one man`s quest to become a better kayaker nearly kills him. in the
One man’s ayaker nearly
a better k. in the process, he
kills him ell of a ride—and
gets one hs how far a little
discover ation and a whole
determin ls can take him.
lot of bal
j. g i l m a n
p h oto g r a p
In this photo
Coombs aces the
double drop over
Lower Mesa Falls
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The hardest part
of kayaking isn’t
always in the water.
Left: Coombs and
Falls with their
boats. Right: Lizzy
English and Ben
out of the river.
ava Island Falls is a poisonous snake of a rapid, a 250-foot-long
S-turn with rock fangs sharp enough
to sever the ear of an overturned kayaker. At the start of this Class V section on
the Deschutes River in Bend, Ore., a massive
triangular rock pokes tauntingly out of the
water like a basaltic middle finger, then the
river tumbles into a pounding 20-foot-wide
recirculating pool of whitewater, better known
as a “hole.” Survive that, and the river transforms into a section nicknamed the “Cut Up,”
a quarter-mile stretch of Class IV+ rapids carving through some of the youngest, sharpest
lava flows in the continental United States.
The landscape is so jagged and hostile that
NASA used it to train astronauts for moon
landing during the ’60s. According to my
teachers, professional kayakers Ben Stookesberry and Jesse Coombs, it’s also the perfect
setting to train for Class V kayaking.
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Rapids are graded on a scale of I to VI, from flat water to
hydraulic death. I enlisted Coombs and Stookesberry because
as an off-the-couch Class IV boater I wanted to improve my
skills enough to competently run Class V rapids—the benchmark of whitewater excellence. I’ve flown across the world
to paddle—Nepal, New Zealand, Uganda—but for this 16day experiment through the northwest the only passport I’d
need would be a full tank of gas. Of course I’d have to shake
the rust off too, as I hadn’t kayaked in several months. “Lava
is challenging,” Stookesberry reasoned when we all met in
Bend, “but there’s probably nothing that’s going to kill you.”
Probably, he said.
After warming up on some Class III whitewater, Coombs ran
Lava Island Falls with the “look, Mom, no hands” flourish of
an expert toying with a difficult river. I followed with the grace
of a kid falling out of a tree. I hit the rocky middle finger and
got slammed in a hole. I rolled my boat, tried to correct, and
flipped again. I popped back up and began paddling—straight
back into that limousine-size hole.
Submerged in the depths, the water began to pound out what
felt like my last breaths of oxygen. But instead of freaking out,
I found myself surprised to be thinking, At least now I’ve established a baseline. That, of course, was followed by, Wow,
these rocks are really sharp. Gasping, I swam out of the hole
and crawled to shore. “That was good,” Stookesberry said with
the Schadenfreudic grin of a guy who had been there before.
“You got your first swim out of the way.” Blood dripped down
my leg. “Don’t worry, we’ll get you into shape.”
If Stookesberry and Coombs sound like a traveling magic show
it’s because, at least in whitewater circles, they are. Stookesberry,
29, a kayaker and filmmaker best known for his addiction to huge
waterfalls, began paddling at Western State College of Colorado
while studying geology and mathematics. The academic pairing serves him well; it’s not unusual for him to stand above a
waterfall taller than a New York City apartment building, explain
its groundwater flow mechanics and geologic history to anyone
who’ll listen, then huck off the bastard.
Coombs, 37, picked up kayaking almost a decade ago and
quickly paddled to the top of the sport. In 2006 he and Stookesberry joined up for a waterfall-hunting trip in Mexico and South
America and the pair ended up running some of the steepest
drops on record. I was in able hands.
Still, the Deschutes was at the edge of my limits, so after
four days in Oregon we drove to the Class IV–V Tobin Run of
North Fork of the Feather River in California to sharpen my
skills on more manageable whitewater. Once there, we ran the
My last vision was that of
my fingernails scratching
desperately along the rock
for a handhold. Then
everything went dark
for one thought: S
how people die on ri is is
1.5-mile run eight times in three days, weaving through massive
boulder gardens like water bugs. Gradually, my clumsy stumble
down the river evolved into a smooth slide. I began to plan my
moves like a game of chess. “Class V boaters lift their field of
view—they look downriver for the next move,” Stookesberry
counseled. At one point we came to a small Class III S-turn
that had given me trouble; a significant feature because of its
similarity to Lava. I pulled out of the eddy and ricocheted off
the right-side wave, and into the left one, as if on a hydraulic
trampoline. “Remember that; that’s the move you need to make
in Lava,” Stookesberry said approvingly.
