From the Mag: ONE LIFE
What comes next? Pat Keller is contemplating just that, staring at the river-wide lip of a thundering 55-foot waterfall deep in southern Mexico’s ungoverned jungle. He studies the turquoise motion, visualizing his final stroke, anticipating how the current will catch the edge of his prototype creek-race kayak. If he can connect his initial free-fall onto a mid-drop ledge, causing his boat to glance left, an exit flume of water just might point his bow into a safer landing that’s now invisible in the cauldron of exploding mist.
If he wants to win this contest, he needs to do something new. This is not the first time Keller has contemplated new. By his count, he’s made “a dozen to 30” notable first descents since paddling his first kayak at age 7. A handful of kayakers have claimed as many firsts, won the same races, and executed equally dynamic lines in whitewater as difficult as the drop Keller is studying now. Nearly all of those paddlers are standing next to him, thinking through their own runs down the contest course’s main drop, which is bookended by a pair of more manageable 30-foot falls. If they want to win this event, they will have to run these critical waterfalls with creativity and style. They too will need to push. They too will need to do something new.
Three huge drops. One run, one chance, one champion—that is, one Rey del Rio.
Billed as paddling’s first-ever Waterfall World Championship, the event itself is the product of creativity and risk, a simple idea from two of the sport’s most passionate athletes embraced by a Mexican entrepreneur known for turning action sports competitions into lavish entertainment spectacles on accelerated timelines. Athletes Rush Sturges and Rafa Ortiz pitched their vision for the next evolution of kayaking competition: a judged freeride contest driven by a course that would push paddling’s most talented athletes to new levels. The desired course needed extreme features, and the ideal location was buried in equally extreme terrain, deep in the Lacandon Jungle of Chiapas, on ground long claimed by the revolutionary Zapatista movement.
No investors, least of all the Mexican Tourism Board, want anything to do with the Zapatistas. So the entrepreneur, Altius Events owner Ernesto Rivas, crafted a more marketable event for viewers of a special Televisa network broadcast, located at one of the region’s biggest tourist draws, a layer-caked series of waterfalls called the Cascadas de Agua Azul. If two days of made-for-TV competition went off without a hitch, no one would stop the kayakers from staging their own grassroots freeride event on the bigger drops a few miles downstream. Altius, with the help from a couple kayakers, would organize the massive Rey del Rio production in less than a month.
As the field of 24 talented athletes arrives on flights from as far as Moscow and Rotorua, days of heavy late-November rain transform the normally tranquil blue cascades into a brown blur riven with terminal holes. Competitors struggle through practice runs; Ortiz himself is roped out of a sticky hydraulic. The high water raises obvious questions about the wisdom of debuting a high-profile event on such dangerous and unpredictable whitewater, during the height of monsoon season, in rebel-controlled jungle.
Yet the opening day of the event dawns clear. Blue skies mean blue water. Ortiz bounds up a stone walkway on the river’s heavily developed right bank, part of a Mexican national park. He smiles and laughs, fielding a barrage of questions in English and Spanish, playing roles as both racer and key organizational liaison to the Altius team.
Sturges directs a small crew of videographers commissioned through his production company, River Roots, stationed on the opposite side of the river, which is controlled by the Zapatista community. A helicopter drone follows each competitor as they race the clock over a pair of travertine domes before a 15-foot vertical drop flowing into a sloping 40-foot finale.
A second clear day of dry weather and heated competition culminates in a final boatercross round pitting top qualifier Egor Voskoboynikov of Russia against Americans Keller, Dane Jackson, and Isaac Levinson. Voskoboynikov and Keller work different lines around the top island, only to reunite with a little bumping and grinding down the first slide. Keller sprints to a narrow lead and carries it over the final plunge.
In the finish pool, where rays of afternoon light cut through the canopy to illuminate the rising mist, Keller and his rivals share hugs and high fives. The hoots of other athletes echo over the cascades’ roar as they leap into the cool water and throw gainers off the adjacent falls.
There’s plenty to celebrate. No carnage. No waterfall landings onto other racers. No injuries. Even some early tension with the Zapatista community dissipates after Rivas negotiates an agreement for another day’s access. Given all the variables of risk, the scene seems a little too perfect. Too serene. Too serendipitous.
No one speaks about the one invited competitor who is not here to share all this. The loss is only a week old; it must weigh heavily on these young men, some of whom shared a bond with him deeper than brotherhood. No one seems ready to think about that now. The blissed-over levels of stoke are too high, and besides, there’s a party waiting.
