never will.
What's your next challenge to tackle?
Stay tuned to Discovery Channel at the completion of my walk to find out!