By Brian Berkovitz
The Active Times

Last year, when Nik Wallenda strolled across Niagara Falls on a two-inch steel cable -- becoming the first-ever do so -- 1,500 feet across, 200 feet above the frothing rapids of the Niagara River, it wasn’t the lofty heights that turned his stomach, but the foreign safety harness forced around it.

Legend has it that in 1928, their first year in America, the "Flying Wallendas," a dynasty of daredevils of which Nik is seventh generation, made a decision that would forever change their awe-inspiring traditions. Having lost their safety net in shipping, they energized the crowd at New York’s Madison Square Garden without it -- 55-feet above unforgiving pavement -- and banished safety equipment from that day forward.

Born into this courageous circus clan, 34-year-old Nik began performing professionally by 13. He's since set the world record for an eight-person high-wire pyramid, hung by his teeth from a helicopter 200 feet above ground and, when he proposed to his wife on bended knee, he did so balanced on a cable 30 feet above her. Now, on Sunday, "The King of the High Wire" prepares for his boldest walk to date: this time, the Wallenda way.

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Nik plans to cross a quarter-mile-wide section of the Grand Canyon, the Little Colorado River coursing 1,500 feet below him, with nothing but his trusted 43-pound balancing pole, and the two-inch steel cable beneath his focused feet. In celebration of Nik's high-flying acrobatics, we've collected some of the world's most deliciously dangerous, white-knuckled stunts ever. Sometimes, the stunts are just that -- circus-style acts of gravity-defying bravado that require intense focus and agility. Other times, we use the word "stunts" more loosely to refer to describe expeditions that are so dangerous that they are practically suicide missions -- speed climbing thousands of feet of vertical rock with no rope, or sailing a dinghy across the ocean with no supplies to prove a point.

Dive down with us to ocean depths so murky not even algae grows, and where a man pays a dear price for his boldness. Scale up thousands of feet of sheer cliff to hang onto dear life with fearless climbers, who then purposely leap off into the valley below. Zoom out into the cosmos, millions of miles away, with a handful of adventurers who soon hope to colonize the uninhabitable red planet.

Too bad Darwin's not around to offer his take on these adrenaline aficionados. Would he consider them evolutionary holdouts, doomed according to his theory of survival of the fittest? Or would he consider them even further evolved as they strive fearlessly to push the limits of human possibility. With no further ado, we present you with 15 of the most dangerous stunts ever, spanning more than 70 years of heart-pounding adventure.

15 Craziest Daredevil Stunts Slideshow


Alain Robert Scales Skyscrapers Spiderman-Style

Alain Robert, a.k.a. “Spiderman,” has scaled more than 85 buildings, most illegally and with no protection, often resulting in his arrest at the top. Some of his most famous facades are the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Opera House in Sydney and the Sears Tower in Chicago. His tallest climb, however, was the Bhurj Khalifa tower in Dubai. Since the climb was to be broadcast, Roberts climbed all 2,716 ft. with a harness. Wuss or wildman? You decide.


40 'Lucky' People Will Live on Mars

It seems almost as though risk-takers have tested themselves on nearly every corner of Earth. Perhaps, then, the next great adventure doesn’t belong on this planet, but rather 35 million miles away, on the red planet. A worldwide lottery will be held this year to select 40 potential crewmembers who will test themselves in the desert for three months (they may even make a reality show of it). At the end, 10 will be chosen by Dutch company Mars One to lift off in 2023. Once on Mars (assuming they make it) they'll find housing where they're expected to live out the rest of their lives.


Alexander Polli Flies Through a Mountain

Norwegian-Italian daredevil Alexander Polli squeezed through the opening of a cliff face in the Roca Forafada Mountains in Montserrat, Spain. Documenting the incredible feat of precision with a GoPro camera strapped to his helmet, Polli donned a wingsuit and leapt from a helicopter before roaring through the “Batman Cave” at 155 mph.


Alain Bombard Sails the Atlantic Empty-Handed

In 1952, Dr. Alain Bombard (pictured, right) sailed across the Atlantic Ocean in a lifeboat. His goal was to prove his survival theories to the medical community, primarily that a person could live off nothing but small sips of saltwater, fluids from raw fish, plankton and the fish themselves. For 65 days, Bombard braved rogue headwinds, stormy waters and the relentless beating down of the sun. Sealed away on the boat in case of emergency, the provisions he kept were confirmed untouched when he hit land.


Ranulph Fiennes (Almost) Braves the South Pole Winter

Though he couldn’t make the trip himself due to frostbite, expedition leader Ranulph Fiennes organized an epic, grueling trek across Antarctica in the dead of winter. Hauling two live-work trailers, a food sledge, and 14 fuels skids behind specially equipped tractors for the next six months, the 200-ton caravan was paid for by more than 200 sponsors. Currently in the midst of the brutal crossing, the team faces total darkness, -130º F air that can freeze lungs almost instantly and a difficult, crevasse-riddled landscape.


Fred Rompelberg Bikes 167 mph

Though we’ve become accustomed to the limits being constantly pushed in every sport—world records seem to be a dime a dozen—nobody's beaten Fred Rompelberg's 1995 absolute speed cycling record. On a modified bicycle, Rompelberg (pictured here during his track racing days in the late 1970s) pedaled across the Salt Flats of Utah behind a 800-horsepower dragster, using the zero-resistance pocket behind it to reach a staggering 167 mph. At this bone-shattering speed, we’re glad he managed to keep his wheels under him.


