Interview: Rafa Ortiz on Hucking Waterfalls and Facing Death
The Mexican kayaking phenomenon opens up about relationships, going over his first waterfall, and why Outside is a bunch of bastards
The first time Rafa Ortiz paddled over a waterfall, he almost quit the sport. “I broke my paddle and came out bleeding,” the 25-year-old Mexican kayaker says. “I was like, ‘Yeah, this waterfall thing is definitely not for me.'”
Luckily for him—and for fans of extreme paddling—Ortiz decided to stick with it. While he isn’t a household name, Ortiz today is to kayaking what Greg Long is to surfing: young, hungry for calculated risk, determined, and committed to a relentless chase of the world’s biggest, toughest drops. Along with Ben Stookesberry, Ortiz did the first descent of the Alseseca River, and he was one of the young guns selected for National Geographic’s Amazon Express, a source-to-sea paddle of the Amazon.
At Barracuda Diner in Mexico City, Ortiz talked about how he landed sponsorship, why being part of kayaking’s evolution is better than breaking records, how he balances sport with the rest of life, and, oh yeah, why he thinks Outside is a bunch of bastards.
How did you start kayaking?
I was born in Mexico City. When I was four or five my dad bought a ranch in Veracruz; he wanted us to have an outdoor experience: to know cows, and sheep, and cow shit. It was really close to the Filebobos River and it’s good for rafting. So we started rafting when I was 8 or 10.
Around my 14th birthday and my sister’s 16th birthday, she went to a sports store with my dad; they saw kayaks with a 60 percent discount because no one would buy kayaks in Mexico City. My dad ended up buying two.
The first time we went to the river was with pool-toy lifejackets, pool-toy paddles, a skateboarding helmet, and not really anything to close the deck of the kayak with, and we looked like dorks. We showed up to the river, and everyone was like… “Um….”
Really gently one of them told us, “You guys need proper lifejackets, proper helmets, and proper sprayskirts to close the kayaks; you can visit a website and get all set up.” So we went home and we ordered all our stuff and I ordered kayaking videos. There was no YouTube then.
I started going to Canada in the summers and that’s where I learned my skills. But it was all playboating skills and freestyle tricks. It was hard because Mexico’s shallow. The rivers are like boulder gardens, they don’t form waves. Then I jumped into creekboating and it was like, “OK, Mexico is the new Mecca.” The Alseseca River was my backyard. I kept going to the river and taking pictures of the waterfall and I sent a mass email to kayakers: “Yo! All you guys who are pros, check this out!” They never answered, never came.
Then, I met Ben Stookesberry. I had no idea who he was. He was like: “Yo, dude, you’re from Mexico, right? We’re going to do the first full descent of the Alseseca.” Nick, my Canadian bro, was finally gonna come to Mexico, so I was like, “We should all get together.”
The next thing we knew, Nick and I were hanging off a tree, rappelling down with our kayaks attached to our bodies. Our first waterfall was a 40-footer. I had never run a big waterfall or anything, but we get to this place where the river gets canyoned in and a horizon line just falls clean, straight. They’re like, “Yeah, um, we forgot to tell you guys about this one but, um, we can’t really scout it and we can’t really walk around it because we’re already rolled in, so um, just go straight down the middle.” That was our introduction to waterfall hucking.
I broke my paddle and came out bleeding. I was like, “Yeah, this waterfall thing is definitely not for me.” But then we went to the Alseseca and we ended up running a 65-footer. So my first experience was horrible, but it started getting better. I love the feel. I love danger.
When and how did the Red Bull sponsorship start?
Four years ago. When I was a kid, I met this photographer, Mauricio Ramos. He put me on the cover of Mexico Desconocido [a Mexican travel magazine]. Mauricio was kind of like my godfather. “You have to talk with these guys [at Red Bull]. Here are their names, here are their numbers. Call them and tell them that you’re sick.”
So here’s me on the phone, a 16-year old kid, calling Red Bull Mexico’s rep: “Yeah, hello? Is this Ernesto? How ya doin’, man? So, I’m Rafa, I’m 16, I’m a kayaker, and I’m sick!”
