Sunday, September 13, 2009
On Sept 7th 2007 Tyler Bradt set the World Record Waterfall Descent of Alexandra Falls at 107 feet. I too attempted the falls, but lost the record after my skirt imploded and I swam into a hideous pocket behind the curtain. A lot of people have asked me about my experience, and there has been a lot of misunderstanding as to what happened to me exactly. I thought I would use the 2 year anniversary to post the video on YouTube and tell the story as it was...
I had my mind set on running Alexandra Falls since the first time I saw Ed Lucero attempt it in 2003. Something about the Falls has always appealed to me despite the fact that it is a high risk drop. Looking at the pictures it's clear that there is an enormous cave behind the curtain, and the high volume would unquestionably be a ferocious hit. After running numerous 60-80 footers with my good friend Tyler in the 06/07 seasons I decided it was time to raise the bar a notch. Along with Brooks Baldwin and Patrick Camblin, we set off into Canada's Northwest Territories to film the Slave River along with Alexandra.
We arrived at Alexandra Falls on Sept 1st at 5:00 AM en route to the Slave. The frigid morning air was bitter on my hands as I raced down to the Falls. We were all excited to see it and I was praying that the water level would be reasonable. Frost coated the edge of the drop as I cautiously worked my way to the lip. When I got there and looked down, I let out a shout of excitement. The lip was perfect, and the water level couldn't have been better. At that moment I knew almost for certain that I would be running the drop. However, as a general rule it's better to not commit to a drop until the day the stage is set. For about an hour the 4 of us scouted from different angles and discussed various lines... The morning sun began to illuminate the banks of the river and we still had a few more hours of driving to go. The decision was made that we would stop at Alexandra on our way south in one weeks time. This would give us a week to practice and prepare on the Slave.
The next week was one of sleepless nights and crazy dreams. There are a lot of risks that go into running a drop of Alexandra's size, and to me impact was not my biggest concern. The cave was constantly on my mind. An inevitable skirt implosion could leave you in the pocket with no means of escape. Furthermore the icy cold water and inaccessibility of the cave were major factors. The only thing safety can do for you on this drop is pick you up at the bottom, alive or dead. There is no way to actually get into the cave behind the drop. All the risks weighed out, I did my best to not think about it too much. We focused on running big rapids on the Slave including a 2nd descent on the top of Pelican which hadn't been run since Lindgren and Fisher were in town. Each day that passed Alexandra grew closer and closer. We all talked about it constantly, and not a single one of us said they were going to run it for certain.
Finally on the night of Sept 6th we decided to pull some troops together. Our host Keith Morrison was unable to rally, but we managed to convince another local John Blyth to come along with some friends to set safety. We woke up early and drove the two hours to the Falls. On the drive we saw a few bears and moose in the woods. In the distance storm clouds started to roll in and spits of rain began hitting the windshield. I was really nervous. I was so set on running the falls that I was most likely going to do it rain or shine. Sunshine is always a nice thing to have so I prayed that the weather would let up. Amazingly, right as we pulled into the Alexandra parking lot, the rain ceased. After an hour of scouting the clouds cleared and the sun shone down upon us. I was ready to live the moment and have the falls behind me.
Camera angles are always the last thing I want to do when I'm about to fire up a stout. Nonetheless, I am a film maker and kayaker. I spent the next 2 hours orchestrating camera angles, discussing safety, the line, and worse case scenarios. Finally the stage was set. Tyler had made it clear that he was still uncertain if he wanted to run the drop. In typical Tyler fashion he would make his decision "in his paddling gear, with his boat, at the lip." Brooks filmed me walking towards the lip of the drop and I didn't really feel like being interviewed. The only words that I could muster were "this is what it's all about."
