On the Wire

06.22.13

Nik Wallenda Will Tightrope Walk Across the Grand Canyon, and He’s Not Even Nervous

Nik Wallenda is set to be the first person to walk across the Grand Canyon on a tightrope. Anna Brand picks his brain on how he’s preparing, what’s he going to wear—and what happens if he has to pee.

On Sunday, Nik Wallenda will attempt to be the first person to walk a tightrope 1,400 feet across the Grand Canyon, without a safety net or a harness—and he's not worried in the least.

The walk, which should take between 20 and 30 minutes depending on weather conditions, will be broadcast live by Discovery Channel on more than 200 networks, but that doesn't make him nervous either. The 34-year-old, known as "The King of the High Wire," says he's walked "probably over 1,000 miles in my lifetime" on tightropes, beginning at the age of 2 when he hopped on a rope tied between two trees in his parents' backyard.

Still, you have to wonder about a guy like Nik, a guy who throws on a pair of jeans and strolls across a two-inch wire thousands of feet in the sky. A guy who didn't think successfully crossing Niagara Falls in 2012 was enough. So in our Q&A with Wallenda below, we tried to really dig into the important details of what makes Nik Wallenda tick, from his penchant for talking to birds to what happens when he’s up on the wire and has to pee.

So, tell me Nik, how are you preparing mentally for this walk?

Well, it all ties in together, both physical and mental preparation. I've been training using a cable that's about 1,000 feet long, only 12 feet off the ground in the middle and about 35 feet off the ground on the end, and as I'm walking that cable I visualize myself over the Grand Canyon. That's really what it's about, just doing it over and over again and telling myself that I'll be fine. Yesterday, I trained with wind machines and dust 45-50mph and then actually walked into and through 91mph winds. Hard day to keep your feet straight when you're trying to get them back on the wire.

Are you anticipating strong winds Sunday?

No, not that strong. We're not expecting anything over 35mph. But it's just good to train, it's good mental prep.

Why don't you ever wear fun sunglasses?

I always get concerned that they'll fog up, or that I'll get so much sweat in my eyes and not be able to reach it with sunglasses in the way.

Do you have any rituals for right before you're about to go on a major walk like this one?

I don't have any superstitions whatsoever. No rituals, nope.

You don't get nervous at all?

Nope.

What about when you're up there? What happens if you have to pee?

You don't.

But does that ever happen?

My whole life I've spent traveling with my parents and we would drive a lot, so I'm used to having to wait hours on end. It's never been an issue in my career, but thanks to you it will be over the Grand Canyon. I'm kidding.

I had a helicopter closer than you’d ever imagine to me. That doesn't bug me at all.

Sorry in advance. I notice that you wear a lot of red. Is red your favorite color?

You know, I do a lot of TV, and producers and directors request that I wear red because it just pops in the sky. That's why I wear red. I actually try not to wear it because I've worn it for so many of my walks, to be honest.

You're always wearing a T-shirt and jeans on the rope. What's up with that?

I'm just a normal guy with an abnormal job and I want people to relate to me. I want people to say, "Oh, man, I've got the same jeans as that guy." Discovery is my partner for this walk, so I'll be wearing a blue shirt. And I'll probably be wearing jeans or running pants. I haven't figured it out quite yet. Wow, I should probably figure it out.

Any particular meal you plan to eat before you go?

No. [He laughs] This is life and that's what people really can't seem to relate to. I’ve done this since I was 2 years old. This is life to me. It's not a career. It's not an occupation. It's not a stuntman going out to do a stunt. It's a guy living his life. All it's about is me fulfilling a dream, and it just so happens that the world is fascinated by my dream and by what I do.

So, you feel misunderstood?

I mean, I completely understand why people see me as a daredevil.

Right. It obviously has that stuntman idea attached to it though.

Well, yeah, it does. It's an age-old art. Onlookers are watching to see the action in it just like people watch NASCAR to see the action. It's part of human nature, and I'm just as guilty as anyone else for watching things for that purpose. Evel Knievel was very inspirational to me. Getting on that motorcycle and seeing if he could make it or not, seeing if he could stay up on that bike—that's human nature.

Let's talk random thoughts. What do you think about up on the wire?

I'm generally focused on what I'm doing. As I'm walking, my father is in my ear on a mike so we can talk back and forth.

What?! You don't get distracted? How is that possible?

Again, it speaks to the fact that I've done this my whole life. It's like riding a bike, you can talk to people while you're riding a bike.

So, basically you're the best multitasker in the world. Do you think it takes a special person to be able to do that?

I think it's really in my blood. My mom always said that it came naturally to me.

Doesn't the wire tickle your feet?

No, not at all. I'd be laughing the whole time over the wire if that were the case.

What do you even wear on your feet?

I wear shoes that my mom makes for me. She’s made them for my entire career. They’re kind of like an Indian moccasin that laces up the front.

Do you have an inner circle of friends who tightrope walk?

Yeah, I mean, a lot of my friends have learned from me.

Do you guys get together and have some drinks say things like, “Remember that time I was a million feet in the air and that bird flew by? That was some crazy stuff?”

Yeah, we always joke about stuff like that. My dad gets mad because we play more than we work.

Seriously though, what happens if a bird flies next to your head?

That's happened many times. Birds have landed on my balancing pole.

Wow. So you hang out with them?

[Laughs] They usually freak out when they realize there's a person up there with them.

But do you talk to them?

Sometimes, yeah. It's just part of it.

Is that the weirdest thing that's happened while tightrope walking?

Someone once threw a football at me while I was walking a wire in Cincinnati. I was only about 40 feet high, but when something like that happens it can really freak you out.

Um, yeah. Or if a plane is flying above you, I bet.

That happens all the time. I had a helicopter closer than you'd ever imagine to me. That doesn't bug me at all.

How do you not feel unbalanced?

I’ve had helicopters 150 feet from me on many occasions. It doesn’t bother me. As a matter of fact, one of my dreams was to have a helicopter fly under me while I’m crossing the Grand Canyon. I think it would be very cool.

“Skywire Live With Nik Wallenda” will take place on Sunday, June 23 at 8 p.m. ET on Discovery Channel. Good luck!