Daredevil Nik Wallenda used the Navajo Nation as a backdrop to one of his most ambitious feats yet - crossing a tightrope 1,500 feet above the Little Colorado River Gorge near the Grand Canyon.
The 34-year-old Sarasota, Florida, resident set out Sunday on a quarter-mile cable stretched over the gorge that was eyed by another high-wire performer decades ago. The stunt comes a year after he traversed Niagara Falls earning a seventh Guinness world record. He used the same 2-inch-thick cable he used to cross the falls, only this time he wasn't wearing a safety harness.
After saying a prayer, "I give my wife and kids a hug and a kiss and tell them I'll see them in a bit," he told reporters Friday in Flagstaff.
Wallenda is a seventh-generation high-wire artist and is part of the famous "Flying Wallendas" circus family - a clan that is no stranger to death-defying feats and great tragedy.
His great-grandfather, Karl Wallenda, fell during a performance in Puerto Rico and died at the age of 73. Several other family members, including a cousin and an uncle, have perished while performing wire walking stunts.
Nik Wallenda, who was born a year after his great-grandfather died, began wire walking at the age of 2, on a 2-foot high stretched rope. He grew up performing with his family and has dreamed of crossing the Grand Canyon since he was a teenager.
French high-wire walker Philippe Petit had that same desire and set up a cable above the Little Colorado River, but Navajo officials said he never went through with the stunt and left his equipment there only to be taken down recently by Wallenda's crew.
"I don't understand why he didn't," Wallenda said. "It's a site that works, makes sense. He clearly failed at it, so I want to do it successfully."
Petit didn't return messages left by The Associated Press.
The Discovery Channel broadcast Wallenda's walk on live television with a 10-second delay. Wallenda wore two cameras; one looking down on the dry Little Colorado River bed and one facing straight ahead. His leather shoes with an elk-skin sole helped him keep a grip on the steel cable as he made his way across.
Wind gusts were expected to be around 30 mph. Wallenda told media that if gusts threatened to throw him off, he'd grab hold of the wire and wait it out if possible. A paramedic was looking up at him from the river.
Wallenda was highly confident in his ability to reach the other side, having walked in 52 mph wind gusts during Tropical Storm Andrea with a torrential downpour and training with wind machines that simulated 45-55 mph gusts. The only thing that would stop him entirely is lightning within a 15-mile radius, he said.
The stunt was touted as a walk across the Grand Canyon, an area held sacred by many American Indian tribes, and the fulfilment of a dream. Some local residents believe Wallenda hasn't accurately pinpointed the location and also say that the Navajo Nation shouldn't be promoting the gambling of one man's life for the benefit of tourism.
"Mr. Wallenda needs to buy a GPS or somebody give this guy a map," said Milton Tso, president of the Cameron community on the Navajo Nation. "He's not walking across the Grand Canyon. He's walking across the Little Colorado River Gorge on the Navajo Nation. It's misleading and false advertising."