The act itself is one thing.
Years spent dreaming, training, planning, visualizing: They all reduce to pure reflex. At the transition to freefall, the world shrinks. In that final moment of commitment to the drop – and its potentially fatal consequences – only one person is truly engaged.
Keeping a waterfall descent this big a secret, however, is a whole other matter.
When two young paddlers recently made a return run at the largest waterfall ever successfully paddled in a kayak, there were a lot more people involved. It takes a layered network of trust and support to pull off a world record — and then not speak a word about the feat until now.
The phone calls can explain.
“What Did You Run?”
Diane Henderson got the first one at home in State College, Penn., the evening of April 1.
It was normal to hear from her son, Knox Hammack. The 21-year-old living in White Salmon, Wash., keeps busy splitting time between college course work online and pursuing the next moment of freefall in his kayak.
“I’m enough of a kayaker to understand his addiction,” says Henderson, a math professor who introduced her son to kayaking at age 10, through the Parent Child Camp at Pennsylvania’s Riversport School of Paddling. Though he’s all the way across the country now, he still calls his mother once a week.
This time though, Henderson recalls, “he was pretty clear about the ‘I love you, Mom’ thing.” And then to end the call, he sent out another signal, saying “OK, I’ll make sure to call you tomorrow.”
Henderson knew then that her son Knox had something in the works.
The second call came the next day, April 2. Something was definitely up.
“Everything’s fine, I just want you to know I’m OK,” Hammack said. Mom knew exactly what he meant.
“What did you run?” she asked.
From the Exxon station in Connell, along the rolling arid plains of southeastern Washington where he first returned to cell-service connectivity, Hammack explained.
He’d just successfully descended Palouse Falls, where the Palouse River gorge opens into a massive sinkhole-like cauldron of bedrock hollowed by glacial floods. Before the river’s final meander into the Snake, it plunges nearly 200 feet into a bowl of vertically walled basalt.
Though the feature itself is a liability in its own right (four people have died viewing the falls in the last three years) Hammack explained how his approach unfolded. Upon hearing the word ‘Palouse,’ however, Henderson immediately started Googling.
If you’ve heard of Palouse Falls, you’ve likely seen the first clip that comes up:
Imagine a mother discovering that in response to the question, “What did you run?”
In 2009, 10 years to the month before Hammack’s run, Tyler Bradt first ran Palouse. His accomplishment set a new bar in multiple ways. It established a height for the new world record at 186 feet (later officially re-surveyed as 189.5 feet), as well as solidified the record-setting criteria of a successful descent: that the paddler must stay inside of their boat. Rafa Ortiz also attempted the falls in a well-documented 2012 run, but he was ejected from his kayak in the chaotic landing pool and the consensus holds that he did not match the world record.
It also established a pop-culture high water mark for whitewater kayaking with mainstream media. Bradt was always an infectiously enthusiastic creek-charger from Montana; thanks to your-parents-watch-it outlets like Good Morning America taking note of the WTF-inducing footage, he became the shaggy-haired face of “extreme kayaking” itself.
With his record still standing, Bradt, at 32, is a universally known, liked and respected elder compared to kayaking’s youthful cutting edge. The feat undoubtedly helped his career, but everything’s relative: “I drive a Chevy that I bought for $1,000,” he’s quick to point out. But notoriety was never the intention and, while calls from the New York morning show circuit have long since ceased, he’s still happy to field phone calls about the story of the Palouse.
The Seed is Planted
When he first saw the footage of Bradt, it “one hundred percent blew my mind,” says Hammack. At age 11, he was more worried about his roll, working on fun and fundamentals, and hoping to one day run the Upper Youghiogheny. Through his time at the World Class Academy (a travel-based private high school known for the kayaking talent it produces) Hammack’s comfort zone rapidly expanded. With the Upper Yough in his rear view, Hammack’s focus turned to safely and competently running drops that seemed to get larger with every run.
A 30-foot drop turned into a 60-foot drop. Success and comfort at 60 feet turned into 90. For every additional foot above 90, however, the risk intensifies and the likelihood of an emergency medical situation increases – the field of willing paddlers thins fast. The physics of a botched landing do not bode well. A spine cannot absorb the impact on the top side of a buoyant 9-foot tube dropped from an eight-story building onto a pool. Going past a vertical entry risks neck injuries, to say nothing of entry impacts, or simply staying conscious through a resurfaced upright breath on the downstream side of the veil.
