miércoles, 22 de septiembre de 2010

Kayaking with Mexican top-model Montserrat Olivier

Text- Rafa Ortiz
Photos- Marcos Ferro

About a month ago I received a special call, one of those that make your phone ring in an unusual moment and bring good news.

“So let me get this straight, you want me to put in my kayak an actress, and take her down a class IV river in rainy season? Your nuts!”

But the truth is that there was no doubt in my mind, not every day you get to mount in your boat a top-model. On the other side of the lien was Ernesto Rivas, a good friend and another of adventurer soul. He was organizing the Desafío Estado de México 2010, by Altius, a new TV program for which he’d embark three celebrities for one week, on assorted incredible adventures. And the last day, Monsterrat Olivier got to ride on a Duo kayak with me.

We arrived at Valle de Bravo with all the gear on the roof of the truck: an individual kayak for Miguel Lerdo, who would run safety for us throughout the day with he’s life-long river experience, a small raft for the cameramen, and 12 ft of tandem boat. Before putting on the river, an early practice in the hotel’s warm pool was important.

“If we flip over, you hug the boat with all your guts, and the last thing you do is think about breathing” I told Montserrat, before practicing the roll. We came back afloat without problems, this woman besides her beautiful traits and her 6 ft of height, is a full athlete. And I have to confess that I was left with no option but raising up my seat a notch in order to look over her shoulder, like the little stools at the movies.

The Río Temascaltepec was flooded. The sky had fallen down in drops the previous night, and now we were getting ready for the adventure. We slid down next to the town’s center all the way to the water, while around 15 local government figures and another 50 curious people waved at us and took pictures with their mobile phones.

Rivers are classified in a scale from I to VI according to the difficulty, being class VI definite death. Montserrat and I speared through the class IV rapids, her in front paddling like an expert, and myself in the back trying to choose our lines over her shoulder. The raft with the cameramen was guided by Mariano Castelao, the expert in charge of making this woman survive the weeklong adventures. Now he maneuvered between rocks, waves and trees fallen the former night, in order to save his crew. In his boat, Miguel assured his own survival and then ran safety for us.

All of a sudden, we spotted a big rock right in the middle of the river with the whole flow pushing hard against it. “Let’s shoot left! Paddle hard girl!” I shouted, while cranking the boat around aggressively. The water pushed us furiously to the right. And the rock came closer by the second. Just about the most dangerous situation with a long boat like this is pinning sideways against a rock, letting the flow chain you down to the very bottom of the river. And if anything happened to Montserrat… “Go harder!!” We had no way around, the rock was next to us. In the last moment, I threw the boat towards the rock (Kayaking Manual, chapter X, “when everything else fails”). First hit the camera in the bow, then she barely managed to lift her elbow to dodge the rock, and finally I grabbed the obstacle to push us away from danger. “Rafa! The camera came off!” And she was not lying, it dropped to the bottom of the river. But I just relaxed: we made it out.

We kept paddling down the mighty rapids of the Temascaltepec and some hours later we made it safely to the end of the run. We carried the boats and raft out, to find the politicians and curious that had waved farewell 5 hours earlier. Miguel and I packed up quick; I could still make it back to college for my 8p.m. class. We said goodbye to the crew that also departed for the last adventures. I hugged Montserrat tight, my kayak companion. I never thought I’d meet such a cool personality 6ft high, any given Thursday.

martes, 20 de abril de 2010

Incredible India

They say happiness is only tangible when shared. Like good music that flies straight to your soul, a breath-taking adventure to the other side of the planet wouldn’t be as exciting alone. And I couldn’t imagine a better way to finish 2009, a year of hard sweat, than with my friend Daniel and both of our fathers on a week-long journey down the mighty waters of the Siang River.

I’m not going to lie; I just couldn’t wait to see my dad’s expression when paddling into the 20foot giants of the Siang. Ever since my first visit to the furthest flung state of India, Arunachal Pradesh, I wanted to share the feeling of remoteness with my family. I remember looking at these emerald Himalayan-fed flows and imagining what my father would do in such awe. But as soon as I found myself on the water back then, the humongous rapids felt inconsiderable for a family trip. Nevertheless I knew we’d find the way.

Three years passed and my dad kept talking about the possibilities of the trip. By then my friend Daniel and his dad Jaime, were on board with us. On November 2009, a positive answer from my good friend Roland Stevenson, owner of RiverIndia.com, appeared on my Inbox. He assured me that the lower section of the Siang would be an outstanding run in our kayaks, as it is for the rafting trips he’s been delighting adventurous Americans and Europeans with for the past couple of years. So enough being said, we spun the globe around and left home in search for new stories.

When you sign up for a trip of this magnitude, you are in for a journey. Several flights and a couple days of ‘jeeping’ up the mountains spice up the trip like masala on the rice. And by the time you make it to the put-in town of Tuting, you are ready for the water.

