Jay Cochrane describes Skywalk 2012, the greatest Building-to-Building highwire performance in North American history as he walks on the wire.
From July 6, 2012, to Sept. 24, 2012, he set a distance record of 11.81 miles (19.01 Km) on the 1,300 foot long highwire from the Skylon Tower (521 feet) to the Hilton Fallsview Hotel (Canada's tallest hotel at 581 feet).
In 2005, the "Skylon Tower Skywalk" by Jay Cochrane began atop the 32-story (364 feet height) Niagara Fallsview Casino, traversing a distance of 1,250 feet, and finished atop the Skylon Tower at a height of 520 feet.
Jay's performance was astounding, set to music as he talked to the crowd below, giving the spectators a first-hand experience of what it is like to be on the wire.
On October 28, 1995, Jay Cochrane stepped onto a thin steel wire a quarter mile above the Yangtze River in China's legendary Qutang Gorge for his greatest show.
In 53 minutes he skywalked 2,098 feet to the Lion's Face of the gorge, 1,345 feet in the air (higher than the World Trade Center), an accomplishment recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the greatest wirewalk in history.
by Mark D Phillips
In 1995, Jeff Blumenfeld, a long time client, approached me and said, "How would you like to photograph the greatest skywalk ever in China by a man named Jay Cochrane."
I had never heard of skywalking or Jay Cochrane before. I had seen high-wire performances in circuses, but the idea of someone walking a wire over a river was something hard to imagine and something I desperately wanted to photograph.
Jay’s skywalk would take place deep in the interior of China and he needed someone who could guarantee the delivery of a photographic image to the western media. Digital technology was the only option for accomplishing this. I had positioned myself as one of the leaders in the field.
The Great China Skywalk was commissioned by the China Sports Federation to bring international attention to Qutang Gorge and give the outside world a look at what life was like in this area of China.
Qutang Gorge, described as China’s Grand Canyon on the Yangtze River, was soon to be inundated. The Three Gorges Dam would be the largest hydropower station and dam in the world, with a 370 mile-long reservoir. The dam would cause the water to fill Qutang Gorge to a depth of nearly 500 feet and cover more than 100 towns.
Clinton Randall and Steve Sless stand in Qutang Gorge cave near Fengjie, China, on October 23, 1995. Part of Jay Cochrane's Great China Skywalk team, the two found the cave along the riverbank of the Yangtze River. The area is now far underwater.
Fengjie, the town that served as Cochrane’s base during the preparations and performance, was located at the western end of Qutang Gorge and is now totally submerged by the Three Gorges reservoir. The new city was moved piece by piece, three miles up the mountain.
The approach to the 2,300-year-old town was magical, rock stairs that looked as old as the mountains they were set in, climbed from the water’s edge to the city center.
When our hydrofoil docked at the stairs after a 36 hour train and river expedition from Beijing, all you could think about were the stairs. Stretching from the river’s edge, they looked like a stairway to the top of a mountain. Four of us had traveled from Beijing together to work on The Great China Skywalk. We looked at our luggage, looked at the stairs, and laughed. How could we possibly get all of this all the way up there? We didn’t have to worry. Jay had arranged for porters who appeared immediately.
Fengjie was old. It felt old. It also felt untouched by western tourism. We saw no other westerners as we drove through town. Everyone watched us. Our hotel became known as the Fengjie Marriott to those of us who took up residence. Local officials had revamped the hotel in preparation for Jay’s arrival, bringing it up to three star “luxury.” As we entered the gate to the hotel, we immediately saw the lines painted on it saying, “This is where the water will rise.” The old town will disappear.
In Beijing, I met three other members of Cochrane’s team: Rik Paulsen, of Paulsen Wire Rope, the company that manufactured Jay’s walk wire in Pennsylvania; Mike Wilson, who had helped negotiate Jay’s performance deal from his company, International Special Attractions; and Steve Sless, a marketing and public relations expert from New Jersey who worked for Trump Entertainment.