For Hammack however, the higher the elevation, the clearer the possibility of Palouse. This December, he turned sights to the second-highest falls ever kayaked – a gorge-fed 128-foot falls on Mexico’s the Rio Alseseca called “Big Banana.” His successful run there put Hammack’s name alongside an elite list of the world’s best paddlers, let alone those willing to descend a 100-plus-foot drop.
By now, Hammack had relocated to the kayaking hub of the Pacific Northwest’s Columbia River Gorge. When he returned home from Mexico, he found himself alongside the pros in a different way: a pickup basketball game, in which he was matched against Bradt.
After the game, Hammack invited Bradt to grab a coffee and revealed a secret: He’d been quietly heading to the remote corner of Washington where Palouse Falls is located on solo scouting missions. A seed of a dream that was planted upon seeing Bradt’s legendary drop was taking shape, but it was hard for Hammack to even verbalize such a grand ambition.
“The second I told Tyler, his face lit up and he really got me stoked,” Hammack said of the instant shot of confidence. Bradt immediately began providing advice, volunteering help in any way. “That was the final switch in my head.”
James Shimizu had never told anyone either.
This past February, Shimizu and Hammack drove together to scout Outlet Falls, an imposing 70-foot plunge in Washington that ends in a bowl not unlike the one Hammack had been dreaming about. On the drive back, Shimizu turned to his frequent paddling partner and said: “You know what’s messed up but runnable?” he said. “Palouse.”
It was Shimizu’s version of Hammack’s conversation with Bradt; for the first time since he’d seen the iconic run on a poster years ago, Shimizu verbalized something he was still unsure wasn’t just a pipe dream. Up to that point, he had considered the Palouse only “in the mental state,” visualizing the drop, “trying to picture what the line would look like and how it would feel.”
Up to that point, neither paddler had any idea that someone in his own circle was genuinely considering the falls.
“He knows what he’s doing and he knows the risks, because he’s run so many other big waterfalls,” Hammack said of Shimizu. “So having someone else who’s done stuff like that and still wanted to do [Palouse] made me realize that I wasn’t crazy.”
Shimizu, 23, took a rapid route from novice paddler to one willing to consider the sport’s highest heights. After high school overseas in China, a cycling tour through the Rockies lead him to Montana. He landed a raft-guiding gig, learning fast and often on whatever whitewater to which he could hitch a ride. In kayaking, he found levels of focus and clarity that he couldn’t experience on boats or bikes. He soon relocated to the Columbia River Gorge, where finding paddling partners and progressive levels of challenge was a simple proposition.
“I surrounded myself with a lot of paddlers; everyone was better than me, patient with me when I swam. I felt alive,” Shimizu recalls of his first winter in the Gorge. He spent much of that winter starring at a torn-up poster of Bradt’s Palouse drop that was stuck to the wall of the house where he stayed.
In his analytical take on Palouse, Shimizu saw possibility. “It sounds crazy as hell,” he says. “But the more you progress with waterfalls, the more you can break things down into pieces. [Palouse] starts in flat water; the lip has a really good transition from flat to vertical, and the pool is relatively clean … though there is a bit of a left-side overhanging wall that’s a concern.”
Another concern is that it’s illegal to run the falls, which lie within the boundary of a Washington state park. Once Shimizu and Hammack were on the same page with the risks and the realities, they both took separate scouting trips.
The Falls Call
On the first day of April, Hammack and Shimizu noted the late winter flows beginning to drop into a target range of 2,000 cfs. The pair started feverishly texting friends to crew up for safety and media support. Hammack called his mom in Pennsylvania; Shimizu called his parents Thailand. The day of the drop, Shimizu also tried to call in sick to his waiting gig at the Hood River Best Western, which ultimately cost him the job. Both paddlers were all in.
Keeping his word to help however he could, Bradt drove over from Montana, and he made sure to pack his “chastity belt.” Bradt maintains that his boat’s spray deck, customized with a pair of ratcheting buckles and backup buckles, was key to preventing his skirt from imploding with the force of water on his 2009 descent. He also pushed both paddlers to use the same kayak he did: an original Dagger Nomad 8.5. Bradt notes its rigid molded-in outfitting, and its less rockered profile, “so the boat doesn’t kick flat where the rocker tweaks you.”
What Bradt couldn’t advise was who would run the falls first. Upon arriving to a parking lot full of tourists and the river flowing at a healthy 2,280 cfs, the team divided, five paddlers to the pool below the falls, media support to the rim, the paddlers and a team member with radio to the river section above the upper falls. Once geared up, Hammack and Shimizu devised a simple staging solution: rock-paper-scissors, sudden death. Shimizu threw scissors; Hammack rock.
