Nik Wallenda puts his life on the line

On June 15, Nik Wallenda will walk where no one has ever gone: over the maw of Niagara Falls

Life on the line

Cole Garside

With a cold dew descending and the roar of falling water in the distance, Nik Wallenda stands with one foot on the wire and a look of apprehension on his face. It’s 11:30 p.m., and he has snuck out after dinner to take his first steps on a 455-m cable strung outside the Seneca Casino & Hotel in Niagara Falls, N.Y., where he will rehearse his historic walk across North America’s best-known landmark.

A taut length of rope is to Wallenda what a blank canvas is to an artist. But on this night he should have stayed indoors. His engineering team had just 24 hours to rig this steel behemoth—five centimetres in diameter, six tonnes on the spool—across three empty parking lots beside the hotel, and they’ve not yet identified its quirks. At one end, near where it is anchored to the earth, the cable hangs just two metres above the ground. From there, it traverses a falling grade across asphalt, gravel and a pedestrian bridge toward a crane that holds the other end some 20 m above the pavement.

Wallenda has walked enough wires to understand that no fresh rigging is perfect. But after a meal of steak and crispy shrimp (sans alcoholic accompaniment), his daredevil urge has overtaken him, and the 33-year-old has scrambled onto the roof of a friend’s pickup truck from whence he can board the cable near its low end. To his dismay, the thing begins twisting like licorice beneath his sock-clad feet. “I don’t like this,” he murmurs. He steps off, draws a breath and gets back on, arms extended for balance. One teetery step, then two. Back onto the truck. “Nope,” he says crisply. “I don’t like this at all.”

Walking across Niagara Falls on a high wire is supposed to be hard; that’s the point of doing it. But after nearly a year of cajoling, pressuring and outright begging for legal permission to cross the scenic gorge between Canada and the United States, Wallenda is coming face to face with the practical challenges of fulfilling his lifelong dream. It’s been 116 years since the last person walked the span on a tightrope, and unlike the daredevils of yore—who strung their lines a kilometre or more below the Falls—Wallenda has pledged to walk directly across the cataract amid the thunder and spray and mesmerizing plummet of the water. It’s a vision he’s carried since childhood, when he first saw the Falls during a family trip and imagined himself crossing the brink on a wire with dramatic flourish.What’s more, he has promised to forego the web of stabilizing lines his forebears attached to the rock face, offering to string his cable without once letting it touch the surrounding terrain. He might as well have proposed to summon the rigging from thin air.

Now, as the June 15 event draws near, the technical and logistical problems those promises pose are coming clear. How do you run a wire rope some 600 m, through billowing mist and gusting winds, from Terrapin Point on the U.S. side of the Falls to the Table Rock lookout in Canada? Having strung it, how do you make the thing sit still? After his first abortive step onto the cable, Wallenda lay awake most of night running torque and tension models through his mind, fighting off visions of having to postpone his walk—or worse, losing balance while some 60 m above the rocks and roiling waters.

Then there’s the event itself. Even as his team announced a live, prime-time broadcast deal with ABC, local authorities were fixating on crowd control, and what Wallenda considered exaggerated fears about his safety. Park police on both sides of the border, for example, had asked that he fund three separate sets of rescue teams, lest the first two consecutive crews somehow fail to save him. “This is something that will be great for the community,” grumbled one member of the daredevil’s inner circle, “but I feel like they’re raising objections just to raise them. It’s nickel-and-dime stuff.”

Wallenda’s close-knit supporting cast of engineers, business managers and family members have been working around the clock, yet each solution seems to beget new problems. Within 12 hours of discovering the cable’s propensity to rotate, the team has devised a system of stabilizing weights—essentially, three-metre pipes with sandbags duct-taped to one end, and clasps at the other to attach them to the walking cable. “They act as pendulums,” explains Peter Catchpole, the Canadian-born engineer overseeing the rigging process. “They slow the twisting motion down.” Catchpole was recruited for just such expertise. His Idaho-based employer, Power Engineers, specializes in high-tension cable structures, and the 63-year-old is known within the firm for taking on unusual projects. Now, he looks on approvingly as Wallenda takes his first ginger steps on the newly stabilized wire, hoists his nine-metre balance bar, and happily pads away.

