Nik Wallenda takes a pause from walking, reaches into his back pocket for his mobile, snaps a selfie, tucks the phone away and calmly presses on.
If he were anywhere other than on a three-quarter-inch tightrope, nearly 100ft off the ground and holding a 47lb (21kg) balance pole, it would be an unremarkable act. However, it elicits gasps from the crowd below.
For Wallenda, known as the King of the Wire, showmanship is in his blood; fear is not. Yet as he prepares for the most audacious feat of his career — walking two tightropes between three skyscrapers 50 storeys above the streets of Chicago, mostly uphill and partially while wearing a blindfold — he ponders whether he has gone too far. “I’ve trained my whole life for walking a wire, but not with a blindfold on and not at an incline. Am I crazy to do both at the same time? I don’t know,” he says, after descending from training at a park in Sarasota, Florida. “I only say ‘crazy’ because, you know, maybe I should have just done one.”
Wallenda’s daredevil walk follows in the footsteps of Philippe Petit, the Frenchman who walked the World Trade Center towers in New York in 1974. It also comes two years after Wallenda crossed Niagara Falls on a tightrope and a year after he traversed a Grand Canyon gorge. The latest walk will be undetaken in two stages. The first will take him from the 587ft pinnacle of the Marina City west tower on one side of the Chicago River to the 635ft Leo Burnett building on the other, on a steel wire at a 15-degree rising incline. For stage two, from the east Marina City tower back to the west, he will be blindfolded. It will be screened live on November 2 by the Discovery Channel.
He will have no safety tether, and there will not be a net to catch him if he falls — just as there wasn’t when his great-grandfather, Karl Wallenda, 73, plunged to his death on live television while walking a wobbling tightrope between two ten-storey buildings in Puerto Rico in 1978.
“I don’t doubt that he looks down and smiles on me,” says Wallenda, 35, a father of three from a family of performers whose high-wire accomplishments stretch back seven generations.
“This is what our family has done for 200 years. It’s about carrying on a legacy, and if you’re going to carry on a legacy, then you’d better do big things. Yes, there’s danger in what I do, but what I do is extremely calculated.”
He has trained in gusts of up to 120mph and never fallen off the wire. He gets family members to try to push him off while blindfolded, to practise correcting his balance. “They push me harder and harder and I’ll stay on the wire, never come off. Never,” he says.
Nonetheless, he understands why 16 million TV viewers in the US alone watched him conquer Niagara Falls, and 13 million the Grand Canyon. “They’re thinking, ‘I don’t want to be tuned in to another network when this guy could fall’ ,” he says. Again, though, he stresses: “I’m not the typical daredevil . . . I train, I prepare.”
As a Wallenda, risk-taking is “just what we do”, he says, adding: “There will be a time where it won’t be, though, and I’ll be like, ‘That’s enough’. Maybe that’ll be November 3. I don’t know when that time is. I’m sure it will come.”