…That makes it even more difficult for the boys to ride the high waterfalls at exactly the right angle.
MAZHOY GORGE, ALTAI, RUSSIA – 11:35 AM: Their extremely high water made many rivers almost impossible to navigate. But Tomass Marnics seems completely unfazed as he enjoys the wild ride.
Water has power. It thunders with tremendous force through the canyons of the Earth, inexorably carving deep gullies into the rock. No other mountain sport brings you as close to the water as kayaking. For the professionals on the adidas Sickline team, riding this elemental force is the ne plus ultra – for them, no cataract is too precipitous, no waterfall too high. Crazy? No, but an extreme challenge for body and mind...
A speck of colour stands on the brink of the waterfall. It looks small and lost. But wait – suddenly it moves. It’s a young man wearing a helmet and life jacket. Darting this way and that the kayaker’s eyes feverishly search for a channel to navigate through the chaos of water, rock and foaming spray. Beside him, tons of water hurtle down more than 20m. The paddler closes his eyes one more time and runs through every manoeuvre in his mind again while his arms and upper body perform a silent routine. Moments later the sportsman pulls the spraydeck over the cockpit of his kayak with a look of determination and paddles off with precise strokes – let the ride begin...
We’re in Chiapas, the southernmost state of Mexico. For ten days now the international team of professional kayakers led by film-maker and extreme paddler Olaf Obsommer has been on the Agua Azul in search of the ultimate kayaking adventure.
Waves, white water, waterfalls - it’s the stuff of paddlers’ dreams.
Sam Sutton is not only dreaming the dream, he’s living it. Although the 23-year-old New Zealander has only been kayaking for six years he already ranks among the world’s best: in 2010 the “Mean Maori” was crowned world champion at the adidas Sickline World Championship for extreme kayakers – and again in 2011 all his rivals got to see was the stern of his kayak. But today is not about a perfect run, tenths of seconds or beating opponents. Today Sam wants to get his adrenaline kick by being the first to paddle down a 22m-high waterfall. What is needed here is technique, nerves of steel and plenty of cojones in your trousers. Speaking of which: Sam gave up his first hobby, motocross, when a crash landing almost crushed his hopes of ever fathering any children. He then tried rugby, but the Maori blood he inherited from his grandmother was not thick enough for him to compete with the brawny and super-fit “real” Maoris. Sam’s reason for taking up paddling was purely pragmatic: why not accompany the rafts he was photographing for a local firm in his home town of Rotorua when they went out on the water in order to get an even better angle?
Ready to rumble
But Sam has long since switched sides. Now he performs in front of the camera, sitting in his kayak in the middle of the Mexican jungle, waiting for the signal from his colleagues. Their feet search for footholds on the slippery rocks, their eyes scan the banks for the best rescue point so they can be on hand with the throw bag – because even if each paddler is alone in his or her boat, kayaking is still a team sport. Everyone is in position at last and gives the thumbs-up – the signal for Sam to start. One last deep breath and Sam propels his boat towards the precipice with powerful strokes. There is no way back now. Against the breathtaking backdrop of the cascading water the little paddler looks like a toy figure. The dimensions of the towering waterfall make it clear who is the master here: even the slightest mistake could have fatal consequences.
Sam is well aware of it: “Big drops are something very special for me. On the one hand they are totally nerve-racking, on the other they have a magical attraction for me. I love always seeing how far I can push myself. Sometimes you end up getting walloped big time, but there’s nothing to compare with the feeling that you dared take on a big drop or a difficult rapid.
When I get into my paddling gear I feel as if I’m putting on some kind of armour. From that moment on the switch is set firmly to ‘Action’!”
When Sam falls over the edge at last the entire crew holds its breath. Never before has anyone dared challenge this waterfall: the fear of injury and respect for the masses of water were just too great. With a final precise stroke on the brink, Sam positions his kayak at the perfect angle for the drop. Whereas for him time seems to stand still, for the guys on the bank it all happens in the blink of an eye: upper body
forward over the boat, let the paddle go and smack! After his flight, Sam hits the water. The kayak and its occupant disappear completely, reappearing shortly afterwards bottom up. Using only his hands and a perfect hip technique, Sam rolls the boat upright. Pumped up with adrenaline he punches the air and yells out his elation for all the world to hear. “Whoooooaaaaa!!!”
The grin looks as if it will never leave his face. And as he said, the feeling seems to be addictive; still sitting in the kayak, Sam cries out, “Give me more!”
