Nik Wallenda and the family tradition of death-defying feats

Daredevil Nik Wallenda continues a family tradition of death-defying feats that stretches back more than 200 years.

Legendary circus family has been defying death for centuries

When daredevil Nik Wallenda attempts to walk atop the 122-metre-tall Orlando Eye without a safety tether on April 29, he'll be continuing a long family tradition of death-defying feats that stretches back more than 200 years.

"My whole life is about facing death in the eyes," the tightrope artist said at the April 13 announcement of the Orlando Eye walk.

Known for high-wire stunts performed without a safety net, Wallenda became the first person to cross the span of the Niagara Gorge over the Falls and the Grand Canyon's Little Colorado River Gorge. In November 2014 in Chicago he walked between two skyscrapers and set records for a high-wire walk with the steepest incline, plus the highest tightrope performance while wearing a blindfold.

Fame with Ringling Brothers' circus

Nik is part of the seventh generation of Wallendas involved in the circus trade. The family's daredevil heritage can be traced back to the late 18th century, when the Wallendas would thrill villagers throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire with their acrobatic skills. In the late 1800s, they were known throughout Europe as masters of the flying trapeze.

Aerialist Nik Wallenda plans to walk over the spinning observation wheel in Orlando, Florida, a stunt the daredevil said presented a different set of risks from the high-wire walking exploits on which he has made his name. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)
The more recent family history focuses on the art of funambulism — tightrope walking.

Karl Wallenda, the patriarch of the modern Wallendas and Nik's great grandfather, was born in 1905 in Magdeburg, Germany. He was encouraged as a child to join the family show and was especially adept at feats of balance. In the early 1920s, Karl learned the art of tightrope walking.

By 1922, he had established his own act with his older brother Herman, a family friend named Josef Geiger and a young aerialist named Helen Kreis, who would become his wife.

In 1928, American circus impresario John Ringling caught the Great Wallendas' act in Cuba. By this point, the feature of the act was a three-level, four-person pyramid, with Karl riding a bicycle on a bar suspended by Herman and Geiger, while Helen stood on her husband's shoulders — all done while crossing a tightrope.

Nik Wallenda, who has described himself as "King of the high wire," began walking tightropes at the age of four, and made his professional debut at age 13.
Ringling signed the troupe to appear in his Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

The act was a staple of the Ringling circus throughout the 1930s and 1940s. The troupe eventually became known as the Flying Wallendas after a newspaper writer reported that it looked as if the Wallendas were flying following a botched tightrope stunt in 1944.

Dogged by tragedy

In 1948, the Wallendas debuted their now-famous seven-person pyramid, which featured four men walking the tightrope balancing shoulder bars for two more men to balance on. To top it off, a woman would balance on top of those two men — sitting in a chair.

Karl Wallenda walks a tight rope over the River Thames in London, with Tower Bridge in the background. (Evening Standard/Getty Images)
The seven-person pyramid was performed without incident for nearly 15 years. In 1962, while performing the feat at a state fair in Detroit, the front man on the pyramid lost his footing and the entire pyramid collapsed. Three of the men, Karl's son-in-law Richard Faughnan, nephew Dieter Schepp and adopted son Mario, fell to the ground.

Faughnan and Schepp died, while Mario was paralyzed from the waist down. Karl saved himself by grabbing the wire with his legs, and he managed to catch Schepp's 17-year-old sister Christiana.

Tragedy struck again in 1963 when Karl's sister-in-law, Rietta Wallenda, fell to her death during a stunt in Omaha.

In 1972 another son-in-law, Richard Guzman, died after touching a live electric wire during a tightrope crossing between light towers at a stadium in Wheeling, West Virginia.

Despite the dangers, Karl continued on with the Flying Wallendas act. Even though he successfully performed the seven-person pyramid in 1963 and 1977, he put more focus on his solo performances.

Karl was well known throughout the 1970s for crossing tightropes that spanned a number of American stadia, including Veterans' Stadium in Philadelphia, Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh and the Astrodome in Houston. He also crossed the Tallulah Gorge in Georgia in 1970 at the age of 65 — performing two headstands along the 366-metre wire at a height of nearly 215 metres.

On March 30, 1978, while attempting to cross between two hotel towers in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Karl Wallenda lost his footing on the wire and fell to his death. The weather had been windy, but the Wallenda family has maintained that misplaced guy wires were to blame for the 73-year-old patriarch's fall.

The modern Wallendas

Following Karl's death, his descendants carried on the family tradition of spectacular high-wire stunts.

There are currently two troupes of Wallendas. The Flying Wallendas are headed by Karl's grandchildren, Tino and Delilah (Nik's mother). The Great Wallendas are led by grandchildren Rick and Rietta. Rick set a tightrope distance record of 610 metres in 2008 (besting a record previously held by Karl).

The Flying Wallendas, a team that often includes Nik Wallenda, successfully performed the family's trademark seven-person pyramid in 1998 in Detroit. In 2001 it became the first tightrope act to perform a 10-person pyramid for a Guinness World Records TV special.

Nik Wallenda

Nik Wallenda, who has described himself as "King of the high wire," began performing with the family while dressed as a clown when he was just two years old. He began walking tightropes at the age of four, and made his professional debut at age 13.

In 1998, Nik was part of the seven-person pyramid performance in Detroit.

Kneeling on a highwire in Montreal in 1999, he proposed to circus performer Erendira (who was in the audience). The pair has since developed and starred in a number of daredevil circus acts together through their company Wallendas Inc.

Nik Wallenda has performed a range of stunts in recent years, and set several world records:

  • In 2001 in Japan, Nik was part of a team that set a world record for an eight-person high-wire pyramid.
  • In 2008, he set a world record for the longest and highest bicycle ride on a tightrope. Wallenda walked 76 metres along a tightrope suspended from New Jersey's 20-storey Prudential Building, and rode back along the wire on a bicycle.
  • In 2011, Nik and his mother Delilah completed the walk between the hotel towers in Puerto Rico that killed Karl Wallenda more than 30 years before — customarily without a safety net.
  • On June 15, 2012, Nik Wallenda became the first person to cross the span of the Niagara Gorge over the Falls, a 550 metre-long high-wire walk.
  • On June 23, 2013, he walked a tightrope over the Grand Canyon's Little Colorado River Gorge, the first person to cross the canyon on a high-wire. It took just under 23 minutes to complete the 427-metre crossing.
  • On Nov. 2, 2014, in Chicago, Wallenda walked between two skyscrapers and set records for completing the steepest incline, plus the highest tightrope performance while wearing a blindfold. The walk began at a 180-metre tower, crossed the Chicago River, and ended at the other tower at a height of 204.5 metres. The return trip, while blindfolded, took him one minute and 20 seconds.

Ryan Charkow