The Fall Guy: A record-setting, 186-foot descent

Text by Ryan Bradley

There isn’t a lot that scares Tyler Bradt, so before he steered his kayak off the lip of eastern Washington’s Palouse Falls and dropped 18 stories amid water rushing at 2,000 cubic feet per second, he recalls his mind running gin clear, just like the current. “There was a stillness,” says the 22-year-old extreme kayaker. “Then an acceleration, speed, and impact unlike anything I’ve ever felt before. I wasn’t sure if I was hurt or not. My body was just in shock.”

So was everyone else. The previously held record for kayak descents, set only weeks earlier, had been off a 127-foot fall in the Amazon. “The risks on a 180-foot drop are exponentially greater,” says kayaker and filmmaker Trip Jennings. “Your rate of descent is multiplied, so the time you have to react plummets.”

Before the record-setting run, Bradt repeatedly visited Palouse Falls State Park to read the water and scout the descent. “The first time I saw the Palouse, I knew it was runnable,” he says. “There’s a smooth green tongue of water that carries about a third of the way down the falls. That was my route.”

This spring Bradt prepared by effortlessly knocking off a string of 70- to 80-foot waterfalls on Oregon’s Hood River. But that didn’t allay the concerns of his fellow paddlers. “Honestly, I told him I didn’t know if it was the best idea,” says Rush Sturges, who followed Bradt down a 107-foot waterfall in Canada two years ago. For the Palouse run, Sturges and eight others were at the ready should anything (concussion, broken back) befall their friend. “But,” Sturges admits, “if something really bad had happened, like getting pinned behind that curtain of water, he would have been on his own.”

On April 21 Bradt emptied his mind and paddled slowly into the river. He made tiny adjustments during the 3.7-second free fall. “The key to controlling the descent was to stay with the curtain and not get launched into the air,” he says. At impact, Bradt tucked his nose to the kayak, kept his body tense, and directed his boat into the heart of the torrent, where the aerated water cushioned his landing. After six seconds beneath the surface, the kayaker re-emerged with a broken paddle, a sprained wrist, and a record that, considering the risks, is perhaps best left unchallenged. “The motivating factor for all this,” Bradt says, “was just that I thought it was possible. I wanted to do it, I guess, because I can.”

Watch the video of this record-breaking run »