Trust Your Gut

Rafa Ortiz stares over the edge of Niagara, and walks away

Looking at the drop. Photo Courtesy Rafa Ortiz

Looking at the drop. Photo Courtesy Rafa Ortiz

For the last three years, waterfall huckster Rafa Ortiz has been sizing up the grand-daddy of them all, Niagara Falls.

Yesterday, with all the pieces in place for the historic first descent, he walked away from the 167-foot behemoth.

“I walked to the drop like I’ve done with many waterfalls in the past, looking for that last positive feeling,” the Mexican phenom said in a Facebook post. “It was not there.”

Ortiz, who ran 189-foot Palouse Falls last year, had identified what he called “a marginal line” at Niagara. The iconic waterfall has drawn generations of daredevils in barrels and other contraptions. In 1990, Jesse Sharp paddled over Niagara’s Horseshoe Falls in a decked canoe and was never seen again. The falls has never been attempted in a kayak.

Niagara has been the scene of dozens of suicide attempts, a few of which have failed. That fact gave Ortiz confidence that a kayaker could successfully descend Niagara.

“Every single day since I saw that line I’ve been haunted by it, it’s been both a dream and a nightmare,” Ortiz said.

Staring over the edge, Ortiz listened to his gut, and let go of the dream. “Not often it hurts so much to walk away from a dream,” he said. “The marginal landing zone that somehow has caught barrels and made survive a few suicide attempts couldn’t give me confidence to sit in my boat and pull off the line.

Other extreme kayakers praised his choice. “I am proud of Rafa’s decision, and I think it is a great testament of his character and courage,” commented Rush Sturges, who is making a much-anticipated film about Ortiz’s waterfall exploits. “The stars were aligning for this to work out, but sometimes you have to go with what your heart tells you.”

Concluded Ortiz: “Some dreams are just meant to be dreams.”

Rafa Ortiz kayaking over Palouse Falls in Washington State. Highest Waterfall ever kayaked, 2nd Descent. Photo: Mike Leeds

Rafa Ortiz kayaking over Palouse Falls in Washington State. Highest Waterfall ever kayaked, 2nd Descent. Photo: Mike Leeds

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  • Alex

    He still has the biggest balls ever, to even contemplate the Niagra Falls. To be standing at that edge looking down, but not running it-to giving up his dream to run it… I bet the feeling was ecstatic but rather upsetting at the same time. Hats off to you Rafa. – AC

    • battery

      Tao. .you have no regards for would rather him take this change, because of money…what If he did this, and lost his life, what would you say….well..

      • Tao Berman

        He scouted the falls several times. The time to decide not to kayak a falls is after having scouted it and before telling people and sponsors that you are going to do it. One of the reasons to scout a falls is so one can make this decision without wasting other peoples time and money. If he had any doubts about running the falls after having scouted it, he should have said he may run the falls.

        • Evan Garcia


          Not your call to make on this one man…I’m sure you heard from some people living in the gorge that the team was bumming over his last minuet call. Sure everyone would have loved to see someone run Niagara Falls! However, I’m so glad that it’s over. The first time I went to the falls with Rush, Tyler, Rafa, and others I said there is no way I would run or think about running the falls…but that’s not to say there wasn’t a great story to be told about someone who thought otherwise. We took that idea, ran with it, and had some of the best, scariest, and most memorable river trips of our lives…all in the name of telling a great story and hopefully working up to running Niagara…it was never a full commitment on Rafa’s part, and the team and I always knew that no matter what anyone else says. We were working towards a daunting goal…maybe that goal wasn’t reached, and it may never be reachable? This saga is not over and the story has yet to be told…money and time hasn’t been wasted…just sit back and enjoy the ride when it all comes out.

  • Chris Kayak Balt Md

    It truly is amazing what extreme kayakers today are able to run successfully and without much personal injury! I am happy for this kayaker for his decision not to run the big one its not worth your life to make a pipe dream come through!!!! Still he holds a big falls descent close to his heart I’m sure.

  • crabbyone

    congrats on leaving the falls to dream again.

  • Tao Berman

    If Rafa didn’t want to kayak over the falls he should have made that decision three years ago. Instead he wasted a lot of people’s time and money reparing for this descent.

    Tao Berman

    • Tom Brunner

      I was one of the people who invested time money and energy into his attempt, and I applaud him for making that call. He made advancements in kayak technology in order to do this more safely. Those advancements may help him and others in the future be safer. The potential run was the fuel for many of us to stretch the possibilities.

      • Tao Berman

        Hey Tom,

        You said, “he made advancements in kayak technology in order to do this more safely.” I am not sure what you mean by that statement. What would you specifically be referring to? I am not aware of any advancements he made in kayak technology.
        It’s nice that you applaud him for choosing not to attempt the falls. I would have also, had he made that decision after scouting the falls the first time. But he did scout the falls and told people he was going to do it, and had people invest time and money, and then changed his mind after everyone flew out to help him. I would say that is very poor judgment on his part. And I know for a fact that other people that were there felt the same way. They just don’t want to say it publicly because it’s not the popular thing to say. He had plenty of time to call it off without wasting peoples time and money.

