A daredevil’s toughest challenge

A Flying Wallenda’s fight to walk across Niagara Falls

A daredevil’s toughest challenge
A daredevil’s toughest challenge
Photograph by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

High above the stage, under the glare of a spotlight and 800 sets of unblinking eyes, Nik Wallenda’s mother is perched on a chair. The chair looks like it might have been borrowed from a farmhouse kitchen, and it is teetering on a metal bar fitted at each end with padded brackets; the bar, in turn, rests on the shoulders of her son and a 21-year-old Canadian named Jonah Finkelstein.

Wallenda and Finkelstein, meanwhile, are seated on bicycles with rubber-free wheels, which balance precariously on a length of cable strung between heavily anchored towers of steel. The whole ensemble soars about two storeys high, with nothing but the cable between themselves and the floor. This is the so-called “Chair Pyramid,” the crowning manoeuvre of the Fabulous Wallendas’ thrice daily show at the Missouri theme park Silver Dollar City, and a trick as familiar to the team as brushing their teeth.

But today something seems to be going wrong. As his mother lifts one foot to the seat of her chair, the balance bar Wallenda holds to maintain stability bobs erratically. Wallenda’s movements grow increasingly frantic, and as the spectre of calamity grips the crowd, his voice fills the room: “Watch it, Mom!” Then, as quickly as it started, the crisis has passed: the men regain their balance and Delilah Wallenda—58 years old, grandmother of four—tucks her feet underneath her and stands upright on the chair. She holds the pose a few seconds, then sits back down as the men pedal to a platform at the end of the wire. A round of thunderous applause.

Later, still drying perspiration from his bristly orange hair, Wallenda cops to a secret: “I tell my mom to ‘watch it’ in every show. When I look like I’m off balance? Moving my bar like crazy? All to build drama.” Asked whether he might regret pulling back the curtain quite so far, Wallenda nonchalantly shrugs. “People understand that we’re entertainers. That’s where our skills come in, and believe it or not, it’s the hard part of what we do.”

At 32, Nik Wallenda is the latest iteration of a seven-generation circus dynasty that has been building drama in North America since 1928, amping up the derring-do as a means of marketing their already fabled surname. When he brought the family act to the United States from Germany in 1928, great-grandfather Karl signed on with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, but they became best-known for performing ever more dangerous feats out on their own. Karl Wallenda’s jaw-dropping, seven-person pyramid set a new standard for high-wire artists, and in 1970 he made headlines around the world by walking the Tallulah River Gorge in Georgia on a high-wire.

Nik Wallenda, who first set foot on a practice wire at age two, has cast himself as heir to that legacy. In the past year, he has bicycled across cables strung between hotel towers, run atop a “wheel of death” attached to a 23-storey Las Vegas hotel (a kind of giant hamster treadmill) and hung by his jaw from a helicopter some 75 m over the asphalt of Silver Dollar City. He has climbed inside a wooden box with two sticks of dynamite, blown it up and lived to describe the sensation (“like getting kicked in the chest by a horse”). All of this has been captured on tape for Life on a Wire, a Discovery Channel reality series following Wallenda that is scheduled to debut this fall.

But none of his feats have garnered the sort of attention trained on Wallenda’s latest proposal: a tightrope walk across Niagara Falls, in the vein of the great French daredevil Charles Blondin. It is an exploit he has dreamed of since the age of seven, when during a visit to Niagara with his family he saw sepia-tinged photos of Blondin making his famous crossings in the late 1850s. The physical perils are self-evident: the 670-m sojourn would lead him across limestone cliffs, rocks, swirling spray, and roiling waters 60 m below. “There is an element of danger,” he acknowledges. But the bureaucratic challenges may be greater. It’s been more than 100 years since anyone made such a crossing, because authorities on both sides of the border resolved at the turn of the 19th century to shut down the rash of barrel rides and inner-tube jumps that had turned the falls into a magnet for wing nuts.

