Photograph by John Gurzinski, AFP/Getty Images
Published June 21, 2013
On Sunday, Nik Wallenda is scheduled to walk across a tightrope stretched over the Grand Canyon, 1,500 feet above the ground without nets, harnesses, or tethers. The Discovery Channel will air his aerial stroll along a rope the length of about four football fields (1,400 feet or 427 meters).
He won't be the first to risk it all at this natural wonder. Stunt performers love to show off at a "famously treacherous place," said Todd Berger, author of It Happened at the Grand Canyon. With its jagged cliffs, steep drops, and treacherous winds, the canyon more than qualifies. (Related: "Grand Canyon Quiz.")
Very few of these stunts took place in Grand Canyon National Park. Wallenda will perform at the Little Colorado River Gorge in the part of the canyon that belongs to the Navajo Nation. The park service typically denies permission for such endeavors.
"Our mission is resource protection but still providing for a public experience for park visitors. Typically stunts don't meet that [criteria]," said Maureen Oltrogge, a park public affairs officer.
But the past history of canyon stunts does have at least one exception to that rule. Here's a look at four previous canyon daredevils.
On August 8, 1922, Royal V. Thomas landed his Lincoln Standard biplane inside Grand Canyon National Park. In the park's early years, regulations for stunts had not yet been established, and park superintendent Walter Crosby approved the flight. The wheels of his Lincoln Standard touched the ground on a tiny landing strip just 50 feet (15 meters) from a 1,200-foot (366-meter) tumble to the Colorado River, near the current site of the Bright Angel Trail.
"Thomas made one pass over the landing area and then climbed up and away, only to circle back, pull back on the throttle, wave to the crowd on the rim, and drop the biplace into a spinning freefall toward the landing site," wrote Berger in It Happened at the Grand Canyon. In an email interview, he noted: "People were trying to make a buck on what was becoming a famous gorge in any way they could, especially after the 1901 coming of the train to Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim."
In September 1980, Dar Robinson accelerated up a ramp on the edge of the canyon in his white Bradley GT sportscar. As the car fell, he leapt from the vehicle, parachuting into the abyss. A professional stuntman who doubled for Steve McQueen for a jump off a cliff in the moviePapillion, Robinson was denied a permit for the stunt from Grand Canyon National Park, so he completed the action on the Hualapai Indian Reservation for a reality television show called That's Incredible!
Leap of Faith
Evel Knievel always wanted to jump across the Grand Canyon on his motorcycle. But it was his son Robbie who performed the stunt on May 20, 1999, soaring 228 feet (69 meters) across a narrow part of the canyon that belongs to the Hualapai Nation. The tribe granted him permission in the hopes of luring tourists.
Robbie broke his own world record for the longest distance jumped on a 500 cc motorcycle and reached 80 mph on the take-off ramp. Fireworks erupted as he traveled across. Fox News televised the event live, with reporters dramatically announcing that he would plummet 2,500 feet (762 meters) to his death if he failed.
Skating Off the Edge
On March 23, 2006, Bob Burnquist sped up a 40-foot (12-meter) ramp and then slid onto a rail that extended from the ramp itself, 1,500 feet (457 meters) above the canyon floor. He launched himself into the canyon with nothing but a skateboard, a parachute, and nerves of steel. To prepare, he had parachuted twice from a helicopter in the same location.
It's Not a Bird or a Plane … It's Jetman!
Known as "Jetman," Yves Rossy is a former Swiss pilot who designed his own custom jet suit with four motors. On May 7, 2011, he glided 8,000 feet (2,438 meters) above the canyon floor (200 feet above the rim) for more than eight minutes, hitting speeds of 190 mph. The flight took place over the Hualapai Reservation's Guano Point. Rossy propelled himself for five miles on his 6.5-foot (two-meter) wings, then opened his parachute and slowly descended to the canyon floor.
Find Harmony Huskinson on Twitter.
Explore With Nat Geo
Anders Angerbjörn learns little foxes have big attitudes.
Special Ad Section
Shop book & DVD gifts for all ages. Plus, save on maps featuring award-winning cartography. Limited time only.