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ARTICLE > JUNE 2020

Wallenda’s Walk Above Earth’s Most Extreme Environment

The Masaya volcano’s lava lake glows scarlet beneath Nik Wallenda’s wife, Erendira Wallenda. She hangs from a large ring attached to a wire above, by her toes on a smaller ring. Then she puts an attachment into her mouth and hangs by nothing but her teeth. It goes without saying that she has complete faith in the strength and construction of the wire rope making it all possible. Until the point when she dangles by her teeth, mouth and nose are masked to filter out toxic, noxious, irritating sulfurous rising up from below. When the mask comes off to enable this challenge, the toxic fog from below shocks her.

by Peter Hildebrandt

Published in the April 2020 issue of Wire Rope News & Sling Technology

Caldwell crane hook lowers the wire rope slings and beam down to the reel
PHOTO: With the scenic walls of the Masaya Volcano all around him, Nik carefully traverses the 1” wire rope. He calls it his toughest performance ever. Photo © Tim Boyles/Alamy Live News

Spanish explorers called this Nicaraguan volcano the “Mouth of Hell”; this, something no doubt believed literally. One of the biggest problems encountered are the toxic fumes, the necessity of a face mask. Wallenda watches the wire carefully for how it vibrates. “This volcano is mesmerizing,” he says while crossing.

Drones photograph Nik from above while a safety cable is strapped to his back, held in place by a backup cable over his head. All of this stands some 1,800 feet above Masaya’s 2,000°F lava lake. As Wallenda passes through the sulfuric fog, another camera is able to make out his form with a negative image. Getting out further above the caldera the wind picks up, Nik sways from side to side. Thinner lateral suspender wires on two sides secure his main crossing cable in place.

Hydrogen chloride, hydrogen sulfide, and other noxious fume add to the winds blowing at the volcanic pit. One fourth of the way across, there is a 60 foot drop due to the angle of the wire as it traverses the space. Wallenda descends, walking with a clear rhythm all the while having something of an ongoing conversation with himself to stay focused.

Sarasota and Bradenton, Florida – Wallenda’s home base of operations and hometown he’s lived in all his life – he trained in his backyard. Nik simulated current conditions, blindfolded, wearing a gas mask, employing a wind machine trained on his 750-foot wire rope cable. “I felt the wire’s tensions while walking, all in anticipation of what was ahead to the crossing site in Nicaragua.” When asked about what safety measures are in place, Nik mentions that aside from his team, he is pretty much on his own. “If something happens, I have trained all my life to hold onto that wire until help reaches me. And it is – as always – my decision, mine alone as to whether I will use any safety devices such as harnesses. I never have planned on using any.”

Nik Wallenda is a seventh-generation member of the Wallenda family. The family started performing in the 1780s in Bohemia before going over to Germany, and emigrated to the United States in 1928 to perform for Ringling Brothers circus.

“I started walking a wire at two,” explains Wallenda in a Popular Mechanics article dating back to 2011. “That was only two feet off the ground; my parents would hold my hand and I would walk back and forth. At four, I walked on my own. And at 13, I performed for the first time on a high-wire – some 25 feet above the ground. Once I started my wire walking, I never stopped. It is life to me. My great-grandfather Karl said: “life is on the wire and everything else is waiting.”

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION

Scouting out a building includes finding attachments for wires. “My uncle Mike, the engineer, takes a lot of measurements, draws things up for us, just a simple drawing of the distance and the walk height, and ratings on the building’s beam as well as where the davit points are located on the roof.”

Davit points are used for window washers. “They often rig lines with those. Mike works with the building engineers to get their information. Such critical issues include, ratings on these points, the thickness of the block wall, and from there we put our heads together to come up with a way to attach that is safe.”

Nik uses a dynamometer, a big scale informing him how much tension he will put on his wire. Uncle Mike has a program where he enters height and length of the wire and how much tension they can pull the line to. For davit points only rated at 4,500 pounds, if they rig to a 4,500 weight and it’s an 800-foot long walk, exactly how much the wire is going to sag in the middle may be determined. Sometimes they cannot pull the cable as tight as they would like. In that case, the wire tends to be a lot more sloppy underfoot; Nik will need to do some more training at his Sarasota facility under that sort of tension.

