-Story by Jeff Moag
-Photos courtesy of Ryan Lucas and Mike Roy
-Illustrations by Martin Simpson
Tauranga-Taupo Falls is a 70-foot-plus waterfall in New Zealand’s central North Island, a two-hour hike from the end of a remote forestry road, with a 5-mile paddle out on Class III-IV whitewater.
It is a beautiful clean drop, but no place you want to be with darkness falling and a paddling partner you’ve just brought back from the dead.
Mike Roy knew all of that intuitively as he watched Ryan Lucas launch off the lip and struggle to bring the nose of his kayak down for a smooth entry. Lucas jettisoned his paddle and thrust his body weight forward, but to no avail. He landed pancake-flat, struck his head on the rim of his cockpit and was knocked out cold.
His kayak surfaced upside-down in the boil at the base of the falls, with 900 cfs of water pummeling down seven stories and pushing into an overhanging wall.
* * *
Lucas had run Tauranga-Taupo once before, as part of the first descent led by Brendon Bailey in 2010. Lucas was 19 then, and quickly making a name for himself as one of New Zealand’s boldest and most talented kayakers. The landing, he wrote at the time, was incredibly soft. Nearly seven years later, he was eager to give it a second go.
“It’s the most perfect waterfall in New Zealand,” he says. Still, thanks to fickle flows and the brutal 6-mile hike in, the falls had been run only once since 2010. In the last week of February 2017, the stars seemed to align. Soaking rains had brought the North Island classics to life. On Sunday, Lucas and three others paddled the Upper Ngamuwahine into the Mangakarengorengo into the Wairoa—an epic combination only possible in flood. The following day, the Tauranga-Taupo would settle into a good level on the high end of runnable. It was now or never, but only one of Lucas’s mates could join him in the mission.
A kayaker and raft guide from Quebec City, Roy was in the middle of his second New Zealand boating season. He’d paddled a few times with Lucas, and both men had learned to respect the skill and judgment of the other. They knew that running a remote and difficult waterfall with a two-person crew was, as Lucas put it, “not ideal,” but they had a window and were determined not to let it close.
They recruited a shuttle driver to drop them at the Tauranga-Taupo trailhead at about 3:30 that afternoon. The kayakers told her to wait at a bridge five miles downstream, and not to worry if they arrived after dark. With that, they hustled down the seldom-used trail, dragging their kayaks.
“We just wanted to get to the falls and see how it looks,” Lucas says. “Our mindset was if it’s looking good and we have enough time, we’ll run the falls.
“When we did get there it did look good, and everything seemed right.”
They agreed that Lucas would run the falls first. From the end of the trail at the base of the waterfall, they climbed to the top of the cascade and spent some time scouting the tricky approach. In the gorge just above the lip lies an extremely technical Class V rapid. That rapid terminates in the pool just above the waterfall, creating a lively boil about 30 feet from the edge of the falls. The kayakers studied the problem and agreed on a line: From river-right, Lucas would ferry across the boil with his back to the lip, then pivot and charge over the left side of the waterfall.
It wasn’t a particularly difficult move, but neither was it a straightforward huck. Using a rope to steady himself, Lucas climbed about 15 feet down a steep embankment to the pool. Roy lowered his boat after him. Lucas came back up for another look. Satisfied, he returned to the pool as Roy scrambled down to set safety at the base of the falls.
The landing zone was relatively straightforward as far as 70-foot waterfalls go. The Tauranga-Taupo was running about 900 cfs, and the force of that water falling more than 70 feet created a cauldron of aerated water, most of which piled into the overhanging left wall before spilling out around both sides of a rocky island. Roy stationed himself on the island, standing next to his kayak with a throw-bag, video camera rolling. He gave a long blast on his whistle. At the top of the falls, Lucas gave an answering signal and began ferrying toward the lip.
“I felt like I was where I wanted to be. I was reasonably hard left but still happy with where I was, and as I hit the lip I drew the stroke into the middle a bit,” he says. “Pretty much straight away as I was taking the stroke, my bow just kicked up. It flared out and I was like, ‘Oh, fuck no.’ But it wasn’t up enough that I felt like I couldn’t throw my weight forward and get my bow down.
“It was always my intention to throw the paddle and I got rid of it and threw my weight really far forward,” Lucas continues. He grasped the bar in front of the cockpit of his Waka Gangsta creekboat, and braced for impact. “It was a pretty bad feeling,” he says. “I just held on and I can’t remember anything after that.”
From his vantage point at the base of the falls, Roy watched the accident unfold as if in slow motion.
“I saw him go over the top and straight away I saw his bow come up,” he says. “It was a pretty big impact. He disappeared for a second and came out upside down on the boil, going towards the wall. So straight away I dropped the camera and got in my boat.”
Snapping his skirt and grabbing his paddle as he had thousands of times, Roy’s mind was occupied by the variables he could control, and those he could not.
“While I was getting in my boat I was trying to look if he was flushing down or if he was getting stuck there on that wall. I wasn’t sure at the beginning if I could paddle to the wall because the boil was quite pushy. I was looking to see if I could go up and rappel down to him or get him a rope from the cliff on top of the wall, but that would have taken way too much time,” Roy says.