Cosmopolitans in kayaks
The constant search for new adventures and extreme sporting challenges drives the athletes on and takes them on a never-ending journey around the globe.
Olaf Obsommer, who accompanies the expeditions with his camera, now has more visas stamped in his passport than pairs of underpants in his wardrobe. The kayak virus was passed into Olaf’s blood with his mother’s milk: while still expecting him, his mother used to paddle over the Rhine in his native North Rhine-Westphalia.
Now 41, and having settled in Bavaria, he has mellowed somewhat, though his passion for his sport still burns brightly, as he shows every day on the river. “On really difficult white water having all the camera equipment with me in the kayak pushes me to the limit. But the stories alone are not enough to fill my books, so I’ve got no choice but to keep going out on the river with those reckless young hoods,” says Olaf with a grin.
His latest project, the television documentary “Auf der Suche nach dem Flussgott” (“In Search of the River God”) has taken the gang not only to Mexico but to Siberia and Iceland as well – a complete contrast to paddling under the Mexican sun. Iceland is rugged, cold, barren but nevertheless stunning.
Volcanoes, deserts of lava, gigantic glaciers, hot springs and the world-famous geysers are reasons enough to journey to the far north. But on their two-week tour the boys were more on the lookout for a natural spectacle of a different kind: “Iceland is a real waterfall kingdom. Whether large or small, with a rivulet or a mighty plume of water, it has something for every fan of running the rapids,” says Olaf, summing up the character of Iceland as a paddling destination. Because team member Bernhard Mauracher from Austria had taken it upon himself to cover the whole distance by car and ferry, the boys had the complete range of equipment at their disposal in Iceland. “We’ve got a tracking system for dolly shots, an underwater casing and the highlight is a 9m long camera crane,” says Jared Meehan, delighted with the range of film equipment.
“If we’d have turned up at the airport with that lot the girls at check-in would either have laughed at us or our credit cards would have worn to a frazzle.” The kiwi has accompanied Olaf as second cameraman for several years now, and his creative input gives the video productions a new dimension.
For their next trip a few weeks later, the group of travelling sportsmen had to make do with a lot less.
Altai: the name means “colourful mountains”.
And the team for the Russian expedition was also a colourful mixture: ten people from six different countries. What they all share is a love of kayaking and a craving for great adventures. Which is what you can experience in the region where Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China meet. In the Altai Mountains traditional expedition paddling was on the agenda. This means that the athletes are often navigating unknown rivers for days on end and are completely on their own. Sleeping bag, foam mattress, Primus and provisions all have to be carried in the kayak – no easy matter on white water of the highest grade. In cases like this you think twice about every energy bar you put in your food bag. For the German Thilo Schmitt, paddling miles away from any kind of civilization is a truly special challenge, too: “Quite simply, you don’t feel so safe with ten kilos of luggage in the boat. And finding a rafter on the bank who’d had an accident certainly didn’t give us any kind of psychological boost. But discovering the deep ravines in Siberia was definitely a unique experience.”
But anyone who thinks that, after an exhausting day on the water, anyone is still interested in the heroic exploits or even the deeper significance of it all is mistaken. One look into the paddlers’ faces is enough to reveal what is really going through their minds: there, roast pork, burgers and chocolate cake are parading past.
The magic carpet
But why are the kayakers prepared to face all these dangers? What prompts them to risk life and limb on the most treacherous white water and towering waterfalls? Paddlers want to feel the elements, pit their strength against them, become one with them. Unlike the mountains whose rock faces have gazed down majestically on the landscape for centuries, water is never still. A river never rests, it meanders down to the valley, effervescent and skittish, slackening only when a lake or river receives it. But kayaking is in essence a mountain sport like any other. It focuses on nature, personal limits, enjoyment and the search for freedom.
And what is the culmination of this freedom? What the summit is to the mountaineer, the waterfall is to the white water paddler! The American philosopher Doug Ammons explains the phenomenon like this: “We humans are a very limited species: we cannot run particularly fast, we cannot swim well and we cannot fly. But when we push off from the bank in a kayak we battle our weaknesses and fears. We test our limits – no other species on our planet does this. And we go even further: we break the laws of gravity, break away from the water and fly – by riding waterfalls. A white water kayak reminds me of a magic carpet: learn to control it and it carries you away.”
Check out adidas.com/outdoor/magazine for more inspiring stories and pictures or watch the kayaking video