How This Man Kayaks Over Huge Waterfalls | Obsessed | WIRED

published on July 2, 2020

[water rushing]

– [Rafael] Because it's
like jacked with adrenaline,

your brain, it just starts
going faster, you know?

And all of a sudden you can
process all these things,

and it's kind of this crazy
like, slow-mo experience

where you're just slowly
falling with the water

– [Narrator] Lots of people like kayaking

And some even enjoy running whitewater

But then there's Rafael Ortiz

He doesn't just seek
out Class Five rapids

He heads straight for what
most avoid at all costs,

massively steep waterfalls

The tallest one he's run is 189 feet tall

That's like paddling off the
20th floor of a building,

the Leaning Tower of Pisa,
or the Cinderella Castle

at the Magic Kingdom

– I see a waterfall and I see a line

I see like, opportunity,
a new challenge, you know,

instead of just this beautiful
phenomenon of nature and,

it's kind of a blessing but
also a curse at the same time

'cause if it speaks to you,
it's hard not to wanna do it

Always people think I'm crazy

And I must be crazy
'cause everybody says so

– [Narrator] Ortiz takes
his death-defying stunts

to truly absurd levels, and
he does it just for fun

– [Rafael] I watched a
video when I was a kid

of a guy going over a waterfall on fire

and I always wanted to try it

I feel like that's one of my weaknesses

I always look at crazy
things and in my head

I think they're gonna be easy

I'm always very optimistic like that

You know, when it actually
comes down to doing it,

project like that, I was like, "You know,

"we'll just hire some professionals

"and put a bunch of gasoline on me

"and wear the right safety and just run,

"go over a waterfall in my kayak on fire"

– [Narrator] He even
once traded his kayak in

for a novelty inflatable
toy shaped like a lobster,

just for the pictures and the laughs

– I drove up to this
70 foot-tall waterfall,

stood over the lip, you
know, just got ready

Jumped into the water, spinning
180 degrees in the air

Landed, controlled myself, looked down

Big fist pump at the lip

– [Narrator] And once,
Ortiz and his friends

set up a whole night shoot
with giant LED lights

and a generator, just because
he thought it would look cool

– [Rafael] We basically
stayed in the forest

through the night till four
or five in the morning,

freezing, and running
this waterfall at night

with little headlamps

Were just doing it 'cause it
was cool, making it happen

– [Narrator] Ortiz's love
of rivers started young

He was rafting around eight years old

and got a kayak for his
birthday when he was 14

– So, eastern Mexico,
the state of Veracruz

where I learned how to
kayak, just happens to be

one of the best places on the planet

for waterfall descending in kayaks

You know, few years
into my paddling career,

I realized that my backyard
was perfect for waterfalls

So I started getting
into running waterfalls,

you know, without really any instruction

I just started watching videos online,

ordering VHS tapes and seeing
how these guys were going

over these waterfalls in their kayaks

And I just started trying
that in my backyard

It wasn't pretty at the start

I still remember the experience

running my very first tall waterfall

It was this 40-foot drop on
the Xico river in Veracruz

and it came out of the
bottom, it was a big hit,

I came out seeing stars,
actually broke my paddle

Looked back at the
waterfall and I was like,

"This is crazy" [laughs]

And yeah, the next thing
I knew, I was going all in

on this new sport that I
quickly got addicted to

You know, the first time you do it,

everything happens super quick

But once you start doing
this over and over again

and you start really kind
of feeling it, you know,

you start getting better at it

Things just start happening
a little bit slower


– [Narrator] Ortiz has
spent the last two decades

pushing the limits on this sport,

one that offers very
little room for error

Ortiz has seen his fair share of injuries

and has watched his friends
come close to death

Back in 2013, he was kayaking

with his friend Gerd
Serrasolses in Mexico

Serrasolses went over before Ortiz

but got swept under the falls

[suspenseful music]

– I was behind him, I
went over the waterfall

When I came out, I didn't see anyone

As I looked down the river
a little further downstream,

I saw one of my friends
pulling my friend's body

out of the water, and he was completely,

just floppy, you know,
he was pretty lifeless

He was purple

Very colorless

He was not breathing

Think we must have worked on
him for a full three minutes

of these exhausting compressions,

just taking turns, mouth to
mouth, shouting, you know,

and it was just this crazy blur

And eventually, three
minutes in, he goes [gasping]

and takes a breath

As kayakers, because we're
always in these remote places,

we have to learn how to
rescue each other, you know?

