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Kayak Rescue | Trapped behind a 35′ waterfall

Author(s): Curtis May
Video Release Date: January 29, 2023
Video Source: YouTube

On December 18th, 2022 six friends make a descent of the Agua Azul in Chiapas, Mexico. The climax of this section consists of 5 waterfalls called the Five Kings. At the third ‘King’ my approach was too far right and I dried out at the lip in about 3 inches of water. I lost my speed and dropped behind the curtain of the waterfall.

For the next 75 minutes I made multiple attempts to escape and repeatedly blew my whistle in an attempt to let my friends know that I was still alive. My friends acted swiftly to begin rescue operations. I was the last of us to run the drop so the other 5 boats were all downstream of this waterfall AND the 60-footer below it. There is no access to the river between the 35′ drop and the 60′ drop, so Issac & Wesley hiked their boats back upstream and ran the 35-footer again to get into position.

I could not see or hear anything beyond the curtain of the waterfall and they could not see or hear me, even whistles. The curtain looked thinner to my right but the wall was much closer and severely undercut. I considered making an attempt there but knew that a failed attempt could result in a much worse situation. I decided to save this as a last resort if it started to get dark. Issac and Wesley made many attempts to gain access behind the curtain, both with ropes and their bodies. After about 60 minutes with no success, no signs of life, and sunset fast approaching Wesley decided to try to paddle behind the curtain through a small gap on river right. Both Wesley and Issac were able to get behind the curtain and stash their boats to launch a heroic live bait rescue attempt. It wasn’t until Wesley was about 30 feet from me that we were finally able to hear each other. This was their first indication that I was still alive.

After over an hour of failed attempts to escape and zero contact with anyone I was beginning to lose hope. When I first heard another voice and knew my friends were still working to get me out, I felt a wave of relief and a renewed enthusiasm. We couldn’t see each other, there was a rock wall between us. I could hear Wesley shouting but couldn’t understand what he was saying. I thought he was on the other side of the curtain. I had no idea that he was just around the corner from me until I saw him while making another attempt to paddle through the curtain. When I saw Wesley floating there, I realized that I actually wasn’t going to die that day. I felt a level of relief and joy that I had never experienced in my life. At this point it had been well over an hour and I was exhausted. Every attempt to paddle through the curtain zapped my energy and it took a few minutes to recharge between attempts. I retreated back to my point of safety and gathered my strength for a moment to make the ferry around the corner to where Wesley was waiting. When I reached Wesley he gave three blasts on his whistle and Issac started pulling us both along the undercut wall back to safety. They saved my life on this day and I will forever be grateful.

Our ordeal wasn’t over yet though. We then had to scale a 35 foot vertical mud cliff to get back to the trail, put back on, paddle 45 mins to the takeout, and hike uphill for 1.5 miles in the dark while being pursued by armed Zapatista rebels. We were in their territory and they had spotted us at the takeout. Yes, seriously. We finally made it back to our village and all enjoyed a few cold beers.

This rescue situation highlights the importance of taking a swiftwater rescue course and keeping those rescue skills sharp. Always paddle with rescue gear, always discuss safety with your crew before you put on, and always be prepared to act when the time comes.

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