World's Highest Wire Act, Crossing Peak to Peak

Nock tightroped above a ridge on the highest mountain in the eastern Alps. Credit: Gian Ehrenzeller / Corbis

In 2011, professional stuntman Freddy Nock had just walked up cable-car wires in the Swiss Alps, about 9,800 feet above sea level, and was glancing out the window of a summit restaurant when his next challenge formed in his imagination: conquering a tightrope between two peaks. "I see these beautiful mountains," he recalls. "Oh, that'd be a nice walk to do over there."

Four years later, Nock attempted it above a snowy ridge on the highest mountain in the eastern Alps. On March 20, he set a record for the highest tightrope walk, crossing more than a thousand feet without supports between Switzerland's Biancograt and the next peak over, Piz Prievlus, at a height of 3,280 feet. It took Nock 39 minutes to obliterate the previous record, which Frenchman Philippe Petit famously set in 1974, suspended at 1,350 feet between the World Trade Center towers.

Nock has daredevilry in his blood: His ancestors began tightrope walking in 1770, and a family circus group was founded in 1840. (A variation of it, the Nerveless Nocks, still performs in Florida.) Anticipating a life under the big tent, Nock began training on tightropes around his home in Switzerland at age three — then he heard reports of Petit's historic feat at the World Trade Center. "I see that guy, and he's not from the circus," Nock says. "He was a normal guy from the street, and he sneaked in there. I said, 'Wow, this guy is great.' "

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Nock began searching for equally death-defying stunts. At age 18, he walked his first cable-car wire, in the mountains of St. Moritz. He broke his first world record in 1998, completing the longest walk on the cable of an aerial tramway. In 2011, he set seven world records in eight days, including the longest and steepest runs on tram cables. Last year, Nock and his wife, Ximena, exchanged vows on a tightrope.

For the record-breaking attempt in the eastern Alps, Nock wanted to do it during winter because he thought the snowy cliffs would make the event more picturesque. His friend and wire-walking peer Nik Wallenda explains, "Anything over 25 feet is dangerous, but in our minds the risk is the same. It's more about the beautiful shot."

But just getting a photo opportunity can be complicated. It took Nock three years to secure permission from Swiss authorities, who had to be convinced that the wire anchors he needed to drill wouldn't damage the mountains. "We have a lot of crazy people who just want to get famous," Nock says. "I want to do everything with permission."

Nock arrived a week early to acclimate to the altitude and learn to maintain composure while taking shallow breaths. The site could be reached only by helicopter, and stormy weather threatened to delay his walk for several days. Finally, the sun broke through, the temperatures rose, and the wind died down. Wearing rubber-soled Pumas and carrying his pole, he stepped onto the tightrope. "I was not scared," he says. "The important thing is to feel the wire. You think, 'My God, I'm high,' but then you do it step-by-step and try to keep it straight and comfortable. It was, 'Take it easy.' "