Wallenda bristles when compared to these suicide jockeys. “This is not a stunt,” he says. “This is me performing an art I’ve devoted my life to.” Over the past year, he and his managers waged an intense lobbying campaign on the U.S. side, in which they’ve sold their vision of an elaborate spectacle with the falls as a backdrop, to be broadcast live around the world. In June, attracted by the tourism potential and economic upside for a depressed tract of Western New York, members of the state assembly voted to give him the necessary permit. Gov. Andrew Cuomo must still sign off. But he’s said to be in favour.

New York, however, is only half the equation. Wallenda’s dream now rests in the hands of a 12-person board of Ontario government appointees with the noble-sounding mission of “protecting the natural and cultural heritage along the Niagara River.” Without having seen his request, several members of the Niagara Parks Commission have made it clear that neither his vision nor his family name particularly moves them. “It’s sensationalism, and that’s not what the falls is supposed to be about,” Janice Thomson, the acting chair of the commission, told Maclean’s in an interview. “It’s supposed to be about the natural beauty of the river, and recognizing the preservation of the environment that it’s in.”

This is not an ad hominem attack. The commission was created in 1885 to insulate the falls from the hurly-burly of the adjoining city, whose hucksterism then defined the entire Niagara experience. Today, the town remains a monument to kitsch, with a wax museum, a giant Ferris wheel and a casino with 1,500 slot machines. But it also features a scale model over one street of Blondin making his famous crossing—an event Thomson concedes is embedded in the falls’ mystique. And rarely has the commission been so wildly out of step with prevailing opinion: this week—as Wallenda prepared his formal request to the commission—a country-wide poll done for Maclean’s found 54 per cent of Canadians think authorities should give him the green light. Only 19 per cent said no, with the rest undecided (women and older respondents are the least supportive).

From what, then, are the falls being protected?

Not, Wallenda insists, from the sort of live-action tragedy to which his family’s name is indelibly tied. It’s a half-hour before showtime, and he’s striding, flashlight in hand, around the rigging that he, his mother, his wife, Erendira and Finkelstein will mount for their 45-minute performance. Each joint, cable and floor anchor gets checked, along with the wheels and chains of the bicycles they ride. “I don’t have a death wish,” he says, laying athletic tape inside the rims of his bike wheels for better grip. “I have a daughter, two sons and a wife. I want to be here for them.”

Wallenda might admire his great-grandfather. But he is unflinching in his analysis of Karl’s legacy. Nik’s generation began his circus career in the shadow of a 1962 accident, in which two members of the “Flying Wallendas” were killed and a third paralyzed while attempting their famous seven-person pyramid on a high-wire in Detroit. A year later, Karl’s sister-in-law, Rietta, died in a fall, and the coup de grâce landed in 1978, when Karl himself was killed attempting a walk between two buildings in Puerto Rico.

Nik has watched the footage of Karl’s fall dozens of times. “He shouldn’t have been up there,” he says flatly. “He was 73, and he’d broken his collarbone two months before. He didn’t have the strength to hang on.” Karl had agreed to do the walk on the spur of the moment to help sell tickets to a show, Wallenda explains, and Nik’s father, Terry Toffer, who normally does the rigging for the family’s shows, was unavailable to set it up. That left the work in the hands of inexperienced men who incorrectly configured stabilizer lines attached to the main cable. Videotape shows the wire developing a yaw as Karl catches a gust of wind. He lowers himself, but can’t get his leg hooked around the cable. He quickly falls out of view.

The self-preservation manoeuvre his great-grandfather attempted, says Wallenda, is a standard fallback Nik will use if something goes wrong over Niagara Falls; essentially, the performer gets the cable behind a bent knee and pulls himself into a sitting position. The difference will be Nik’s physical fitness. “Rule of thumb to even be on the wire: you have to be able to do 10 chin-ups, and pull your body over the wire 10 times.” To demonstrate, he hops onto a rigging cable, and hauls his body over and under a few times without growing winded. At Niagara, he also plans to have a rescue helicopter hovering nearby. “Worst-case scenario, I sit down on the wire, the helicopter swoops in, I hook on and they get me out of there. I look goofy, but nobody gets hurt.”