        • Rush K Sturges

          Hey Tao,

          Certainly it comes as a disappointment to many of us that he chose to walk away from the Falls. I was invested more than anyone on the project, and of course I am let down by this last minute decision. I invested time and money, as did others. However, what does that matter when compared to the safety of our team? Or Rafa’s life?

          How much do you actually know about the inner workings of our project? The legal issues that arose? The media problems? The depth of our situation?

          No disrespect, but If you don’t know about the technological advancements you clearly don’t know much.

          To prepare for Niagara we worked as hard as we could for the past 1.5 years. We developed equipment, ran as many big drops as possible, visited the Falls 10X, and trained to prepare Rafa for the descent.

          No question, blood sweat and tears.

          I have the right to say it was a “waste of time” more than anyone. Nonetheless, I do not feel that way.

          Sure i’m sad it didn’t happen, we all are. But nobody is whining about how they “spent money” or didn’t “get paid” for their photo or video shot. Everyone was reimbursed for their expenses and work.

          Ultimately in this lifetime, the joy is in the journey. It’s been a tough road, but it’s not about the money or the time for us. It’s about what we can achieve as human beings. No question, Niagara changed us and in the process progressed our sport. It’s absolutely fair to say that Rafa is a different (much better) kayaker than when he first decided to run the Falls 3 years ago. That counts for something.

          From the sponsorship perspective, everyone has been very supportive. In fact, some sponsors that you know very well were encouraging this not to happen due to serious legal repercussions.

          The bottom line Tao: There is a lot more to this project than you perceive, or a quick writeup on C&K. To call it a “waste of time” is naive on your behalf.

          To that end, I can agree that maybe it wasn’t the most mature decision for Rafa to push this until the last minute. Nonetheless, it was his decision and you more than anyone know what it’s like to be in his situation.

          It’s been an exciting project regardless, and while it may not be the ending I hoped for, there are other endings that are far less desirable.

          Intuition is intuition. Last minute, or at anytime. I respect Rafa for not running it just because of “the money” or “the time” that you seem so concerned with. Those things are but ambiance in the context of life.


          • Tao Berman

            I think you are missing my point. Rafa had many opportunities when scouting the falls to decide to abort. My original post was meant to express that is was very poor form to change his mind after everyone had spent time and money flying out and funding the project. He could have saved a lot of people a lot of time had he chosen to decide not to run the falls during an earlier scout.
            Obviously if he thought the falls would kill him he should not run the falls. But he should have been able to come to this realization much sooner.

            Technological advancement. The rudiments of running waterfalls and controlling boat angle when in the air are pretty basic, and always will be.

            I never said it was a waste of time as you said I did. I said he wasted a lot of people’s time. It’s nice to hear that you didn’t feel your time was wasted. But I know for a fact that not everyone that was there shares your opinion. So if you want to call my statement naive, I would suggest you first read my post accurately.

            I do agree with you in that I also respect Rafa’s decision to not run the falls because of “the money” or people’s time. Clearly his life is worth more. But it doesn’t change the fact that it was very poor form to make that decision after everyone had flew out to help.

        • Tom Brunner

          I am a design fabricator that was hired by Tyler for his big drop, then by Rafa for his. I was asked to modify his kayak with specific structural changes that you will need to learn about from him since he co-designed the work. And since having been paid in full for my efforts, I can not say that I put $ towards this in the long run but made sacrifices along the way that are still worth the trouble. Skiing off cliffs is the only way for me to directly relate to something like this and the people that succumbed to pier pressure to jump were definitely injured more often. And the big one I walked away from developed a 30 foot long crack in the cornice after I skied out on to it to scout my line. It was 10 feet back from the edge I was standing on, that wasn’t visible until I backed off. That 35 foot drop would have been my last and there has been a hell of a lot of living in the past 20 years since that day. I would hope Rafa has an excellent 20 after this too.

          • Tao Berman

            Hey Tom,

            It’s always good to see design help athletes push the boundaries of what can be done in sports. But unlike a lot of sports, running big waterfalls has a lot more to do with the talent of the athlete and his/her ability to scout a falls well than advancement in design.

            My point was never that Rafa shouldn’t have decided not to run the falls. My point was if he scouted the falls 10 times previously he should have made that decision much sooner.


          • Tom Brunner

            I agree that talent and ability are the most important elements, but in any sport. My concerns are about people that think a design or equipment will be enough to overcome ability and or that people will follow thru with something they don’t feel right about, because of what other people might think. The improvements to Rafa’s boat and skirt were about them still functioning perfectly after landing in order to deal with the chaotic water that follows the drop.
            My point is to anyone who changes their mind even after 20 scouting trips, that walking away/ around is always a respectable option.

  • John Meyer

    Good for you, Rafa! I and your sponsors would much rather read your account of pulling out, instead of your obituary. Running these falls is tantamount to a suicide attempt, or perhaps, a worse living hell for you and your loved ones.

  • Angus Cole

    There is one word to describe this photo, Epic. I saw the video and I was floored.question I have for any Kayakers who read this! If one runs huge falls such as this one is there some sort of flotation device that can be inflated before reaching the bottom to help locate the kayaker as well helping with floating. Just wondering.

  • littleamb3

    only a jackass would fund an idiot’s quest to jump over Niagara falls. Too bad that Jesse Sharp was such an arrogant loser as well.

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