The Rio Tulijá is a remote white-water river that snakes its way through the rainforest of southern Mexico. Often called Agua Azul because of its swimming-pool-blue color, it features a stunning stretch of five waterfalls ranging from 40 to 70 feet tall. This past March, a team of four world-class kayakers—Rafa Ortiz, 26, Rush Sturges, 28, Evan “E.G.” Garcia, 27, and Gerd Serrasolses, 24—attempted to descend the falls as part of an expedition they were filming for a documentary. The previous day, they had become the first paddlers to drop all five waterfalls on the nearby Río Santo Domingo, arguably the steepest navigable section of whitewater on earth. The Agua Azul mission was to be their final day of filming:
RUSH STURGES: We were coming off the biggest descent of our lives and were tired and sore. I had two black eyes and a broken nose. We were really pushing ourselves to get this helicopter footage on the Agua Azul.
E.G.: We had driven six or seven hours in Rafa’s van, slept for like five hours, then woken up at about 6 a.m. The plan was to meet the heli in these flat pools about two-thirds of the way down to the big waterfall set.
RAFA ORTIZ: At the pools, I paddled upstream, away from the guys, to get in my zone, and Gerd kept practicing his hand rolls.
GERD SERRASOLSES: As soon as we saw the chopper, we all got fired up.
E.G.: We had scouted the hell out of the falls when we ran them a week earlier, so I knew exactly where I was going.
GERD: We had to pretty much go one after the other. I watched Evan drop over the lip, then Rush. I wasn’t too nervous. I had done it before and knew what I had to do. I went over and threw my paddle.
E.G.: I got out of my boat and was standing on a ledge about 25 feet from the base of the falls. I watched Rush come off. Gerd came next on a similar line, but he corked out and missed a few hand rolls.
GERD: I tried to roll up, but I wasn’t feeling any grab.
RUSH: E.G. and I were right there with throw bags, but I didn’t think it was that bad.
GERD: I tried to roll a few more times, then got pushed up against some rocks. I grabbed them, but my hands slipped and the water pushed me back down somewhere else.
RUSH: Gerd’s boat was full of water and spinning like crazy in this vortex of an eddy. We’re not seeing him come up. Fifteen seconds go by. Twenty. Thirty. I was like, Dude, we gotta do something.
GERD: I kept fighting to get to the surface, but I couldn’t get there. I remember opening my eyes and saying, Fuck, I’m running out of air.
RUSH: He’s under for about a minute and a half, and we’re panicking. I clipped E.G.’s rope into the back of my life jacket and went over to the spot where Gerd disappeared. I stuck my leg in the water and could feel it sucking down super hard, like a siphon. I didn’t want to go
E.G.: I looked downstream and suddenly saw Gerd’s yellow vest.
RUSH: He was facedown. It was the absolute worst-case scenario.
E.G.: I jumped into Rush’s kayak. No helmet, no skirt. I paddled like a bat out of hell in this heinously flat pool.
RUSH: Gerd was probably 100 yards downstream from us, and the next waterfall was coming up soon.
E.G.: Rafa actually ran the first waterfall while this whole thing was going on.
RAFA: At the bottom I looked around, and there’s no one there. Then I see Gerd floating facedown and E.G. and Rush chasing him.
E.G.: When I pulled him up he was super heavy—like some weird Jell-O object. I was screaming and slapping his back, then started in on CPR. Rush and Rafa got there about 20 seconds later.
RAFA: Gerd’s eyes were open a little but not showing life, and he was a mixture of white, purple, and black—the color you see in zombie movies.
RUSH: We were taking turns at CPR and slapping him in the face. It was a primal feeling, just the strongest desire to save a friend.
E.G.: I was yelling at him, “Come on, Gerd! Fight!” He was vomiting up some real nasty mucus and blood. Then we got the idea to pull off his life jacket, and we loosened the neck gasket on his drytop.
RAFA: For four minutes, we were doing CPR on a dead body. I don’t remember having much hope. But then he took a breath.
RUSH: His eyes literally lit up.
RAFA: That’s when I jumped up and started looking for the heli.
RUSH: The chopper hovered over the middle of the river. We carried Gerd to it, and Rafa jumped in with him. He was breathing a bit but still convulsing and coughing up water.
E.G.: After the chopper flew away, there was this weird quiet.
GERD: The next thing I remember is trying to wake up. I was hearing all these loud noises—the chopper, screaming—but I couldn’t react, and I couldn’t see anything. Inside, I was screaming to try and regain power. And then I woke up in the hospital in Palenque.