There are plenty of reasons why the Rey del Rio Waterfall World Championship had never happened before this weekend. Conventional event-planning wisdom would oppose the idea of testing kayakers with a pair of high-risk, vertical courses. Especially one hosted during monsoon season. On Zapatista rebel-controlled land.
But this event had nothing to do with convention.
The whole point is progression, at least that was the concept according to the kayak-filmmaking duo of Rafa Ortiz and Rush Sturges. They took the idea to Ernesto Rivas, owner of Altius Events, who crafted a proposal for the Mexican Tourism Board. Ortiz and Sturges endorsed the event and helped to organize media and athletes. And Rivas, no stranger to working with the government to develop huge sports and entertainment events, provided immediate organizational and financial support through Altius to host a waterfall-driven event this fall, selecting the travertine layer cake of the Cascadas de Agua Azul in the far southern Mexican state of Chiapas as the perfect venue — and photogenic adventure travel destination — for Sturges's production company River Roots to showcase.
On an accelerated timeline, the invitations went out a month ago to a well-seasoned selection of boundary-pushing waterfall experts from Moscow to Rotorua. With scant lead time or promo, this seemingly underground event existing only as an Instagram hashtag came together rapidly as a big-name consortium of kayaking's leading authorities in finding and running the world's hardest waterfalls began assembling last week in the jungle.
Two days of solid rain boosted the course's tranquil blue waters to a brown terminal-hole-ridden blur. So Ortiz was more than thankful for the scene unfolding at Friday's opening time trials event: a deep international field of 18 kayakers; coordinated teams for setup, safety, and media; well-organized support for a novel three-event competition format; and, of course, blue skies that reduced the flow to a manageable level.
"I can't believe it," beamed Ortiz, playing the dual role of organizer/competitor as he bounded up the stairs of the well-developed national park on river-right. "This is the first time ever in Mexico that we've had this much talent in one place."
The talent quickly began picking the fastest lines down a short course on the opposite, undeveloped side of the river claimed by the local Zapatista community. Marked atop by two winding slides over a pair of domes, the course took a slight right turn through a flat transition into a 15-foot vertical drop followed by a sloping 40-foot finale.
"It's a lot harder than I thought — kind of scrape-ey," said Spain's Aniol Serrasolses, citing the porous travertine rocks' sandpaper effect on the lips of the drop, and more importantly, on the slides where the boatercross heats would be won and lost.
Although Sturges was the first to admit that "boatercross doesn't always reward the fastest paddlers," the initial time trials shook out with the fastest racers leading the way. Russia's Egor Voskoboynikov claimed the fastest time of 56.53 seconds, followed by a trio of Southeastern U.S. paddlers as Pat Keller took second place, Dane Jackson third, and Isaac Levinson fourth. Meanwhile Veracruz, Mexico's Sofia Reinoso finished in 121.76 as the event's only female competitor.
The finish times dictated starting position for the elimination rounds of Saturday's boatercross race on the same course. After a series of three- and four-racer elimination heats, the finals came down to Voskoboynikov and Keller once again. Taking different lines around the top island, reunited with a little bumping and grinding down the top slide, Keller edged ahead and didn't look back, taking the win (and with it a $3,000 prize purse) as the pack sprinted in a tightly contested pack behind him. Jackson finishing as the runner-up, followed by Voskoboynikov and Levinson.
"That was one of the hardest races I've ever been a part of," Keller said at the finish, explaining how he turned on the competitive drive in such an otherwise relaxed environment. "I get a little angry, I think about how bad I want it, what lines I know I can use and just put all the confidence in myself and in my equipment and from get-go knew I was strong enough to win."
(Check out Todd Wells's race footage below from his tightly contested second-round boatercross heat with Keller.)
Keller carried that focused confidence into Sunday's hair-raising 'freeride' concept contest a few miles downstream to a towering trio of vertical falls spanning the distance of the river (at heights of approximately 30 feet, 55 feet, and 25 feet). As event judge James Byrd and the organizing competitors developed a scoring system, other kayakers talked back and forth, sharing thoughts and concerns with the thundering middle 50-plus-foot drop. Meanwhile, Keller stood aside, silently staring down and studying the drop.
Byrd and Ortiz explained how each drop would be judged and scored separately on a 50-point scale, with points scored for Progression, Flow and Style. Each paddler's approach, free-fall, and landing would be factored into the Style score, plus double points tallied for the most consequential middle falls.
With only a single run to acquire points, the bottom finishers of the time trials made an immediate high-scoring impact. Aniol Serrasolses, Galen Volckhausen (U.S.) and Ben Marr (Canada) all threw back freewheels off the top drop (paddling off the lip backward and rotating to a nose-first entry), followed by creative approaches to plugging the violent middle drop.
"I'm not going to throw my paddle; I'm just going to lean, tuck, hit and then hope to find my paddle if I end up losing it," New Zealand's Sam Sutton said before a run that resulted in the day's only injury: After tossing his paddle, Sutton dove his arms forward to his deck as his cockpit rim slammed his nose upon landing the middle drop, which also claimed a couple of broken competitor paddles on runs from Gerd Serrasolses (Spain) and Dave Fusilli (U.S.).
Sturges delivered a limit-pushing run living up to his event's next-level billing with a huge crossbow stroke off the big drop followed by a barrel-rolling kick-flip to set up a back freewheel off the last falls.
"I didn't think I was gonna do that until very last second," Sturges said of the trick combo.
But when it came to premeditated lines, Keller had long been thinking through his run off the largest, middle drop with a risky approach completely separate from the central line taken by every previous competitor (a straight vertical plunge off the smoothest lip into the fall's most aerated water). Rather, Keller saw a different, "Mesa (Falls)-style" line on the far right, following the flow down to a lower ledge, reconnecting with a leftward-flowing exit spout.
And sure enough, after a front freewheel off the top drop, Keller executed the line he'd spotted. Starting his free-fall straight, Keller then glanced off the lower ledge with a little bounce that redirected him left 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.
"Leave it to Pat to open up a first descent of a line in a competition like this," Volckhausen said.
Keller followed it up with a final paddle-toss trick on the last drop to earn the contest's top score of 166 points, and another huge prize check. Sturges followed in second (157 points), with Aniol Serrasolses in third (145), Marr fourth (140), and Volckhausen fifth (134). See the full Rey del Rio results.
"This could have gone a lot of different ways," Sturges said with the weight of organizing such a high-risk event having just passed. Seeing close friends, competitors and safety teams finish the course without significant injury or access issues with the local Zapatista community, he simply looked ahead to the relaxed paddle out of the jungle. "It's sick to see all these guys get so pumped up. We've needed something different."
Before heading back to Chile, competitor Marcos Gallegos seconded the forward-thinking sentiment. "I was actually having a dream about what I wanted to do as a kayaker, the kind of course and drops that I'd want to race through. And then it was so crazy, I got a call from Rafa with a plan for exactly that course," Gallegos said. "It can only get better from here."