Tightrope walking can be dated all the way back to the ancient Greeks. Funambulists (funis means “rope” and ambulare means “to walk”) were well respected in Greek society, but tightrope walking wasn’t a sport in the Olympics. Instead, entertainers, like jesters, would use it in their performances.
Tightrope walking has been performed ever since and in the last century and a half, it has become a staple of the circus. Beyond the circus, some incredibly daring people have taken tightrope to extreme new heights. Literally.
10. Melissa Andrzejewski, “Sketchy” Andy Lewis, and Jimmy Fitzpatrick
Trying to stuff as much “hell yeah!” into one video as possible are aerobatic pilot Melissa Andrzejewski, highliner “Sketchy” Andy Lewis, and freestyle motocrosser Jimmy Fitzpatrick. And you know if someone involved in the stunt’s nickname is Sketchy, then there is a good chance that the stunt is going to be pretty epic.
The stunt, which was performed in July 2015, is an amazing amount of coordination, timing, and focus. As Lewis is walking across a tightrope suspended 20 feet above the ground with no safety gear, Fitzpatrick does a flip on his motocross bike beside him as Andrzejewski flies her plane under both of them.
Luckily, the stunt went off without a hitch and they probably got to enjoy some Doritos and Mountain Dew afterwards.
9. Adili Wuxor
In 2010, Adili Wuxor of China made headlines around the world for living 60 days on a tightrope. However, that is a bit misleading, because Wuxor, who is often referred to as the “Prince of Tight Rope Walking,” walked on a tightrope above the Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing for five hours every day. While it is impressive and certainly something we could never do, it isn’t exactly living on a high wire; it’s more like having an intense part time job.
However, a much more impressive feat was performed by Wuxor in September 2012. That time, he had a tightrope run parallel to the world’s sixth highest bridge, the Aizhai Bridge near Jishou, Hunan, China. It was 1,150 feet high and 4,590 meters long. No easy feat, but Wuxor upped the ante by having two students do it with him, coming from the opposite side. This would have added much more sway to the tightrope, but obviously, the real problem arose when they met in the middle. To get around each other, the students had to lie down while Wuxor stepped over them; not something that is easily done on 1.3 inches of tightrope.
However, Wuxor and his students survived, and they have since gone on to do similar feats, like they performed a tightrope walk over the Great Wall of China. Now, if only the Mongols had thought to do that when they were attacking China years ago; history might have been quite different.
8. The Flying Wallendas
The Wallendas are essentially the first family of tightrope walking. They can trace their lineage back to 1780 in Austria-Hungary. Their ancestors were world renowned acrobats, trapeze artists, animal tamers, and aerialists. In 1928, they joined the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. In the 1940s, the Wallendas officially became the Flying Wallendas and they developed their most famous stunt, the seven-person chair pyramid.
The stunt, which sounds like it would be hard enough to do on solid ground, involves four tightrope walkers on the bottom, two standing on poles that rest on the shoulders of the four on the bottom. Then on the top is a seventh person on a chair. While this would have been hard to just form, they actually walked the length of the tightrope in this formation.
Sadly, this stunt didn’t always go as planned. In 1962, while performing at the State Fair Coliseum in Detroit, Michigan, a misstep caused the pyramid to crumble. Two men fell to their death and a third was paralyzed.
However, that didn’t stop the Wallendas from performing. Today, there are 14 Wallendas working in various troupes around the world.
7. Dean Potter
Dean Potter, who lived in New Hampshire most of his life, was an expert climber, tightrope walker, and BASE jumper. His most memorable tightrope walking stunt was filmed in 2011 at Cathedral Peak in Yosemite National Park. In the video, called “Moonwalk”, Potter climbs to the peak, and in front of a full moon, he walks across the tightrope, before walking back. Obviously, there were no nets and it doesn’t look like he is wearing a safety harness.
Sadly, in 2015, Potter, who was 43, with his climbing partner Graham Hunt, 29, were both killed while performing a BASE jump at Yosemite National Park. The pair, who were wearing wing suits, jumped from a 7,500-foot ledge, but for some reason their parachutes didn’t deploy.
6. The Skyliners
Usually when performing a tightrope walk, it’s best to have two stable points in which to travel between because it makes the rope more stable to walk on. Doing the complete opposite of that was skydiving team the Skyliners who tried to walk between two hot air balloons over 2,600 feet in the air. Of all the people who tried, none of them successfully got across. Luckily, everyone was wearing parachutes so no one was hurt.
The Skyliners were very lucky, because in January 2016, in France, French BASE jumper and member of the Flying Frenchies, Tancrède Melet, was killed while preparing for the same stunt. He fell 100 feet to his death. He was just 32-years-old.
