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Nik Wallenda set to cross Masaya volcano

by jmaloni
Mon, Mar 2nd 2020 07:00 am

Highwire artist reflects on Niagara Falls walk ahead of next death-defying feat

By Joshua Maloni

GM/Managing Editor

In 2011, while at a meeting inside the Top of the Falls Restaurant on Goat Island, seventh-generation highwire artist Nik Wallenda said crossing over Niagara Falls on foot might just be “a once-in-a-century opportunity.”

Little did he know then that he would have more opportunities to traverse the world’s signature spots – or that the walks would just get bigger and more dangerous.

But it all started here.

Wallenda would fight for six months to gain approval from the Canadian Niagara Parks Commission for the rare chance to wire-walk across the falls – and even then, he was required to wear a tether.

Local elected leaders just about moved Heaven and Earth to convince their Canadian counterparts to allow the stunt to happen in 2012. It did, of course, and both sides of the “8th Wonder of the World” benefited. Niagara Falls garnered media attention from around the world, as Wallenda safely crossed over the mighty falls in a primetime television special.

New York State Parks Niagara Region Marketing and Public Affairs spokeswoman Angela P. Berti said, “I can say whenever I have occasion to be in the park or on a tour, people ask and want to see where it happened, so it is top of mind and did what we hoped in terms of raising visibility.”

Wallenda would return to the Falls a handful of times – notably in June 2014, when a plaque in his honor was unveiled near the launch site; and in June 2017 – five years to the date of his wire walk – to watch his wife, Erendira, perform an iron-jaw hang while dangling from a helicopter 300 feet above the Horseshoe Falls.

Though his initial Niagara Falls experience wasn’t perfect – and talks of a daredevil museum eventually fizzled out – “It’s just great memories,” Wallenda said.

“Obviously, a lot of stress came with that, too, and the permitting process, but, you know, overall, I try to look at the positive outcome of every situation,” he said in a recent phone interview. “Certainly, there was a lot of positive that came out of that, and the struggles that I went through to get there have kind of given me the stamina and the tenacity to be able to withstand what I’m going through.”

What Wallenda is “going through” is preparation for an 1,800-foot walk across the Masaya volcano in Nicaragua – part of the “Pacific Ring of Fire.”

“Volcano Live! with Nik Wallenda” will air at 8 p.m. Wednesday, March 4, on ABC (WKBW-TV Channel 7). This will be Wallenda’s highest and farthest wire walk.

“The Bachelor” star Chris Harrison and ESPN anchor Sage Steele will host.

“The volcano is something that’s kind of been on my radar for quite a while. … It’s been something that I’ve wanted to do for quite some time; and researched and studied and searched – and searched more – and here we are (a few weeks out as of this interview), and I’m still researching and learning more about volcanoes. … That’s kind of the name of the game, and the nature of the beast. You know, it’s ever-changing, and it’s Mother Nature, and it’s unpredictable – as I’ve learned over Niagara Falls and, of course, the Grand Canyon. They always come with their own challenges.”

In an ABC press release, the government of Nicaragua said it was “thrilled” to showcase the country’s beauty and, of course, the impressive volcano … which has multiple craters and (get this) a lava lake.

Wallenda said, “The majority of the training is (dealing with) some of the limitations. I’ll have to wear a gasmask. So, an oxygen-deprivation mask is what I wear for training. It basically just trains me to be able to walk breathing from a straw, if you will. And that’s a big part of what I’m doing right now is, again, training with that, as well as training with a weight vest; training with, of course, the balancing pole that I’ll use. And then bringing a wind machine similar to what I did when I walked over Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon.

“Again, just trying to do our best to recreate the elements that I’ll be facing. In the end, it’s unknown. I don’t know exactly what that wire is going to feel like; what the stability is going to be like; what the texture of the wire is going to be, because of all the sulfuric gases in the air, and how that metal is going to react to it over 10-12 days being set up. And the challenges that come with … just the environment eating at the cable, which is what those sulfuric gases actually do.

