Tag Archives: outside magazine

Illegal, wrongheaded, and glorious – The Emerald Mile’s record Colorado River run

13 Aug

Long, but simply INCREDIBLE.

The video alone was enough to give me chills and make we want to yell and cheer them on  (30 years later).

Cliff’s Notes: Glen Canyon dam stops up the Colorado river upon its completion, forever changing the dynamic of the Grand Canyon. A couple decades later a record snowfall and melt put incredible amounts of water into the river and nearly topped the dam – they had to release water as fast as possible. Three crazy guys in a wooden dory decided to launch in the middle of the night and ride the river ran hard and fast – as it had for 6 millions years. Drama, excitement, craziness galore… they set a record. They were the fastest boat (motor or oar powered) to ever run that stretch of canyon.





Rocketing Into the Grand Canyon’s Great Unknown

Three whitewater guides, one wooden dory, and the Colorado River, swollen by record snowmelt and raging with a fury that boatmen hadn’t seen since the days of John Wesley Powell. From Kevin Fedarko’s epic new book, The Emerald Mile, the incredible story of the fastest, wildest trip ever attempted through the Grand Canyon.

grand canyon crystal rapid whitewater

Kenton Grua (rear) hitting the Grand Canyon’s Crystal Rapid with two guided clients in 1974 Photo: John Blaustein

IF YOU EVER take a guided river trip through the Grand Canyon, your guides are likely to tell you the story of Kenton Grua, Rudi Petschek, and Steve “Wren” Reynolds. These men are legends in the tight-knit fraternity of canyon boatmen, largely because of an adventure they embarked on in late June of 1983, when they defied common sense and the National Park Service and set off, at night, to attempt a record-breaking speed run down the Colorado River in a 17-foot wooden dory called the Emerald Mile.

Their starting point was the usual spot for Grand Canyon launches: Lees Ferry, a put-in 15 miles below the Glen Canyon Dam that’s marked as mile zero on river maps. The finish line was at mile 277: the Grand Wash Cliffs, near the entrance to Lake Mead. To get from A to Z, they figured, would require roughly two nights and days of furious rowing. That is, assuming they lived through it, since they were making their bid when conditions on the Colorado—especially at one notorious choke point deep inside the canyon—were almost as wild as they’d been in 1869, the year John Wesley Powell led a team that completed the first harrowing canyon passage on the then undammed Colorado.

That spring and summer, the river was especially furious, unpredictable, and deadly. Massive, rapid snowmelt from an epic western winter was straining the capacity of Glen Canyon’s mammoth concrete arch dam, completed in 1966, which regulated the flow of water into the Grand Canyon. By early June, Glen was holding back the runoff from 108,000 square miles, a region that included four western states. Failure of the dam’s enormous spillway tunnels was a serious possibility; to prevent it, federal officials took a series of extraordinary measures, at one point increasing the release of water to 92,000 cubic feet per second, the biggest torrent the canyon had seen in 25 years. But the runoff was something else, too: a once-in-a-lifetime chance to experience, in the most direct and visceral way imaginable, the ancestral majesty of what was once the wildest river in America.

The central figure in this escapade was Grua, a 33-year-old boatman who worked for the revered founder of Grand Canyon Dories, Martin Litton. Grua, who died in 2002 at 52, was the ultimate river rat, a compact, supremely fit man with an eccentric streak that was balanced by an encyclopedic knowledge of the mysterious physics of the Colorado’s notorious rapids. Before his death, he gave a series of interviews to a friend and fellow guide named Lew Steiger, who was able to record Grua’s memories of the speed run and his impressions of the men he rowed with.

Grua’s partners in the venture were Reynolds, 33, a superb oarsman who was known for his precision and power, and Petschek, 49, who’d participated in the Emerald Mile’s maiden run in 1971 and then helped salvage the boat’s carcass after it was badly damaged in a river mishap six years later.

