Wallenda survives tightrope walk over gorge near Grand Canyon

Los Angeles Times

THE NAVAJO NATION, Ariz. -- A career daredevil in a T-shirt and jeans completed a 1,400-foot long high-wire walk across a 1,500-foot tall gorge near the Grand Canyon on Sunday evening in a feat broadcast with a 10-second delay -- just in case.

Nik Wallenda tightrope-walking across a gorge near the Grand Canyon Sunday. (Screengrab from Skywire/Discovery Channel video)

Nik Wallenda's vertiginous feat came little more than a year after he crossed Niagara Falls from the U.S. to Canada on a 2-inch-thick cable, covering a distance of about 1,800 feet at a height of about 180 feet. But on that crossing, he wore a harness -- unlike Sunday.

“Literally, when he finished , when he was asked at the end of it what he wanted to do next, he said, 'I want to do the Grand Canyon,'" Wallenda's manager, Winston Simone, told one of Discovery's TV personalities before Sunday's walk.

Wallenda, 34, couldn't get permission from the U.S. government to traverse the Grand Canyon proper -- which spans anywhere from 10 to 18 miles. So he walked above a stretch of the Little Colorado River Gorge on Navajo Nation land, prompting some gibes about Discovery's breathless promotion of the feat.

The walk's promoters bragged that there was no electricity, no running water and no paved roads around the site, prompting organizers to build a road to the walk site -- and then promise to carefully tear everything down afterward without damaging the Navajo Nation's environs. Navajo protesters near the walk site held signs that read, "GO AWAY WALLENDA!"  and "WE DO NOT SUPPORT THE HIGH WIRE ACT."

In the hour-and-a-half broadcast leading up to the walk across the 8.5-ton cable, Discovery's promoters sometimes hyped the dangerousness of Wallenda's no-tether, no-net feat more than he did. (At one point, the network showed footage of Wallenda's great-grandfather, Karl Wallenda, falling to his death from a high wire in Puerto Rico in 1978.)

“That wire is a safe haven,” Nik Wallenda said before his walk, adding that he would simply cling to the wire if he lost his balance and wait for help to come. “If I thought I was going to lose my life on that wire today, I wouldn’t be taking that step."

Before the walk, Wallenda, who comes from a family of daredevils stretching back seven generations, played with his young nephew in the family's trailer in the company of televangelist Joel Osteen while the Weather Channel's Jim Cantore analyzed the 20 mph winds outside.

The Wallenda family prayed with Osteen before Nik Wallenda began his walk.

After he stepped onto the wire, he licked his hands and wiped them on his shoes. Then he began to ferociously pray aloud as he crossed the chasm, occasionally chatting with his dad about the winds and his footing.

"These feel slippery, there's dust on the cable... Thank you Jesus, for this beautiful view. ... The winds are way worse than I expected. ... I need to relax more. Hard to relax when you're 1,500 feet above the canyon. ... Thank you, Jesus. ... What happens is an optical illusion, and it freaks you out. Not fun."

It took Wallenda about 12 minutes to reach the halfway point, when winds started to kick up a bit, prompting more prayer from Wallenda.

"Definitely whipping that cable. ... Golly, wind. Go away, in the name of Jesus. ... Thank you Lord. Thank you for calming that cable, Lord. ... Oh, yeah. That's my savior. That's Jesus."

As Wallenda neared the end, he crouched down, flashed a thumbs-up, and sprinted the last few meters of the wire to the end. He hopped off, kissed the ground and headed straight for his family.