“I just started paddling towards him and managed to make my way up the wall by kind of pushing on the wall.”
Throughout those fraught seconds, Roy never lost sight of Lucas’s boat, bobbing upside down against the overhanging wall on river-left. He could detect no movement from the man inside. When he finally reached the kayak, Roy attempted to right the boat using a technique called the Hand-of-God, where the rescuer grabs the victim’s kayak by the outer cockpit rim and hauls it upright.
“I tried to get him over but I was getting trashed a bit on that wall. It was kind of hard for me to keep my paddle with me and roll him over, so I just pulled the skirt and pulled him out [of the kayak],” Roy says.
“At that point he was totally unconscious and turning pretty blue so I tried to paddle him to shore really fast, but I couldn’t really paddle him while holding his head out of the water, so I clipped my pigtail to him and paddled him real fast back to the island,” Roy says quietly. “He was unconscious anyway so I just thought I had to get him to shore and do CPR as fast as possible.”
Roy is a Wilderness First Responder with 80 hours of training from Sirius Wilderness Medicine in Quebec. He’d renewed his certification just before traveling to New Zealand in late November. Years ago, during raft guide training in Quebec, he’d resuscitated an aspiring raft guide after a bad swim (“He quit and I never saw him again,” Roy says) but Roy had never seen anything quite like this, and certainly not alone. The time code on Lucas’s GoPro would later show that he had been underwater for three minutes. Roy knew precisely what he was up against, and it wasn’t good.
“I just thought he was dead, really,” he says. “I was thinking pretty clearly. I knew what I had to do but at the same time the emotion was kind of coming. After a minute or two of CPR I was getting pretty rough on him, trying to press as hard as I could and just get him back,” he says.
Roy alternated compressions and breathing. The CPR caused Lucas to expel water, foam and blood from his mouth. “I had to get him on his side to empty his mouth and go again. I don’t even know if I was counting or anything. I just know I was getting compressions,” Roy says. After about two minutes of CPR, Lucas’s eyes cracked open.
“I started just smacking him in the face trying to get him to wake up. He was still puking blood so I put him in a sitting position so we could get it out.”
A wave of relief swept over Roy. He immediately switched focus to the problem at hand. Keeping Lucas alive, and getting him out.
* * *
As he worked to stabilize Lucas, Roy assessed their situation. They both had cell phones, but there was no service in the canyon. The road was a two-hour hike along a rugged and poorly marked trail, and their vehicle and shuttle driver were long gone anyway. When Lucas tried to walk he could manage only a few steps. Lucas could feel the water sloshing in his lungs.
Hiking back to the trailhead was simply not an option.
Leaving Lucas alone while Roy went for help was equally out of the question. Lucas was at high risk for secondary drowning or heart attack. Roy knew that he needed to stay close.
Waiting for help was no good either. It would be hours before their shuttle driver even thought about alerting authorities—they’d told her not to worry if they arrived late—and the kayakers were not equipped for a night out. They were wearing shorty drytops, fleece undershirts and paddling shorts. The temperature that night would dip into the low 50s Fahrenheit and Lucas, wrapped in the Mylar space blanket Roy kept in his first aid kit, was already showing early signs of hypothermia.
That left the river. About five miles of Class III-IV whitewater lay between the men and the bridge where their driver would be waiting. By the time Roy had stabilized Lucas and collected his boat and gear, sunset was about an hour away.
It was time to move. Roy helped Lucas, who an hour before had been clinically dead, into his kayak.
At first Roy towed Lucas, but when they got into the first real whitewater Lucas unclipped the line.
“He told me to keep an eye on him,” Roy recalls. “He said ‘I’m super out of it. I really can’t think straight and I can’t set an edge or anything.”
Roy tried to stay close, but still far enough ahead to see what was coming. Though the whitewater was not hard by Lucas and Roy’s high standards, neither paddler knew the river well and darkness was falling quickly. Worse, Lucas’s condition seemed to be deteriorating.
“Ryan was obviously in shock, and getting really cold. His lips were getting blue,” Roy says. “I decided to stop and build a fire to get him warm again before I lost him.”
Roy had a lighter and a bit of wax in his emergency kit, and was able to build a good fire, despite the available fuel being soaked from days of rain. It was about 9 p.m., full dark, no moon. Lucas huddled in the emergency blanket next to the fire, resting. Roy kept talking, keeping his friend awake.
They tried again to walk, which only made Lucas’s symptoms worse and as the night wore on he had progressively more difficulty breathing. Until this point, it had been Roy making the decisions. Then at about 11 p.m., hours after the accident and fully at terms with his predicament, Lucas began to assert himself.
“I felt like I was dying. That’s not an exaggeration. I felt like I was slowly dying,” he says.
“Mike said ‘I don’t want to leave you here,’ and I was like ‘fucking go, man.’”
