It seemed like a good idea when he was 7. But on this Monday afternoon – a mere 11 days before Nik Wallenda is to walk across Niagara Falls on a two-inch steel tightrope in front of an estimated 100,000 spectators and half a billion television viewers – his lifelong dream feels more like a gigantic pain in the wallenda.
The media are clamouring for interviews. He’s $250,000 over budget. A New York State senator – the one who helped Mr. Wallenda wangle permission to be the first person to walk over the Falls in more than 100 years – wants a confab. The helicopter rigging team has discovered it doesn’t have the licence it needs to work the Falls.
“There’s just goofy issues I’m dealing with,” Mr. Wallenda says. “Two weeks from now, I’ll look back and enjoy it. But right now I’m too busy.”
And then there’s the tether. He’s beside himself about the tether.
Right now, Mr. Wallenda himself is in Branson, Mo., where in an hour – one hour! – he’s going to balance on a tightrope with his mother, Delilah, on his shoulders – she’s still performing, at the age of 58 – as part of a four-person human pyramid on the high wire, one of the acts that made the Wallendas famous.
Mr. Wallenda, 33, holder of six Guinness world records, is a seventh-generation member of the most famous circus family in history. The Flying Wallendas do not use tethers.
A tether – the safety harness Mr. Wallenda will wear while balancing nearly 200 feet over the roiling depths of one of the Seven Natural Wonders of North America – lowers the stakes of his spectacle.
Since ancient Greece, the aim of the tightrope walker has been to raise the stakes higher and higher, to make the audience feel its mortality more keenly. If you can’t die, you can’t really fly.
But ABC (and CTV in Canada) is broadcasting the walk live on Friday, June 15, in a three-hour special. And ABC doesn’t want to televise a man falling to his hideous death in the seething roil of Niagara Falls.
And so Mr. Wallenda’s team is still designing the tether. They’re trying to figure out a way for him to shed the harness if it becomes a danger during the walk.
Wouldn’t that be a spectacle? Nik Wallenda, defying ABC, tossing his lifeline away mid-tightrope – daring the gods!
Eleven days. Forty-five minutes on 1,800 feet of tightrope through Niagara’s towering plume of mist. Directly over the lip of the Falls. As never attempted before.
If he pulls it off, Mr. Wallenda’s daring promenade over Niagara’s torrent will be the high point of his career so far (he has the Grand Canyon booked next), a multimillion-dollar boon to the sad-sack local economy, a piece of history, a jolt to the venerable art of wire walking and a gleeful opportunity to witness a genuine spectacle, even by the high cheesy-spectacle standards of Niagara Falls.
But that leaves one big question: Will the stunt be better remembered if he lives, or if he dies?
Of course, people have tried this before. Between 1850 and 1900, as the new art of photography promised ever-more-precise documentary proof of anything it witnessed, 13 rabid publicity hounds crossed the Niagara River on tightropes, albeit – as Mr. Wallenda is quick to point out – not the way he’s going to do it, out over the actual Falls.
Canadian Stephen Peer was the only one to die. He crossed successfully several times, then fell when he tried it drunk, at night, in his street shoes.
Maria Spelterini, a rosy Italian, is the only woman to have tiptoed across the chasm. She did it four times in 1876, once with peach baskets strapped to her feet.
But no one did it with greater success than the man who did it first, walking 1,100 feet on a 3¼-inch rope, 160 feet above the water of the Niagara Gorge, on June 30, 1859: Frenchman Jean-François Gravelet, better known as Charles Blondin, the greatest tightropist of his day. He repeated the feat with greater and greater aplomb every time – blindfolded, on stilts, carrying his terrified manager on his back, standing on a chair with one leg on the rope, and – most famously – stopping in the middle to cook an omelette. (How French.)