|In the Cauldron Below
By Christian Knight
I was sitting in my kayak in the cauldron below. The
waterfall towering ninety-eight feet and four inches
above my head tossed and chilled me with its moist,
angry breath. Perched ten feet above and behind me and
squeezed into a wooden monkey cage were tourists expressing
various forms of emotion ranging from an idle curiosity
to trembling fear. Sitting directly below them on the
bank, divided only by the ambient deafness were all
of the Twitch Extreme Kayaking Expedition members. Well,
all but one. That last one, Tao Berman was one hundred
vertical feet above scouring the waterfall, trying to
predict whether his kayak angle could be kept vertical,
and the damage to his body limited to a pair of broken
ribs. Ultimately, he was calculating whether his 5'5
body could survive the ninety-eight foot, four inch
free fall that would undisputedly grant him the world
record for the biggest vertical waterfall ever kayaked.
Tao Berman and the ninety-eight foot and four inch waterfall
is why all of us, the tourists, the world-class kayakers
behind me, Erik Link braced to film, and I in the cauldron
below were here.
The path to the waterfall was two and a half kilometers
up a beaten path. But the journey there had not been
so direct. We had been chasing waterfalls for two weeks
now. Alberta's dramatic mountain views lifted our spirits
at times, but the mosquitoes had followed us the whole
way and with them came calamity.
all had our stories. A few days before, Tao's legs were
red and ravaged by a swarm of angry yellow jackets.
His ankle was swelling, apparently from the chase that
ensued. Erik was as near to heat exhaustion as we had
ever seen, and he kept absorbing the water we forced
to his lips without sign of a bottom. I had my broken
paddle, which barely begun to tell my story, but no
one was willing to elaborate on their own stories, so
neither was I.
The ruggedness of Alberta's mountains had not produced
a generous amount of what we were looking for. So after
days, and weeks of frustrating misadventures, our Twitch
Expedition limped into Johnston Park within Banff National
The park could by no means match the calamitous adventure
in the days previous. There were ranger stations, ice
cream stands, guardrails, trails, lots of confused tourists
and waterfalls. This was indeed the tourists perception
of the primal wilderness, but to us, it seemed like
At the top, where the trail ended, according to one
of the brass plated signs was a thirty meter waterfall,
ninety eight feet, four inches. That is where we were
going. Tao had made no indication to anyone about his
interest in the big one, but I remembered the conversation
from the day before. Just yesterday, as we were retreating
from a seventy-five foot waterfall, Tao professed he
was beginning his search for a hundred footfall water
to run. I had been wondering when he would begin his
quest to top his original eighty-three foot record set
on the El Tomata River in Vera Cruz, Mexico. That quest
began August 22, 1999.
The trail began as a concrete walkway, but eventually
transformed into a badly beaten path. We wove through
huffing tourists who were on their way down and asked
some who appeared qualified to answer basic details
about the big one. They tried to answer effectively,
exclaiming how beautiful it was and how much farther
we had to go, but they had no idea why we were there,
or where we had already been. They thought we were one
We knew it when we reached it. The waterfall dropped
an enormous height through a seven foot wide limestone
chasm. The walls on both sides jutted abruptly inward
in places, and near the bottom an obnoxious rock fanned
water outward. It was a dramatic waterfall, but none
of the seven world-class kayakers surrounding me were
convinced this waterfall stretched ninety nine feet.
We had learned to distrust whitewater guidebooks, forest
rangers, tourists and especially signs in National Parks,
and turn our trust inward to instincts and experience
Routinely, the seven of us began throwing waterfall
height estimations into the air, some as low as sixty
feet, some as high as eighty feet, but no one was willing
to agree with the sign. Then I remembered Tao. He had
wasted no time in these silly estimations. His tiny
figure had already climbed to the top and was scouting
it from above. Sam Drevo joined him moments later with
his seventy foot throw rope and dropped it over the
edge. It fell humiliatingly short. The tiny line scurried
back and forth at each moist breath the waterfall took.
However it was apparent the waterfall was much bigger
than we originally thought. All of our instincts had
taken a serious blow. By the look of it, the sign, the
park, the forest ranger, the tourist who had read the
sign was right, and we were wrong.
knew then it would be another world record, and this
time there would be no disputing it. It would be exactly
what he was said he was looking for just one day previous,
but he couldn't let that prospect overwhelm his motivations.
I joined him at the top, and side by side laying on
our stomachs we respectfully peered our heads over the
abrupt edge and down one hundred feet to the pool below.
It was an opportunistic view. For a brief imaginative
moment, I could feel the adrenaline pumping as I approached
the lip and dropped... "What do you think?"
Tao blurted. I looked over at him. He was not looking
at me. His head and eyes were swaying to the motion
of the water. "I think it's big." I said humbly.
He wanted more, and I knew it. "Yeah," he
pressed, "but what do you think?"