After three days with no swims and just a handful of rolls,
Coombs proclaimed, “You’ve passed this test. Tomorrow is the
After a four-hour drive from the Feather and a night of camping in a treeless patch of dirt fondly referred to as the Dust Bowl,
I was ready to gauge my progress. The slap of 53-degree water
in the face was the first indication that the Cherry Creek section
of California’s Tuolumne River was a river of a different sort from
those I’d just been in. Sixteen Class V rapids along the nine-mile
run churn so continuously that the largest stretch of slack water
Top: The paddlers
enjoy a lantern-lit
dinner at their
makeshift campsite they dubbed
the Dust Bowl
into a boat for a
paddle down the
North Fork of
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spans less than 400 yards. I ran the first seven and a half miles
much better than I could have hoped. Toward the end of the
day with just two big rapids left, I paddled over to Coombs
and said, “This is great. I’m improving with each rapid.”
As the day wore on, we quickly approached Flat Rock Falls,
an innocuously named rapid on the Tuolumne with a deadly
sieve—an underwater cave acting like a pasta strainer, letting water through but not much else—on the right side. I
asked Stookesberry if we should scout a route through. “No,”
he assured. “We’ll just tiptoe down this one.” It was a pleasant way to describe descending a Class V rapid. Inspired by
Stookesberry’s nonchalance I ignored my misgivings and
followed. Then I nearly drowned.
Paddling into the rapid, Stookesberry hugged the left bank
but a crosscurrent flipped me, pulling me right and into a
potentially fatal position. Unable to fight the fast-moving current, I threw my paddle away and clung to the rock. Neither
Coombs nor Stookesberry could help, and I couldn’t find a
good grip on the granite while the current seethed around me.
I tried climbing out of the boat and onto the rock but, soon,
the river swept me away. My last vision was that of my finger-
The crew utilizes
cooks in the
brush their teeth
loading the boats
(right) and heading out to paddle.
The inescapable truth
of Class V kayaking had
become unmistakably clear:
One momentary lapse in
misjudgment—can be fatal.
nails scratching desperately along the rock for a handhold.
Then everything went dark, save one thought: So this is how
people die on rivers.
The river pinned me underwater, beneath three multiton
boulders. I didn’t feel frenzy or panic, just the sad certitude that
I would never see my family or friends again. Still, I fought.
Smushed at the bottom, I clawed through the dark cave searching for an exit. Somehow, I began floating to the surface until,
inches from fresh, new air, something yanked me back down.
My spray skirt had snagged on a rock.
Still burning a single lungful of air, I sunk back into the cave,
pulled free, and kicked to the surface. Just as I should have
broken through, I was snagged again. Still no air. A strap on
my shoe had caught on my spray skirt. Again I pulled myself
into the cave to kick free, but again I was pulled down.
I finally peeled off the shoe and shot to the surface. Stookesberry and Coombs were frantically scanning for me—I had been
under for 30 seconds. My boat never emerged. “Are you OK?”
they yelled. Yes. No. I don’t know. I couldn’t speak. Coombs
floated next to me in his sunshine-yellow boat.
“Wow,” I said, coughing. That was the extent of my vocabulary.
“No shit,” he replied. Perhaps it was just my reflection I saw
in Jesse’s face, but he looked pale and shaken, like he was talking to a dead man.
The inescapable truth of Class V kayaking had become unmistakably clear: At the most fundamental level it isn’t defined
by challenging rapids or dangerous features, but rather by the
simple fact that one error—one momentary lapse in concentration or small misjudgment—can be fatal. Still, I couldn’t let that
swim define Cherry Creek for me. If I stayed away I would only
remember the cave, despite what had otherwise been a great
run. The next day, I paddled Cherry Creek again. But I walked
around Flat Rock. Then, it was back on the road.
he checkout counter at Dave’s Jubilee Market in
Ashton, Idaho, seemed an unlikely place to scout a
65-foot cascade, but there was Coombs studying a
glossy postcard of Lower Mesa Falls. “Feel like running something big?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he replied. “I never make that decision until
Coombs traced a finger against the postcard, down the 30footer—the one that had my name on it—opposite the big drop,
and encouraged me: “The left side looks good to go.” A week
had passed since my unfortunate underwater spelunking incident and three strong days of Class IV–V boating on Idaho’s
North Fork of the Payette had allowed me to regain a few pieces
of my shattered confidence.
I smiled weakly at Coombs and muttered, “Uh, sure.”
The pretty cashier smiled at me and said, “Have a nice day.”
Coombs didn’t smile at anyone. He was buried in the prospect
of running his biggest drop in a year and a half. We got in the
truck and drove toward Mesa Falls.