The men had all the requisite skills, but they lacked crucial pieces of information, since they skirted authority to make their run. They didn’t know that several guided groups (still on the river as the floodwaters rose) had been slammed by the hydraulics; only 12 hours before their 11 P.M. launch on June 25, at an infamous rapid called Crystal, a rafting party was torn apart, with one fatality. They didn’t know that the Park Service had helicoptered in a ranger to stand watch above Crystal, forcing boatmen to pull over before carefully picking their way past it. In short, they didn’t know that what they had in mind was borderline suicidal. And if they had known? They probably would have gone anyway.


A FEW MILES past Lees Ferry, as Grua rowed through the canyon’s tamer early stretches, he paused at the end of every third or fourth stroke to glance over his shoulder and peer downstream, looking for the blur of whiteness that would herald a rapid. Wherever moonlight made it down to the river, he could discern the glimmer of wave tops. But in the long, canyon-obstructed reaches where everything went black, he was forced to rely on what he could feel—the subtle vibrations that the river sent through the wooden oar shafts into his fingers and hands, and from there to the places where his deeper knowledge resided. As he felt his way downstream, the river’s contours scrolled along the surface of his mind.

At the same time, Petschek and Wren were relying on a different set of sensory impressions to do their job, the crucial task of high-siding. Drawing on their innate feel for river hydraulics, which they could sense by cocking their ears and gripping the gunwales, they braced for the oncoming waves with a subtle lean of the shoulders or, when necessary, an explosive thrust of their torsos to maintain the boat’s equilibrium.

This work unfolded in wordless harmony. The plan was to row backward through calmer sections to maximize speed, but to push through the bigger rapids bow-first. Every 20 minutes the crew swapped roles, with each oarsman rowing furiously until he neared exhaustion. When his energy began to ebb, he would call for a breather, leaping toward the stern or the bow while his replacement scrambled into the oar station. The order of rowing—first Grua, then Petschek, then Wren—remained more or less the same, with each boatman circling the decks from cockpit to stern to bow as the dory raced downstream.

Combined, the men had more than 40 years of experience on the Colorado. Without that, they wouldn’t have stood a chance of completing the speed run, but even so, they knew they faced a monumental challenge. In the first hour of the trip, each began to understand that the river they were riding was something entirely new, a realization that was sobering and strange but also deeply thrilling.

For more than 20 years, the guides of the Grand Canyon had lived and worked on a diminished river, constrained by a dam that most of them believed should never have been built. But with this flood, time had unexpectedly been reversed, and the past—for a brief and intoxicating moment—had become the present. To contend with these challenges in the middle of the night, without pausing to scout before entering a rapid, all while rowing harder and faster than they ever had in their lives, would bring them closer than any living boatmen to experiencing America’s greatest river in its natural state. This was the Old Man himself, unbound, a thing of monstrous and terrible beauty. To be swept into the Colorado’s embrace, to race over its ancient bedrock, to surrender themselves to the fantastic and melancholy essence of its fleeting wildness, was something to marvel at. This was the river that had flowed through the dreams of John Wesley Powell. And like Powell and his crew more than a hundred years earlier, Grua, Petschek, and Wren were rocketing into the Great Unknown.


AS THE EMERALD MILE blazed downstream, what the men noticed first was how much had disappeared. In the upper stretch of the canyon, virtually every major river feature—the keeper holes, the crashing waves, the braided ribbons of current twisting upon themselves beneath the surface—had been washed out by the massive discharge from the dam. They found themselves considering the possibility that the speed run might be less arduous than they had initially feared.

Was this going to be a cinch? Grua wondered.

The answer arrived shortly after 1 A.M. as they entered a ten-mile necklace of nine chain-linked rapids known as the Roaring Twenties and encountered the first of the bizarre hydraulics that would plague them for the rest of the trip. The eddy fences were massive, and the standing waves—which were supposed to be stationary—were milling around on the river’s surface like a herd of coyote-spooked cattle, shifting position and angle without warning, colliding or collapsing on themselves with thunderous explosions. Trying to feel past these obstacles on the fly was alien and surreal.

