Standing on the edge of a waterfall and looking down at the cascading water, most people would be filled with a sense of awe – and most likely a bit of a wobbly feeling. But for Adrian Mattern, standing on the edge of a waterfall is an opportunity. A whitewater kayaker, Adrian seeks out the highest and most ferocious falls in the world to ride down, navigating the flow with expert precision. We spoke to Adrian to hear more about his story, Welcome to the Whitewaters to hear more about life on the edge.
I started kayaking at a young age through my dad. I immediately loved the physical and mental challenge to kayaking. I think in my early days, my mentality was a little more “huck and pray” but now everything I do is calculated to the last little movement. I get satisfaction out of perfectly executing a run.
When I finished school, I decided to take a gap year to visit some of the destinations I’d seen in kayaking YouTube videos. I wanted to get out and see the places I’d spent hours watching videos of. At that point, aged 18, I didn’t know it would lead to a kayaking career, even thought it was all I’d ever wanted! But at that time it didn’t necessarily seem super realistic to be able to do that. But 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, or else I’d spend the rest of my life wondering, “what if”. And so it began.
The mentality behind running the falls I do, is pretty immense. It’s all learning by doing and being able to trust yourself, which is something you learn along the route. If I ever find myself in a situation where it just doesn’t feel right or I feel off that day for whatever reason, it is most important to trust your inner voice/ gut feeling and not do it. Peer pressure can be a point, but it is not worth it. At the end of the day you have to make the call whether you are going to run something or not and you are the only person who has to live with the outcome of it. So, all these factors/conversations/thoughts have to happen within you.
Taking risks is part of my life and I embrace it. It’s all about planning ahead, being strong and prepared and not getting too loose with those risks. I’m all about taking calculated risks. When there is an epic waterfall which might be a first descent or is substantial for the sport in any other way, I have an easier time understanding and accepting the risk of an injury. If it’s just an ugly rapid or waterfall or maybe something which has been done a bunch already – but still has a high risk of injury – then I might step away from it. Even though I am going so hard right now I still want to be in a position in my 60’s where I can go out and kayak any day. I want so I got to take care of my body and decide wisely- and that’s sometimes harder than you think.
Going over a waterfall is one of the most incredible feelings. Time really slows down, you feel the slightest change of the current underneath you, you are hyper sensible about your body movement, tension and position. Coming over the lip you are kind of on autopilot, you fall, you impact and once you reappear it feels like you just woke up from a dream. The height is obviously only one of a few factors which determine how I feel before, whilst and after doing it. It’s the risk assessment and the possible outcomes if things go wrong which play a big role on how I experience these things. The impact is a funny one. Some waterfalls over 30 meters tall feel like landing in pillows when impacting, others with just half the height can rock your body pretty good. It all depends on the landing zone, how aerated it is and what the boils at the bottom are doing. Whilst I’m underwater waiting to re-surface there is nothing in my mind, I am still on autopilot mode. I might try to understand where I am at the bottom if there is a dangerous part of the pool to be avoided but this all happens unconsciously. The active thinking part only kicks back in once I resurface. There can be relatively easy waterfalls which are huge and rather smaller waterfalls which are very tricky or dangerous, so feel way different. I don’t want to compare it with a “better” or “more fun” though. It’s not the case that the sketchiest fall is the most fun or most rewarding one at all.
Most people would read that and immediately think I am a total thrill seeker. I do like my adrenaline for sure, but only at the right time in the right spot. I don’t drive cars like crazy nor do I try to push my luck everyday. When I am in my kayak I am in control, I know exactly what I am doing and then I am ready to push it into the zone where thrill, risk and reward are living closely together.
Risk assessment and safety are very closely linked. In terms of precautions I have in place, I’m always with a crew. We all know first aid really well and we carry a satellite phone if we are in the wilderness. We are trying to reduce risk by cutting out all unnecessary risks, such as being unprepared. And that extends to mental preparedness as well as physical. Physical strength and being prepared is obviously really important, but when it comes down to it, I think mental strength takes the win. It’s so important to be as prepared, calm and strong as possible. Panic is one of the worst reactions to a situation that’s not in your favour.
One of the best things about my career, is my role in SEND, my kayaking collective. Even though I am able to make a living throughout kayaking and play my role in the sport right now I know that the next generation is coming up and in maybe ten years there will be kids who will go harder than me and are better than I am. So, I hope to be in a supportive role by then enabling promising upcoming kayakers to reach their goals with support from SEND – not only monetary but throughout all other aspects in life. I hope to build SEND as a big standalone brand who is going to produce movies, especially in the extreme/outdoor sports industry.
One of the main reasons for this is if there is anything I can take away from the last few years of chasing the dream, is that if you really, REALLY want to achieve something, just go for it. Throughout dedication and hard work eventually things will work out in your favour. Just keep digging. I hope that I can inspire the next generation of kayakers to do that, with what I do and what we do with SEND.
To read more about Adrian’s experiences kayaking waterfalls, click here.