What’s It Like to Freefall 189 Feet Over a Waterfall?


He was just 6 years old when he sat in a kayak for the first time. Today, Tyler Bradt is a 24-year-old recordbreaking extreme athlete who is shattering the limits of whitewater sports—and human survival. In 2010, his insane 189-foot free fall over Palouse Falls in Washington state set the world record for the tallest waterfall ever paddled. We recently caught up with Bradt and got his step-by-step account of how he survived this death-defying plunge.


“The first thing you need to do is scout things out. Everything has to be perfect—the team, the weather, the water level. Then you need to visualize. Every waterfall is different, so there’s no way to practice except in your mind. I plan out what strokes I’m going to take and what my reaction will be as I’m going into free fall. Once I actually go and run the falls, it’s as if I’ve already done it a hundred times.”


“When you hop in your boat at the top—that’s the scariest moment, up there on flat water getting ready to drop over a very big horizon. You’ve got to really control your emotions and thoughts. You can’t have an ‘Oh, shit’ moment, or things are going to go wrong and you’re going to crash. Once you’re in the kayak and approaching the falls, keep one blade in the water to control the angle of your approach. When you’re paddling toward the lip of the waterfall, the key is to take a couple of strokes to get going just a little faster than the water around you before you drop.”


“You’re thinking, ‘Am I making the right decision? Is this a good idea?’ But at that point, there’s no turning back. The adrenaline hits right at that moment where you’re looking 200 feet straight down. The enormity of your situation is overwhelming, but it’s also the moment you need to react. That’s when I move into my tuck so I won’t land flat on my back or go upside down. When you land you want to be fully forward on the front of your deck with your paddle off to the side so it doesn’t come back and hit you.”


“You actually free fall for longer than you anticipate—you want to look at what’s going on, to see when you’re going to hit the bottom, but you can’t. Knowing that, I just stayed tucked. The one thought that kept going through my head was, ‘Wow, this is really a long way down!'”


“The goal is to land with your boat vertical. You want to land feet down so that you’re penetrating the water surface with the least amount of impact. When I hit the bottom of Palouse, it was a full explosion. I got jackknifed out of my tuck position and hit the back of the kayak. My paddle snapped. It really dazed me. It’s an impact that I’ve never felt before—like a car crash. It knocked the wind out of me for well over a minute. I surfaced upside down and was underwater for probably 10 or 12 seconds.”


“When my kayak turned over, there was so much mist around me that I couldn’t really see anything, so I just sat there drifting, making sure I was OK. It was surreal. I immediately started to do the self-assessment—‘Am I OK? Is everything intact?’ Other than a sprained wrist, I was fine. As the mist cleared, and I was able to take a couple of strokes with that broken paddle, the elation hit me. Looking back at the waterfall to see what I’d just come down was a moment of real relief. The world record was secondary to just surviving, especially when the chances of breaking my back—or worse—were so high!”


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