The athletes pile into vans for the ride to Palenque’s outdoor events arena, where security teams usher the kayakers through the concrete complex to a VIP section overlooking an elaborate stage. On it, the Mexican-American pop duo Ha*Ash performs for throngs of locals who sing along with the sequined sister-act. They only go quiet for a set break, when an announcer leaps to introduce a stylish River Roots edit cut from the last two days on the Agua Azul. The crowd seems somewhat engaged by the bright boats and dynamic motion flashing on the Jumbotron, but doesn’t make the full connection until the newly crowned Rey del Rio walks on stage to accept a giant novelty check straight out of Happy Gilmore. As Keller holds his $3,000 prize above his head and gives out a holler, the crowd comes alive and fireworks kick the scene into full alternate-universe mode. Tonight, the kayakers truly are kings.
“So next-level,” Levinson says, back in the VIP section where he and the other kayakers are trying to make sense of having just stepped from a white-knuckle race to a room full of foreign dignitaries, gourmet cheeses, and as much top-shelf tequila as they can drink. This is far from the often itinerant life between competition and expedition of a professional kayaker—sleeping on friend’s couches, in cars or on the ground, supplementing a few sponsor dollars with work for some driving nails, or guiding rafts. Dave Fusilli was digging graves at the snowy, bitter end of a Pennsylvania fall when he received his expenses-paid invitation to compete in Mexico. Now he’s signing autographs and mugging for selfies with the teenage girls billowing over the crowd partition at the edge of the VIP section.
Fusilli didn’t think twice about accepting this invitation. Stranger though, is that Spanish competitor Gerd Serrasolses, didn’t think twice either. The next day’s competition will mark his return to the stretch of waterfalls where he drowned. No one mentions this incident either, in which the swift action of Ortiz, Sturges and Evan Garcia, together with the unlikely presence of a helicopter deep in the Mexican bush, literally brought Serrasolses back from the dead. On one of the stretch’s upper drops, Gerd tossed his paddle hoping for a smooth landing, only for the falls to hold him down, keeping him from hand-rolling up and separating him from his kayak. After Garcia chased down the body that floated out, he and Sturges applied CPR for four long minutes until Serrasolses coughed out a breath, and the chopper—on hand to film the team’s exploits—flew their near-lifeless friend to a hospital here in Palenque.
Nearly two years on, the memories haunt all involved. The least affected seems to be Serrasolses himself, who recovered from the incident and immediately went on a tear, winning the AWP Whitewater World Series title and lapping one of the world’s most consequential rapids, Site Zed on the Stikine. Still, his quiet demeanor hints at the degree of risk surrounding the freeride event tomorrow.But about that bottomless top-shelf tequila. This unique bro-hort is both close-knit and highly competitive. The day’s events fanned those flames of one-upmanship, and a Saturday night open bar is gasoline on the blaze. As the concert ends and parts of the group peel off for a fuller night’s sleep, the shenanigans only accelerate in downtown Palenque. Suffice to say that this mixture of ante-upping personalities, young and restless, equal parts friend and rival, makes for a potent cocktail. The onlookers at Tropic Tacos would never imagine this spectacle would take place the night before a limit-pushing event that rewards risk in a place where most paddlers would certainly never imagine taking any. It would be easy to chalk the night up to youth and machismo. Is it really that simple: a constant push for the next thrill or laugh? Do the consequences resonate at all, especially given what just happened to someone so connected to most of them?The next morning the competitors are focused as they put in with a handful of safety kayakers at the Cascadas to paddle a few miles down to the larger falls. The film crew follows overland on a primitive trail leading past a wooden fence that marks a boundary where, “the people rule and the government obeys.” The Zapatista movement gained notoriety 20 years ago, when masked gunmen took over towns and villages throughout Chiapas, including the area we’re entering. After an initial bout of bloodshed, the Zapatistas and the federal Army settled into an uneasy stalemate, largely because government troops stay off of rebel land. Though I’ve heard that the movement has shifted its emphasis from armed resistance to more peaceful forms of advocacy, the exposure feels palpable as we cross the barrier and two young men with machetes approach the crew. Israel Celis Mesura, the fixer who has accompanied countless kayak expeditions across Mexico, launches into a heated exchange with the men. The tension rises as they grab the box holding the drone-copter. Turns out they just want a little work. They lug the giant box past their rustic subsistence community and help hack a path to the edge of the falls.
Gone are the tourists, the endless souvenir stands and empanada shacks. Here there are no neon-colored MEXICO banners provided by the national tourism board, and no flak- jacketed members of the regional Policía Ciudadana y Popular strutting about with shoulder-slung assault rifles. Today it’s only the river and a select group gazing down at the series of high-volume, river-wide vertical falls, contemplating tough questions. How best to safely bring something new to the table? How to bring style to three back-to-back waterfalls, any one of which could at the least, break your back?
