Twenty-six days into the filming of the Brazilian reality TV series, I am standing at the brink of a 40-meter monster. My stance is as wide and as stable as possible, to compensate for the red Jasper at edge of the drop that is some of the slipperiest rock I have ever encountered. This is Venezuela’s Gran Sabanna and one of the only places in the world where this semiprecious mineral appears at the earth’s surface in such quantity.
Also playing host to significant deposits of gold and diamonds, this land of “Islands in the Sky” and the tallest waterfall on earth is said to be the oldest, undisturbed land on the planet and still one of the largest undisturbed wildernesses left. But this is no field trip, and my geological/geographical musings are thin-skinned disguises over the real intent of this expedition: Find and descend by kayak the biggest rapids and waterfalls on earth.
It’s times like these when it’s a good idea to take a deep breath in order to remain balanced and calm, but a deep ache at the bottom of my rib cage reminds me that I have no real intent here. Four days ago we had run our first falls in Venezuela, a paltry 18-foot drop, which landed in ankle deep water on mostly upturned bedrock. This is not so uncommon for the modern extreme kayaker, and I had launched an ariel ski jump “boof” off the lip into what I believed to be a cushion of water. After little more than a second of freefall, I folded and ragdolled with the impact on rock disguised by a thin veneer of foam. I might have been able to take this hit at 22, but, now at age 32, more than a decade of violent impacts have finally taken their toll on the lonely rib at the bottom of my chest.
All my excuses aside, the falls swirling out of view into the abyss at my feet is at least 30 feet taller than anything I have run before, and despite a nice, relatively deep tongue of water rolling cleanly off the lip 135 feet down, it dissipates into sheets of water that just barely aerate the landing zone.
With the high-pitched whir and low thump of the chopper still echoing in my head from our “rock star” entrance to the put-in, I am ready to call this one no joy and look for the show’s producer to signal him into the air to get the obligatory shot of us standing at the lip of the falls that none of us will run. But just as I get Daniel’s attention, I feel Pedro’s hand on my shoulder, and he says “Hey Ben, Eu tenho vontage a Saltar aki (I am fired up to run this falls!).” He slips past me along the narrow lip of the falls using the same maneuver and calm of someone sliding by in a kitchen too narrow for two people, confidently dancing forward to an island of dry rock surrounded by cascading water.
There are only a few people in the world that could be taken seriously in this situation, and Pedro is certainly one of them. It’s hard to say exactly how or why someone decides to take a risk that could result in serious injury or death. It’s tempting to think that consequences are not understood or the idea of fame and glory is too much to resist. “But just a few years ago,” we had been told over and over again by our Venuzuelan guide Ivan, “a Spanish kayaker had been paralyzed after landing flat off a 10-meter drop,” and our own 10 years in the sport had brought more injury and worse than we cared to recount. No, if anything, the big huck is the ultimate purifier, the chance to experience a singular moment of perfection when the past, present, and future of doubts, fear, and excitement merge into a singular moment of pure concentration. I hesitate to say “drug” or “addiction,” but they may be the only words that begin to convey the feeling.
Down at the bottom of the drop, across a massive pool at least four Olympic-size swimming pools, Chris Korbulic shoots photos in rapid succession exposing sky, water, and earth in perfect harmony. Chris too is at the top of the sport and has more than a few descents to his credit that have never been repeated, but he also is chagrin about the prospect of a high-speed impact in lightly aerated water. In fact, we can calculate the velocity of impact with a simple formula given the height of the falls and the acceleration due to gravity:
135ft = di + vi*T + 1/2*g*T^2
Since di = initial distance = 0 and vi = initial downward velocity = 0 and g = 32 ft/sec^2; we can solve for T or time of freefall. Simple algebra gives a time of freefall of T = 2.9 seconds. So we can now calculate the speed:
Vf = g * T
This gives us the velocity at the moment of impact Vf = 92 ft / sec = 63 mph. Just before Pedro and I had headed for the top of the falls and Chris for the bottom, I had asked THE QUESTION, “Do you think you can survive the hit at the bottom?” Chris’ answer: “Maybe.”
For Pedro, the show and the search for big falls is his life’s work. Since since setting the Brazilian record seven years ago on a 14-meter drop in Tocantins, Brazil, Pedro upped the ante significantly first running a high-risk 20-meter falls with me two years later just upstream of his former record, and then, of course, Salto Belo. After nearly nine years of slow, incremental increases in the height of the world record, Pedro set the whitewater community ablaze with a controversial 128-foot descent at Salto Belo, Mato Grosso, Brazil.
I say “controversial” because the only witness to the real result of Pedro’s plunge into the record books was Pedro himself after resurfacing with his boat behind the massive curtain of the falls. According to Pedro, “I went deep, and my paddle immediately snapped. After five seconds in the washing machine at the base of the falls, I immersed washing up onto rocks. I then grabbed the rocks and pulled myself up only to find myself surrounded by a bizarre scenario that I thought could only be the gates of heaven.” However improbable, I give Pedro the benefit of doubt.
After another 40 minutes, including a trip to the base of the falls and close consideration of a complicated entrance to the lip of the falls, Pedro decided the game was on. We had brought a second kayak for rescue that was positioned at the base of the falls, and, of course, the chopper to nail a shot never achieved before off of a 100+ foot falls, and more importantly to provide the kind of medical evacuation that could put Pedro in lifesaving care in 20 minutes.
The reply that came back on the radio soon thereafter was both frustrating and relieving all in the same moment. “Ben advisa Pedro que o Helicotero nao prendio, tal vez a batteria d’ele ta mau ….(The helicopter won’t start …. Pedro’s no dummy … He is counting on that heli for evac … The game is off.)”
We ended up spending a windy night on that high plateau above the falls. We kept warm by the fire, distributed Ambien, and tried to get rested for the next opportunity. In the morning the light revealed what I had already suspected. The amount of water in the river had fallen by nearly a meter, taking with it any hope of a successful descent of the falls. Soon after, rescue came in the form of a second chopper and a battery charger.
In front of us we have a small window left and a lifetime of river descents to choose from. Of course, from here on out there are no more easy options. All logistics include flying transport, motorized riverboat, multiple day hikes, tenuous permissions from native peoples, or some combination of those options. But it must be worth it.
The other day, during an overflight of the Gran Sabanna region, we saw something that was a Zambezi of South America: A massive falls into an impressive series of big water rapids 40 kilometers in length. All we need now are wings and a prayer.
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