Florida circus legends to try wirewalking over volcanoes

Staff Writer
Walton Sun
Walton Sun

SARASOTA — What could be more exciting than disappearing into a sulfurous fog so thick it stings your eyes, reduces visibility to maybe a few feet, requires a gas mask to keep from gagging and — with one misstep off a 1-1/8th-inch thick steel cable — could trigger a skyscraper-sized freefall into a liquid inferno so intense you’d probably hiss instead of splash?

Actually, that last part is still being negotiated. Corporate lawyers have yet to decide whether or not the experiment will require a safety harness.

Otherwise, all systems are go for Sarasota aerialist Nik Wallenda, who already is wondering — if he makes it to the other side intact — how to top a nationally televised wirewalking performance across a live Nicaraguan volcano in March.

“Well, there’s cool stuff I could do in space,” says the hometown circus star, mindful of the idea that nothing happens when you lose your balance in orbit. “Obviously, wirewalking isn’t what I would do.”

But pranking volcanos appear to be a thing right now, because whether or not Wallenda succeeds, yet another Sarasota celebrity daredevil is promising to string a cable of his own across a volcano this year — in Africa.

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“It’s funny,” says Bello Nock, he of the famous orange-sherbet butte of a hairdo. “The only two people in the entire world that are going to walk a wire over a volcano both live in Sarasota, Florida.”

But first things first. Wallenda actually has a date.

Having scored a series of 21st-century firsts — first wirewalker to cross Niagara Falls (2012), the Grand Canyon (2013), the Chicago skyline blindfolded (2014), a Times Square crossover involving his sister (2019) — the 41-year-old funambulist hopes to add Nicaragua’s Masaya volcano to the collection on March 4.

ABC is billing the event as “Volcano Live! With Nik Wallenda.” Given that it will run from 8 to 10 p.m. EST, Wallenda will need beaucoup lights to help him complete the night walk, which will span 1,800 feet from one side of the caldera to the other. That would make Masaya a career distance record for mid-air treks.

The jewel of an eponymous national park, some 12 miles south of Managua, Masaya Volcano is part of the Central American Volcanic Belt. Its 2,083-foot slopes are built atop a jumble of other craters and are accessible to foot traffic. But few visitors venture into the interiors, the way Wallenda and two engineers have done.

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Masaya’s lake of lava boils maybe 1,800 feet below its rim and constantly expels noxious gases, including carbon dioxide, and sulfuric acids. Wallenda got as close a look as anybody after being lowered 600 feet by cable into the crater. He describes it as “indescribable” and “mesmerizing,” and uses an analogy of Siesta Key during a hurricane, only with waves of molten rock sloshing violently against igneous shores.

The heat also creates its own weather system, generating updrafts that churn the local environment into a tempest “windier than the Grand Canyon was,” Wallenda says. “It’s like a windstorm down there.”

Expulsions of 130- to 140-degree air are arrhythmic, unpredictable and short-lived. But the erratic duration of those transient roiling clouds, even while looking down from the edge of the rim, have left the Guinness World Records holder temporarily blinded and unable to breathe.

And that’s not all (assuming Masaya doesn’t erupt):

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“We left a piece of wire rope there for eight weeks, and when I went back and grabbed it, it crumbled in my hands. The only thing that stayed good was a fiber rope in the middle of it.”

Which means the production team is anticipating myriad damages from corrosive aerosols, from cameras to rigging. Which means the performance infrastructure can’t be erected too far in advance of the show.

Beginning next week, two dozen or so 40-foot sea containers filled with 35,000 pounds of production equipment will leave the Port of Miami for a three-day, “insanely expensive” voyage to Nicaragua, for overland transport into Masaya Volcano National Park.

Footers and anchors will be installed in early February, and team Wallenda is budgeting for the rigging to begin some two weeks out. Although his crew can work in the rain, “there may be days when the gas becomes so thick they can’t work because you can’t see,” he says.

Wallenda first contemplated a volcano walk years ago after getting his first look at the towering, 17,800-foot summit of Popocatepetl while visiting in-laws in Mexico City. He openly discussed adding a volcano to his bucket list as early as 2014.