The last begs a question everyone has been discussing the last couple days: How do you quantify style objectively? James Byrd, the mastermind of Idaho’s North Fork Championship, the top-ranking kayak competition in the minds of this inner circle of athletes, has been flown in to answer that very question. He’ll settle the tough questions, such as “What if I break my nose but nail my line?” from Galen Volckhausen. As the athletes gather under thick shade trees overlooking the middle drop, Byrd and the athletes have just finalized the scoring system. Ortiz explains: Each of the three drops will be judged and scored separately on a 50-point scale, broken down into five separate 10-point categories, including three that define style (Approach, Free-fall and Landing), one for Flow, and a final bonus category for Progression. The more difficult middle drop’s score will be doubled, creating a total of 200 possible points.
There’s still a lot to weigh and add up. A missed trick on the first drop could set up a low score, or worse, on the difficult middle drop. Tossing your paddle on the big ‘un could mean a safer entry, or a loss of Flow points as you carp a hand-roll or grope for your paddle.
Byrd tells me his main interest is pushing kayaking forward. If one person lands a new trick, he says, four more are likely to follow. As the field self-selects into 14 takers, running in the reverse order of their time-trial finishes, the process unfolds just as Byrd hoped. Gerd Serrasolses’s younger brother Aniol and then Volckhausen kick off their runs with back freewheels on the first drop (paddling off the lip backward and rotating to a nose-first entry). That causes Ben Marr to scrap his plan to run the first drop straight, and throw a trick instead.
Sturges ups the ante with a huge crossbow stroke off the big drop and a last-second decision to add a barrel-rolling kick-flip before the lip of the last waterfall, setting up a back freewheel off of it.
The big drop commands everyone’s respect. New Zealander Sam Sutton tosses his paddle and tucks for a smoother entry, yet the deck-to-face impact still breaks his nose.
Others hold onto their paddles and pay the price; Gerd Serrasolses and Fusilli both break their paddles and charge over the last falls with single blades. However they approach the entry, every paddler chooses the same channelized line over the middle waterfall, seeking a vertical entry into the landing pool’s most aerated water.
Each competitor, that is, except for Keller. As the paddlers return to the rim after their runs to discuss lines, compare notes and watch the proceedings, Keller sits quietly in the shade, studying the middle drop. The weather is holding. Overhead sun illuminates a rainbow in the rising mist that bridges the steep jungle walls girding this pristine series of falls, which the area’s indigenous Maya people call Bolom-Ahau, or The Nine Kings. Keller, looking to keep his claim to the crown, launches a risky front freewheel off the top drop into a backward landing. Then he muscles his way right, toward the edge of the big drop and the novel step-down line he’s premeditated. It goes as he imagined: He rebounds off the lower ledge that directs him into a landing zone that no one else entertained, emerging from the spray of the falls with a pumped fist to whistles from high on the cliffs above.
“Today for some reason worked out,” Ortiz announces to the group awaiting the results back in Palenque. “Somehow water levels were perfect, somehow the sun came out, and everyone paddled perfectly, with no injuries aside from Sam’s nose. So I’m super stoked, and I just feel for some reason that Juanito was there for us. He was up there for all of us.”
Juanito. Ortiz finally acknowledges the elephant in the room. Juan Antonio de Ugarte, a friend to nearly everyone here, who drowned just 10 days earlier at the base of a Chilean waterfall. The moment of silence that follows pulls the competitors inward. It lingers. It becomes longer, aware moments. It brings back heavy emotions buried just under the surface.
When Jackson speaks of Juanito, the emotions boil right up. He learned of his friend’s death three days before the biggest first descent of his already storied paddling career, Encanto Falls in Mexico’s Veracruz region. Pushing back his grief, Jackson crossed the violent boil-line at the lip, intending to knife vertically into the pool below. Instead, his boat stayed almost horizontal. He’d boofed it, falling more than 120 feet to a flat landing.
“I was ready for a broken back, ready for a colossal ridiculous hit,” says Jackson, who got a smidge forward and absorbed a violent ejection upon impact. But it wasn’t until the adrenaline spike subsided, long after the shock of being uninjured wore off, when Jackson left the river and thought again of Juanito, that the descent scared him.
Now, holding back tears, Jackson struggles to make sense of Juanito’s death on the Nilahue River in Chile. “There’s been probably over 100 runs on that drop, and everyone knows about that cave on the left,” Jackson says of the 60-foot Salto del Nilahue waterfall. “And he was with a great crew too, really in good hands.” Jackson is one of many Rey del Rio competitors with close ties to Juanito, a Peruvian who, at 34, had gained respect for paddling Chile’s largest-volume runs in playboats, while also joining multiple groundbreaking expeditions, including a key role in West Hansen’s first complete paddling descent of the Amazon from a newly discovered source in 2012. He traveled and competed with some of the same cast of characters during the 2012 and 2014 Whitewater Grand Prix. Though he was an extraordinarily talented kayaker, any mention of Juanito here starts with his vivacious persona off the river.
