Why on earth would someone walk a tight rope stretched between two wind lashed skyscrapers, slide down the side of a skyscraper, or allow themselves to be sealed in a crate and tossed into the sea? With typical French cool, Phillippe Petit, the daredevil who did a 45 minute tight rope walk between New York’s Twin Towers, simply says “There is no why.”
The daredevil goes back to circus stunt performers, the French termed “cascadeurs”, implying falling and tumbling. In the early days of movies they performed stunts, sometimes simple and sometimes dangerous. Comic books are full of often super-human daredevils, like Spider Man or the aptly named Daredevil himself.
The 20th century saw the emergence of the professional daredevil, the man or woman who staged a dramatic stunt for profit. In 1901, Anne Edson Taylor, a cash strapped widow, designed a padded barrel and had herself tossed over Niagara Falls. She survived with only a gash to her head, but the hoped for windfall did not emerge. In the 1920’s, Harry Houdini, the mysterious master magician, attracted a fair amount of attention for his act by staging apparently death defying stunts, like literally being buried alive.
Fast forward to the 1970’s and professional daredevil, Evel Knievel was attempting seemingly impossible motorcycle jumps. Knievel made millions from his stunts, but there was a price to pay. Knievel’s lifetime accumulation of some 433 broken bones earned him a place in the Guinness Book of World Record category of the survivor of the most broken bones. His son Robbie, himself now a millionaire, has carried on the family tradition, making hundreds of jumps and setting some 20 world records. In the best tradition of the death-defying daredevil, here are ten stunts, new and old, that will amaze. Some are record holders. They range from cutting edge parachute jumps to circus human cannonball shows. The very important point to be made is that all these stunts were performed by trained professionals with years of experience.
10. Jeb Corliss – Flying Dagger
He has said his gift is fear. Jeb Corliss, dubbed “The Birdman” is a skydiver and BASE jumper, briefly hosted The Discovery Channel’s Stunt Junkies. In 2013, Corliss and Red Bull announced the Flying Dagger stunt. He was to jump out of a helicopter at 6,000 feet, wearing a wingsuit that made him resemble a soaring bat, and rocket through a small 60 foot crack in China’s Tianmen Mountain. The videos taken on the day show Corliss hurling downward through fog and mist at breakneck speed, battling wind currents, and then shooting a little unsteadily through the gap before deploying a mini-parachute and landing safely on a bridge amongst cheering locals. He has since said that it was the most afraid he had ever been and admitted to crying. Wingsuit accidents are not uncommon. In 2012, a James Body stuntman miscalculated and hit a wall, dying instantly.
9. Daniel Lau – The World’s Scariest Selfie
Back in August, Hong Kong resident Daniel Lau and two friends went out one morning and climbed to the top of a 1135 feet Hong Kong skyscraper, The Centre. One of nearly 6,500 skyscrapers in the congested, tiny city, it is the city’s 5th highest. Such stunts are all the rage in places like Hong Kong and Russia. Lau and his friends lounged as best they could, eating a banana or two, before shooting what has been dubbed, “the world’s scariest selfie”. It got 160,000 hits on YouTube in a single day. Lau, an experienced climber, is also a photographer. The sight is stomach churning, to say the least. Afterwards, they climbed back down and savored their 15 of fame.
8. Nik Wallenda – Tightrope Walk Across the Grand Canyon
Nik Wallenda is a 7th generation daredevil. In the 1920s, “The Flying Wallendas”, a circus high wire act, thrilled and chilled audiences by being the first act to scrap their safety net when it got lost in transit and failed to arrive in time for a performance. A tradition was born. Other than his record making 2012 tightrope walk across Niagra Falls when he was forced to wear a safety harness, Wallenda never uses a safety harness or net. In 2013, he set another record by being the first person to tightrope walk across the Grand Canyon, aided only by his trusted balance pole. The nonplussed Wallenda paused mid-walk to sink to his knees and wave. He is currently training for a very windy walk between skyscrapers in Chicago. It will be televised by the Discovery Channel.