At Twenty-One Mile Rapid, they had to dodge a series of moving whirlpools, huge and glistening in the dark. At Twenty-Four-and-One-Half, most of the current was flinging itself directly into the side of a limestone cliff on the right side of the river. Just to the left of that, the water formed three separate eddies, ovals inside ovals like the eye of a cat.

The Emerald Mile was batted about like a cork. Each time it rose and fell to meet another swell, the bottom slapped down with a harsh crack that reverberated through her chines and gunwales. The blows also rattled the white-knuckled crew, who were now wrestling with their biggest fear—that an exceptionally violent hit would fling one of them overboard and whisk him downstream in the dark.

Petschek, always meticulous, had anticipated this possibility and had brought new flashlights for each man to wear around his neck. But that wouldn’t do much good in a section like the Roaring Twenties, where the current was so fast and the turbulence so confusing.

Around 2:15, they punched through the last of the Twenties and entered the Redwall, a section of 360-million-year-old vertical limestone cliffs whose landmarks, lost in darkness, flashed past almost faster than they could register. On the right, at mile 32, was Vasey’s Paradise, where a lovely water-fall burst from the side of a cliff and cascaded through a hanging garden of ferns and flowers. A mile downriver on the left lay Redwall Cavern, a sand-floored amphitheater so vast that Powell had estimated—incorrectly—that 50,000 people could fit inside it. Several miles farther downstream was the site where the Bureau of Reclamation had drilled test bores for the first of two Grand Canyon dams that environmentalists had blocked in the late 1960s.

These were some of the most interesting spots in the upper canyon, places no dory trip would ever fail to stop. The Emerald Mile blew past them all.


AS THE NIGHT wore on, the flat-out rowing and ceaseless high-siding took a toll. By 4:10 A.M., as the men passed Saddle Canyon, a tributary at mile 47, the fatigue was showing in their hands. When a rower was relieved, his fingers would refuse to uncurl, forcing him to slide his fists off the ends of the handles, his fingers still forming an O. As he settled into the stern and peered downstream, he would straighten them one by one, gently massaging them back to life.

In their oarsmanship, all three men were evenly matched. But as the night wore on, Petschek and Wren found themselves reliant on Grua to assess the rapids that lay ahead. For years, Grua had been making careful notes, anticipating what floodwater would do along each bend and curve. As they moved downstream, he called out the invisible mile markers and features one by one, with uncanny accuracy. “Astonishing, man,” Petschek would remember years later, shaking his head. “He’d never run that water before, but Kenton had done it in his mind.”

Around 4:45, Grua warned that they were nearing the top of Nankoweap, one of the longest rapids in the canyon, which now featured a series of heavy laterals—angular, rolling waves that crashed together at the center of the river. As they powered through this crosshatched section of current, they sensed a subtle change in the night. The bottom of the canyon was still bathed in darkness, but the narrow ribbon of sky framed by the walls had begun to lighten, shifting from black to violet, and the rimrock was visible.

For the next hour, they raced through the false dawn while the river, wide and broad through here, swung sinuously from side to side. At mile 60, they entered a new layer of rock, the brown and coarse-grained Tapeats sandstone, and passed the confluence point where the turquoise waters of the Little Colorado River entered from the left. Just before 6:15, as they were approaching Chuar, a rapid at mile 65.5, the first rays of sunlight angled over the rim and lit the upper bands on the eastward-facing cliffs like the inside of a cantaloupe.

“Ah, thank God,” Wren said to himself. “We made it through the night.”


THIRTY-TWO MILES above one of the worst rapids of the trip—Crystal, at mile 98—the men were able to see things that had been invisible in the dark. The eddies were full of flotsam, mainly shattered tree branches and battered bits of driftwood. They also began to catch sight of other river expeditions, most still onshore with their boats tied up. The only people awake in these camps were boatmen on kitchen duty, boiling water for coffee. As the team whipped past, the boatmen stared, wondering what a lone dory was doing on the river at this time of the morning.

