Nik Wallenda

Nik Wallenda

Nik Wallenda, known as ‘The King of the High Wire,’ will traverse the majestic Grand Canyon, without using a harness.  Discovery Channel will capture the nail-biting, play-by-play live event to air in nearly 200 countries around the world on Sunday, June 23. The special will air live in all regions except Asia-Pacific where it will air the following day.

Below is an interview with Nik where he discusses the fears, training and statistics behind the highest walk he will be attempting at the end of June.

First question: why?

People won’t understand why I would do something so dangerous because it’s not relatable. I consider being a police officer more dangerous than what I do. I’m in control of myself while I’m on that wire. I’m not in control of Mother Nature, of course, the winds and such, the mist, the rain. But I am in control of myself and I can train for that mist, and I can train for that wind. Being a police officer you can train as much as you want, but when that criminal comes up behind you with a gun, there’s nothing you can do, you’re not in control. I think people don’t understand that and so they think this guy, he must be insane.

Well, the truth is I have a beautiful wife, three beautiful children and you know, I don’t plan on leaving this world anytime soon. But this is my passion: I started walking wire at the age of two. My family history dates back to the 1780s and now for seven generations we have been walking wires. One thing that people don’t realise - and any entertainer will tell you – is that as soon as you're in front of an audience there’s something that kind of takes you over to the point where you can’t get away from it, it’s something that you love doing.

Your great grandfather died walking a wire. How much will that be in your mind?

What I do is extremely mental; it’s probably more mental than physical. So it’s important that I don’t allow the thought of things like that to take over. My great grandfather was walking between two buildings in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1978, he was 73 years old, and the engineering was done improperly on the wire, so it was not tensioned to the right tension, it was moving under his feet.

How can you be sure that won’t happen to you?

If there’s ever an issue when I’m walking across the Grand Canyon or anywhere, I would go down to the wire immediately, and that wire’s a safe haven. And that wire we know is engineered to hold five times anything that I would ever stress on it. I know that wire’s safe. For the Grand Canyon for example I would go down to the wire, and I have rescue teams on each side, one on the north side, and one on the south side.

They could be to me within 30 seconds and bring me to safety, so we do think about everything. It’s not that I think I’m invincible: as a matter of fact, I know I’m far from it, I’m a human and humans make mistakes. We try to eliminate as many of those mistakes as possible: during training I’ll train in updrafts and side drafts of wind up to 50 miles an hour so that I’m prepared for the worst case of what we expect to see out there while I’m crossing over the canyon.

Again, a lot of that is more mental training, so that mentally I know that I can withstand what I’ll face out there. You know, leading up to it, minutes before, hours before, it’s very, very stressful and I focus during those times on training, and I tell myself look, you’ve done it, you’ve walked the same distance, you’ve walked the same tension cable and you’ve walked in winds that are worse than what you’re going to face. You know you can safely make it across. It’s not as though I just go out there and say ‘well I’m invincible, if I fall, I fall’, no, we’ve got rescue crews, I will grab that wire. There’s stuff that I train for.

What are the things that you fear on the day itself?

Well, you know, fear is a choice and dangers are real, so I don’t fear, because I can choose whether I want to fear or not: it’s all a mental thing again. But the danger is real, and the truth is its really winds. The winds are very unpredictable in the Grand Canyon, there’s a large canyon 1500 feet deep where I’m walking, where those winds come around a corner and they change rapidly. So those are the things that are out of my control. Okay, I know I can walk on this cable, I know I’ve done this distance, I know I have the endurance, I know I have the strength. But we can’t control those winds.

Does it add stress knowing you’ll be watched all over the world, live?

You know, having a large audience, that’s what I’ve done my whole life. I’m not doing it on my own; I’m doing it with the world watching. And in this case it really is the world – at the last count they’re going to air this in 219 countries. And that’s exciting more than anything to me, it does not add stress. What I do is stressful enough that you don’t even focus on things like that at that point.

How have you trained?

