On this day in 2013, 34-year-old aerialist Nik Wallenda becomes the first person to walk a high wire across the Little Colorado River Gorge near Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona. Wallenda wasn’t wearing a safety harness as he made the quarter-mile traverse on a 2-inch-thick steel cable some 1,500 feet above the gorge. In June of the previous year, Wallenda, a member of the famous Flying Wallendas family of circus performers, became the first person to walk a tightrope over Niagara Falls.
Born in Sarasota, Florida, in 1979, Wallenda is part of a family that traces its history as circus performers back to the Austro-Hungarian empire in the late 18th century. His great-grandfather, Karl, who was born in Germany in 1905, developed an aerial act with several other performers in Europe in the early 1920s. By the late 1920s, the group, which eventually came to be known as the Flying Wallendas, was performing in America with Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. In 1947, Karl Wallenda invented the seven-person chair pyramid, a feat performed on a tightrope. After being performed for many years, the pyramid proved fatal in 1962, when two men died and one of Karl’s sons was paralyzed when the trick went wrong. In the aftermath of the tragedy, Karl turned his attention to “sky walks” between buildings and across stadiums on a high wire. In 1978, he fell to his death at age 73 while walking a cable between two structures in Puerto Rico.
Nik Wallenda learned to walk on a wire as a young boy, and made his professional debut as an aerialist at age 13. He went on to set a number of Guinness World Records, including the longest tightrope crossing on a bicycle and the highest eight-person tightrope pyramid. In 2011, Wallenda hung from a high-flying helicopter above Branson, Missouri, by his teeth. That same year, he and his mother successfully completed the high-wire walk in Puerto Rico that had killed Karl Wallenda.
On June 15, 2012, Nik Wallenda became the first person to walk directly over Niagara Falls on a high wire. He crossed an 1,800-foot-long, 7-ton wire from the U.S. side of the falls to the Canadian side at a height of around 200 feet in about 25 minutes. Because the event was televised around the world, broadcast officials required the famous funambulist to wear a safety tether in case he fell.
The following June, Wallenda made his Grand Canyon traverse. Wearing jeans and a T-shirt and holding a 43-pound balancing pole, he prayed out loud as he walked untethered across a 1,400-foot-long, 8.5-ton cable suspended 1,500 feet above the Little Colorado River. It was the highest walk of his career, and he completed it in just less than 23 minutes.