Next problem: ensuring those weights won’t hinder manned safety trolleys to be stationed at each end of the walking wire, which would roll out to rescue him if he loses his balance. Wallenda had hoped to walk without a tether attached to the main cable; in the end, skittish ABC executives successfully pressured him to wear one. If he senses trouble, he’ll attempt to lower himself to the wire. If he falls right off, and is left dangling, rescuers will swoop in either by trolley or helicopter. Either way, the stabilizers will require some sort of rotating mechanism to let the trolleys pass.

All these are minor challenges, though, compared to the technical main event: raising the cable that will span the Falls. It will be the same diameter as the practice line, only 150 m longer. Yet Wallenda’s promise to keep it off the limestone cliffs of the gorge—a nod to eco-consciousness—poses a technical challenge that not even Catchpole has encountered. Their plan owes as much to audacity as it does to physics: starting at 6 p.m. on June 12, a helicopter will carry a 500-m loop of thick polypropylene rope across the gorge from the Canadian side and drop it on the U.S. bank, where crews will run it through a pulley, which in turn will then be attached to the end of the walking cable. Workers on the Ontario side will then use a winch-style puller, mounted on a semi-trailer, to reel both rope and wire back across the chasm. Once they’ve secured the cable to an anchor on the Canadian side, cranes on each side of the Falls will pick it up, raising and stretching it until it reaches the desired tension.

By sunrise the following morning, says Catchpole, the wire should be in place, allowing crews two days to install the stabilizers and trolley, and to make any minor adjustments. “At that point,” he says, “it’s up to Nik and his family whether he’s ready to give it a go.”

Equipping Wallenda with a stable walking wire is one chore. Preparing him physically and psychologically for his momentous walk is another, and that’s where Wallenda’s father comes in. Terry Troffer, 57, is a veteran of the Flying Wallendas troupe who for more than a century have wowed North American crowds at circuses and state fairs with their high-wire derring-do. Few grasp the risks more keenly than he. He joined the Wallendas shortly after their disastrous attempt to perform a seven-person pyramid in Detroit in 1962, which killed two members of the troupe and left one paralyzed. In 1978—three years after Troffer married Nik’s mother Delilah—the family patriarch, Karl Wallenda, fell to his death trying to walk a wire strung between a pair of buildings in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Still, the Wallenda show went on, and when Nik formed his own high-wire troupe in the early 2000s, Troffer took charge of his son’s safety. He’s since overseen no end of hair-raising feats meant to promote the family brand—Nik bicycling across wires strung between hotel towers; Nik hanging by his jaw from a helicopter. Yet neither he nor Wallenda knows how it feels to walk, soaked to the skin, where 2.4 million litres of water per second are rushing over a cliff. “I love my son very much, and would whether he were a high-wire walker or a newspaper delivery man,” Troffer says. “But as a father, I’d tackle him to the ground before I’d let him risk his life in an unreasonable way.”

So last week, Troffer invited the local fire department to shoot water cannons into the air over Nik’s head as he walked, replicating the Falls’ mist and foul weather. Next will come fan boats like those used in the Florida Everglades—excellent for producing wind. Wallenda, who plans to walk the Falls rain or shine, has withstood 130 km/h gusts on a practice wire before, notes Troffer. But he needs to be sure he can do so again: “I want him to be relaxed out there. He needs to be completely confident.” Among the Wallendas, this is what passes for love.

The training, meanwhile, is taking place amid a flurry of promotion and preparation. Some tasks, like media interviews, Wallenda handles with ease. Others test his poise. When Maclean’s caught up to him shortly after his first rehearsal, he was stifling yawns from lost sleep, and venting about the array of councils, commissions, agencies and authorities seeking money to prepare for the event. “Frankly, I think there’s a bit of greed,” he says. “At every turn I make, there seems to be a government or some official with his hand out.”

