Wallenda walking the fine line between danger and safety

When Nik Wallenda walks across a five-centimetre steel cable pulled taut across Niagara Falls, he will mark two firsts: the safest tightrope walk across the gorge, but in the most dangerous spot.

Forced by TV sponsors to wear a harness, he will be crossing the Falls at its most dangerous spot

When Nik Wallenda walks across a five-centimetre steel cable pulled taut across the Niagara Gorge, he will mark two firsts: the safest tightrope walk over the edge of the pulsating falls, but in perhaps the most dangerous spot.

ABC News, the sponsor and holder of live broadcast rights for the Friday event, is requiring Wallenda to wear a harness, in an attempt to bring prudence to an act of derring-do. But that nod to safety is not sitting well with everyone.

"It’s not much more than a bungee jump," laments George Bailey, a Niagara Falls resident and former communications director for Niagara Parks Commission. "If he falls, the cord is going to hold him."

That Wallenda is irritated about the harness, there can be no doubt. A seventh-generation Flying Wallenda — the legendary acrobatic family that brooks no consequence to their daredevil exploits other than death — has grudgingly agreed to the safety harness required by the event's sponsor.

In the end, the famous funambulist has big bills to pay. Manager Winston Simone won't put an exact price tag on the stunt, but says it's costing "well more than a million dollars."

These costs include the elaborate rigging of a 550-metre, seven-tonne cable across the front of the falls, plus "a lot of fees, permits and security" paid to Niagara Falls officials on both sides of the border. These fees amount to $105,000 alone on the Canadian side, according to the Niagara Parks Commission.

Asked if the mounting financial bills may pose the biggest risk of all, Simone pauses and admits that, "in some ways, it's true."

Wallenda is even seeking $50,000 in public support to help pay for his attempt to make the history books yet again. (He already has six Guinness world records.) 

He created a page on Indiegogo, a crowd-funding website, and perhaps a fitting online replacement for the buckets that used to be passed through the crowds of spectators at tightrope attempts in the past.

Harness has its risks

However, his manager is quick to point out that despite the safety precautions, there are still other risks, financial payback aside.

"The harness has its risks as well," Simone quickly adds, noting that Wallenda does not usually tightrope walk with such a device.

But it's a safety precaution that rankles the purists, who've studied the history of Niagara Falls funambulists, the best known of which was the Great Blondin.

"He probably would've rather not have gone at all than have something attached to him that would've taken the suspense out of the event," says Dean M. Shapiro, author of a 1989 book about Blondin. "That's what rope walkers and daredevils thrive on."

The first crossing made by the Great Blondin on June 30, 1859, was not simply a walk on a wire.

Ever a performer with a knack for showmanship, Blondin lay down full-length on the five-centimetre-wide rope, then stood on one leg and later lowered a rope to the Maid of the Mist deck where a bottle was tied onto it for Blondin to pull up and drink its contents. Once he reached the other side, Blondin ran back across.

Blondin, a French acrobat whose given name was Jean Francois Gravelot, made seven more return trips across the Niagara River that summer and eight more the following summer before calling it quits. Each attempt took high-wire daredevilry one step further.

Blondin walked backward, pushed a wheelbarrow across, performed somersaults and carried his manager across. He even lugged a 56-pound cast iron stove to the middle of the wire, cooked omelettes on it and then lowered them to Maid of the Mist passengers below.

"It’s very different from what's happening today," says Bailey, who wrote a book about Niagara Falls daredevils.

Closest to the Falls

Though the first two summers of the tightrope-walking era, 1859 and 1860, were by far the most exciting, interest petered out and the last attempt came 37 years later.

Niagara Parks Commission banned stunting without its permission. But now, 116 years since the last attempt, it is allowing a tightrope walker once again to traverse the Falls.

In this case, even though Wallenda has been forced to wear a harness, there is one thing he will do that the Great Blondin was not able to — cross directly in front of the roiling Horseshoe Falls. 

"[Blondin] had to go further downstream so this is actually the first time anyone will be walking directly across the falls," said Shapiro.

By doing the highwire feat at the edge of the falls, he'll encounter strong winds and churning mist  from the water 60 metres below — all under the cover of night.

At the time, the Great Blondin ran into his own barriers, including a property owner who owned Goat Island, the American point where Wallenda's cable will be anchored. The man refused to allow the daredevil to rig his rope to the spot, fearful of being involved in a "dangerous and foolhardy" attempt, a 1859 Toronto Daily Globe article stated.

'Media organizations are desperate to find ways to attract eyeballs. This is absolutely made for it.'—Jeffrey Dvorkin

"If [Blondin] was around today he'd be cheering Mr. Wallenda on," says author Shapiro.

"He might be seething with a little discontent because of not being able to go there, but I guess he'd be happy for anybody who was able to do it."

A welcome diversion

The two funambulists may have more in common than they realize. Not only is the 33-year-old Wallenda close in age to Blondin at the time of his first attempt, their stunts come at a time when it is easy to capture an audience's rapt attention.

Blondin took centre stage over the gorge as north-south tensions rose ahead of the U.S. civil war, and was a welcome distraction from the politics of the day, while Wallenda's stunt comes at a time when the world's financial woes dominate the headlines.

"We get so little to cheer about these days," says the New Orleans-based Shapiro. "Focus on one person out there on a wire for 40 minutes," he says. "That takes your mind off of everything."

It may also provide some economic benefits for a hard-hit region. About 120,000 people are expected to watch from both sides of the Falls and could provide a one-day economic surge for the local economy of $20 million or so, according to an estimate by a consultant hired by Wallenda.

The economic study done by Toronto’s Enigma Research suggested the potential windfall would grow to $120 million over the next five years in "legacy spending" in the area.

Local economies may not be the only ones benefitting.

"The media, we're tempted by cheap tricks because we know that people will watch," says Jeffrey Dvorkin, director of the University of Toronto's journalism program.

He also notes that this is "not an expensive story to do," and that it comes "at a time when media organizations are desperate to find ways to attract eyeballs. This is absolutely made for it."

Seventy-six media organizations or individual reporters are accredited to cover the Friday walk. It will be a global spectacle unlike any the previous Niagara tightrope walkers ever witnessed.

"The selling point," says Dvorkin, "is the possibility of death."

Of the dozen recorded attempts to cross the Niagara Gorge on a tightwire, only one walker fell to his death — and it was under mysterious circumstances. Some reports suggest Stephen Peer fell from the wire after a late night of drinking, while others suspected murder. Another person aborted his crossing midway.

Shapiro surmises that Wallenda's highwire event will likely err on the side of caution, though it could include some basic acrobatic tricks such as laying down on the wire or kneeling.

"First, he's got to prove that it can be done," says Shapiro.

A cautious approach this time could placate officials enough to allow a more adventurous highwire feat in the future.