“So, there’s a lot of unknowns, and that’s where experience certainly comes into play. But it’s also very stressful, leading up to this walk on March 4.”

Though most people would be scared silly to even approach a volcano – let alone walk high above one – Wallenda didn’t seem fazed as he trained in his hometown of Sarasota, Florida.

“Just like anything, it’s a challenge that I have to overcome; I have to learn to overcome and to do that,” he said. “You just kind of do it. It’s by repetitiveness. It’s about doing it redundantly, over and over and over again. And again, trying to simulate worst cases – if you can do that.

“But the reality is pretty obvious: You can’t recreate a volcano. The way to walk over a volcano, is to walk over a volcano.”

Wallenda is open about his Christian faith, and can be heard praying and praising God when crossing his highwire.

He explained, “I’m writing a book right now on overcoming fear, because I believe that so many people are held back by fear. They’re stuck in the job that they’re miserable at because of fear, and they’re scared to live their life to the fullest and climb Mount Everest, because of fear.

“And, really, my dream is, by what I do, to kind of encourage and inspire them that sometimes we have to walk through that fear in order to become the greatness that we are called to be.”

Looking back, Wallenda said he expected the Niagara Falls highwire walk “would open more doors.” But, “I think it definitely proved to the world that I was capable of pulling this sort of thing off.”

That “incredible experience,” as he called it, above the rushing rapids, would be the first of Wallenda’s primetime TV events.

In June 2013, he crossed over the Grand Canyon in a Discovery Channel special. About 17 months later, he again teamed with Discovery, this time walking high above “The Windy City” of Chicago.

Wallenda’s most recent walk occurred, in part, as a result of a near-tragedy.

In 2017, his sister, Lijana, was among five aerial performers who fell off a highwire while rehearsing an eight-person pyramid stunt at Circus Sarasota.

Lijana was badly injured, and her recovery became national news.

Last summer, the Wallenda siblings would pair up for an ABC special, “Highwire Live in Times Square.” Nik was again triumphant in his highwire walk, while Lijana made a successful comeback.

“It meant a lot,” he said. “It was, obviously, a very emotional walk, and something that was really more about family.

“More than anything, it was really just about my sister being able to prove to herself that she was able to get back and overcome. And through that, inspiring others: No matter what they’re going through, if she can come through this near-death, near-fatal accident – and the outcome can be so positive that she recovers to the point of being able to get back on the horse – but the horse is the wire 200 feet above Times Square – than anybody can overcome anything.

“And that’s kind of what our lives’ journey has been about, as a family, is really inspirational. And this was just another chapter in that book, for sure. And, again, for her, it was a life-changing event, for sure, and something that, certainly, we both will cherish forever.”

So, how does one top a volcano walk?

Wallenda said, “Everything is about Nicaragua and nothing else. That is my focus. But certainly, there’s always the thoughts of, ‘OK, what’s next?’ You know, I’m always working on the next one, if you will.

“And, of course, your next question is ‘What is it?’ And, of course, my answer is I won’t announce that until I’m further down the line with permission from that.

“I’m constantly thinking about what’s next.”

Nik Wallenda is shown crossing over Niagara Falls in these 2012 file photos. He will attempt to wire-walk the Masaya volcano on March 4, as part of an ABC primetime special.

 

Nik Wallenda Q&A

Q: When you have time or occasion to think back on that event in Niagara Falls, what comes to mind?

Nik Wallenda: You know what? It’s just great memories. I mean, obviously, a lot of stress came with that too, and the permitting process, but, you know, overall, I try to look at the positive outcome of every situation. And certainly there was a lot of positive they came out of that, and the struggles that I went through to get there, have kind of given me the stamina and the tenacity to be able to withstand what I’m going through for the volcano.

Q: What doors did that walk open for you?

