Kayaking: life on the edge

By Amy Russell 5 February 2014
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Lachie Carracher almost died doing what he loves most: whitewater kayaking.

Lachie Carracher curled up inside his kayak and waited to die. Strangely, he felt calm, no longer scared or compelled to struggle against the inevitable.

He had dropped off the lip of the waterfall seconds earlier, yet Lachie could’ve sworn he’d spent hours in this state of weightless freefall, patiently waiting. He no longer had his paddle. Eyes screwed shut, he envisaged what he’d seen as he slipped off the drop – rocks, just below the churning, frothy base of the fall. He absently wondered how much this would hurt.

Finally, the end arrived. His kayak hit the water and Lachie went under, slamming into hard, jagged edges. Right before he blacked out, he felt confusion rather than pain as he registered that, by some stroke of dumb luck, he was still alive.

  • Video: Kayaking the mighty Rio Alseseca

Mexican whitewater calling

Mexico’s Tlapacoyan is a mecca for ambitious whitewater kayakers. The mighty Rio Alseseca and its vein-like tributaries snake through the jungle near this city in the central state of Veracruz. Surging through canyons and over massive falls from their source on a volcanic plateau, these tropical waterways tumble and turn steeply on their short course to the Gulf of Mexico. Much of the region is unexplored and it’s this rawness that attracts expedition teams.

In late September 2011, Lachie – a 23-year-old whitewater kayaker from Victoria – returned to his home base in Vancouver, Canada, after a four-day wilderness trip on the Homathko River in remote British Columbia. He’d only been in town for a few days when he began to feel unsettled. Busy cities did this to him. For Lachie, the problem with whitewater was he was always thirsty for more. His appetite for the falls was similar to the nature of the river: constant, overwhelming and persuasive. He was never satisfied unless he was planning an expedition or embroiled in one. Tlapacoyan was next.

Over a few beers one afternoon in a Canadian hot tub, Lachie mentioned the idea to fellow paddlers, Norwegian Mathias Fossum and Frenchman Jules Domine. They’d met on their recent descent on the Homathko; neither had paddled in Veracruz before. They were also itching to get out of town and Jules had a car. The trio left days later, heading south in a beaten-up Chevy, weighed down by kayaks, gear and supplies.

It took them nearly a week to reach the border of northern Mexico. Lachie had been warned this region was dangerous to travel through at night, so they were relieved to pass through the checkpoint without incident. The armed guards were uninterested in three tired, shabby gringos, and even less so in their passports, which remained unchecked. With Lachie at the wheel, the crew relaxed into the rhythm of the road, passing rickety, overloaded buses and rundown villages while marvelling at their smooth transition into this troubled country. Eight hundred kilometres later, they were cursing this naive optimism.

“You do not have the right papers for this vehicle,” said the armed guard in rapid Spanish. They were at a military checkpoint; one of many they’d encountered since entering Mexico. Why they were being stopped now, Lachie wasn’t sure, but no papers meant they couldn’t proceed. The weary group was directed back to the initial border checkpoint to collect the documents, only to find they couldn’t acquire them there, either. Lachie stood by the now-useless car and stared out into the desert of northern Mexico, watching as the rising sun coated the dusty plains in a pinky-orange hue. He feared their adventure was over before it had even begun.

Making the long trek to whitewater

Five hundred dollars was all they managed to get for the sale of the car at the border. The call of the river was too loud for the group to return to Vancouver, so they caught one of the packed-to-the-rafters buses to Mexico City, where they boarded a second bus to Veracruz. A hire car ferried them the remaining 200km north-east and, almost three days after crossing the border, they finally arrived in Tlapacoyan.

Here, they found a hive of activity: people spilled out of cantina doorways onto busy streets lined with market stalls selling aromatic street food. Smiling children waved from open windows.

The group expanded at this point to include Aniol Serrasolses – a Spaniard from Girona, north-east of Catalonia, who was known in international paddling circles for charging some of the hardest drops in the world – and Rafa Ortiz, a local Mexican and Red Bull athlete who’d recently paddled off Palouse Falls (60m) in the state of Washington, USA.

Excitement rippled through the crew as they discussed logistics over cheap beers and tacos. They set up a base at Adventurec, a hotel popular with visiting kayakers. Surrounded by trees heavy with fruit, their new home was just a 15-minute drive from the outskirts of the jungle.

For the next two and a half weeks, the group rose daily with the sun. Over a breakfast of fresh fruit and coffee, they discussed what sections of the rivers were next, before loading up their rented truck and heading out. Balancing kayaks over their shoulders, they often trekked through the lush, dense foliage for almost an hour to reach an entry point where they’d set up a rope system to rappel down into a canyon and put in at the start of a succession of steep falls, some close to 30m. Once they were in the belly of the deep gorges, there was no way out but through the rapids and down the falls.

This was the type of terrain that got under Lachie’s skin. The tight box canyons were oases of calm: water trickled down either side, over walls of dark volcanic rock overrun with jungle vines. The air was thick and warm; all they wore against their skin was a single insulating layer.

The kayakers started modestly, charging the easy falls, but as they came to know the rivers their confidence grew and it wasn’t long before they were riding 24m drops. Emerging from the jungle at the end of the day, high on adrenalin and weary from the assaults of the river, they snacked on sweet biscuits by the side of the road before returning to Adventurec to ice muscles, attend to broken noses and entertain each other with tales from the river.