Meeting Jay Cochrane for the first time was daunting. When we shook hands in the courtyard of the hotel in Fengjie, little did I know that we would form one of my greatest friendships. He was the consummate professional, not at all what I expected from a circus-performer. I quickly learned what a misnomer that was.
Jay Cochrane works on guide wires on the Chalk Walk along the Yangtze Rivier in Qutang Gorge attached to the skywire for the Great China Skywalk in 1995. ©Mark D Phillips
The 51-year-old Cochrane was a dervish. He was hard to keep up with, climbing the mountainside like a mountain goat, overseeing every aspect of the construction of his tiny bridge in the sky.
He had been in Fengjie for almost six weeks when we arrived. Jay’s one-and-a-half mile long walk wire had been raised above the Yangtze River to a height of 1,300 feet high with manpower. Chinese workmen built walkways up the mountainside to specially constructed locations for the start and finish of the walk. The mountainside where Jay’s wire was placed could only be accessed by boat, then a two mile hike up the muddy, newly built trail. To get from one side of the wire to the other, without walking across it, took 5 to 6 hours. Jay predicted a 1-hour walk on the 1-¼ inch thick cable.
Cochrane was born In Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, but now lived in Ocala, Florida. His story was classic. At 14, he ran away from home and joined the circus. After spending time trying different acts, he realized he loved the highwire.
In 1970, he was approached by a promoter who asked if he could walk a wire between two buildings. He said sure.
“I arrived to do the walk, and he took me to the top of one of Toronto’s tallest buildings,” Jay said. “I was terrified.”
With that, Jay’s career in skywalking was underway. His exploits took him over the arch in St. Louis and from the top of Spaceship Earth in Disney’s Epcot Center. Qutang Gorge was to be a new level of skywalk for Jay.
In 1974, a little known highwire walker named Philippe Petite snuck into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and strung a wire to set a record for the highest wirewalk. Jay had always worked legitimately. Now he had a chance to go higher than the skyscrapers of New York.
The Three Gorges, are Qutang Gorge, Wuxia Gorge and Xiling Gorge. Within Qutang Gorge, Jay’s wire could be seen stretching between the canyon walls, silhouetted against the blue sky. It stretched 2,098 feet between the gorge walls, 1,340 feet above the Yangtze.
Jay Cochrane crosses the Yangtze River on his way to setup The Great China Skywalk. ©Mark D Phillips
Qutang Gorge from a boat on the river was cavernous, with current so swift that maneuvering to shore was almost like doing battle. Carved into the northern mountainside, 300 feet high, is the Plank Road, built around 300 AD to improve travel and communication when flooding or storms prevented travel on the river.
The Chalk Wall, located on the southern shore of the Yangtze within the gorge, is history preserved. Several hundred meters wide and several dozen meters high, the wall is a canvas completely covered with carved inscriptions dating from the Song Dynasty, 1,000 years ago. The finely executed characters are in different styles of calligraphy, including seal characters, official script, regular script and running hand. “Eulogy on the Virtues of Revival of the Song Dynasty”, an essay of over 980 words written by the Southern Song calligrapher Zhao Gongsuo, is carved on the cliff wall in a space 4 meters high and 6.78 meters wide. Two characters named "Qutang Gorge" were carved by Zhang Boxiang of the Qing Dynasty over 400 years ago, each measuring 1.70 meters in width.
In a land where manpower raised a quarter-ton cable across a gorge, I arrived with cameras, developing equipment and computer equipment to send a photograph back of something that involved nearly no technology. The situation was not lost on me. It was like arriving on a distant planet. There were some basics. We had electricity, hot water and a phone. With those three items, almost anything is possible.
State of the art in photography involved the use of color negative film and highly caustic chemicals used in its development. In America, I could go to any drug store and have a roll of film processed for one or two dollars. The one hour photo labs in Fenjgie were quite different. Scratches and under developed film were the norm - it would not work when the film counted. Digital cameras had not become the norm.
