Tightrope walker Nik Wallenda completed the most dangerous stunt of his career on March 4, 2020, during a televised special on ABC. He walked 1,800-feet across the mouth of the active Masaya volcano in Nicaragua. It’s the longest and highest highwire walk Wallenda has ever done, according to Dick Clark Productions.
Wallenda, who is part of the seventh generation of his family to perform daredevil stunts, famously never uses a safety net and he was aware of the danger of the death-defying walk. Wallenda bluntly told Reuters days before the historic walk, “I could fall to my death.” But Wallenda’s extensive experience and a last-resort safety feature required by the network prevented Wallenda from doing just that.
Here’s what you need to know.
Nik Wallenda Would Grab the Wire If He Lost His Balance & Says He Could Hold On For About 20 Minutes
Nik Wallenda, 41, has been performing highwire stunts all of his life. He explained during a 2012 interview that he began playing on a wire when he was a toddler. “My first memory of being on the wire was in my parents’ backyard about two feet off the ground.” He’s been performing professionally since he was 13 years old.
Thanks to those decades of experience, Wallenda is very comfortable relying on the wire as his last line of defense in the case of an emergency. In 2014, before completing a walk over the Chicago River without a safety harness, he explained to the Chicago Tribune that he always has the option of holding onto the wire.
“That’s how I can go out there so confident as well, knowing that the cable is always a safe haven whether I’m over the streets of Chicago or in my backyard. That cable is always at my feet. I can always reach down and grab that.” At the time, Wallenda said he could hang from the wire for about 20 minutes in case he needed to be rescued.
This theory was tested in 2017 during a rehearsal. He and seven other acrobats were practicing an 8-person pyramid for a circus opening in Sarasota, Florida, when the stunt went wrong. Five of the performers fell 30 feet to the ground and three of them suffered broken bones. His sister, Lijana, broke nearly every bone in her face. Luckily, no one was killed.
Nik Wallenda was not injured. He and two others managed to grab onto the wire and avoid tumbling to the ground.
ABC Requires Nik Wallenda to Wear a Tether But He Was Concerned It Could Actually Pull Him Off the Wire
The Flying Wallendas, who have been performing highwire stunts since at least the 1780s, famously do not use nets or safety harnesses during their performances. But since Nik Wallenda is partnering with ABC for the volcano walk, the decision was not solely up to him.
In mid-January 2020, shortly after announcing plans for the historic walk, Wallenda said he was pushing against using a tether. He expressed concern that a tether could create problems and actually cause him to fall.
Wallenda agreed to have a tether during the walk above Times Square in 2019. In that situation, it was located directly above him. But that wouldn’t be the case at the Masaya volcano. He explained to the Maine Edge that the tether “jogs over 24 feet in one direction” because of how “it’s stabilizing this unique setting in the caldera of this volcano.” Wallenda said he’s worried the tether might drag him off the wire, especially if the winds over the volcano are especially strong at the time.
“If I were to lose my balance and actually use that tether, I would be 24 feet out from the wire; I don’t know how my rescue team would get to me,” Wallenda told the newspaper. “These are all challenges we’re discovering daily as my rigging goes up and my team realizes that we have a new issue.”
However, Wallenda completed the volcano walk without any mishaps.
Wallenda & His Entire Crew Could Have Been Injured or Killed If There Had Been Volcanic Activity
Nik Wallenda prepared for the trek over the Masaya volcano by replicating the conditions. He trained with wind machines to prepare for powerful gusts over the volcano. He has also used an oxygen-deprivation mask because breathing was expected to be a challenge on the wire.
This walk marks the first time Wallenda had to perform a walk while loaded with extra equipment. He has to wear goggles and a mask to protect himself from the sulphuric fumes. The heavy gases made it difficult for him to see; Wallenda trained with his eyes closed to prepare for this situation. He also expressed concern that the swirling fumes could make him dizzy.
In addition, the volcano emits a greasy substance that was expected to make the wire slick. Wallenda prepared for this scenario by putting oil on the wire in his backyard.
The heat from the volcano was also an issue. Wallenda wore shoes with thicker soles and the wire was slightly larger than normal. The Masaya volcano has an active lava lake with temperatures that reach about 2,000 degrees.
Wallenda acknowledged the danger in a prepared statement:
“After spending years scouting and researching volcanoes, I fully realize why no one has ever attempted this feat: Mother Nature is extremely unpredictable. It is by far the most dangerous walk I have EVER attempted, and that alone makes it very intimidating. I am pushing myself beyond my comfort zone by the feat itself, but I know that I am up to the challenge. I must admit, it is scary.”
But all of the practice in the world could not prepare Wallenda and his team if there had been volcanic activity. He told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, “If this volcano decides to act up, they’re all in harm’s way.”
The Masaya volcano is the most active volcano in the region, and one of the most active in the world. According to the Global Volcanism Project at the Smithsonian Institution, Masaya last emitted ash in October 2019. The most recent eruption was recorded in 2008. The lava lake has been active since at least 2015.