German-born Adrian Mattern is a professional whitewater kayaker who travels the world as part of a collective called SEND. Adrian’s love of the sport has taken him and his team to some of the most remote places on earth in order to capture footage of the most death defying waterfall drops ever attempted.
When I tell people that I am a whitewater kayaker who travels to remote places all over the world in order to throw myself off waterfalls or run huge rapids in my kayak, I often get a raised eyebrow as a response. (And questions about your travel insurance?)
At that point I usually pull out my phone to let the pictures speak for themselves, but they don’t really create an understanding as to why I’ve put all my time and energy for the past eight years into a sport that comes with serious risk.
To me, there is no feeling quite like approaching the edge of a huge waterfall, dropping over the top of it and experiencing everything as if it was slow motion. After you resurface and look back up at the waterfall, you can still feel the adrenaline rushing through your veins. However, despite this being my life now, there was a time when I wanted nothing to do with kayaking.
I grew up in the town of Heidelberg, in south-west Germany. As a kid I spent most of my time with my closest friends, going to Karate classes, or playing rugby. In 2009 my parents split up and I went to live with my dad who decided to buy a motorcycle and take up whitewater kayaking. To this day he denies it was a midlife crisis, but I know otherwise.
I would often tag along with him to the local kayaking club and that’s where I had my first run on water. Things slowly progressed and I started to pick it up, until one day I had an accident where my kayak flipped upside down and trapped me underneath an underwater tree. That experience really shook me up and if it wasn’t for my dad pulling me out, I probably would not be alive today.
After that, I wanted nothing to do with kayaking. My dad kept on pushing me to come with him on his kayaking trips but because of the bad experience, it took a lot of convincing to get me to go back. He eventually convinced me and after a few trips, the fire for the sport started to burn again. After a solid year of not really wanting to go kayaking, I started enjoying the feeling of being on the water again.
I had an accident where my kayak flipped upside down and trapped me underneath an underwater tree.
I was 12 years old by the time I was fully in love with the sport. YouTube had just become a thing so I started watching videos of my idols kayaking in exotic places and I would daydream about travelling with these people that I looked up to. Unfortunately, there were no whitewater routes where I lived, so my kayaking trips had to be on weekends and I would even lie to my dad about fake “school holidays” so that I could go on trips to the Alps when I should have been in the classroom. Sorry dad.
Once I finished school, I went on my gap year trip to visit some of the destinations I had seen in YouTube videos. When I got to Chile in the winter of 2013, I ran my first big waterfall, met some of my idols and started to wonder whether one day I could be like them.
Those thoughts never left my head during my gap year and when the time came to apply for university, I came to the conclusion that I had to at least try to become a ‘pro-kayaker’ rather than wondering “what if?” for the rest of my life.
So, I committed. The “gap year” became six and I took any job I could find in order to pay for a ticket to my next dream destination. Once I got to those places, I had very limited funds and often had no idea who I would even kayak with. But with a little bit of luck, a big grin on my face and a positive outlook, it always seemed to work out. I would tick off more and more destinations from my “dream-list” as I went, but the more I ticked off that list, the more it grew.
During those years I would just travel by myself and meet other kayakers along the way. When you are kayaking in hard whitewater, these are the only people to help you in case you get stuck and can’t free yourself. You need to fully trust them with your life and vice versa. This is an amazing foundation for great friendships to be built and a big reason why I love the sport so much. It’s not just the moments on the water that bring you close, it’s the places you get to experience and the people you meet along the way with them.
I eventually met Bren Orton, a whitewater kayaker from the UK, while travelling through Norway and we both quickly realised that we had the same outlook on the sport.
What I was really looking for was a crew I could go kayaking with and fully trust. Since kayaking is a pretty small sport, there are not that many people out there to team up with. I eventually met Bren Orton, a whitewater kayaker from the UK, while travelling through Norway and we both quickly realised that we had the same outlook on the sport. We had the same goals and same vision on how we wanted to achieve them. We knew that this partnership had potential and out of that we decided to start a collective which we named ‘SEND’. A few months into the partnership we met up with Dane Jackson, an American kayaker, and Kalob Grady from Canada. Both were a perfect fit for SEND so we added them to our little crew and went kayaking around the world.
With SEND, I have experienced the best moments of my life on the river. My favorite story to tell people when it comes to being persistent and never giving up is when back in 2017, I felt in great shape and ready to tackle a lifegoal of mine, the descent of the second tallest waterfall ever paddled: Big Banana Falls in Veracruz, Mexico. I first saw the falls during my initial trip to Mexico in 2014 and I knew that one day when I had the skills and felt ready for it, I wanted to go and run this monster.