I’ll set up a training camp starting on June 6 in Fair centre (s.l), Florida, which is my hometown and in that training camp we’ll bring out wind machines. Actually to be honest here in Florida there are a lot of airboats – they can create winds of up to 90 miles per hour, so we’ll crank them up, and they have valves on them where we can change the direction of the wind as I’m walking. But also we will create ramps where the wind swoops up under me so that we can recreate as best as we can updrafts and side drafts of wind. That will simulate worst case what I’ll experience out there at the Canyon, or worst case from what we’ve recorded. One of the reasons why we choose June 23rd is that June tends to be a less windy season.

If you succeed will this be the greatest piece of wire-walking ever?

You know, I couldn’t say that. I would rather let the viewers be the judge of that. It is something that no one in the world has ever done, it’s something that is life or death, live on TV around the world, and you know, if I were to fall, there’s a 0.00 chance that I would survive. I have a long list of dreams and this is one of the big ones. I’ve been blessed to have been able to walk in places where no one in the world ever has before, and there’s many, many other places that I want to walk, but this is definitely a huge accomplishment for me, and in my career, and I think my ancestors would be proud.

Can you tell us some of the statistics of the endeavour: how high will you be, how long will you be walking?

Yeah, it’ll be about 1400 feet across, 1500 feet above the Canyon floor. It’ll probably take me around 30 minutes, between 25 and 30 minutes to make the walk, and you know, winds can be up to 40 miles per hour there. And, you know that’s one thing that’s unpredictable but we found a beautiful place that the distance makes sense, one of the challenges of doing live TV is that at least here in the States there’ll be no commercials whatsoever during that walk.

In order to do that we have to do that walk, we don’t want to be longer than a half an hour because of course the commercials are what pays the bills, so we found an area that will take me about half an hour that I can complete yet it is absolutely breath-taking, the views, the heights, the distance. Everything is kind of the perfect spot to do it.

And how wide is the balance you're holding, how high is the wire itself, the tension?

Sure, the wire itself is 2 inches in diameter; it’ll be tensioned to about 70,000 lbs. The balancing bar that I use is 28 feet long, and it will weigh about 40 lbs. 

How do they get the wire across in the first place?

Well it’s a long process of course; engineering has been in the works for about 4 years now, believe it or not. But it starts with a helicopter and a rope, we have a lightweight heavy strength rope that will be carried across from one side to another in a helicopter, once it reaches the other side it goes through a series of pulleys and machines called tensioners and pullers. While one pulls that rope to the north side, the cable is on the south side and it’s following along and it’s transferring from rope to cable, and then it gets hooked in, and then pulled back to 70,000 lbs.

And you're barefoot are you, or do you have shoes on?

I will be wearing shoes, the shoes that I wear my mum makes for me actually. And they are a cowhide upper and an elk skin foot, or lower part of the, what goes on my foot. And we use elk skin because I can feel the wire very well, they’re fairly thin. Probably about an eighth of an inch would be the best description of the thickness of the shoes, and I feel the wire well, however if the wire were to get wet, these shoes actually become sticky instead of slippery.

What’s going through your head when you first step off the edge of the Grand Canyon onto the wire?

You know, there’s definitely a lot of stress, there is, but once I get on that wire it becomes surreal almost, I kind of get into my own world, into my own zone, and then I’m on a mission and my mission is to safely make it to the other side and I get into a zone where that’s what I’m going to do, nothing’s going to stop me, I’m going to stay in this zone and make it to the other side. Again, there is stress; there are nerves, for sure. I mean I would be super human, which I don’t think anyone’s super human, to not have nerves.

I respect what I do deeply, and respect the fact that there is a lot of danger to what I do. But I try to get myself calm and peaceful, I think a lot of devils, their heart rates slow down once they get into that zone and I think the same is for me, where it kind of just slows down and the world, there’s no problems in the world, if I’m in an argument with my wife that day or if I’m you know dealing with financial problems or health problems, all that goes away, no matter what. I’m on that wire and I’m going to make it to the other side, and I don’t think about anything else. 

Skywire Live with Nik Wallenda airs Live on Sunday 23rd June at 1:00am and is repeated on Monday 24th June at 8:00pm. Sky Channel 520 / Virgin Channel 211.