Around 7:20, the crew reached mile 76 and prepared to enter Hance, a long, jumbled stretch of standing waves studded with boulders and ledges. They had no intention of stopping to scout it, so they had only a few seconds to take stock and realize that a run through the center was out of the question. Grua, at the oars, decided to bear right and try to ride out a wave train that canyon boatmen normally were careful to avoid. With flawlessly timed high-siding from Petschek and Wren, they flew over the rollers without a hitch, but the size of the waves left them stunned.

At the bottom of Hance, the walls on either side of the river closed up and the morning sunshine was abruptly cut off. Here, the Colorado narrowed dramatically as the river entered Upper Granite Gorge, the canyon’s sub-basement. As the cliffs tilted toward dead vertical, it felt as if a set of stone gates had slammed shut behind them.

Squeezed to less than half its width upstream, the current began pushing against itself, and as the turbulence increased, so did the river’s power. The water seethed and churned, folding back and detonating. Now brute force was required to execute pivots that had been performed upstream with little more than a deft flick of an oar blade. The smallest mistake would flip the boat in a heartbeat.

The size of these haystacks was shocking: some were almost 20 feet from trough to crest, dimensions found on the open ocean. The wave faces were rapidly changing -direction, shifting from left to right and back again, forcing Grua to make furious corrections to meet them squarely:

BAM!—a strike from the left—wham—a blow from the right—with two more ahead, no chance of correcting for both, and a third looming in the middle just downstream—wham—BAM!

The dory reeled—it was about to go sideways and broach—but Petschek and Wren hurled their weight to the right, then left, then again to the right. Up the face of one wave, into the trough of the next. Curlers were coming over the bow from both sides, drenching the men in sheets that were heavy, green, and painfully cold.

Grua rode the rooster tail of current between the final pocket of waves, neatly threading them—but now a 20-foot whirlpool loomed into view. He corrected again—cranking sharply, pulling with his right oar while pushing on the left—and the dory snapped around on a hot dime, spinning 180 degrees. Then Grua leaned far forward, dug his blades into the water, and exploded, pulling on both oars, spearing the boat between the vortex and the eddy fence. And—whoosh—they were through, bobbing in the heaves of the spent rapid.

And so it went. They slammed through the rapids in the upper gorge—Sockdolager and Grapevine and Eighty-Three Mile—then made it past Zoroaster and Eighty-Five Mile and into Pipe Creek and the Devil’s Spittoon. It was intense and brutal and exhausting. But by God they were truly flying.


AS GRUA AND HIS companions approached the top of Crystal Rapid, Park Service Ranger John Thomas found himself wrestling with a tangle of conflicting impulses.

Word of the Emerald Mile’s illicit departure had been reported to a ranger at Lees Ferry, but by the time the news had reached the South Rim, Thomas was already aboard a helicopter and clattering into the canyon, under orders to flag down boats and warn them that the only way to get past Crystal was by hugging the shallow water on the far right shoreline. When the dory materialized, he knew nothing about the speed run. But Thomas was a boatman, too, and the instant he spotted the Emerald Mile the dominoes tipped over in his mind. Nearly 30 years later, he laughed about it. “I knew exactly who it was,” he said, “and what they were doing.”

Thomas’s time on the river had overlapped with the golden age of guiding, the period in which visitation had skyrocketed from a handful of eccentrics like Martin Litton to tens of thousands of river tourists. He was old enough to remember the freedom that had prevailed back then, when a man could launch a boat and disappear downriver without having to ask permission or wait in line. Like everyone who had known the Colorado during that era, Thomas mourned its passing.

Officially, of course, he couldn’t condone the men’s actions. This piece of performance art that Grua was trying to pull off was dangerous, irresponsible, and just plain wrong. In addition to undermining the authority of the Park Service and dishonoring the tragedy that had taken place at Crystal, Grua’s stunt was an insult to the people at the Glen Canyon Dam, who were desperately trying to prevent Lake Powell from blowing a gasket.