“He would meet somebody,” Aniol Serrasolses recalls, “And break all the barriers right in that first meeting.”
“Nothing ever got him down, no matter what the situation,” adds Jackson. “It’s always, ‘It’s all good, it could be worse.’” Of all the competitors needing that uplifting message, few had more emotion to work through than Gerd Serrasolses. Not only was he returning to a river that had nearly killed him, he was just with Juanito when he drowned in Chile. Surprisingly, a return to Mexico for closure on his own close call here, says Serrasolses, who took three clean, conservative lines over the falls, wasn’t much of a consideration. “What am I gonna do, stop and cry?” he says. “I can just be happy and super-thankful for what happened, and I can’t think enough how lucky I was that I’m still here.”
Dealing with Juanito’s death, however, is something else entirely. They met on the Futaleufu River in Chile. Serrasolses was 18, newly arrived from Catalonia, Spain with a kayak and “no idea about anything.” Juanito taught Serrasolses the lines on the river, and “everything” off of it, from the mysteries of women to shotgunning beers. Serrasolses admits he’s not sleeping well. “It cuts my concentration,” he says of the memories that surface too often. He wants to forget and make peace. Returning to the river is the only real option. “Things keep moving and you gotta jump on the train again or you get stuck.”
That’s easy to do here, as the sleepless rollercoaster of constant activity keeps moving. Ortiz announces Keller as the freeride contest winner, netting 166 points, just ahead of Sturges (157), Aniol Serrasolses (145), Marr (140) and Volckhausen (134). The party train heads right back to downtown Palenque. The vibe is a gear lower than the previous evening, competitors dealing with waterlogged sinuses and bouts of “waterfall neck.” Still, the party gathers steam, eventually taking over a hotel balcony.
The life of a pro kayaker seems to modulate between three states: on water, dealing with the nervous tug-of-war between sheer terror and Zen awareness; off water, celebrating and talking about the momentous jolt in nerves that’s either just passed or is up next; and on shuttle, between the two. It can start to read as somewhat superficial, until the 19-year-old everyone calls Junior tells me what it’s really about. Over celebratory drinks, Volckhausen, unscathed on the river but bearing fresh scars from the previous night’s party, tells me how he recognized something early on in this search. He dropped out of high school, took his college fund to enroll at the Ottawa Kayak School’s Keener Program, and never looked back. He’s learned one thing, that life is a confluence of connections and opportunity. That’s it: Life is connection.
The real attraction to a lifestyle that depends on new horizons is more than traveling the world and hucking stouts. It’s connection, a kind of brotherhood forged on the river. The greater the risk, the deeper the bond—someone you can depend on always to back you up. That responsibility creates more than friendship. Losing one of those connections to the river, says Chilean competitor Marcos Gallegos, only makes the bonds stronger. Gallegos, too, met Juanito as a young kayaker on the Futaleufu. The pair began traveling on the same seasonal work-and-play schedule from the Futa to the Ottawa. Two days before Juanito drove south to the Nilahue, they shared some broader laughs about life, paddling and the future while celebrating Gallegos’s 27th birthday.
“Sometimes (kayaking) you are crazy in your stuff and you want to get better,” Gallegos says, “But Juanito would tell you to not worry about that, to be a better person, be yourself, be humble. Maybe you don’t get it the first time, but as you grow and meet more people, those are really good values.” That outlook has affected Gallegos’s interactions with his family, where his focus is on the present, showing his love in any time shared. It’s galvanized his approach to river running, being there for your crew no matter what, “with your best attitude, prepared, and trying to bring the best positive energy you can.” As I look down to his shirt, which reads “One Life,” I realize how this sharp edge of our sport has less to do with cheap-thrills approaches to big waterfalls than it does with the approaches to everything else that matters.
The event has proven that progress in kayaking follows a simple rule: momentum begets momentum. One trick leads to another. And as the three-day bender closes, competitors bear-hug goodbyes, carrying that momentum home to invigorate others to push for the next level.
That infectious energy inspires confidence that as long as there’s rivers to paddle, and ways to cultivate those willing to push, paddling will continue to evolve in more dynamic directions. As Gallegos put it, with the right crew, anything is possible.
— Watch Mountain Mind Collective’s Faces of: Rey del Rio.
— See more photographs by David Jackson from C&K’s on-site coverage of the Rey del Rio.
— Check out Rey del Rio competitors Joel Kowalski, Isidro Soberanes and Rafa Ortiz return to the jungles of Chiapas this spring to donate paddling equipment and teach local indigenous communities kayaking fundamentals, and watch River Roots recap of the final event: