Potential high winds are the biggest worry for 35-year-old who will walk high wire between skyscrapers hundreds of feet above Chicago river
Sunday 2 November 2014 10.32 EST
“The Windy City” is a nickname Chicago earned long ago because of its turbulent political culture, but it is more commonly used to describe another natural attribute: the awful weather.
So why Nik Wallenda, a 35-year-old aerialist who has created a brand for cable walking across the most recognizable locations in the US, chose to walk more than 600 feet in the air in this city on Sunday is a head-scratcher to many here.
Unseasonably violent wind, bitter cold and, yes, falling snow in Chicago on Friday not only canceled Halloween for most trick-or-treaters, but it also caused the northbound lane on Lake Shore Drive to shut down for hours because Lake Michigan waves whipped across the shoreline and flooded the streets.
But Wallenda says the weather is not a concern.
“I look up at those buildings and contrary to what you guys would think, that it would freak me out or stress me out, I get excited,” he told reporters on Friday. “I am fulfilling another dream.”
Wallenda often talks about self-empowerment and continuing his family legacy as reasons he continues to push himself on the high wire. He is the latest generation in the Flying Wallendas, a cross-generational circus family. His great-grandfather Karl Wallenda died in Puerto Rico after falling off a high wire in 1978.
The latest Wallenda is carrying his family’s legacy to the new media age. His last two walks, across Niagara Falls and a gorge near the Grand Canyon respectively, were aired live on television, the last attracting about 13 million viewers and two million live streams.
His personal narrative, handsome looks, and overt Christian faith combine to make him a perfect Discovery Channel star, says Dan Korn, senior vice-president and head of programming of Discovery Networks Western Europe.
“Nik Wallenda is the kind of guy Discovery would want to be associated with. He is immensely talented and this is in his blood. It’s a family thing. So there were lots of different sides to it,” he says.
The network will air the Chicago walk – on a 10-second delay – to 220 countries and stream via skyscraperlive.com.
Wallenda’s Grand Canyon walk and a 2012 space jump by the Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner have ushered the network into a realm known as “event television”.
“Obviously with the proliferation of ways of consuming content, broadcast content has to stand out. It is a more competitive environment. So this gives you a point of distinction,” says Korn. “The bottom line is I think there will be bigger large-scale live events going forward for Discovery.”
Jeffrey McCall, who teaches media studies at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, says that event television represents a growing trend for programmers because it forces distracted viewers to their screens in a single sitting as opposed to fragmented viewing later.
“These shows are DVR-proof, in a sense, and give audiences the excitement of watching things as they actually happen. This is why awards shows and live sports are so popular for programmers and the advertisers that support them,” he says.
At 1,500 feet above ground, the Grand Canyon walk was much higher than the Chicago walk, but weather will be a more significant factor. AccuWeather says that Sunday’s conditions in downtown Chicago will be less severe than Friday’s. Winds are forecast to blow from the south or south-west, gusting between 10 and 20mph. However, where Wallenda is expected to perch, gusts could reach 30mph. Wallenda has said he will cancel the walk if winds gust to 50mph.
For the first time in his career, Wallenda will walk an incline at a 14-degree angle from a Marina City tower across the Chicago River to the Leo Burnett building, which stands 671ft tall. He will then dismount and return to the Marina City tower to walk to its counterpart tower while blindfolded. The first walk is expected to take 15 minutes while the second will be much shorter. The broadcast starts at 6pm Central time.
Korn says Discovery will broadcast with a 10-second delay in case Wallenda falls to “ensure nothing gets seen that shouldn’t be seen”.
“This has been carefully planned so there is no chance of exposing the audience to any tragic event should it take place,” he says.
Wallenda says he has practiced holding the wire should he lose his balance and that his crew can get to him within seconds should something happen.
“I go down to the safety of that wire and will wrap around it and wait for help,” he says. “People think there’s something hysterical, something magical. I’ve done it my whole life.”
The greatest feat involving the walk may have taken place weeks ago when the city of Chicago decided to ignore an existing state law that requires a safety net and harness for performances at so great a height.
“We see the primary focus of the law as protecting aerial performers from being forced by unscrupulous employers to work in unsafe conditions against their will. That scenario clearly does not apply to Mr Wallenda, who belongs in a unique and elite class of performers, and whose decision to perform without a net is entirely his own,” the city said in a statement.