Last year, when Nik Wallenda strolled across Niagara Falls on a two-inch steel cable—becoming the first-ever do so—1,500 feet across, 200 feet above the frothing rapids of the Niagara River, it wasn’t the lofty heights that turned his stomach, but the foreign safety harness forced around it.
Legend has it that in 1928, their first year in America, the “Flying Wallendas,” a dynasty of daredevils of which Nik is seventh generation, made a decision that would forever change their awe-inspiring traditions. Having lost their safety net in shipping, they energized the crowd at New York’s Madison Square Garden without it—55-feet above unforgiving pavement—and banished safety equipment from that day forward.
Born into this courageous circus clan, 34-year-old Nik began performing professionally by 13. He’s since set the world record for an eight-person high-wire pyramid, hung by his teeth from a helicopter 200 feet above ground and, when he proposed to his wife on bended knee, he did so balanced on a cable 30 feet above her. Now, on June 23, “The King of the High Wire” prepares for his boldest walk to date: this time, the Wallenda way.
Nik plans to cross a quarter-mile-wide section of the Grand Canyon, the Little Colorado River coursing 1,500 feet below him, with nothing but his trusted 43-pound balancing pole, and the two-inch steel cable beneath his focused feet. In celebration of Nik’s high-flying acrobatics, we’ve collected some of the world’s most deliciously dangerous, white-knuckled stunts ever. Sometimes, the stunts are just that—circus-style acts of gravity-defying bravado that require intense focus and agility. Other times, we use the word "stunts" more loosely to refer to describe expeditions that are so dangerous that they are practically suicide missions—speed climbing thousands of feet of vertical rock with no rope, or sailing a dinghy across the ocean with no supplies to prove a point.
Dive down with us to ocean depths so murky not even algae grows, and where a man pays a dear price for his boldness. Scale up thousands of feet of sheer cliff to hang onto dear life with fearless climbers, who then purposely leap off into the valley below. Zoom out into the cosmos, millions of miles away, with a handful of adventurers who soon hope to colonize the uninhabitable red planet.
Too bad Darwin’s not around to offer his take on these adrenaline aficionados. Would he consider them evolutionary hold-outs, doomed according to his theory of survival of the fittest? Or would he consider them even further evolved as they strive fearlessly to push the limits of human possibility. With no further ado, we present you with 15 of the most dangerous stunts ever, spanning more than 70 years of heart-pounding adventure.