That’s when Hammack’s nerves set in. Sitting in the pool he thought of all the work he’d put in to get to this point, this final goal. That’s when it occurred to him: “‘This might be last time I do this,’ I thought, ‘I never have to be this stressed out again.’” Realizing he had achieved peak pre-waterfall jitters, ironically, had a calming effect.
Per Bradt’s advice on the line, Hammack stayed close to the right wall. Over the lip, he took one correction stroke, then tucked and – about one third of the way down – tossed his paddle forward, and crossed his arms over his cockpit, left hand over right.
What can you do then?
“Nothing,” Hammack says. “If you do anything it will mess you up, any movement you make.” On a 30-foot drop, it might not be a big deal. But double that, and any change to the trajectory “gets extrapolated on the way down,” drastically altering the landing position. If you’re a little over vertical by 60 feet, you’ll definitely be on your head at 189. Even with the perfect body control, the wrong surge upon landing can still have dire consequence: broken back, smashed face, loss of consciousness, boat folding in half … those are just a few worst case scenarios.
“Water will do whatever it wants to you, so you’re totally at the mercy of it,” Hammack says. “You can get lucky and have a soft hit or even if you have a good line, you could hit the boil at the bottom wrong and take a massive hit.”
When Hammack was past 100 feet, still tucked, hurtling nose down, he knew it. He had a full moment to process the thought that he was still falling, “time to think, ‘This is sick.’”
With that thought, he lifted his head for a split second to spot the landing … and then he hit.
The force slammed helmet into hand before jerking his torso to the back deck; folding his kayak onto his knee in the process. He stretched his arms to avoid flipping as he felt the curtain pushing him down. Everything went black. The next thought: “Am I OK?” He scanned for movement – fingers and toes all good. Four seconds later he surfaced and, without his paddle, hand-rolled up to get a breath and see the boils pushed him safely away from the falls. Then he got sucked under again deep in the wash. He resurfaced again 10 feet from a close friend, ready for safety support in the pool. Elated, without words.
The stress was gone. He’d thought about everything leading up to the fall, everything except what to do now, how to react to “the top feeling” of his life.
At the top of the falls, Shimizu was doing his own work, visualizing what lay ahead. A member of the support team ran Bradt’s chastity belt from Hammack back up to Shimizu, who was running through the motions over and over as he studied the flow of the falls’ smooth entrance ramp on river-right, just off the wall.
“I was actively just trying to envision the line in my head so that once I got to the lip, I had already in my mind done it so many times that the feeling would just be natural,” says Shimizu, who ratcheted himself into his boat and started to slow things down. “My theory with kayaking is that the lower I can keep my heart rate overall, the more focused [I am] on technique and what I’m doing … I close my eyes, do a bunch of deep breaths and with every breath try and slow the inhale and exhale down a little bit. And I just keep doing that until eventually I feel this wave of calm come over me.”
Like Hammack, Shimizu tried to minimize movement, paddling in calm at the same speed as the current. Entering with a similar right line, and a little one o’clock angle, he planted a left back-stroke to straighten his bow as the view opened up below.
“Looking down, that view is burned in my eyes,” he recalls. “It just keeps going and this massive cloud of mist forms where you can’t even see the landing – I rode with my eyes open as long as could.”
After tossing his paddle and tucking, one second he was in the boat, the other he was swimming in the pool disoriented, instantly ejected. Once safely to shore, all that Shimizu noticed was a bloody nose – “it wasn’t broken, I know that. I’ve broken it many times before.”
From his view on the rim, Bradt had one assessment: “They both totally stuck it.”
After witnessing the third and fourth runs of the falls that he pioneered a decade ago, and now sharing the world-record holder mantle with Hammack, Bradt is effusive with his praise.
“They put the time in with all the waterfalls leading up to it, did the right homework, did it in the right boats, and just went about it in the most respectful way,” Bradt says. “That was my dream – that I wanted to set that precedent with the approach and preparation going in. It was a cool moment for me to pass that torch in a way.”
When the moment had passed, gear off, shuttle complete, when those fleeting levels of total focus had come and gone – the ones Shimizu describes as impossible to replicate, the ones that make the search for the next drop so addicting – there was one last phone call.
The next morning, Hammack awoke and texted Shimizu: “Did that really all just happen?”
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The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak
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