The first splash on the face quenches the thirst for adrenaline and drips cold down the nerves. Setting off into the main flow, the four of us are reminded promptly that we are only particles of sand taken for a ride. The 30'000 cubic feet per second of this green monster come from Himalayan ice melt, and now run free into the Brahmaputra plains. As we pinballed down the first crashing waves, we started getting the experience that we all came for.

Apparently we had cut a deal with Indra, the Hindu God of weather, because we got to enjoy weeklong clear skies. Every night we cooked warm dinner at our campfire and relaxed: just laid back on the sand and sailed away into the deepness of a star-punctured sky. When you leave behind your watch, TV, phone, and go back to the simplest human basics, you realize none of these are necessary, but enjoying yourself, Nature and the good company.

Paddling finally calm water one exhausting day, we heard Pulsing rapid on the distance and felt an upbeat on our hearts. Expecting it as the biggest rapid on the run, we got out to look at it with our own eyes. A two-story high wave thundered right in the middle of the line, and many other big ones followed it. I looked at my dad, who assured us that the wave we were about to crash into was the biggest he’d ever seen. First would go Daniel and Jaime, followed by us.

Jaime is one of the very pioneers of kayaking in Mexico and a world-round tripper. Today his son and pupil Daniel would lead him down the spine of the monster, into the maze of whitewater. Watching them from shore, we got to experience our two great friends turning into ants on the flow, Daniel punching waves with Viking skills, then Jaime holding the right strokes and his teeth tight together. We eventually heard them shout in excitement and success.

And then was our turn. I looked at my dad. He looked back. I could feel he’s nerves and anxiety turning into concentration, so we silently walked towards the boats. Paddling upstream and into the flow we could hear nothing anymore, not even the roaring ahead. As we started taking the first strokes that sent us onto the right line, we took charge.

I couldn’t really stop looking back, as we rode down this beast. Seeing my dad’s expression made me feel the adrenaline of the moment through his nerves too. The first hit was wild. I came out with my heart at full-speed, to see my dad take an unexpected flip. The freezing water and the turbo-currents make the situation tricky. His right blade came out first. Then with a big jolt he managed to flip the boat around, and kept taking down the beast. Half a minute later we met at the bottom and then had to wait another half to get our breath back.

Six days and plenty of intense rapids later, we managed to reach the promised destination. After many nights lacking TV’s and phones, unfortunately you start missing the traffic and the chaos. Before we knew it, we’d be sitting again in our regular lives, with a slight taste of chai remaining in the very back of our mouths.

So if you’re mourning a damn controlled planet get over it, it will be years till they burst. You can keep working hard on building yourself a time machine to fly back before the damn era, or simply book a ticket to India and find yourself an adventure in a place where time doesn’t run that fast.

For further information visit www.riverindia.com, and find your own journey.

viernes, 8 de mayo de 2009

This is my life now

I take a long, deep breath and let it out slowly. I splash water on my face with my right hand to soothe my nerves. I look out at the horizon line once more and then focus on my line of descent. My first strokes bring me into the current, leaving behind the last chance to bail out. I paddle slowly to the edge of the abyss, so focused that I don’t even fear the frenzied water. Everything happens in slow motion. I reach the drop and, at the last instant, I can see it all. This is the most wonderful sight in the world, the one you get at the lip of the big drops. And then I fall.

But my tale starts long before this, I was eight when I first got into a raft in the rapids of Veracruz. The combination of water and adventured has thrilled me since I was small, and when I turned 14, my parents gave me a whitewater kayak. I never imagined that this would be the start of a long voyage that has never ended.


One day I found myself packing my bags to go to the other side of the planet, to the World Freestyle Championship in Australia. I didn’t have a trainer or much experience; all I had was the support of my family and my first sponsor, Jackson Kayak. I finished ranked 22nd in the junior category, becoming the first Mexican to compete in an event at this level.

I pressed ahead relentlessly, improving my technique for two long years. Then I met Ben Stookesberry. It was with him that I started going on expeditions and facing the challenge of huge waterfalls. First, it was three weeks in the jungles of Veracruz to complete the first descent on the Alseseca River. A month later I was in India exploring three tributaries of the Brahmaputra River. With each river came the challenge of finding falls that would satisfy –for a while- our constant need to live at the edge.

Then came the mighty rivers of Africa, Pakistan and Brasil. These trips taught me what a dangerous combination you can get when you bring water, air and adrenaline together. Even so, I doubt I’ll ever stop doing it, because the drop is breathtaking.

Time freezes for an instant as I find myself surrounded by drops falling with me. It all becomes so peaceful as you go down. Gravity speeds me up more and more as every muscle clenches for the impact. Then comes the crunch. My body pitched forward, the paddle to one side and my right arm protecting my head. The flight ends as I plunge into the water, hoping to float back up in one piece. I breathe. Time regains its normal rhythm, and I turn to look back at the falls. The mist gets in my eyes, but I wipe my face with my fist so I can enjoy the ultimate moment and feel the satisfaction of doing it. 

This is my life now.