The announcement last week of a live broadcast and distribution deal with ABC will only fuel those demands. The U.S. network is said to have budgeted US$4 million for its three-hour special during prime time— a huge investment for a Big Three network, however spectacular the content. (CTV will carry the event in Canada.) Yet Wallenda bristles at suggestions he’s about to reap a windfall. His take from the TV deal, he says, will not fully cover his $1.2-million outlay on everything from grandstand construction to traffic control. He ticks off the expenses: $800,000 for rigging; $200,000 for security in the two countries; more than $100,000 in park usage fees. “People think I’m going to walk away from this a multi-millionaire,” he says, slumping in his chair. “My costs aren’t even covered.”

As such, he and his team are now relying on merchandising and sponsorship to get them to the break-even point. That means pumping the publicity machine. Wallenda’s waking hours are taken up by autograph sessions, meet-and-greets with corporate types, or media appearances aimed at keeping him in the public eye. His managers have been negotiating with Ontario’s Niagara Parks Commission for the right to sell commemorative hats, shirts and posters at park kiosks. Even his practice sessions are promoted by the Seneca hotel; as many as 1,000 people line the barricades and chainlink fences to watch him in action, many pressing for autographs when he climbs off the cable.

Still, he insists, the effort is worth it. In wire-walking, the line between an appearance on Good Morning America and a gig at the county fair is notoriously fine. And when he’s not pulling eye-popping stunts, Wallenda is a workaday performer in the Fabulous Wallendas, an act that includes his mother and his wife, Erendira. Already, Niagara Falls has put his career into overdrive, winning him his own reality series, Danger by Design, on Discovery’s Science Channel, and making him a household name.

The task now is to pull off his signature feat without a hitch—something his broadcast partners take as seriously as he does. At one point during negotiations, sources tell Maclean’s, ABC executive Anne Sweeney turned to one of Wallenda’s representatives and said: “You have to guarantee me that Nik won’t die.” They couldn’t, of course. Yet Wallenda was able to fall back on the potted assurances he has provided, ad nauseum, to government officials over the past year, detailing what he’s learned from his family’s tragic legacy. His expositions delved into everything from rigging physics to a wire walker’s protocol when he senses danger on the cable. In the end, they reached a compromise: ABC will run their broadcast on a seven-second delay.

Still, he’s had his anxious moments. Like all tightrope artists, Wallenda can become distracted by anything from passing birds to serious equipment glitches. Four years ago, in Newark, N.J., he was trying to set a world record by riding a bicycle 72 m across a cable strung between office towers some 20 storeys high. The back wheel started to slip, the result of too little adhesive spray on the part of the rim that touched the cable. “Scared would be the wrong word for how I felt,” he recalls. “It was more like, whoa, this is real. It’s like being a roofer who’s roofed his whole life and then suddenly slips.” He stopped mid-wire, forcing himself to relax. Then, delicately, he applied his weight to the right pedal; to his relief, the wheel grabbed.

In this case, the distractions will be myriad: the crash of the water; the glare of television lights; the crowd of expectant faces before him (though Wallenda has not yet revealed the direction of his crossing, a U.S.-to-Canada walk seems most likely, because the rising terrain allows for superior TV camera placements). But if crisis strikes, the chance of it devolving into live-TV tragedy are miniscule, to hear Wallenda tell it. Wallenda will gladly explain the knee-hook manoeuvre wire walkers use to save themselves in the event they lose balance. Or the hundreds of crunches and chin-ups he does to ensure he can hold the wire in the event of a fall. But the real insurance lies in the scale of the opportunity before him—and its unique resonance within the world’s best-known circus family.

Decades ago, his great-grandfather looked into the prospect of walking the Falls. At the time, Karl Wallenda concluded it would be too hard to obtain permission. Years later, a seven-year-old Nik Wallenda gazed at the tumbling water and made a pact with himself to go where his forebears never could. It took two full years and no end of shuttling between the statehouse in Albany, N.Y., the two cities of Niagara Falls and the Queen’s Park legislature in Toronto, but he won exceptions to the laws of two countries. He’s not about to let the law of gravity trip him up now.

Maclean’s feature video: Wallenda on the wire