Three-year-old Xiaoyan of China is billed by her father as the world’s youngest tightrope walker. While it’s debatable if a child of that age should be tightrope walking in the first place, you have to question the stunt she that was forced to perform in 2010. The three year-old was forced to walk across a high wire that was 165 feet long and 29 feet above a tiger sanctuary. That’s right. The girl’s father, Zhang Shenwen, forced his three-year-old daughter to tightrope walk over a habitat that housed nine fully grown Siberian tigers.
Luckily for Xiaoyan, she was wearing a safety harness, especially considering that she fell three times while attempting to walk the 165 feet because the wind was too strong. After she fell, she dangled over the tigers, essentially daring them to jump up and get a free lunch.
After her performance, her dad, who is clearly in the running for father of the year, said that he was disappointed in the walk.
4. Karl Wallenda
The most famous of the Flying Wallendas was Karl Wallenda. He was born in 1905 in Germany and he started performing with his family when he was just six-years-old. In the 1960s, Karl started performing incredibly high tightrope walks, called skywalks, across stadiums like Busch Stadium in Saint Louis and the Astrodome in Houston. Skywalks are incredibly dangerous because they are often done without safety harnesses and at those heights, nets are ineffectual. Another problem is the elements like the wind, the higher up someone goes, the more troubling they become for someone walking on an inch of wire.
Karl Wallenda’s most impressive skywalk happened on July 18, 1970, when Karl was 65-years-old and he crossed the Tallulah Gorge in Georgia. The tightrope was 750 feet above the rocky gorge, meaning a fall would have resulted in a horrible death. Amazingly, not only did Karl get across, he also stopped to do two headstands along the way.
Sadly, Karl’s life came to an end while he was doing what he loved on March 22, 1978, at the age of 73. Karl was attempting to cross the two towers of the ten-story Condado Plaza Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The wind was strong that day, and it pushed Wallenda off the tightrope. He fell 121 feet to his death.
3. Nik Wallenda and Niagara Falls
Nik Wallenda is one of the descendants of the Flying Wallenda family. His great grandfather is the famous Karl Wallenda and on June 4, 2011, Nik completed the walk between the two buildings of the ten-story Condado Plaza Hotel where his great-grandfather died. He said it was something that he always wanted to accomplish to honor the heritage of his famous family.
However, Nik’s most impressive feat is crossing Niagara Falls on a tightrope. On June 14, 2012, starting on the American side, Nik walked along a two-inch-wide wire that went over Horseshoe Falls and onto Canadian soil. Nik didn’t want to wear a safety harness, but ABC, who was broadcasting his walk live, insisted that he wear one. He also had his passport on him since it was an international tightrope walk. It took Wallenda 25 minutes to cross into Canada and he said the worst part was that the mist got so bad that he couldn’t see.
Besides crossing the Condado Plaza Hotel and Niagara Falls, Nik’s other impressive skywalks include crossing the Little Colorado River Gorge just outside Grand Canyon National Park. Then in 2014, he walked between two skyscrapers in Chicago; Marina City and the Leo Burnett Building. Nik says that in the future, he hopes he gets to do tightrope walking stunts at famous landmarks around the world like the Eiffel Tower in Paris and the Great Pyramids of Egypt.
2. Freddy Nock
Swiss tightrope walker Freddy Nock has two really notable and absolutely insane tightrope walking stunts to his name. The first is in August 2011 when he walked up the cables on a cable car at the Zugspitze Mountain in Germany. In 80-minutes, he walked 0.62 miles and he went up 1,148 feet in altitude. Amazingly, he did all of this without safety equipment or a balancing pole.
His other highly notable tight rope walk was walking between mountain peaks in the Swiss Alps. Nock started off at the Biancograt peak and ended his journey at the Piz Prievlus peak, which is a height of 3,280 feet. The trip took him 39 minutes. Amazingly, there were no safety harness, the tight rope was only 0.7 inches thick, and Nock was 50-years-old when he completed the trek.
Nock’s walk between the mountain peaks gave him claim to the title of highest tight rope walk. It was a record that had been held for 30 years by…
1. Philippe Petit
French high wire artist Philippe Petit said that he first came up with the idea of walking between the two towers of the World Trade Center in 1968 when he was 18 while he was reading about the buildings in a dentist office. For the next six years, Petit planned what he called “the artistic crime of the century.”
On the night of August 6, 1974, just a week before his 25th birthday, Petit and his teams snuck onto the roofs of the Twin Towers, and using a bow and arrow, they spent the night building the tightrope over the 130 foot span between the towers. Then at 7:00 a.m. Petit took his first steps. He was able to cross back and forth eight times before he was arrested.
Instantly, Petit became a folk hero and a week later, all charges were cleared in exchange for performing a show for children in Central Park. Petit and his World Trade Center crossing were made into the documentary Man on Wire, and it was also the basis for the film The Walk.
In the years after his most famous walk, Petit continued to perform high wire acts in operas and other shows. His most notable walk was in Paris, France, in 1989. It was 2,300-foot inclined walk between Palais de Chaillot and the second story of the Eiffel Tower.