As a kayaker that dedicates
to pushing the limits

and facing risk on a
daily basis, you know,

you always kinda question
when are you gonna

finally confront death

– [Narrator] Surviving
these drops requires

a lot of experience, intuition,
and a locked-in technique

Because in the end, you gotta land safely

And that means going over
the lip with the right speed

and the right form

– It all kinda comes down to two things

One of them is speed

More speed translates into more angle

So more of a flat landing

Less speed translated into
more of a vertical entrance

And then the other thing, number two,

is the stroke that you take at the lip

You know, as you're going over,

you have to be taking
one or two paddle strokes

to correct your angle

If it's a large waterfall,
anything above 40 feet,

you wanna make sure that
you're as vertical as possible

– [Narrator] Instead of just
free falling over the edge,

Ortiz uses the speed of the
water and his paddle strokes

to position himself to land safely

For smaller waterfalls, he wants to land

on top of the water

– Let's see, if under 40
feet, for a waterfall,

you actually wanna be coming in, ideally,

at like a 45-degree angle,
and right at the lip,

I'm gonna look down, lock my landing,

but then I wanna take a
pretty long steady stroke

that kinda lifts the bow of my kayak,

so that way I can kinda lock
in that 45-degree angle

If you do it right,
you're able to just kinda

skim the surface and then
resurface pretty quickly

– [Narrator] But for
waterfalls taller than 45 feet,

he wants to go over vertically,

so when he dives into
the water at the bottom,

he slices into it with as
little impact as possible

Getting that vertical position
means going over the edge

with less speed, so that
the front of the boat falls

and points down

– If it's a taller waterfall,
once I'm in the current,

I'm actually, even like
back paddling sometimes

a little bit, you know, I'm
kinda way more conservative

with my speed, 'cause
that, along with the stroke

that I take at the lip,
is gonna define the angle

If it's a large waterfall,
anything above 40 feet,

you wanna make sure that
you're as vertical as possible

So as you're free falling,

you're not just closing
your eyes and shouting

In the end it all comes
down to the impact

So whenever you enter the water

down at the bottom of the waterfall,

you basically wanna be as
aerodynamic as possible,

or aquadynamic, and you just wanna kinda

become as slim as you can

You wanna make sure that
you either throw your paddle

and hug your boat tightly, or
like, I usually tuck my paddle

to the side and then I use my right arm

to protect myself and brace for impact

If you forget about this, often you end up

taking a paddle in the face
and can result in stitches,

like I've probably had
more than five times

in my paddling career

– [Narrator] Then there's
finding a good waterfall

Ortiz's search has taken
him around the world

– [Rafael] Thing about
waterfall descending is that

every waterfall is completely different

And in order to find that dream waterfall

that you've pictured, you have to find it

You know, we do a lot of
Google Earth, you know,

satellite imaging, looking at these rivers

that have the right amount of steepness

Try to find information
about the volume of water

And then if everything lines
up, you go explore the river

and you might get lucky and
find the next huge waterfall

– [Narrator] And when he finds
a good river, he studies it

– First before you go into a waterfall,

you wanna look at it from every angle

You wanna do your due diligence
and study it correctly

to make sure it's good
decision to start with

Every river is different

There's 1000 different factors

Every country, every area is different,

it has a different kind of rock

So you're either talking
about basalt, you know,

a rock that's like fairly crumbly

but creates these really nice waterfalls

Or you're talking about
limestone, you know,

this waterfall that's a lot more solid

The other big ingredient into
the formula is steepness,

you know, 'cause you're looking

for a certain kind of gradient

but it really relates
to the amount of water

So you're either talking
about a river that

is a small trickle of water,
or you're talking about,

you know, a large river
that's a big beast, you know,

that comes with a lot of other
factors and a lot of risks

And before I get into my kayak
I'm looking at the current

and I'm kind of visualizing
myself, step number one

I'm scouting the waterfall

I'm studying it and I
know if it's a waterfall

that I have to for sure go in vertical

– [Narrator] This isn't
just a physical sport

coupled with good gear for Ortiz

He needs to trust his intuition

– Lot of it comes down to
your own experience, you know?

And your own trial and error

Your own understanding,
even, your own mindset

Because a lot of it is mental

There's definitely a physical aspect to it

but a lot of it is a
really big mental game

'cause you're dealing
with a lot of stress,

a lot of fear, all this adrenaline

And then just kinda finding
your own zen, you know?

Finding your own sweet spot where you can

kind of find that calm

And it's kinda cool,
you know, I think it's,

it's almost like a superpower,
adrenaline in the end

I believe is, you know, the
most powerful superpower

that we could have
[group cheering]

– [Narrator] Ortiz has been
kayaking professionally

for over 10 years, for
companies like Red Bull

and Jackson Kayaks

But it's not always about
the competition for him

As he's getting older, Ortiz's
focus is shifting a little

– I've definitely been moving

from the really tall waterfalls

to other kinds of more creative projects

I've also moved a lot recently

towards environmental projects

A couple years ago I started
doing river cleanups

Feel like as kayakers
we have the opportunity

for being on these beautiful rivers

and often we just find garbage, you know,

and find how human beings
are slowly destroying

these beautiful natural environments

The other aspect that I
also try to help push is

avoiding and taking down
dams in the world because

they basically destroy the environment

– [Narrator] Starting a family
also changed his perspective

– You know, now that I have a family and,

just had a daughter a
year ago and, you know,

my life is definitely getting
a little more complicated

than it was, even four years ago

'Cause all of a sudden, you
know, from making decisions

100% for myself and
deciding if I'm willing

to put my life in the line,
thinking about myself

Now I think about my
daughter first, you know,

and if anything was to happen to myself,

it's more about her not having a dad

So it's definitely changed me
even just looking at danger,

even just standing in front of a waterfall

and looking at risk with
almost different eyes

– [Narrator] But nothing
will stop him from kayaking

Even though it seems absurd to find peace

while going over a waterfall,

that's exactly why Ortiz loves it

– Once you get inside your
kayak and you close it up,

you peel out into the current,

it's kinda cool because
there's no way back

You know, it kinda, fear kinda disappears

because you're so focused on the task

And then you just kinda
start flowing with the river

You just kinda zone in into this one task

There's nothing else in the
world, problems disappear

That's it, like, the moment

[water rushing]
[group cheering]

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