Having transported several packages of dry color negative chemicals and a developing kit along with me, I began hand processing my film at the hotel. Each day when I returned to the hotel, I would order a pot of hot water. A steward would appear with the pot and a tray of tea choices. I tried to explain that the water was to be used for developing film, but communication was a large issue.
“In the days leading up to Jay’s skywalk, we had a unique experience for westerners,” Steve Sless recalled. “Fengjie was not a stop for tourists. Everywhere we went we would draw huge crowds, and just stare at each other. But everyone reacted to Jay.”
On the day prior to the performance, Jay wanted to test the wire. He had never performed a skywalk on this level, over such a huge distance, with no man-made structures involved. As we watched, Jay stepped onto the wire, moving his feet back and forth, getting the feel of its many strands. Moving farther out the wire, the crowd seemed to stop breathing. Everyone was absolutely still and quiet. Jay stopped and ever so slowly, walked backwards, toe to heel, back to earth. It was spellbinding. That moment gave me the understanding that I was photographing an incredible moment. This man would stand on a sliver of wire, a quarter of a mile high over the rushing water of the Yangtze River. These pictures would never be recreated. It truly was a once in a lifetime experience.
Jay Cochrane, "The Prince of the Air", practices for his skywalk over the Yangtze River in Qutang Gorge, China, on October 27, 1995, the day before the actual performance. ©Mark D Phillips
Jay and I had gained a rapport, and flying to the start side of the wire in a Chinese military helicopter, Jay’s demeanor showed how relaxed and prepared he was. The day before, as Jay had taken his first steps on the wire, I had never been so terrified for another person. But Jay had said to me, “The only time I have any peace is on the wire.”
As we flew over Fengjie and Qutang Gorge, thousands of people could be seen walking and standing along the paths to the top of the Gorge walls. There was no way to accurately measure the number of people who had traveled to this location to witness Jay walking across the sky. Yangtze cruise ships lined the banks of the river. It was a moment frozen in time.
The skywalk began at 11:04 am. In 53 minutes, Jay skywalked the wire from the north side to the south side of Qutang Gorge. It was one of the most thrilling, spectacular, and terrifying events ever witnessed. Seeing Jay balanced on a wire, higher than the World Trade Center, suspended between the magnificent cliffs of Qutang Gorge, was unimaginable. In every event, their is the money-shot. Jay posing on one foot with his hand raised in triumph while still on the wire is the image from The Great China Skywalk. The photograph will outlive us both.
Jay Cochrane acknowledges the crowd with his signature one-foot salute during The Great China Skywalk over the Yangtze River in Qutang Gorge, China, on October 28, 1995. ©Mark D Phillips
I will never forget my friend Jay Cochrane or those magical days in China. We would have many more experiences over the next 20 years with skywalks in Taiwan, Canada, China, and multiple locations in the United States. Jay would always talk about Fengjie and the amazing enlightenment we felt during our contact with the ancient city, dignified people, and physical beauty of Qutang Gorge. It was a defining moment for both of us in our careers and our journeys through life.
We always talked of going back. During our last gig together, Skywalk 2012 in Niagara Falls, we actually discussed going back in 2014. But fate intervened as one of my best friends lost his battle with cancer.
Jay Cochrane will live forever in the grandness of his accomplishments. Performer. Philanthropist. Humanitarian. A remarkable human being.
The day after The Great China Skywalk, newspapers across the world featured Jay Cochrane's amazing accomplishment above the Yangtze River in Qutang Gorge.
JayCochrane salutes his audience from the wire in Qutang Gorge, high above the Yangtze River in The Boston Globe on October 29, 1995.
ORDER ONE of the LAST COPIES of JAY COCHRANE: MY LIFE
The DVD was Jay Cochrane's final project, bringing together his story for all of us to know what he sought to accomplish.
It is an intimate look into his amazing career.
There are a limited number of copies, so order yours now.
$20 with free USPS shipping within the US.