Roy gathered a big pile of firewood, checked once more with Lucas, and then charged into the bush on river-left, carrying the two cell phones. He knew there were forestry roads paralleling the river, but wasn’t sure exactly where they were or, for that matter, where he was. He scrambled up a steep, brushy cliff, crashing through the underbrush and trying to maintain a course perpendicular to the river. After about 15 minutes he burst onto a seldom-used forestry road. He made a crude marker from crossed branches, then turned to his right and began to run, checking the phones every few strides for signs of service. After about two miles a single bar appeared on his phone display. He stopped and dialed 1-1-1, the emergency services number in New Zealand. It was 11:30 p.m.
Roy didn’t know precisely where he was, and communications were hampered by poor cell service and the difficult name of the Tauranga-Taupo River. Eventually, emergency services were able to establish Roy’s position using his cell signal. They alerted police and search and rescue volunteers. At about 12:30 a.m. they dispatched a rescue helicopter. Help was on its way.
Though they knew his approximate location, the land-based crew had trouble finding Roy. He could hear sirens, and eventually decided to ignore the dispatcher’s request to stay put. He ran 15 minutes farther down the road, past a locked gate, and found two policemen and a SAR volunteer. They waited another few minutes for a forestry official to arrive with keys to the locked gate, then went barreling back down the road. Roy was in the second of two vehicles; the first one drove over his marker, and the team spent more time searching for a route to the spot where Lucas was waiting. It was now well past 1:00 a.m.
By this time the helicopter had arrived on scene and spotted Lucas using its infrared camera. The gorge was quite narrow, and the pilot did not want to hover too close over Lucas, who wasn’t sure the helicopter had spotted him. He gathered his strength and began waving burning branches to signal the chopper.
Meanwhile, using the hovering helicopter as a directional marker, Roy lead the rescue team overland to Lucas. The ground-based rescuers had been emphatic from the beginning that Lucas would have to hike out. There was nowhere for the helicopter to land and night hoists are a dangerous business. A night hoist in a narrow canyon would be doubly so.
“We’re pretty reluctant to hoist at night,” pilot Nat Every of Greenlea Rescue Helicopter told New Zealand news site stuff.com. “One of our criteria is whether it’s a life or death situation.”
Roy was sure that Lucas couldn’t move on his own, but didn’t waste time arguing. He just charged through the bush with the rescuers hard on his heels. They struggled to keep pace with the kayaker, who was running double-time on adrenaline. Roy was the first to reach Lucas. When the others arrived he gamely tried to walk, with the same result as before: Coughing blood, extreme difficulty breathing.
The SAR volunteered conferred with Every via radio. They agreed Lucas’s life was in danger, and began the difficult night hoist. “It was a pretty narrow wedge at the bottom of the valley, 20-30 feet of clearance between the helicopter and the river bank,” Every said. He flew as low as he dared, about 60 feet off the deck, and deployed the rescue cable. The ground team helped Lucas into a harness and clipped him to the cable. Moments later he was inside the aircraft flying full-tilt for Taupo Hospital, 10 minutes away. He arrived at about 4 a.m.
Roy pulled the kayaks to high ground. He grabbed the Watershed bags full of the expensive stuff (cameras, phones) and the things (first-aid kit, lighter and firestarter) that had been key to saving Lucas’s life. Then he led the search team out of the canyon and hitched a ride to the hospital. By dawn he was checking on Lucas.
A week after the accident, Lucas still struggles to breathe. He has water in his lungs, a substantial concussion and possibly some torn cartilage in his chest. But he has no broken bones and doctors expect him to make a full recovery.
“I just feel very grateful for what Mike did. I feel grateful to be here. I don’t really know what to think about cheating death,” he says. “I keep telling myself I should be dead, and I should be. I’ve watched some of the footage and I can’t believe I survived it. I can’t believe what Mike did, that he brought me back.”
For his part, Roy is thankful for his training. There’s no question that had their roles been reversed, Lucas would have done the same for him. He seems a bit uncomfortable in the role of ‘superhero,’ as Lucas referred to him in his only public statement until now, on the Facebook post, below. But there’s no question the title is fitting.
All of us, as kayakers, confront the question of how we will respond in an emergency, when the lives of our friends depend on the actions that we take. Let’s not mince words. Whitewater is a dangerous sport, especially at the level at which Roy and Lucas practice it. It’s almost a cliché for a paddler to say he or she has lost friends to the rivers we love.
Ryan Lucas is no exception. Two years ago he lost the love of his life, Louise ‘LuLu’ Jull, on the Kaituna River. I don’t know whether he thought of LuLu, or other friends he’s lost, as he waited alone that night by the fire. I didn’t ask. Instead I posed what seemed an easier question: Did he think about his own death?
“Yeah for sure I thought that I might die,” he says. “I was actually pretty accepting of it. At the end of the day I fucked up that line. No one else did that to me.”
It’s enough to put some people off of boating. Some people.
“I still love kayaking,” Lucas says, “and of course I’m thinking about getting back in my boat step-by-step, just seeing how I feel and getting strong and healthy.” He pauses. “I’ll see about running hard stuff as it comes.”
-Read more on the life of Louise Jull and her relationship with Lucas in a recent longform digital feature in the New Zealand Herald.
-Build the ultimate paddling specific first-aid kit.
-Matches got wet? Start a fire with flint and steel