Kayaking Off a 189-Foot Waterfall in a Borrowed Boat

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Rafa Ortiz on Palouse Falls. Photo: Lucas Gilman/Red Bull Content

Let’s get this out of the way. Tyler Bradt kayaked off Washington’s 189-foot Palouse Falls first. That was in 2009, and he stayed in his boat the entire time. On April 25 of this year, when Mexican kayaker Rafa Ortiz dropped off of the lip of the same waterfall and hit bottom, the turbulence ripped him out of his kayak, stripping of him of his chance to officially tie Bradt’s world record.

Now, let’s refocus. Ortiz won't make excuses, but the truth is, it wasn’t his kayak. He borrowed the boat from a friend because the kayak he specially ordered to run big waterfalls didn’t make it on time. He went for it because the weather was turning and there was a team of roughly 25 people waiting for him to drop. So, after only three days of serious prep, spurred forward by a not-so-subtle hint from a trailing camera crew, he took off. But we’ll let him tell the tale.

We called Ortiz in Mexico on Wednesday and turned the conversation into an as-told-to below.

On Motivation:
The idea was actually pretty spontaneous. The first time it came up was a couple of months before. I was on the phone with Rush Sturges, my main partner. He owns a production company, and we’ve been working on a project together. The first stage was to go run the waterfalls of the Northwest. Just after I bought my ticket, he told me that Palouse Falls was pretty close. He said, I don’t know if you would be interested in running it? I said, Who knows, maybe I’ll check it out. But it wasn’t high on my list of priorities. In Washington, we were filming a TV show with 60 Minutes Australia. The producer was really fired up on Palouse, and he was one of the guys who was pushing. He was like, Yeah, if you guys ever think about running Palouse, this is the time to do it. And I was like, Um, yeah, maybe I’ll check it out. I’ll never do something for someone else. If I run a big waterfall, it’s got to be for myself. It can’t be because someone else wants me to do it. We went to go look at the waterfall three days before running it, and as soon as I saw it, I was like, This is so good. I just want to do it right now. But you can’t just do it whenever, you have to put together a team.

Rafa Ortiz on Palouse Falls. Photo: Lucas Gilman/Red Bull Content

On Team Work:
So three days later I was in my kayak with, if you consider the people in the helicopter, roughly 25 people on the scene. One of the big things was getting the film crew together. We needed a couple of videographers on the other side of the river, so they had to be kayakers. We also had to get a safety crew. I had all these boys who I knew would be there for me.

On Gear:
You can’t run a 189-foot-tall waterfall with the gear that you go and buy in the store. When Tyler Bradt did it, he had just finished a custom-designed skirt that would not implode on impact. I’d actually been working for a year on my own version. I was finishing the details on it for a couple nights before the drop, as well as working on a paddle leash. I don’t ever use a paddle leash, but I really wanted to use one for this waterfall just in case I ended up behind the waterfall.

There were a couple nights with no sleep. As soon as you make the decision to run something like that, it just comes to you. You have to do it as soon as possible; otherwise it will haunt you day and night. You want to be fully rested, but you can’t really fall asleep with your mind thinking about that kind of free fall.

The waterfall is pretty wide, but the ideal spot to hit it is not even two feet wide. You imagine you’re paddling into the abyss, kind of slowly, and at the last second, on the final flow, you’re trying to understand how the water is moving as you’re going over the edge. You study it for days, but until you’re in there? There are a lot of things you have to learn on the go.

The Line:
I did what I was dreaming about doing. I watched my hands do everything I thought they would, so I was stoked. Once I crossed the line and paddled into the abyss, I just started falling so fast. At the same time, I had to be taking the last strokes, the last little corrections. As I went down, I couldn’t really just close my eyes and pray for the best. I had to spot my landing, keep moving my body, keep my angle. It’s just tricky.

There’s one split second that was set in my brain for the rest of my life, and that is, when I saw down 189 feet and there’s this massive curler on the right and this massive current ahead. I just saw the whole thing, and I remember my last thought. I really shouldn’t be here. And then the monster swallowed me. I started falling so fast. It’s actually only 3.5 seconds, but by the way your brain is functioning, with so much adrenaline, it’s spinning so fast that every second feels like 10 seconds. It feels so slow. I remember falling and being like, Holy fuck, am I ever going to touch ground? Am I ever going to hit the bottom?

Rafa Ortiz on Palouse Falls. Photo: Lane Jacobs/Red Bull Content Pool

The Hit:
My skirt actually worked really well, and my paddle leash too. But here’s the funny part of the story. I actually ran it in a borrowed boat. I was waiting for a new kayak and it didn’t get there on time. The weather was not looking good and so that was the last day to run the falls. Eventually, my kayak showed up on the same day, but I had to borrow a boat from a friend. It was not stupid, but not ideal. You don’t really want to run that in a borrowed boat, but it was the only option I had. The problem was that the boat wasn’t tight enough. It wasn’t fitted for me. When I hit the bottom the turbulence was really hard and I just started getting pulled out. I was holding my paddle with my right hand and holding the boat with my left hand and there was just no way I was staying in. It just slowly pulled me out until I came out without wearing my skirt.

On the Record:
I didn’t actually tie the world record. I guess I’ll have to do it again. But I’m pretty happy. There’s a part of me, for a whole week afterwards, that wasn’t depressed, but going through a crazy state of mind. Stoked, but not stoked. I took so much out of that experience. It’s definitely one of the best things I’ve ever done, and I learned a lot. I did it not because I wanted to tie the world record. I did it because I wanted to try it. I wanted to feel what 189 felt like. I’ve been running the big waterfalls, and this was the next semi-natural step—because it’s not natural to go over that height. But it is the evolution of what we are all pursuing right now.

—Joe Spring

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