10 Of History's Most Death-Defying Stunts

From Evel Knievel to Felix Baumgartner, these guys really love a thrill

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Most people don't get a kick out of jumping off cliffs or walking across a tightrope suspended hundreds of feet above ground, but for those who do, we salute you.

From Evel Knievel to Felix Baumgartner, here are 10 gut-wrenching, awe-inspiring stunts that have made us collectively scream "nope!" at the top of our lungs.

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1 | Harry Houdini's Chinese Water Torture Cell and Suspended Straightjacket Escape

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Harry Houdini made a name for himself in the late 19th century and early 20th as an illusionist, often performing dangerous escape acts and stunts. Two of his performances, the Chinese Water Torture Cell and the Suspended Straightjacket Escape involved Houdini making his way out of seemingly impossible situations, usually shackled and handcuffed, either submerged under water or suspended over a building. It might not seem that death-defying compared to today's stunts, but at the time, they were jaw-dropping.
 

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2 | Yakima Canutt's 'Stagecoach' Fall

Movie stunts are often overlooked when talking about daredevil performers, but the truth is it's an art form almost as old as movies themselves. One of the first iconic stuntmen was a rodeo rider from Washington named Yakima Canutt, who went on to be a star on the big screen. His most famous stunt was in a scene from John Ford's 1939 Western classic Stagecoach, in which Canutt jumps from his own horse on to a stagecoach's horse team, falls down, and slides underneath the stagecoach itself. Canutt set the stage for decades of iconic film stunts, and will forever be remembered for that scene.


3 | Evel Knievel Jumps 14 Greyhound Buses

Evel Knievel is arguably the most famous daredevil in history. On 15 October, 1975, he performed one of his most memorable stunts when he successfully jumped 133 feet over 14 Greyhound buses on a Harley-Davidson XR-750 at Kings Island theme park near Cincinatti, Ohio. The stunt remains Knievel's longest successful jump.
 

4 | Philippe Petit's Twin Tower tightrope walk

Tightrope walking has long been a traditional form of performance art in many places all over the world, and Philippe Petit is no stranger to that tradition. Walking high wires since he was 16, Petit still performs death-defying stunts in New York City and all over the world, and he's now well into his 60s. His claim to fame, however, is undoubtedly the widely covered high wire walk between the Twin Towers of New York's World Trade Center in 1974. Unauthorised, Petit and his team secured a cable that connected the two roofs, sitting a cool quarter mile above the ground, and he subsequently performed for 45 minutes as the city watched from below. To learn more, watch Man on Wire, a fantastic documentary about Petit and the entire event.


5 | Jackie Chan's Helicopter Stunt from Police Story III: Supercop

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There's a certain type of respect that moviegoers give to actors who perform their own stunts. Tom Cruise is probably the most notable example, but China's biggest movie star and stuntman, Jackie Chan, has a few stunts under his belt that would give Cruise a run for his money. We all know Chan as the charismatic action comedy star from such American blockbusters as the Rush Hour franchise, Around the World in 80 Days, and the 2010 remake of The Karate Kid, but while he was making a name for himself in Hollywood, Chan never abandoned his dedication to the Hong Kong movie scene, continuing to perform some of the wildest movie stunts ever seen. This scene from the 1992 Hong Kong action movie Police Story III: Super Cop is a testament to that. In it, Chan jumps onto a rope ladder suspended from a helicopter and hangs on while it zooms about the city. Here is a great clip of him recounting how scared he felt while filming it.

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6 | Nik Wallenda's Niagra Falls Tightrope Walk

As crazy as it may sound, tightrope walkers tend to find the act therapeutic at times. At least that's how acrobat and daredevil Nik Wallenda recalls his remarkable high wire stunt over Niagara Falls in 2012. As millions of people watched from the ground and on TV, Wallenda, a 7th-generation member of the world-famous stunt-performing family The Flying Wallendas, became the first person to walk a tightrope directly over the falls. Since the stunt was to air live on network television, he was forced to wear a harness, but that doesn't take away from how terrifying the whole thing looked.
 

7 | Alexander Polli's Wingsuit Cave Flight

Wingsuit flying is a relatively new phenomenon, albeit already gaining huge popularity among daredevils. In 2012, experienced WiSBASE (a combination of Wingsuit and BASE) jumper Alexander Polli became the first person to hit a wingsuit target, which was made from foam and stood about 10 feet above the ground. In 2013, he starred in a viral YouTube video in which he flew through a narrow cave with an entry point about as wide as he is tall, reaching speeds of about 155 mph.
 

8 | Herbert Nitsch's Near-Fatal World Record for Deepest Free Dive

Remember swimming to the bottom of the deep end and feeling the pressure in your head and ears? Multiply that by 1,000. That's probably how Austrian free diver Herbert Nitsch felt after breaking his own world record for deepest free dive in 2012. Set previously by himself at 702 feet a few years earlier, Nitsch broke the record after sinking down to 831 feet without a single breathing apparatus. Free divers can often hold their breath for up to 15 or 20 minutes at a time, though obviously testing the limits can sometimes be life-threatening. On Nitcsch's 831-foot ascent, the diver experienced narcosis from elevated CO2 levels in the blood and was exhibiting serious symptoms of decompression, prompting emergency divers to give him oxygen in the last ten meters.
 

9 | Valery Rozov's Mount Everest BASE Jump

BASE jumping is like skydiving's riskier cousin. Often from a fixed structure like a building or a cliff, BASE jumpers face significantly more danger than skydiving, as they're jumping from lower altitudes, and usually in areas that are riddled with obstacles. Russian BASE jumper Valery Rozov pulled off the highest BASE jump in history in 2013 when he lept off the north peak of Mount Everest in a wingsuit. That's a vertigo-inducing 23,690 ft.
 

10 | Felix Baumgartner's Red Bull Stratos Jump

Probably one of the more heavily covered stunts of the digital age, skydiver Felix Baumgartner's 24-mile jump from the stratosphere was an exhilarating event to say the least. According to YouTube, 9.5 million people watched as Baumgartner jumped out of a capsule with GoPro cameras attached to his suit, fell 128,100 feet while reaching a maximum speed of 843.6 mph (Mach 1.25) and being the first person to ever break the sound barrier without any engine power. While Google executive Alan Eustace broke Felix's record in 2014 by jumping from 130,000 feet, our stomachs still turn every time we watch this video.

This article was originally published on Popular Mechanics

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