Calling Mesa a waterfall is like calling a great white shark
a big fish. On the right side, a crushing wave of whitewater
plummets six and a half stories. The safest line requires kayakers to hit an enormous rock outcropping one-third of the way
A quick and dirty, layman’s guide to the Whitewater Classification system
there is nothing
more than hitting
100 | mensfitness.com
Class I: Easy
No danger. Small
waves and mostly
Nothing to worry
Class II: Novice
Mostly small, straight
forward rapids with
few obstacles that
may require occasional maneuvering.
rapids, harsh currents, and tight
and complex maneuvers to negotiate.
Turbulent water with
powerful rapids, and
large waves, but
predictable and manageable for highly
Class V: Expert
Experts only. Highly
violent rapids, and
lots of obstacles that
require expert skills
and a high level of
fitness and stamina.
Class VI: Extreme
The highest level of
difficulty, unpredictable, and extremely
dangerous, only run
by professionals or
experts under ideal
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“Kayakingue of my
only avene I can
life wher t physifigure ou mentally
what I’m capable
of doing. The day
you stop taking
risks is the day
you stop living.”
the secondbest way to land
on your head.
102 | mensfitness.com
TOP RIGHT: JASON LEE
down. As the lip of the Mesa’s crooked grin spreads from bank
to bank, the left side buckles into a two-tiered series of rapids
falling 20, then 30, feet.
Standing upstream of the 65-footer, Stookesberry threw sticks
into the current then watched each one plummet in a different
direction. Mesa offered little margin for error. Stookesberry
made the first descent here in 2001 but wasn’t thrilled about an
encore. Finally satisfied with his game of drown-the-stick, he
shook his hands, spit, and pissed in a nearby shrub, expelling
the last drops of nerves. He dug into the current following an
invisible line, and slid over the falls perfectly, nicking the rock
outcropping. Back at the top after his ride, Stookesberry buzzed
like an electrical current. “You can’t buy that sort of adrenaline
anywhere,” he beamed.
After another hour of tense deliberation, Coombs shoved
plugs into his ears, his body into his boat, and his boat into the
river. Approaching the falls, he paddled off the lip just to the
right of Stookesberry’s line and hit the massive rock outcropping—BOOM!—before disappearing into the froth. A few more
inches to the right and a great ride could have ended on rocks.
“We design every aspect of our daily lives to insulate ourselves
from risk,” Coombs had told me in California. “Kayaking is the
only avenue of my life where I can figure out physically and
mentally what I’m capable of doing. There’s no other way I get
that adrenaline or sense of being. The day you stop taking risks
is the day you stop living.”
Now it was my turn. After watching the guys grease the
65-footer, I felt good about my own drop—until I stood alone
above it. Nervousness boiled through my body like the current
before me and I couldn’t stop thinking about the cave. Still,
I knew I could run this 30-footer. Sliding my boat into the
eddy, I surged across the water toward the falls I had scouted
for the first time while standing in a tiny rural supermarket.
And then in a flash, I drove to the lip and was engulfed in a
shroud of white mist.
The world paused as I teetered over the edge, in between
the paddle strokes and the free fall, the pre-drop anxiety had
become irrelevant and the post-drop adrenaline was still an
abstraction. I generally think of commitment in relation to
long-term concepts (family, career, religion), but this was a
200-proof shot of it, one million nervous and exhilarating “I
do” moments condensed into a syrupy slow second. Then it
was over, and I landed. On my head. “That’s the second-best
way to land a drop like that,” Stookesberry chimed afterward,
in all seriousness. He was right; it didn’t hurt. A flat landing,
however, could have broken my back.
I was bruised and battered from two weeks on the river
and still a mental wreck from nearly dying on Cherry Creek,
but I still wanted to run the falls smoothly. So I returned with
the crew the next morning—and nailed it. Success proved a
powerful, albeit temporary, anesthetic, which wore off while I
was staggering up a football field of lava rock, shouldering a
kayak that felt like a lineman. “Now I know why some people
do this,” I muttered, “and why most people don’t.”
Row Your Boat
You need massive core
strength for powerful
paddling. Strengthen yours
with the Russian twist.
Here’s how to do it:
Grab a medicine ball, dumbbell, or
weight plate and sit on the floor with
your hips and knees bent 90 degrees.
Hold the weight straight out in front
of you and keep your back straight (your torso should be at about
45 degrees to the floor). Explosively twist your torso as far as
you can to the left , and then reverse the motion, twisting as
far as you can to the right . That’s one rep. Perform two sets
of 12 reps, resting 60 seconds between sets.
puts in a hard
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