Standing an incredible 189 feet (57 metres) tall, the Palouse Falls in the US state of Washington are even higher than the legendary Niagara Falls. Extreme kayaker Rafael Ortiz, of Mexico, recently paid them a visit – and became only the second person ever to paddle over the edge.
For Rafael ‘Rafa’ Ortiz, water has more than just one dimension. The 24-year-old Mexican, who has developed a reputation for spectacular freestyle kayaking adventures, is what you might call a specialist for vertical water. After conquering the Big Banana Waterfall (130ft/40m) in his native Mexico in 2010, Ortiz recently took things to the next level as he set his sights on the world record set three years ago by America’s Tyler Bradt, the only person to have kayaked the infamous Palouse Falls.
Following meticulous preparation work, Ortiz selected the slightly calmer right-hand side of the river for the stunt. “You can steer the kayak with your body a bit for the first 30 or 40 feet, but then the water takes over,” he explained ahead of the attempt.
The impact of hitting the churning white-water at the bottom was so intense that the Mexican was catapulted out of the kayak, meaning that – according to community rules – the jump cannot be officially recognised as equalling Bradt’s world record. Nevertheless, the breathtaking feat is yet another highlight in the career of Rafael Ortiz, who is currently on a mission to find and conquer the world’s most spectacular waterfalls.
You’re only the second person ever to run the Palouse Falls, which at 189 feet are 17 feet higher than Niagara. Where did the impetus to take on this feat come from and how long had you planned for it?
Well, I’ve been running really big waterfalls for a while now. I’m from Mexico and I think it’s one of the best destination in the world for big waterfalls. I started running these waterfalls about five years ago and then about a year and a half ago I did the second biggest one so far, at Big Banana falls, which is on the Rio Alseseca in Veracruz, Mexico. That one was 130 ft (39.6 metres) and that was kind of what moved it along to doing the Palouse Falls. I’m also working with [fellow kayaker] Rush Sturges on a project we’re calling ‘Chasing Waterfalls’. We’re basically making a documentary movie in which we step up to some of the biggest waterfalls on the planet, so this fitted right in.
The decision was as quick as that?
Yes and no. When Tyler Bradt did it three years ago it was just a huge moment. It meant so much to our kayaking community. He did it in such a great way – he proved to the world that this kind of thing is possible. That kind of inspired me. I needed to feel it for myself.
The other thing I think you have to understand about these big waterfalls is that there’s something personal in them. Tyler grew up pretty close by to Palouse and I grew up close to what I think of as my waterfall, the Big Banana Falls. We all grow up and kayak around these rivers and you see this waterfall for years and you wind up dreaming about it. I think it was same for him with Palouse. The waterfall’s always there in the back of your mind, haunting you and teasing you until you have to take it on.
What’s the mental preparation to do something like this? How do you steel yourself to go over the edge?
That was definitely the hardest thing. One of the more scary moments is when you realise you are ready to go for it, when you see it and you make that mental switch from being all chilled to saying ‘yes, I’m going to run a 190-foot waterfall’. I don’t think I slept well at all before it or immediately after it. It was like five consecutive nights of total restlessness.
You’re all hyped-up on adrenaline.
I guess so, let’s face it, it’s pretty frikkin’ scary, man! It’s pretty far from human limits. You’re not supposed to do these kind of things! Also, there was a thing that kept going through my mind, which was that your biggest dreams, the things you always want to achieve, can very quickly turn into your biggest nightmare. There’s a very thin line there.
Did that go through your mind when you were in the water?
Definitely. The whole time. And it was a long time. We had a film crew on one side and we also had a helicopter coming to film and everything was scheduled around that. We were waiting for this helicopter, which was coming in from around two and a half hours away, and eventually we got the call that the chopper would arrive in 10 minutes and that we should get prepared. Those 10 minutes went by and turned into half an hour and then eventually it turned into a full hour. I went to this little, tiny rock ledge and I just looked at this beast – the waterfall. But then I just listened to it and closed my eyes and did this little meditation exercise and tried to relax, feel it and embrace it. But really, the last thing you want to do when you’re going to run a big waterfall is wait! Eventually I put some earplugs in, and that just helped dissolve the tension. I could disappear into myself then. I got into the boat and just paddled out into the flow.
Could you appreciate what it was like or did it all happen too quickly?
You just flow with it. You know what you have to do. Suddenly it’s not a dream or a nightmare, it’s real, it’s happening, and you’re right there in it. As you approach it, it’s almost like slow motion. And then you hit the edge. You look down and you just think ‘shit, this is like nothing I’ve ever done before’. And right until the last second you’re making adjustments and correcting your line. Then you’re over and it is totally crazy. The waterfall has this flow you slide down and it gives you an angle. That’s maybe the first 30 or 40 feet. And then you just completely disconnect from it and you really start to freefall. At that moment I was just enveloped by the beast. There was this massive curler falling around me and all these different, flaking pieces of water hug you and take you on this huge ride. It was incredible. That’s the memory I most take away from this.
What about when you reach the bottom. How big a hit was that?
It’s a lot – a pretty big hit. Your natural reflex is to be terrified and to close your eyes, hug yourself and your boat and pray. But what you have to do is keep your eyes open, and really focus on your target. You need to end up hugging your boat and lean as far forward as possible, flat on the boat. You have to hold on to your paddle as well. There’s so much happening when you land that you can end up behind the waterfall so you have to have your paddle. The impact wasn’t so bad, though. I think I’ve had worse from other waterfalls. There is a factor of the angle you hit at and also, the bigger the waterfall, the bigger the aeration of the water at the bottom, so it’s not that hard an impact.