He will also rehearse. For each of his record-breaking walks, Wallenda, his father and a consulting engineer have set up replica wires at a heavy equipment yard near their home in Sarasota, Fla. To approximate the Niagara walk, they will run a 670-m cable between two cranes, raised about four metres off the ground. (He normally performs on cable five-eighths of an inch thick; this one will be two inches, to allow greater tension.) The team would then surround the cable with airboats—the sort propelled by giant fans used on the Florida Everglades—to approximate swirling wind conditions over the falls. “They’ll use a hose on me to recreate water spray and mist,” adds Wallenda, who has withstood winds of up to 125 km/h while practising. He pauses, and smiles. “My ideal scenario would be a foggy day. I disappear into the mist, then appear on the other side. How cool would that be?”

Wallenda hopes to do the walk in late September or early October, when the weather in Niagara is changeable. And he plans to string his cable closer to the cataract than the tightrope artists of bygone days, from the Goat Island lookout on the U.S. side, across the Horseshoe Falls, to a paved terrace below the visitor’s centre on the Canadian side. The pounding of 2.4 million litres of water per second creates its own micro-weather system, and until he is sliding his leather-soled slippers down the cable, he won’t know how it affects him.

Still, he hopes these preparations answer the legitimate safety concerns of the commissioners. For others, he has potted answers. Could emergency crews be put at unnecessary risk? “We have our own rescue team. We even have a diver.” Liability? “We have a $20-million insurance policy. We’ve never had to draw on it.” The costs of rigging, directing traffic and marshalling spectators? Covered, he says, through the support of sponsors like Discovery and the Red Bull beverage company. Environmental impact? “We take great pride in being a zero-impact operation. We don’t drill into any rock or pull up any grass. We’ll use cranes, and we’re trying to arrange the rigging so no cable will even touch the water when we set up. Maid of the Mist, I would hope, would continue to run. You’ll never know we were there.”

Not surprisingly, his proposal has been warmly received by businesses on the Canadian side, who have been struggling with a downturn in U.S. tourism, and who have been frustrated in the past by the parks commission’s literal interpretation of its mandate. “This has the potential to bring a lot of people into the city,” says Carolyn Bones, president of the Niagara Falls Chamber of Commerce. “I think there may be some ruffled feathers if the commission rejects it out of hand.” City council has passed a resolution in favour of Wallenda’s idea. “People like Blondin are part of the city’s heritage,” Mayor Jim Diodati told one reporter. “I think it would be great to have this here.”

Thomson insists the panel is willing to hear Wallenda out. Yet she greets interviewers these days with a list of six would-be Blondins sent packing by either Canadian or U.S. authorities since 1971. One is a Canadian, Jay Cochrane. Another, Henri Rechatin, was backed by the Ripley Entertainment company, of “Believe It or Not” fame. All fell victim to the same rationale: “The commission was formed to discourage stunting and not to sensationalize the falls. It just doesn’t match with our current direction of the parks commission.”

Nudging the panel in a slightly new direction is now Wallenda’s challenge. His proposal to the commission will include a 15- to 20-page report, which might note that of the 16 rope-walkers to have tried crossing the Niagara gorge, only one has been killed. Stephen Peer, an American, fell while trying to cross at night in his street shoes, in 1887. Reports at the time said he’d been drinking. “I can understand people thinking it’s crazy,” concludes Wallenda. “But please, do some research, sit down with me, learn about me and then judge.”

Wallenda’s own family’s history may prove more problematic, which might explain why he has dedicated much of the last decade setting it right. In 2001, he and relatives re-enacted the fateful seven-man pyramid at the Michigan State fairgrounds, completing it without a hitch. In June, he and his mother did the 33-m walk in San Juan that took Karl’s life, augmenting it with a few mid-wire tricks.

Delilah Wallenda reflected during a break at Silver Dollar City on the symbolism of Nik’s Niagara proposal. “My stomach will be queasy,” she confesses. “I know when he’s okay and I know when there’s a little problem. But I also know his ability. He can do it.” In Nik, she adds, she sees a lot of his grandfather Karl—the drive to go the extra distance, the vision of one family united in their excellence at thrilling audiences. If Karl Wallenda could see his great-grandchild walk Niagara Falls, she says, “he would have been ecstatic.”