When rigging, wind is definitely a factor, something trained for at their facility as well. “We use an anemometer, a wind meter. And we have a huge fan we’ve even used airboats in the past. We’ll park an airboat and rev it up to 70, 80 miles an hour and I’ll walk the wire in the wind. So that’s even part of the training process.”

“The weather is a factor. Where the sun is going to be often determines the time of the show. Directly overhead is usually best. We can walk in the rain if there’s no lightning in the area. But we monitor the weather systems and often have a portable weather system with us to tell us if there are lightning strikes within 15 miles of the area. It’s very complex, what we do. People don’t realize how much engineering and science goes into everything.”

Caldwell crane hook lowers the wire rope slings and beam down to the reel
PHOTO: Nik Wallenda walks a high wire over the active Masaya Volcano in Nicaragua, right after his wife, Erendira hung by her teeth. The wire rope was 1,800 feet long, and 1,800 feet above the 1800 degree lava (though it is much hotter in some areas). Photo © Tim Boyles/Alamy Live News

THE RIGHT ROPE

The type of wire used depends on the event. Generally galvanized wire with a 7 x 19 inner wire rope core is used. They use galvanized cable because there’s usually very little lubrication, and it’s made to not rust. Generally when there’s wire rope, they add grease to it, and it’s not good to walk on.

“I have a cable that was made by Bethlehem Wirerope Works in Bethlehem, PA, specifically for me to walk across the Grand Canyon. It is a highly compressed and a high-strength cable. The wire I use varies by distance. If I have to walk a longer distance, we have to use a bigger diameter cable because of strength of that cable. The diameter of a basic cable is 5/8 of an inch, about a nickel. And that’s what I walk on 90 percent of the time.”

There are a couple different processes. Some are permanently attached, and it kind of makes for a big spider web. So they have another system where a screw-pin anchor circle is used. That is placed over the cable and slid into place. It’s quite challenging at times to get these stabilizers on because of all the obstacles on the ground that are dealt with. Often they only have one place to rig to.

When he walked across the Allegheny River, Nik used a 500-ton hydraulic crane on one side and a 330-ton on the other. That, as far as science and engineering goes, was a totally different ball game. He was walking over a river, and only had a bridge on his right side nothing on my left side. Stabilizer cables had to be placed on the right side. For every single walk done, re-engineering is done as well. It’s a brand-new project.

Manpower pulls up the 5/8-inch cable which weighs .77 pounds per foot. “I think, so it’s not that heavy. If you’re picking up 300 feet [of cable], you’re only lifting 260 pounds. We use a pulley block to reduce that weight down, and have guys on the roof that will actually pull it up.

“Technological advancements have made my life a lot easier than in the days of my parents or grandparents. They had to take a wire rope sling, just a piece of the cable that you walk on, and wrap whatever beam the cable was going be tied to. But in order to do that you need to protect every corner, because it can cut through the steel, and you have to pad everything.”

Now they use a nylon round sling. It is a nylon loop, wrapped around whatever they are attaching the cable to, I-beams, or a lot of times they’ll use elevator shafts because they’re solid concrete. They do not generally have to worry about padding.

“So we will wrap it with that and from there, on the dead end, we call it that because there’s no moving parts, we hook in a screw-pin anchor shackle. On the other end we will use a grip puller with the cable going in one end, you crank on the machine, and the cable comes out the other. The machine doesn’t affect the cable, it doesn’t damage it; it just pulls the cable right through. “That attaches to our dynamometer and that will attach to another round sling easily, in a building-to-building application. Then we’ll tension the cable to whatever number Uncle Mike gives us, and that’s it. And then at that point we will add our stabilizer cables and slide them into place.”

Nik wears shoes with a suede leather bottom and just a regular leather upper, akin to an Indian moccasin. His mom actually makes them – has made them ever since he was four. Thus they just call them wire shoes.

The bar being held is a balancing pole. “Whether or not I use it depends on the location and what I’m doing. My pole is 23 feet long. It comes in three sections and weighs about 45 pounds. It adds stability. It’s kind of an extension of my arms. If the wind came up and knocked me, I could actually recover. If I was in that situation without a balancing pole, it would be nearly impossible to recover.”