I think, more than anything, I don’t know that it necessarily opened – to be honest with you, I thought it would open more doors – but I think it definitely proved to the world that I was capable of pulling this sort of thing off. So, in that sense, I would say it probably did open doors.

You know, again, I thought a lot more would come out of that directly, but life doesn’t always work that way. There’s always twists and turns, etc., and got sent down that road. In the end, through, it was obviously an incredible experience.

Q: You returned to New York for your walk across Time Square. What did that walk mean to both you and to your sister Lijana?

Nik Wallenda: It meant a lot. It was, obviously, a very emotional walk, and something that was really more about family.

More than anything, it was really just about my sister being able to prove to herself that she was able to get back and overcome. And through that, inspiring others: No matter what they're going through, if she can come through this near-death, near-fatal accident – and the outcome can be so positive that she recovers to the point of being able to get back on the horse – but the horse is the wire 200 feet above Times Square – than anybody can overcome anything.

And that’s kind of what our lives’ journey has been about, as a family, is really inspirational. And this was just another chapter in that book, for sure. And, again, for her, it was a lifechanging event, for sure, and something that, certainly, we both will cherish forever.

Q: Let's talk about Nicaragua. In the press release ABC sent out, you're quoted as saying that you were actively looking for a volcano. Tell me a little bit about how and why this walk came about. Is it a case where you and ABC were looking for something specific to top Times Square? What was the thought process behind this walk?

Nik Wallenda: No – and, in fact, none of my TV specials are brought on by the network. It’s ideas that I present, and say, “Here's what I'd like to do.”

The volcano is something that’s kind of been on my radar for quite a while. In fact, I think the first time I went public with it was a Buzzfeed article I did in like ’15 or ’14. It's been something that I've wanted to do for quite some time; and researched and studied and searched and searched more and, I mean, here we are, what? Three weeks out; and I’m still researching and learning more about volcanos, because that's kind of the name of the game, and the nature of the beast. You know, it's ever-changing, and it's Mother Nature and it's unpredictable – as I've learned over Niagara Falls and, of course, the Grand Canyon. They always come with their own challenges, and this one is just kind of the next chapter in my life of doing just that.

Q: Where are you training – and how do you train for a volcano?

Nik Wallenda: I train in my hometown of Sarasota, Florida – actually my backyard.

You know, really the majority of the training is … some of the limitations. I’ll have to wear a gasmask. So, an oxygen-deprivation mask is what I wear for training. It basically just trains me to be able to walk breathing from a straw, if you will. And that’s a big part of what I’m doing right now is, again, training for that, or with that, as well as training with a weight vest; training with, of course, the balancing pole that I’ll use. And then bringing a wind machine similar to what I did when I walked over Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon.

Again, just trying to do our best to recreate the elements that I'll be facing. In the end, it’s unknown. I don't know exactly what that wire is going to feel like; what the stability is going to be like; what the texture of the wire is going to be, because of all the sulfuric gases in the air, and how that metal is going to react to it over 10-12 days being set up. And the challenges that come with, of course, just the environment eating at the cable, which is what those sulfuric gases actually do.

So, there's a lot of unknowns, and that's where experience certainly comes into play. But it's also very stressful, leading up to this to this walk on March 4.

Q: How have you found it it's been training with the mask? What kind of a challenge has that posed for you?

Nik Wallenda: Just like anything, it’s a challenge that I have to overcome; I have to learn to overcome and to do that. You just kind of do it. It’s by repetitiveness. It’s about doing it redundantly, over and over and over again. And again, trying to simulate worst cases – if you can do that.

But the reality is pretty obvious: You can't recreate a volcano. The way to walk over a volcano is to walk over a volcano.

So, we try to simulate as best we can. But, I mean, I guess I'll tell you on March 4 at 10 p.m., what it was like (laughs) as I got out there, and how well we were able to prepare.

Q: You mentioned the impact on the wire is unknown and something that you'll have to adapt to at that time. What about your shoes? What about your pole? Do those things have to be made differently, relative to past walks?