Tyler decides he is in to run the drop, and we begin the most substantial game of rock paper scissors up to this point in my life. To my disappointment, I loose, and Tyler is first to go. All I want to do is get the drop over with. Tyler has decided to try a different line then me. He feels it is safer to seal launch into the eddie then to run the hole at the entrance. Whatever line is safer is up for debate, but I feel the need to run the drop from the top, entrance and all. Tyler and I discuss the line a little longer, and then we both agree that this must be the highest level of adrenaline besides maybe going into warfare. I give Tyler the thumbs up, hit record, and the show is on. I try to focus on watching his line while filming at the same time. Tyler has a flawless line. He feathers the water the whole way down and lands beautifully. He is immediately pushed away from the falls. It's clear that he is stunned from the hit as it takes him about 10 seconds to respond to anything. No claim means it must have hurt. Nonetheless, he is in his boat, un injured, and a new world record holder. I am ecstatic to see he is ok, and I waste no time to get up to my boat.
My heart is pounding until I shove off into the water. At this moment, all becomes still, all becomes quiet. I splash my face and drift towards the lip, imaging the line in my head. To this point in my kayak career, I have never seen such a stunning visual. I hit the hole with a bit of left angle, but for a split instant I think I am too far left, and I re correct back to the right. It's a mistake as I am about 1 foot off line and just a little bit too far to the right. I disappear into the curtain. Although it can't be seen on video, my angle off the drop was everything I wanted. I took one continuous stroke the whole way down with my eyes on the landing. I'll never forget the sensation of having the water droplets falling with me and the curtain from river left illuminated with golden sunlight. I remember falling, and falling, and falling. When you go deep on a waterfall, as I did, you actually fall a lot further then the height of the drop. I went straight down with the falls prob an additional 20 feet under water. It's a wild sensation to land but feel no hit until you are well beneath the surface of the water. I remember the impact as being soft, like falling into a bunch of cotton. I felt my skirt implode immediately, but I still had enough air in my boat to surface up to the top. I remember being in my boat just a few feet from the surface, before the current pushed me all the way down into blackness. At this point, I exited out of my boat. The rest of the experience can be described as violent and frightening. I went deep down to the bottom of the falls before surfacing in a small air pocket behind the curtain. My head bobbed above water for a split second, enough time to inhale some air mixed with water, and then back down into blackness. I surfaced again behind the curtain, inhaling more oxygen mixed with water, and then back into blackness. Essentially what was happening to me is body recirculation, I was caught between the falls and the cave getting the beat down of my life. On my third time being pushed down, I had my first moment of panic. I believe my exact thoughts were "Dammit Rush you shouldn't have run this thing. Now you're going to drown here." For an instant I breathed in some water and then stopped myself. My rational self came in and suddenly I had an enormous surge of energy. After I surfaced again I started swimming as hard as I could into the curtain. I then cannon balled up in an attempt to try and go deeper then my previous attempts. After a few seconds of being under I knew I was getting pushed out. The current seemed to calm down, and way above me I could see a faint glimmer of light. I still had breath left, but I was close to drowning. I let my entire body relax and a sense of euphoria and calmness came over me. I'll never forget the surface coming closer and closer and my arms reaching out for oxygen. Finally I broke through and inhaled sweet air. Tyler was right next to me and I started smiling immediately.
I had nothing to say except a gargled "F*** that was sketch dude."
Tyler pulled me into shore and I laid in the mist of the falls, trying to take it all in. 107 feet above me the boys were screaming with excitement and relief. I was so happy to have the falls behind me and to still be alive. Luckily my boat surfaced at the same time as me and I was able to paddle it out of the canyon. As Tyler and I floated down stream we both looked back up at the falls and asked ourselves "What the f*** were we thinking?"
I didn't really reflect too hard on this experience until the weeks and months after the experience. It took me a little while to get "back on the horse" and start running big waterfalls again. My fear of caves has only been enhanced by this experience, and I have a huge level of respect for them. This is the closest i've ever been to drowning, and hopefully the closest I will ever come. I use this experience to my advantage, and it has only improved my judgement on running drops. I imagine someday someone will run the falls again, but I am not sure if I want to be there to watch.