Then, three days before an emotional, high-wire reunion with sister Lijana over Times Square last June — which would culminate in his announced intentions to take on an active but then-unnamed volcano in 2020 — Wallenda was surprised by a news release from his one-time Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus partner, Bello Nock.

Heralding a stunt-series collaboration with the A&E network, tentatively called “The Impossible Live,” Nock trumpeted his designs on an “untethered world record breaking” skywalk above an active lava dome.

“We first considered a volcano in Nicaragua,” he said in the statement, “but recent geological events have made the lava lake too small, so we decided on a larger, more active and far more challenging volcano in East Africa. This is the wire walk that no one will ever be able to top!”

Dueling volcanoes

In a recent interview with the Herald-Tribune, Nock, 51, said he is targeting Ethiopia’s Erta Ale, a 2,011-foot-high volcano in one of Africa’s most remote regions.

“It’s double the size of the Masaya volcano,” said Nock who, like Wallenda, traces his deep generational circus pedigree back to Europe. “Now, that really doesn’t matter; with stunt people, it’s usually ‘I jumped higher, I walked farther, I held my breath longer than you’ — but is it really about what we do, or is it who you inspire? I’m all about trying to inspire people to push themselves beyond what they think they can do.”

Nock says he conducted on-site research into the Masaya volcano, then took a pass on account of “ethical” considerations about performing in Nicaragua.

“I want to be careful how I put it,” said Nock, most recently in the national limelight for frenzied showmanship that propelled him to the quarterfinals of “America’s Got Talent” in 2017. “Right now, everyone on my team voted that it is not the proper thing to do in a country that is in political unrest, and the turmoil that it’s in, to go and glorify what we do at the expense of indigenous people.”

According to his news release, Nock’s team is signed to a five-part daredevil series for a total of 10 programming hours. But it announced no dates. A recent query to A&E indicated the “show is still in development,” with scheduling still undetermined. Nock said the episodes would likely begin at the end of May and continue for consecutive weeks.

“You don’t get to be an elite stuntman daredevil that is one of a kind without having a certain amount of competitiveness,” Nock said. “Some people might confuse competitiveness with war. And there is no war. Nik is a former protégé of mine, and I’m immensely happy for the guy.”

Wallenda also frames his response carefully.

The 2019 Times Square wirewalk marked the first time he and his sister worked together since their eight-person pyramid collapsed during rehearsals for Circus Sarasota in 2017. Five fell to the floor and sustained serious injuries, including Lijana, whose face was fractured.

Some aspects of that trauma are more easily managed than others. For instance, Wallenda performances involving multiple participants are now staged with airbags placed below the wire. That’s an unprecedented safety measure.

But less than a year after the accident, as he scaled the heights to create a seven-person pyramid at the Big Apple Circus in New York, Wallenda’s anxiety was palpable. It was, he says, “the first time I experienced a trembling fear on the wire.

“I was ready to cancel Big Apple Circus, I was done. I told my wife, I am not getting on the wire anymore.”

Preparing for fire, the volcanic kind

At his 15-acre spread in rural northeast Sarasota County, the edge of his property is marked by rutted earth plowed by wild hogs. Just inside the fence is an 800-foot sprawl of backyard cable assembly, which represents just part of the current training regimen.

Wallenda has also been testing out his gas mask inside a warehouse, where firefighters drill with smoke machines. In fact, he says he’ll be issuing gas masks to his entire 350-member production crew convening in Nicaragua. And he’ll also need goggles.

“I don’t know how many more of these I have in me,” says Wallenda, who is contractually obliged for one more performance with ABC. “I have no doubt I can sell more specials. It’s more about, can I keep delivering at this level?

“Do I want to put myself through what it takes to do these things, mentally, physically, everything leading up to it? The meetings, the logistics, making sure everything is where it’s supposed to be?”

Being upstaged by Bello Nock, he says, is not on the worry-list.

“Honestly, I’m excited for him, if he can make that happen. I wish him the best of luck,” Wallenda says. “The reality is, if he does it?

“That’s awesome.”

This story originally published to heraldtribune.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the new Gannett Media network.