It's a simple act that often takes no more than a few seconds from beginning to end – but running a big waterfall is no easy feat. It takes planning and preparation. And the bigger you go, the more that can go wrong. If there's an expert on big drops, it's Mexico's Rafa Ortiz.
“The first thing you do is look at what's after the landing,” says Ortiz. “You survive the drop, but what happens next? Where is that water going? At Chiapas, which is maybe 90 feet [30m] high, the height isn't actually the scary part. It's that half of the water goes to the next drop. Half of the water goes to the safe side. If you break your paddle or pop your skirt, are you going over the next drop before you can recover?”
So what does that mean? It takes more than one person to drop a waterfall. “We have a worst-case scenario planned. There's six guys doing safety, and they have a rope across the river in case someone needs to go out and grab an upside-down boat.”
Once that's taken care of, it's time to pick the line. “You're often going down a ten-foot-wide [3m] chute, but your line is about the width of your boat,” says Ortiz. “The consequences of striking rock is serious. You could be thrown sideways or upside down in the middle of a 90-foot [27m] drop. The consequences of hitting flat? A broken back.”
That means Rafa is steering in the air, too. “It's all about pin-pointing your drop. And if you're going over the bars, you lean back, if you're going flat, you lean forward.” And how does Rafa like to hit the water? “I like to have the nose up a little bit, because it helps you resurface faster – and in the case of the 90-foot drop at Chiapas, a little bit of a left angle helped me pop out towards the left, the safe side of the river.”
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