A Grand Stunt: Nik Wallenda's Upcoming Death-Defying Walk

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I recently returned from a road trip out West, where I got to take in some incredible natural wonders like the majestic waterfalls of Yosemite, towering Sequoia trees, looming monoliths of Monument Valley and indescribably vast Grand Canyon.

The Grand Canyon left the biggest impression. It was just so big! There is no way to fully convey the feeling you get the first time you walk to the edge and look down. As my sister put it, the reaction is the same in any language – expressions of complete and utter awe. I spent the majority of my time there worrying about falling over the edge, or seeing some brazen tourist accidentally take the plunge.

Which is why I was stunned to hear (at a recent taping of Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!) that daredevil Nik Wallenda, of The Flying Wallendas, will attempt to walk across the Grand Canyon on a tightrope on Sunday, June 23. He will carefully traverse a 1,400-foot expanse (more than a quarter mile) at 1,500 feet above the ground (higher than the Empire State Building). Wallenda, who recently made a similar walk across Niagara Falls on live television, will not be tethered to anything, and his death-defying feat will be broadcast live on the Discovery Channel.

Why would anyone in their right mind do something like this?!?! I wrote about the science of risky behavior awhile back, but Wallenda’s upcoming stunt prompted me to also do some digging on the actual science behind tightrope walking.

A study published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface in April 2012 examined “how the body can sense and then optimize its response to a dynamic environment.” In other words, the researchers looked at how the human body and brain compensate for the sway and sag of the tightrope.

The study found, for instance, “that there exists an optimal range of the rope sag where the balancing task is accomplished with minimal energy effort,” something an expert like Wallenda likely discovered with years of practice. The journal Science does an excellent job of summarizing the findings.

I also came across the website for a short-lived reality show about Wallenda called, Nick Wallenda: Beyond Niagara, which focused on the science and engineering behind the stuntman’s acts. (Though the show was cancelled, you can watch short clips online).

Wallenda’s high-wire walks require hours of training (both mental and physical). “I have had birds land on my balancing pole,” Wallenda told Wait Wait host Peter Sagal. “I have been stung by a bee while performing. It really comes down to training and preparation.” Such preparation includes ensuring his wires can withstand the 40,000 pounds of tension required, and he can withstand the elements (such as the strong winds he might encounter in the Grand Canyon).

None of this information will make me feel any less queasy when I tune in on Sunday. But, I can at least watch with an ounce more reassurance, knowing that science has played its part. What do you think of Wallenda’s upcoming stunt?

*On an unrelated note, Wallenda will be making a guest appearance on tonight’s episode of Mythbusters, called Duct Tape Canyon, in which the hosts test the strength of the infamous tape.

Photo credit: Bethany Hubbard

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