7. Alex “No Big Deal” Honnold – 7,000 Foot Speed Record Solo Ascent
In June 2012, the cool and calm Honnold broke records when he did a solo ascent of a sheer 7,000 foot cliff in Yosemite National Park, without using any safety equipment. Having done the climb in just under 19 hours, he set a speed record. Climbing since he was 11, the California native is a veteran of a number of record breaking solo ascents and is considered by many to be the greatest solo ascent climber of all time. The North Face contracted athlete is famous for his spartan existence, living out of a van. The thing that scares him the most? Pretty girls.
6. Alan Eustace – 130,000 Foot Parachute Descent from the Edges of Space
When he isn’t pushing a pencil at Google, 50-something Alan Eustace is breaking parachute jump records. In October of 2014, Eustace broke Felix Baumgartner’s 2012 record-breaking jump from 128,000 feet up. Eustace, clad in a self-contained space suit, jumped from over 20 miles up (130,000 feet) and reached speeds in excess of 800 miles per hour, breaking the sound barrier. There is method in his madness. The space suit has been secretly developed by Paragon Space Development Corporation and is set to be used in late 2016, when World View Experience starts using helium-filled balloons to take paying tourists into the edges of space. Start saving up now. Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg take note: World View’s Experience’s web site cites an early bird ticket price of a mere $75,000.
5. Paul Steiner – Human Link Between Two Gliders
A key member of the Red Bull Skydiving team, Austrian Paul Steiner is a veteran of some 13,000 jumps. He does a bit of everything, from tandem jumps to BASE and wingsuit stunts. A year or so back, he climbed out onto the wing of a glider, traveling more than 100 miles per hour and nearly 7,000 feet up. Above him, another glider was keeping pace. What happened next is unbelievable. Steiner did a somersault, as the first glider flipped over, Steiner landed on the other plane and formed a human link between the two gliders.
4. Rafal Pasierbek – Best Motorcycle Stuntman in the World
Back down to earth, we land in the world of motorcycle stuntmen. His is a name that will not be familiar to many. Rafal Pasierbek, the Polish stuntman, dubbed “Stunter13” for his youthful tendency to have accidents, is considered by many to be the best motorcycle stuntman in the world. He executes film stunts at breakneck, death defying speed. But he is also a stunt artist.
Actors have the Oscars. Stuntmen and women have the Stunt Grand Prix and the XDL Championships. Pasierbek is a star at the freestyle, doing seemingly gravity defying maneuvers, in a 4 ½ minute dance of one wheel twirls and spins. He seems to do the impossible, riding a motorcycle at speed, up on its back wheel, while he hangs one-handed from the side.
3. Jackie Chan – Free Fall Slide Down the Side of Skyscraper
Jackie Chan is well-known for doing his own stunts. In 1997, while filming the movie, Who Am I, he escapes from the bad guys and girls by jumping and sliding down the angled roof of the 24-storey Willemswerf Building in Rotterdam. He even throws in a few twists and turns, and gets his feet for a moment or two, before landing at the edge of the building and climbing down.
2. Houdini – Buried Alive
Houdini was famous for his stunts. In the 1920s, he staged a series of them to draw attention to himself and his magic act. He escaped from sealed crates at the bottom of lakes and (literally) had himself entombed in a casket and buried. News shots show it being lowered into a grave. He escaped, but barely. Emerging near hysterical from the experience, he never replicated it, sticking mostly to near-drowning escapes. Reportedly, when he died, he was buried in the very casket he had used in the stunt.
1. David Smith, Jr. – Highest Flying Human Cannonball
Like Houdini, Smith, compared to the likes of Jeb Corliss and Alan Eustace, seems a little old fashioned. His stunt is being fired from an 8m cannon. Propelled by a spring jet of compressed air, he catapults through the air, landing (hopefully softly). It’s not the flight that kills human cannonballs, it’s the landing. Dozens of human cannonballs have been killed on impact. Smith has done some 5,000 cannonballs and claims to have the longest and highest human cannonball ride in history, which took place in Italy, in 2011.