With the end of year bonus money just coming into my account from a sponsor, I immediately took all that money out again to book a flight to Mexico. The trip immediately took a bad turn as I caught a bug before the flight and nearly passed out at security. Then, once I landed in Mexico, I got robbed just outside of the airport. Then to finish it off, once we got to the waterfall, we realised the river did not carry the ideal flow for a descent at all, there were barely any kayakers around to help with a descent of that size and we had no idea how to actually get to the top of the falls since it was deep in a gorge.
These were all points which made me ask myself whether this was the universe trying to tell me something or whether it was just bad luck up until this point. Eventually, I got to repel off some Banana trees into the gorge, quickly followed by my boat and I was inside a dark gorge in the jungle with the only exit downstream of me, the 128ft tall waterfall. Once I was locked in the gorge, I went into flow state, was fully focused, calm and in control of my mind and body.
I put my kayak into the water, blew my whistle to let the people at the base of the falls know I’d be coming and then peeled out into the current. As I approached the edge, my mind was clear, making sure I was observing and reacting to the smallest detail. I will never forget the brief second I went over the edge and saw the pool below me. I watched the river disappearing back into the jungle downstream and realised that my safety team was looking very, very small from my point of view.
When running waterfalls, it all comes down to being calm, collected and in control of what you are doing since the smallest movements can make a huge difference in the outcome of your line. The goal for big drops is to land as vertically as possible in order to minimize the impact. The angle of your kayak hitting the water gets mostly set with the last stroke at the edge of the waterfall, making sure to pull your paddle and avoid any hectic movements in the air in order to keep your boat in control on the way down. Being confident in your skill and your mental strength is very important; running big whitewater is more mentally demanding than one might think. You must be in control of your thoughts. When I was going over the edge of Banana Falls, I had pushed all doubts away to chase my goal and I successfully made the descent on the 12th of December 2017.
That trip was an eye opener and a great reminder to what you can achieve when you are committed to a cause and don’t let yourself get thrown off track, no matter what comes your way. Earlier I mentioned that kayaking has given me the best moments of my life, but it has also given me some of the worst.
In August 2018 we found ourselves in Canada. Since the water was lower than usual for this time of the year an outbreak of massive fires had cut off the roads, we had to reschedule our original plans and think of another place to kayak. That’s when we came across Alexandra Falls. I had visited this waterfall a couple of years before on my first trip abroad and back then I thought to myself, “one day, if I have the skill, I will tackle these falls”. Now it was time to do exactly what I had envisioned a few years before. I found myself at the top of the falls scouting the drop. It is a wide and tall waterfall which asks for precision and commitment in order to run it successfully. We had a pretty big crew there and multiple people wanted to take on the challenge of running the falls.
The day we arrived, three people ran the falls with one of them breaking both legs. Because of this incident, my plans of running the drop got pushed back to the following day. That was a long, sleepless night with a lot of thinking, envisioning my descent into the falls that had already caused a major casualty. Eventually the sun rose, and it was time for me to tackle the falls. I was in the zone and felt confident and calm, so I decided to run the falls first since Bren and Dane also wanted to go down the falls that day.
Sitting in my kayak floating closer to the edge and past the point of no return, it looked like I was about to drop off the edge of the world. I came over the top of the falls and stared down into the falls.
Once we had set up the cameras and the emergency teams, all that was left for me to do was to get into my kayak and do what I came here for. Sitting in my kayak floating closer to the edge and past the point of no return, it looked like I was about to drop off the edge of the world. I came over the top of the falls and stared down into the pool below. I had a soft impact and resurfaced unhurt. I was in an absolute state of ecstasy at what I had just pulled off.
Next it was Bren’s turn and he was meant to go directly after me so we wouldn’t need to readjust the cameras or emergency teams. I could see his tiny looking kayak come over the edge of the falls and disappear halfway. His line looked good and I was cheering for him whilst he was still in the air, but a few seconds later everything changed when his kayak resurfaced, damaged and I could tell that he was still in the boat, but unconscious. Bren took a brutal hit to the face and was knocked out cold, blood was everywhere and you could see parts of his skull. It was only later that I realised how impactful and crazy that day was and I thank some higher power that he fully recovered and is now on the charge again with the rest of the team.
We still don’t exactly know what went wrong. I think it was that rare case of residual risk you always hear of. The saying “If you want to play the game you got to accept the rules” is truer than I can emphasise. You must accept all sides of this sport, the beautiful and the ugly ones. But travelling the world in my kayak, pushing myself and making movies around this sport is my very own personal way of taking control over my life and perusing my own personal idea of “a life worth living”.