It may come as no surprise that such a tension and drama-filled existence has had some mental side effect. Such a life has resulted in PTSD for Nik. “I started to experience fear for one of the first times in my life. I went to my wife and admitted that I did not know if I could do this anymore. But at no time did I stop feeling that Karl remains the biggest hero of my life.”

LOOKING BACK, NOT DOWN

In 2013, he released his memoir, Balance. He was first across a Grand Canyon area gorge on June 23, 2013. This crossing took place at the Little Colorado River outside Grand Canyon National Park; the feat aired live on Discovery. He followed that up with Skyscraper Live, on Discovery Channel, completing two tightrope walks and set two new Guinness World Records: one for walking the steepest tightrope incline between two buildings, and the other for the highest tightrope walk while blindfolded.

Back to Nik’s latest endeavor. He did overcome his fear. But Wallenda did utilize a safety harness on his trek across the abyss the length of six football fields, on a one inch wide wire. And this is not the first time that he has pushed the envelope. His name and that of a generations were known as described above, for their death-defying stunts. Others by Nik have included rope walks across such places as the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, and recently – during this past summer – over Times Square.

ON TO THE VOLCANO

But this latest dangerous undertaking also happens to be the highest and longest of the high wire crosses that he has ever done. To prepare, he had been replicating the potential obstacles at this Sarasota, Florida base of operations.

“There are these heavy gases at the Masaya Volcano, so thick that you cannot really see out over the volcano,” explains Wallenda. “So I really must wear a gas mask on the walk.”

According to physicians, those sulfuric gases could cause serious side effects including teary eyes, burning throat, coughing, tightening in the chest, difficulty breathing, and nasal congestion. Therefore his preparations went far beyond that taking place prior to other tightrope walks. “This is the challenging crossing of my career so far – beyond anything I have encountered.

“Live lava flows beneath me. Of course there were distractions during the crossover at Times Square. But with this in addition to the liquid fire below me, intimidations come from the deadly gases and winds – winds comparable to what I encountered crossing the Grand Canyon. I have trained with a gas mask on as well as a wire that we are uncertain of how it will react. The wire is thicker than the usual wire that I use. However that is not necessarily a good thing.”

In the course of his entire life he has walked on wire that measures five and an eighth or three quarters of an inch in diameter. “This is a one inch wire. Something unfamiliar under my feet. And again, we do not know how that wire is going to react under my feet. It’s obviously a bigger wire.”

Larger wire is used because when a test was done with thinner wire, after three months that line literally crumbled in Nik’s hands. This of course is unacceptable; the plunge to the bottom is 1,800 feet while the distance across matches that number. “But of course I’m not thinking of any of those things when I am out over the expanse of the volcano,” explains Wallenda. “I focus on my years of developing my skills, my training and everything that I have done in my Florida backyard.

“I tight wire walked just ten feet above the ground in my backyard. But being up over a quarter of a mile above hot lava – even that – can be overcome psychologically. It is all about overcoming fear. This is something on which I am also writing a book. This is about categorizing fears in your mind, putting your mind in that place that is safe.”

Back to the physical reality of the setup over the volcano. Just before the crossing and setup of the wires, a greasy substance was discovered on the line over Masaya. Nik lost sleep over this news. Then he went back to his practice line, greased it up, and worked out once more. His wife in turn reminded him that some 20 years back he had done a rope walk in Boston on a wire that had been sent to him fully greased.

During practice he puts on his wind machine to duplicate what he soon will find on his actual volcano walk. The wind machine is set to simulate 90 mph winds. In the end, the actual walk in Nicaragua involves winds mostly around 40 mph. This adds to his peace of mind during the walk. He pulls off his gas mask as a sign of triumph, no doubt, on the last stretch of the walk.

Wallenda lives by the mantra “never give up,” also believing that through hard work, one can achieve anything they desire. “I think challenges are what life is about. We all go through challenges. But once we get through them, we look back and say look how much our lives have changed by going through that challenge.”

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