In all of our adventures together, I couldn't remember
a single time he listened to me when I told him I thought
he was going to hurt himself. Still, in all of those
adventures, I couldn't remember him ever hurting himself.
What was I supposed to say? I told him it would be an
amazing feat, but the fan rock at the bottom could seriously
"I know," he agreed, "what do you think
it will do, do you think it will make me land flat?"
"No, I think it will corkscrew you face first
into the wall and rake face off in the process, dependant
upon which side of it you are on."
He wasn't ready for that one. We argued about that
concept for awhile, until he consulted the advice of
the others who readily agreed with him, and then he
told me with a renewed sense of arrogance, "I told
you so Christian."
One by one we shuffled away from the waterfall, away
from the observation deck and back onto the trail back
to the parking lot. Once there, we congregated to talk
about the big one and its future relationship with Tao.
They were asking me whether I thought he would run it,
and what if, if he did. It was not an easy question.
Lately I had seen Tao walk away from things much smaller,
and less consequential, but this one in particular seemed
to have an undeniable pull at Tao. It would take all
of the will lingering in his brain, and some borrowed
for him to resist this one. It was not a perfect waterfall.
Things could happen in a few seconds that could change
his life forever. To live in a world surrounded by regret
would be an awful thing. This is the tragedy of Tao's
mind. That is why he can't just simply walk away. There
is only one way for him to elude that awful world, and
that is to run it, whatever it is, an unrunnable rapid,
or the world record waterfall and run it clean. It had
taken me years to understand this paradox and I knew
I could not explain it to my peers, so I shrugged, and
told them I didn't know what he would do. They were
not satisfied with my answer. They would have preferred
to know now.
We waited until Tao returned from his extensive scouting.
They asked him too. His reply was as disappointing as
mine. He shrugged and said he'd see when he got up there.
The hike back up was frustrating. It was the middle
of the day by now and the trail was packed with tourists
streaming from one end of the trail to the other. Most
people scowled and looked away. The very image of me
hiking up this trail in this park with a kayak on my
shoulder must have been insulting to them. Those were
the ones I appreciated. The nice ones stopped me and
asked a sequence of non-varying questions, not realizing
the ones before them asked the same sequence. I smiled
and answered politely, yet curtly, however slightly
less politely than the time before and slightly more
curtly. The kayak was getting heavy, and the anticipation
was mounting. Tao was still behind me, but he was sure
to be moving faster. He was on a quest.
to top of story
By the time I arrived at the base of the falls, Tao
was already in his kayak paddling around in the foam.
Some of the tourists had excitedly followed us up adding
to the ones already in the observation deck. Their curiosity
encouraged them to withdraw their video cameras and
capture Tao's peculiar actions on film. This spectacle
surely rivaled with the elk they saw on the road just
yesterday, and they would have been fools to miss either
waterfall was frayed and broken up. By the time it hit
the pool one hundred feet below it was thin and weak,
leaving a rigid pool to land in. Worse, was the obnoxious
fan rock taunting Tao twenty feet above his head. Hitting
that could determine the difference between success
and death, or if Tao allowed, between running it, or
just simply walking away. But something told me, of
all three outcomes, success, death or walking away,
the latter was the most improbable.
Tao lives in a world where his actions are limited
only by what he thinks he can not predict. The inevitable
prospect of death can be removed by a graceful combination
of skill and precise calculation, however, if he cannot
remove the probability of death or serious injury, then
he reluctantly removes himself. This is what I have
forced myself to believe, but there are times when it
is suspicious. Chance reveals itself in many forms.
It has been a hole, boil, and a log and often times
it is a rock but it is always what he cannot predict.
This time chance revealed itself in that obnoxious rock
taunting him twenty feet above his head, but try as
he might, he could not remove it. Tragically, neither
could he seem to remove himself.
The tourists did not understand this. They live in
world where permanent injury, or death is the closest
of kin to chance and chance looms everywhere. No amount
of skill or calculation can remove the probability of
death or serious injury, it is there with signs all
around it warning us to stay away. Which is why there
are trails and forest rangers and guard-rails and laws.
Displeased with the bottom, Tao charged to the top
for a second scouting session. The sun had passed over
the walls, leaving us at the bottom in a shadow. The
top, however was glowing in sunshine. It can be a valuable
thing to learn live in a shadow. I was not content where
I was though. Everything was off my fingertips, out
of my control. I was completely vulnerable to Tao's
decision, and I resented him for that.
The observation deck was filling up behind me. The
men herding into the observation deck were focusing
their cameras against their eyes. Some of the women
beside them were weeping. People were being squeezed
beyond their normal spatial comfort zones, their bodies
were pressed tighter and tighter into one another as
more and more tourists packed themselves in, but no
one, not even the weak stomached dared leave. They were
waiting as I was for the verdict. All eyes were focused
one hundred feet above on a twenty year old who's glowing
silhouette kept appearing hovering audaciously over
the edge. Each time he appeared, the crowd would gasp.
