Nik Wallenda doesn’t walk on water, but he does the next best and almost equally impressive thing: He walks on a thin wire, suspended waaaaay up in the air. The 41-year-old daredevil — who is a seventh-generation member of the Flying Wallendas circus family — has conquered a Grand Canyon gorge, Niagara Falls, and two Chicago skyscrapers, but Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET on ABC, he truly turns up the heat. Wallenda will attempt to cross an 1,800-foot wire that is one-inch thick over the active Masaya Volcano in Nicaragua. We called the man with unstoppable feet (and feats) down in Nicaragua to see how fired up he is for what could be billed as TV’s hottest event: Volcano Live! With Nik Wallenda. (You can check out the first minute of the special in this exclusive preview above.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I guess my first question is: What the hell are you thinking, man? This is crazy.
NIK WALLENDA: [Laughs] I’m thinking I'm living my dream — and hopefully through it everybody is inspired by what I do to see that nothing is impossible.
What appealed to you about walking over a volcano? A lot of people would say volcano, but you said volcayes.
That's right. It’s all about what can I do next that will impress my family. If I can impress my family, then everybody else will sort of fall into line.
How do you train for something like this? Do you put Volcano, Dante’s Peak, and Joe Versus the Volcano on three separate TVs, hang a clothesline over them, walk across it, and hope that this a fairly accurate recreation of the situation you’ll be facing?
I just put a fire pit in my backyard and a wire over that and walked over that every day.
How active is this volcano, on a scale from gurgling lava lake inferno to one puff of gas every 18 months?
Nik Wallenda doesn’t do anything half-assed. There’s actually two lakes of 2,000-plus-degree magma constantly flowing. Sounds like the roar of ocean if you’re sitting on the beach. And the gasses can be so thick that you can’t see five feet in front of you.
You have a practice facility in Florida, where you’ve been intensely training for six months. Do you have assistants aiming hairdryers at you and throwing buckets of boiling water and bird poop at you?
Pretty much. We try to simulate heat, we try to simulate gasses with smoke machines at our indoor training facility. So far, I don’t think birds are brave enough to go out there, so I’m not too worried about bird poop.
I had another question about the dangers of bird poop or bee stings, but it sounds like no bird or bee is going to want to cross into this environment…
I think the birds have issues locating gas masks that will fit them.
You’ve been practicing for this event wearing a gas mask and goggles to help you battle gasses and acid rain. What do you think will pose the biggest danger on this walk?
Certainly those gasses. They are deadly gasses that literally absorb the oxygen out of the air, so they would definitely be my biggest concern.
Will you be carrying the mask and goggles on you in case you need them?
Because of some shifts in the weather the last few days, I will be forced to actually wear them from the first step.
How much of a disadvantage does that put you at?
Well, it’s all part of my training. So, less oxygen, for sure, as well as limited vision. The mask is in my peripheral vision, so therefore it gets in the way as I’m walking. It’s just an added distraction — certainly something that I don’t plan on doing anytime after this. Although I don’t see myself walking over any more volcanoes anytime soon.
What conditions could creep up on Wednesday night that would prompt you to call off the event? Say, for example, an eruption?
Well, eruption would certainly be one of those things. There’s no walking a wire in full volcanic eruption. And my father [Terry Troffer], who’s my safety coordinator, he’s the one who makes those decisions with weather or any issue like that.
Was there a danger you hadn’t considered until a volcanologist pointed out to you?
The wire deterioration — those acids are eating through the wire quicker than expected.
So you couldn't set it up too much in advance of the walk.
Correct. We did, and we’ve had some issues with the stabilization cables failing.
ABC is making you wear a safety tether. You didn’t want to wear one on the Niagara Falls walk either, but you ultimately relented. We also don’t want to you wear a tether, because it removes an element of mortal danger, but at the same time, we don’t want you to die. Can you help us resolve that inner conflict?
What I would tell you is the unique aspect of this volcano is the gasses are literally deadly. So if I were to fall and use that, the chances of my gas mask withstanding or staying on are very slim. And then I would most likely run out of oxygen. So a tether in reality would prolong my life. I don’t say this stuff much leading up to it because ABC will try to figure out another way to keep me safe. But the reality is the dangers on this one are at such another level than anything else that a tether is certainly not a failsafe apparatus.
In the wire-walking community, is a tether considered a wimpy move, or is it actually very sensible and "Good for you for taking care of yourself!"?
That’s a personal thing. I would tell you that if I wear a tether, 50 percent of the people tell me I am [wimpy] for wearing a tether, and if I don’t wear a tether, I’m a horrible jerk of a father to even risk my life like that. So you can never make everybody happy. I’ve just learned that ABC pays my bills and those naysayers don’t, so it is what it is.
You crossed Niagara Falls in 26 minutes. What’s your best guess on this one? Closer to 30?
Yeah, I would guess between 20 and 30. I mean, that’s a long window. Depends on how thick and how bad the environment is out there.
Do you fear that you might slip but instead of dying, you just bang your crotch on the wire and wind up on America’s Funniest Home Videos?
That’s not something that comes to my mind. I don’t even consider that an issue.
Your mom (Delilah Wallenda) makes the special shoes that you use on the wire. Are these special shoes special special shoes and they're volcano-proofed, as much as something can be volcano-proofed?
They are. They’re a heavier shoe than in the past because of the duration of the walk, as well as the heat that the cable will be exposed to.
There’s got to be something that you’re afraid of that balances out your stunning lack of fear of heights. Snakes? Spiders? Odd numbers? Fear of commitment?
My wife. (Erendira Wallenda will do an aerial performance over the volcano at the beginning of the show.)
Is there anything we should or should not do from our living rooms? Like, do you want us cheering for you, or is even thinking of us yelling at our TVs while you’re up there too distracting?
I want you to watch, because so many people don’t watch my specials. They turn them on and walk in the other room because they’re so stressed out about whether I’m going to make it or not.
Who puts himself in more danger and is more likely to die — you or Alex Honnold?
Look, the reality is, we have huge admiration [for each other]. I think he’s amazing, and my palms sweat watching him. And I will tell you, his palms sweat watching me walk across the Grand Canyon.
What’s the most random thought you’ve ever had on one of these death-defying walks?
"What the hell am I doing up here?"
How drunk could you be and still easily pass the walk-in-a-straight-line sobriety test?
I don’t know, because I don’t drink, so I have no way of telling, to be honest. [Laughs]
Have you thought about a tie-in with McDonald's where halfway through the volcano walk, you turn to the camera, pull out a Big Mac, and say, “I’m lava-in’ it!”
Umm, I have not given that a lot of thought.
Who would be good for a sponsorship for this walk?
Goodness! Maybe Flamin' Hot Cheetos.
Where do you go from here — besides into therapy? How do you top this?
To be honest, my career is not about topping myself. Everything I’ve done, the reality is, it’s just as risky. So to me, it’s more about parallels, and I have a long, long bucket list. The truth is, they’re life-and-death, whether I’m walking over an amusement park or walking over my swimming pool, depending on how high I am, or walking over an active volcano.
Any last words? I don’t mean that literally.
Nope. I think we’re good, man.