October 28, 2020
On October 27, 1995, the day prior to the show date, Jay wanted to test the wire. I had never seen him perform, and didn't know what to expect. 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.
The skywalk began at 11:04 am on October 28, 1995.
In 53 minutes, Jay skywalked along the highwire 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 heart stopping.
Jay and I had gained a rapport, and flying to the start side of the wire, 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 scared 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.
The Great China Skywalk was commissioned by the China Sports Federation to bring international attention to the Three Gorges, and give the outside world a look at what life was like in this area of China.
The Three Gorges are Qutang Gorge, Wuxia Gorge and Xiling Gorge. Jay’s wire could be seen stretching 2,098 feet between the gorge walls, 1,340 feet above the Yangtze.
On my first trip to the wire with Jay, we rode a flat bottomed boat across the swift Yangtze River to the base of the Chalk Wall. Qutang Gorge from a boat on the river was cavernous, with current so swift that maneuvering to shore was a 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, several hundred meters wide and several dozen meters high, is a canvas completely covered with carved inscriptions dating from as far back as the Song Dynasty, 1,000 years ago. 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.
Cochrane, then 51 years old, 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 highwire had been raised above the Yangtze River to a height of 1,300 feet with just 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 took 5 to 6 hours.
On that morning of October 28, we flew in a Chinese military helicopter, first to the finish on the pinnacle of the Chalk Wall, where I left the helicopter, telling Jay I would see him soon. As it flew to the northern side of the Yangtze and Jay's starting point, I stood at the edge of a cliff looking at a cable which vanished from sight before reaching the other side.
Jay's protege, Clinton Randall, stood with me, as we anxiously awaited Jay's first step. Jay's voice crackled over Clinton's handheld radio, "It's time to make the donuts!" And with that his skywalk was underway.
The sight of Jay's white balancing pole, held in a specially designed shoulder harness designed to give him more stability, was the only way to spot him as he began his traverse. Watching it move over half a mile away was surreal. As I switched from telephoto to wide angle lenses, I joined Jay in his solitude on the wire. I understood his comment about "peace on the wire." He seemed to float across the sky towards me, growing larger in my field of vision. As he came within 20 yards of the outcropping I was using as a tripod platform, he spoke in a calm tone as he continued to watch the wire and glide forward, "I'm going to stop and take my sunglasses off, and then do a salute to the crowd."
He hadn't mentioned this at all. He removed his glasses while holding the 30-foot balancing pole with one hand, pocketed them, lifted his left foot to his right knee, and raised his left arm up in an open palm gesture, all while grinning broadly. He was in his element, with the mighty Yangtze River beneath his skywire. He seemed to tower over Qutang Gorge, like a conqueror in the sky. Finally Jay said, "Do you have enough?" I didn't know whether to laugh or actually tell him to put his damn foot down.
As he approached the end of the wire, cheers rose from every direction, carried on the wind within the walls of Qutang Gorge. As he stepped back onto the earth, Jay Cochrane turned and waved again to the cameras. ChinaTV had broadcast the skywalk live throughout the country. His triumph was viewed by millions.
Today, 25 years later, nothing is left of the greatest highwire performance in history. The Three Gorges Dam flooded Qutang Gorge to a depth of nearly 500 feet. Fengjie, the town that served as Jay’s base during the preparations and performance, is now submerged by the Three Gorges reservoir. The city was moved piece-by-piece, three miles up the mountain.