Kayaking the monster drop on the Rio Alseseca River

The day of the accident began like any other. The crew rose early. They hurriedly ate breakfast and planned a route. They trekked into the jungle in search of Rio Jalacingo, a tributary of Alseseca that they hadn’t explored. The local kayaker, Rafa, had told them that on this river they’d meet two 12m drops before an 18m fall, and finally emerge sore but sated at a banana plantation.

They weren’t sure of where to enter Jalacingo, but they took a guess. After a short stretch, they floated over the first 12m drop and toyed with a section of rapids before charging a handful of 3m falls. There was no sign of any other drops.

The sun beat down onto the jungle and dappled light filtered through the trees. The boats skimmed the river in single file and all too soon they began passing plantation trees; Lachie figured they must have put in towards the end of the river. “We must be almost there,” he thought. “The car will be just around this corner.” The water wasn’t flowing very fast. “I’ll see you at the bottom,” he called back to the group.

Coming around a bend, he saw the water slide away. He paddled closer to the edge, but couldn’t see the pool he was about to drop into. He knew then this must be a monster drop. Panic gripped Lachie as he rolled off the edge and finally glimpsed how far he had to fall. More than 27m, he estimated, as he spied the bed of rocks waiting below. “This is it,” he thought, “I’m going to die.”

The dangers of paddling big drops

One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Semiconscious, Lachie counted the concerned faces fading in and out of view as his eyes adjusted to the light. “Where is Mathias? Did he make it down okay?” he mumbled to no-one in particular. “He didn’t come out today, bud,” someone reminded him gently.

The force of the collision had catapulted Lachie from his kayak and rendered him unconscious. The river then hurried him over three smaller falls, his body bouncing around like a ragdoll before coming to rest in calmer waters. He was found by the crew, who’d made it down with only various minor injuries.

They dragged him to safety and here he lay, on a small island of rocks, with his legs submerged in water. His head was bleeding and his helmet lay nearby, broken in two like one of their breakfast melons. He could still move his neck, but the pain was almost unbearable and Lachie began to panic. He knew from surfing buddies that sometimes a neck can break, but paralysis sets in only after the swelling takes hold. It was also clear to his friends that he needed medical attention. Fast.

Aniol ran the next drop. In his haste, he badly scraped his hands, but was still able to climb up the side of the canyon and lower a rope. Dizzy and fighting to stay conscious, Lachie held on tight to the lifeline as his friends carefully hoisted him up. Blood dripped onto his forearms and he realised it wasn’t all his own – his dead weight was dragging on the rope and slicing through the hands of those high above him.

When he was finally pulled over the lip of the canyon, Lachie’s relief gave way to fear – the truck was still hours away through the jungle. Walking was his only option. Accompanied by Jules, Lachie began a slow hike to find help while the others went in search of the truck. After almost two hours, the pair reached a small village and Lachie collapsed in pain. Jules convinced a local to drive them to a nearby hospital in Tlapacoyan, where the crew joined them.

Although medical staff treated the cuts on Lachie’s hands and head, no-one examined his neck, despite his pleas for an X-ray. Convinced he was in the throes of a nightmare, Lachie watched from his bed as people were wheeled into rooms on blood-stained stretchers and doctors attended to patients with decrepit equipment. After 12 hours of frustrated waiting, the crew found another clinic and convinced a doctor to perform X-rays, offering a bottle of tequila as a bribe. When the man failed to reappear to explain the results, Lachie returned to Adventurec. He could still barely move his neck for the throbbing pain.

The following day another local physician visited bedridden Lachie in his room. The doctor diagnosed Lachie with three compressed vertebrae and said he was lucky to be alive, let alone walking. He would need to rest, but he would heal. Had the impact of been more severe, the doctor said, Lachie would have surely snapped his neck.

Reflecting on a kayaking near-miss

‘Daredevil’ is a label Lachie’s familiar with. He’s been described as such by well-meaning friends and critics more times than he can remember. It’s easy to side with this disapproving camp – watching footage of foolhardy kayakers launch off gut-wrenchingly high falls never fails to send shivers down my spine. But it is the nature of extreme sports to have as many skeptics as supporters of the athletes pushing boundaries.

When I met Lachie two years ago, he assured me he didn’t have a death wish. He was aware of the risks; he just wasn’t particularly afraid of them. Then he made a mistake. The crew should have done reconnaissance work on Rio Jalacingo – scoped out the corners they hadn’t yet turned and the drops they couldn’t see beyond.

Lachie’s fall injured his neck and his bravado. When he was fit to travel, he left Mexico and returned to Australia, burdened with questions. Is this lifestyle worth it? How would his family feel if he died? Were the naysayers right?

It took a summer of recuperation and reflection before Lachie realised he wouldn’t be happy unless he found his way back to the river. Since then, he’s paddled whitewater in far north Queensland, British Columbia, California and Colombia. Today, Lachie tells me that despite the risks – and the niggling questions that persist when he or a friend endure a near miss – kayaking is his life and he’s comfortable in the knowledge that this is who he is. No matter what the critics say.