Nik Wallenda: They’ll be very similar. In fact, the shoes will definitely be identical – and the balancing pole, in fact.

You know, the environment is more about – it's about over time. If we put the cable up at 6 p.m., and I walk at 7 Central in that time zone, it would be a big deal. That cable has to go up weeks in advance, in order to get it to settle and stabilize, which is what creates a challenge.

And to be honest with you, it doesn't necessarily have to go up weeks in advance. The reason why we're having to set it up weeks in advance is because of the weather – how unpredictable it is for the rigging team, in order to make sure that that wire is set up and stabilized properly, with enough time; because there are times where the wave of the weather or the gases get so thick that the team won’t be able to rig, and they’ll have to leave the site. So, because of that, we have to plan for – rather than rain days, which you could call it that – we're planning for gas days.

Q: You know, I'm sure you get two different responses to your walks, and I want to ask you about each of them. Certainly, when you're on the high wire, we see you praying and praising. And I know that blesses me personally. But what have people told you about that, and what that means to them?

Nik Wallenda: I would tell you that I have received very, very, very little negative feedback from that. And I think the reason is, is because it’s so authentic and real and raw. And it's not me trying to preach to somebody. It's me living my life, just like everybody lives their life – this just happens to be broadcast on TV around the globe.

I receive very little backlash. Most of it is positive, of people that have been inspired and encouraged – encouraged to be more bold in their faith and more bold in their recovery process, whether they're going through a health issue or recovering from an accident, etc. Generally, 99.9% is positive feedback, which is pretty amazing. And again, the reason why, I believe, is because it is not as though I'm putting on a show on the middle of the wire. The wire walk itself is obviously entertaining. But it's just me living my life out in the open, and real and raw.

Q: Well, it's interesting that you say that, because the other reaction is, of course, to quote the actor Dulé Hill, I'm sure people tell you that you must be out your damn mind. Even more so with “The Ring of Fire.” So, what do you say to those people who question why you do this?

Nik Wallenda: You know, I guess there could be two ways.

If you look at it from a religious aspect, people would say, “Are you testing God?” Or tempting God. And the reality is, in no way. If I was testing or tempting God, I would just go out there without any training, without any preparation, without any skill, and just say, “All right, here we go. Let’s see what happens.” Or throw myself off the wire and say, “Well, God, if you’re real, you’ll catch me.”

The reality is, I know in my heart of hearts that he could, and has the ability to, but I don't ever want to test that theory. And in that, again, it is up to me to train and prepare properly before I do these events. Because I believe God has given me this unique talent and, again, that part is up to me, to train.

And, yes, of course, people – not just not about the faith part – will often say, “You're out of your mind.” But, look, I'm living out my passion. There are very few people in the world that they can literally go to work every day and are happy.

I’m writing a book right now on overcoming fear, because I believe that so many people are held back by fear. They're stuck in the job that they're miserable at because of fear, and they're scared to live their life to the fullest and climb Mount Everest, because of fear.

And, really, my dream is, by what I do, to kind of encourage and inspire them that sometimes we have to walk through that fear in order to become the greatness that we are called to be.

So, I understand why they might say that I’m crazy, but the reality is, to me, what I do is very, very normal; and they’re crazy for sitting at that desk, per se, and not living their dreams.

Q: Do you allow yourself to think about what's next? Or is it all hands on deck, all thoughts, all effort toward Nicaragua?

Nik Wallenda: I would say at this point it’s certainly all hands on deck. Everything is about Nicaragua and nothing else. That is my focus. But certainly, there's always the thoughts of, “OK, what's next?” You know, I’m always working on the next one, if you will.

And, of course, your next question is, “What is it?” And, of course, my answer is I won’t announce that until I'm further down the line with permission from that.

I'm constantly thinking about what's next. But, again, this close to an event, it really is focused solely on the event itself that’s coming up.

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