Fred Syversen Stumbles (Whoops!) into the Record Books

Though this one was technically an accident, free skier Fred Syversen launched himself off a 351-foot cliff drop in Norway back in 2008, earning himself a world record for the highest ski drop ever, as well as mild liver damage and a partially collapsed lung. In doing so, he surpassed Jamie Pierre's record 255-foot drop, which he did the same year in Grand Targhee, Wyoming.


Herbert Nitsch Free-Dives to 800 Feet

What can Austrian Herbert Nitsch, 43, the “Deepest Man on Earth,” say about his career high, when it was in fact, so very low? In June of 2012, off the Greek coast, he dived 800 feet into the murky depths of the Mediterranean, further than any man in history. In what is known as No Limits diving, the athlete uses a weighted sled-like device to descend and return as quickly as possible. On his way back up, Nitsch lost consciousness from the too-rapidly-expanding nitrogen bubbles in his veins, which also set off a series of small strokes in him. Since his miraculous journey, Nitsch has suffered memory loss, difficulty speaking, writing, even walking and running, which, he jokes, looks like “a cross between goose-stepping and the Lambada.” But he’s alive.


Penny Palfrey Swims 67 Ocean Miles Unaided

In June of 2011, Australian marathon swimmer Penny Palfrey emerged from the sea onto the Cayman Islands, staggering, puffy-faced, arms held up weakly in triumph. She had just swam 40 hours, unaided, through 67 miles of shark-infested waters (she remembers kicking something solid), and was stung three times by jellyfish, leaving her tongue and mouth swollen severely. After arriving on shore, she was immediately taken to the hospital to be treated for severe dehydration, muscle tears and jellyfish stings.


Valery Rozov Jumps Off Everest

On May 5, 2013, Austrian thrill-seeker Valery Rozov leapt off the roof of the world, at 23,688 feet above sea level on Everest's North Face, and wingsuit-glided to a glacier 4,000 feet below, completing the highest BASE jump ever. And he did it despite a rushed schedule that cut his team’s time to acclimatize to the fatally thinner air, temperatures averaging -25º Fahrenheit, and the pressure of precisely jumping, flying and—most importantly, perhaps—landing on the mountain’s rare, calm-winded day.


Reinhold Messner Climbs Everest O2-Free

In 1978, Italian climbing legend Reinhold Messner defied the scientific community when he braved Everest without supplemental oxygen. Near the summit (a.k.a. "the Death Zone"), air is one-third thinner than sea level, bone-chilling winds howl at up to 125 mph, and frostbite happens all too easily, thanks to temperatures that dip as low as -40ºF. Though conditions at the summit are much better understood today, and the standard routes are well-trod, Messner's climb was considered a suicide mission at the time.


Alex Honnold Climbs 7,000 Feet Without Protection

Pro climber Alex “No Big Deal” Honnold shocked even the hardest-core adrenaline junkies when, in June of 2012, he scaled over 7,000 feet of sheer rock face at Yosemite National Park in under a day, setting speed records while at it, with absolutely no ropes or harnesses to protect him if he slipped. Then, in March of 2013, he braved his toughest climbing marathon to date, linking up three consecutive big walls at Zion National Park; funny, though, no one in the media batted an eyelid. With a margin for error even thinner than the rocks he hoists himself up, the legendarily calm Honnold must maintain razor-sharp focus.


Felix Baumgartner Jumps from the 'Edge of Space'

On October 14, 2012, Felix Baumgartner leapt out of a balloon-lifted capsule from the so-called "edge of space," at 128,000 feet. It was so high, scientists said, that if he were exposed to the altitude (just one percent of that at sea level), it would kill him instantly. In a live, televised stunt, Baumgartner used a specialized inflatable suit to bolt through the sound barrier (Mach 1. 24, or, 833.9 mph). What's almost more shocking is that his team leader—Vietnam pilot Joseph Kittinger—held the old freefall record for a ballsy 102,800-foot (Mach 0.91) leap way back in the relative technological Dark Age of 1960.


Steve Fisher Runs 'World's Biggest Rapid'

Africa’s Congo River hosts some of the fiercest whitewater on the planet. In 2011, Steve Fisher and his team of totally insane brave paddlers successfully navigated the Inga Rapids—a 50-mile-long stretch of 40-foot-wide whirlpools, surf-worthy 20-foot waves and 15-foot-high boils, all of which conceal the jagged rocks that lurk just beneath the surface. That's not to mention the scores of man-eating crocodiles (one killed intended crewmember Hendri Coetzee less than a year before) that patrol the river alongside massive vicious hippopotamuses. A 7-man team tried to conquer the rapids in 1985, and all but one—whose body was found downstream—disappeared altogether.


Dean Potter FreeBASEs The Eiger

In August of 2008, Dean Potter created a new sport, combining free solo climbing (just you and the rock—no ropes), and BASE jumping (jump from tall stuff wearing a low-altitude parachute). He climbed the North Face of Switzerland's famed Eiger via the Deep Blue Sea (5.12+) route with nothing but a five-pound parachute on his back. After pumping through a technical arête and deftly avoiding loose sections of rock, he flung himself off the top and, with the pull of a ripcord, drifted gently to the ground, and safety. In doing so, Potter invented freeBASE and became perhaps the first-ever climber to purposely let go.

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Here's Alexander Polli in action:

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