I waited months. Anyway, Ernesto happened to be really good friends with a guy I met on the river. He saw Ernesto and he was like: “Dude, do you know this kid Rafa? He’s super sick.” So they started giving me cans [of Red Bull]. But from there to having a helmet, it’s hell. It’s like from being a little cockroach to being cool.
Other sponsors give you gear, but you can’t make a living off that. When you get into a company like [Red Bull], it’s the vehicle to turn your hobby into a career.
Is it an open-ended contract?
It’s a two-year contract but I renew my budgets yearly. I sat down to sign a contract with Red Bull and I was super scared, it was like a 30-page contract. I was still in college and I told them, “I have to finish.” They always supported me. Now this is what I do: I travel. I love it. I could be in an office doing engineering and boring shit, you know?
You can do that later.
In the caption of a photo in Outside, it said you want to do Iguazu.
Bastards! I’ve been chasing that project for three years, but [the caption in Outside] was bad because [it could] jeopardize the project. I told them, “Bro, I can’t really [talk about it], it’s kinda under the table.” The next thing I know, I’m in [Outside].
I think it even said “this fall.”
Yeah, “this fall.” I kind of hate them because of that. And in the Brazilian [edition], there’s a whole article and a whole page about Iguazu. It actually jeopardizes the project because they haven’t given us permission.
It’s a national park on the border of three countries so it’s a nightmare. We went there last year with a crew of five cameramen, three photographers. We had the crew of your dreams for production; we had the crew of kayakers. Three days before flying, Brazil was like, “We just got selected as one of the seven natural wonders.” We sold the project a year or two before by saying, “We can get exposure for you guys” [for Brazil’s bid to get Iguazu listed as one of the seven natural wonders of the world]. They loved it because we were going to be the last little kick.
Red Bull Brazil was managing it, but they didn’t get the timing right. They were like, “You guys can’t do this anymore, it’s dangerous, if anything happens to Rafa it’s gonna be negative exposure.”
We switched sides and went to Argentina. Red Bull was really quick at establishing a good contact and they got us a meeting with the Iguazu Park director. We needed him to sign a paper to give us permission and rights for the footage and photos. We had permission from above, but the actual guy we needed to sign the paper was too afraid he’d lose his job, so he never signed. And we didn’t have the right water level. It was a shitshow. It just wasn’t the right time.
There was this moment when I was there. I was like, Dude, I could fucking do it. There were no photographers. We only had one cameraman on this side. I didn’t know, though, if it was going to jeopardize the rest of the project. I was thinking about my dad, my mom. My mom was crying; she had, my mom has, like a woman, like a mother, but something beyond that….
Big vidente. She had such a bad feeling about that trip. I decided I had to do it later. We have to convince the park authorities it’s safe, even though it’s not. But yeah, that’s a big dream.
Any other big ones?
I want to light myself up and run a 60-footer. On fire. Wouldn’t that be sick? That was the intro for a kayaking movie back in the day, but it was a little waterfall.
What is kayaking like in Mexico right now? Is it evolving and do you think that’s because of you?
Wait—before I forget, I have to make a note. I have to look for a fire specialist.
Uh, yeah, you should.
I don’t know where you find a fire specialist, but….
There’s a specialist for everything.
It’s harder in Mexico. In the U.S., you’d just go to Google.
Yeah, kayaking in Mexico is complicated. The big challenge is the culture. The culture I grew up in wasn’t about going out to the country. It was about going to watch the soccer game on Sunday. But the outdoors culture has been evolving. I see more young people wanting to get outside.
How does your girlfriend deal?
It’s definitely the biggest problem in any of my relationships. The girl I’m with right now, I actually fell in love with her because she was so independent. Her biggest thing is just me not being here. With Skype and Facebook and What’s App, we can talk easily. I hate being on a trip and talking to my girlfriend all the time. But I cherish her so much.
There’s that constant tension between trying to devote yourself completely to your passion and trying to have a toe in the rest of the world and have normal relationships.
I’ve been going through that in my mind. I’m always dedicated, 200 percent. But sometimes I’m like, life isn’t all about fucking being the best. It’s also about friendships, your relationships. What about my girlfriend calling me, and saying, “Hey, Raf, I really want to have lunch with you”? I want to learn more about letting go a little bit. Appreciating non-productive things.
But that’s part of your evolution, right? You learn to renegotiate it every day.