They were certain he had gone past the guard rails and
violated chance, and as a result he would eventually
slip and plunder one hundred fatal feet to the bottom.
I was sitting in my kayak in the cauldron below being
tossed and chilled by the waterfall's cold, moist breath.
There were world class kayakers behind me on the rocks
bracing for the shot of a lifetime, but they would have
rather not had to take it. Erik was poised to film.
He was worried, but eager. This one shot would make
the whole thing worth while. The mosquitoes, the yellow
jackets, the broken paddle, the heat exhaustion, would
ease into an epic, laughable memory if it were for this
one two and a half second shot. However none of us,
not I, nor the kayakers behind me, nor the tourists
herded into the observation deck knew what Tao would
Tao popped over the edge to relay a message holding
up his thumb. It was difficult to know what he was trying
to say, but I was sure it was not the signal we were
Then in a yellow blur, the kayak dropped. My throat
suddenly became awkward, until I remembered Tao's boat
was blue. Then he popped over the edge holding up his
thumb questioningly. The boat he threw hit the rock
at the bottom and corkscrewed into the right wall. I
couldn't stop thinking what if Tao was inside. But when
Tao subjected his decision to our perspective, no one
relayed to him what I felt for certain I saw. Instead
they excitedly held up their thumbs, indicating it was
a good probe. Immediately I began doubting myself, rather
than to believe something more sinister and I remained
He disappeared behind the wall again. The longer he
was gone the more apathetic the others seemed to be
becoming. I meanwhile was enduring another session of
moral torment, compulsively asking myself the same lines
of questions. "Maybe I should run up there and
tell him what I saw? I could take his paddle or his
helmet, and force him to walk away from this? I could
use my words to scare him?" But I knew the decision
was not up to me, it never has been. So I remained at
the bottom looking for a good place to rescue, when
it would all be too late anyway. Tao meanwhile was stuffing
two one-gallon water jugs into the bow of his seven
foot six inch kayak. Those were there to ensure that
he would fall vertically. He was adorning himself with
protective sunglasses, elbow pads, and a skull cap to
protect his ears, along with the rest of his protective
One last time he appeared over the edge. The helmet,
sunglasses, life jacket, and elbow pads had ripped the
boy out of him. We all knew the verdict before he raised
his thumb, but he raised it anyway, high and steady.
No one looked around greedily or worried, no one dared
flinch. Whatever the outcome, it would all be over within
a few seconds, and none of us for whatever motivations,
were going to miss it. When he disappeared into the
sun's glow that last time, the sobs in the observation
decks stifled, the video cameras were pointed and all
unblinking eyes stared intently to the top.
I meanwhile am still being pushed and shoved by the
waterfall's angry breath. I was looking for the most
probable place Tao would resurface, so I could be there
when he needed me. But before I found that probable
place, before I really grasped what it was I would be
doing down here if things did not go as exactly planned,
he began falling too quickly for fear. He hit the flake
at the bottom and it corkscrewed his face into the left
wall. I thought I him saw him tuck protectively, but
it was too fast to tell. And then the boiling, white
pool sucked him down.
He was down for a while, but not long enough for me
to think. When his upside down boat resurfaced, it was
next to my boat, I didn't even have to move. He began
struggling to roll and at that point I knew something
was terribly wrong. I began looking for blood and struggling
for emotion at the same time, but neither came. And
then he rolled up beside me with half of his graphite
paddle in one hand, a smile and a world record in his
other hand. I scanned his body and face for blood, gashes,
scrapes, but there was nothing, not even a scratch.
When the crowd reclaimed their breath,
they burst into hysterical applause. The women began
weeping again, the men were still filming. It was a
Nearly two years before Tao Berman broke the world
record for the biggest vertical waterfall ever run in
Johnston Park, he broke it for the first time on an
eighty three foot plunge in Vera Cruz, Mexico. The two
waterfalls couldn't have been more different. The eighty-three
foot waterfall in Mexico was swollen from the recent
hurricane that ripped through Mexico, littering the
river, as well as the country with garbage. The water
was thick, brown, and unpredictable. More significantly,
the waterfall was nestled deep in a treacherous canyon
farther away from civilization than most people would
prefer to go. The only measurement consisted of a seventy-five
foot throw rope dangling about ten feet from the bottom.
As a result, Guinness scoffed at the claim, which failed
nearly all of their stringent technicalities for documentation.
The video footage did appear on Erik Link's debut film,
"Twitch," but exposure was ultimately overwhelmed
by Shannon Carroll's less credible, yet more exposed
world record claim on Oregon's seventy-eight foot Sahalie
Falls in the heavily trafficked Sahalie State Park.
As of August 23, 1999, there has been no question about
who holds the world record, where it was and how high
it stands. And no, this time, Guinness isn't laughing.
They have already begun documenting.
to top of page