It’s definitely hard. It’s also with my parents. Last time I was in Mexico I was here three days. I had lunch with [my parents], but I was on the phone the whole time. And my dad was super-pissed. I felt bad. Even though this kayak career is awesome, I can’t just quit the rest of my life.
Here’s a quote. It sounds like it’s from a rap song, but it’s actually from a good writer. [Ed. note: It’s from Joseph Campbell, and Rafa recited it from memory]: “Eternity isn’t some later time. Eternity isn’t a long time. Eternity has nothing to do with time. Eternity is that dimension of here and now which thinking and time cuts out. This is it. And if you don’t get it here, you won’t get it anywhere. And the experience of eternity right here and now is the function of life.”
For me, eternity is being at that waterfall, looking down. Leading to that moment. That second.
When you’re looking down, though, is there also fear?
Oh yeah. You’re fucking terrified. You’re thinking you’d rather be watching TV.
What do you do to deal with the fear?
Fear is good because it concentrates you. Fear is what ends up releasing the adrenaline that gives you superpowers that let you do incredible things. What you want is to turn that fear into semi-relaxed concentration. I’ve been working a bit with a psychologist to do Tibetan monk exercises, finding that zone.
It takes four seconds from when you get to the lip to when you get to the bottom. Those four seconds feel like 20 seconds. When your brain subconsciously realizes that this could be the end of your life, there is something different. When you run a 190-footer, you’re scared because you realize you could die. I’m only 25. I know I can do it, but I also know that if I fuck it up, I can die. I can end up like a mosquito against the windshield. It takes your mind to a different level.
Yeah, I don’t think there are words for that.
[Gets ready to read something] This is from a friend of mine who was paddling in the Congo. It’s a pretty brutal story. One of my friends sees a baby crocodile and starts paddling to catch up with the rest of the group. Mother crocodile comes out of the water and devours my friend.
Have you read his blog?
Ah, dude, that’s what I was going to read.
But read it again.
OK. “Feelings, do they make you soft? … I had the feeling I might be doing something I should not. I pushed through the doubt…. Two nights later another doubt surfaced as I lay safely in my sleeping bag…. The next morning … I hardly gave the matter anymore thought and was just about to put in when Ben called me over to look at the line again. Either it had changed, or we had all misread it the day before…. It is doubtful I would have made it and the consequences would have been fatal. It is hard to know the difference between irrational fear and instinct, but fortunate is he who can. Often there is no clear right or wrong option, only the safest one. And if safe was all I wanted, I would have stayed home…. Too often when trying something no one has ever done, there are only three likely outcomes: Success, quitting, or serious injury and beyond. The difference in the three are often forces outside of your control. But this is the nature of the beast: Risk.” [Rafa pauses reading]. He just grabs that and puts it in words so well, so exact.
Anyway, he goes on talking about the last river they ran, that it was magical, but they were chased by the army because they had to put in illegally: “We stood precariously on an unknown slope deep in the heart of Africa, for once my mind and heart agreed, I would never live a better day.”
Those are his last words. It’s crazy. He almost knew what was going to happen.
Yeah, but he just had the best day, right?
He died young. He didn’t get to share experiences with his kids, but to me the big thing is: OK, which one is life? Is this life the short one that you live in the moment and you get eaten by a fucking crocodile deep in the heart of Africa? Or one where you take gasps of pollution every day, work in an office, wanting to buy a frigging Audi that you can’t afford?
I had one moment myself where I ran a waterfall in San Luis Potosi, el Mico. We ran it super-low, kinda fucked up the line, ran it upside down. I almost killed myself. I had a full-face helmet and I broke it. If I was not wearing that helmet, I would have died. I was actually upside down at the bottom of the drop. It was the only time in life when I’ve actually accepted death.
I got out of the river and walked to an outlook and sat there looking at the water for two hours. I was crying so hard. “Ok, you’re slowly driving your life into this sport that can maybe kill you. But you’re a rational, smart person. Are you doing this because there’s no other option? Because you’re making commitments you can’t quit? Like the Red Bull sponsorship? Or are you really doing this because this is what you want to do?” And I made a pact with myself: “OK, I’m willing to live a shorter life and I will accept that rationally. I will make that decision in exchange for living the best life that I can possibly live.”
Have you run Mico again?
No. But I want to. I definitely will.