But as he stood and watched the Emerald Mile complete its approach, Thomas had to acknowledge the tremors of admiration and envy pulsating through his body. Yes, this was scandalous and deplorable and unforgivably dumb, but he also knew that a speed run under these conditions took ferocious courage and a shining sense of vision—and that, as such, it was glorious.

Thomas had no interest in telling the crew of the Emerald Mile that they had to pull over, so instead he did this: he walked away, pretending not to see. Without looking back, he turned from the river and started climbing a hill to a rock terrace above the rapid to watch the run unfold.


AS THOMAS ENACTED his charade, Grua was busy focusing on a ritual, a silent liturgy performed only at the top of the biggest hellbenders on the Colorado. Every boatman has one, and although the details vary, the basic outline, even today, is more or less the same.

First, you cup a hand in the river and run the water over the back of your neck and face to reduce the cold shock of what’s coming. Then you spit into your palms and twirl your oar blades to confirm that they’re rotating smoothly in the locks. Finally, you settle into silence and begin talking yourself into a mental space where you prepare for the threshold moment—the point where the world drops away, the jitters subside, and a cool resolve seizes the tissues of your chest and belly.

Grua drew several deep breaths and rolled his shoulders. He cast a quick glance toward the shore to gauge his speed, then snapped his gaze back to the current line, bending his mind to the task ahead.

Listen. Stare. Breathe.

Just beyond the bow post, he could see where the river dropped off. Past that line, erratic bursts of spray were being hurled into the air by invisible waves.

And now he waited for it. At the top of every rapid, a moment comes when the topography of the whitewater reveals itself. This happens in an instant; there is no preamble. One second you’re approaching a flat horizon line, the next, what lies beyond is visible in all its fury. That final flash comes like a slap in the face, the sting amplified by the knowledge that the choices you’ve made—your angle, your timing, your speed—are now irrevocably set.

As Grua approached this point of no return, he processed a few last-second details. A slice of calmer water was sluicing past the right-hand shoreline—he could see that now. But that water was too shallow for a wooden boat, studded with half-submerged boulders and laced with broken tree limbs that stuck out like punji sticks.

“Do you think I should cut right?” Grua shouted over his shoulder, looking for confirmation from Petschek.

“You don’t have a chance of doing it,” Petschek called back. “Keep her straight!”

The men braced as the current seized the hull and slung them toward the biggest mess of whitewater that any Grand Canyon boatman had ever seen.

From the shore, Thomas had a full view of the scene, and as he watched he was overcome by a sense of dread. Grua’s route would take them straight into the main hole. What the hell are you guys thinking? he wondered. Why are you all the way out there?

Then it hit him: Grua didn’t know what had taken place at Crystal during the previous 36 hours, so he had no idea of the horror show in store for anyone who failed to avoid the center and pick through the safer line on the right. All Thomas could do was stand there, exclaiming to himself, No, no, no!


PETSCHEK WOULD never forget what he saw as the Emerald Mile slid into Crystal’s maw and he got his first glimpse of the thing that rose beyond the hole.

“I remember looking downstream over the rest of the boat, and there it was, a wall of -water, absolutely vertical, that extended almost clear across the river,” he said. “Between two and three stories high, I think. Just a white wall of boiling water.”

The wall’s bottom face featured a texture of water that rivermen call glass. Smooth and unblemished, it rose cleanly for almost 30 feet, and inside its whiteness there was an aspect of deep green. But the top wasn’t glassy. It was enraged and seething—a churning fury created by the wave’s breaking apex.

To the men in the dory, it seemed as if the entire river was trying to surge over that wall, falling back on itself to create an endless, recycling grinder. It was like a psychotic animal, a leviathan attempting to eat its own entrails.

There was no turning away from this monster, and as they slid into its lair, Grua found himself marveling at the terrifying splendor. “It wasn’t a regular hole,” he later told his friend Lew Steiger. “It was perfection in a hole.” Thomas watched as the dory bulldozed into the trough and began clawing toward the crest. He could see Grua leaning forward, arms extended, the shafts of his oars cambering under the strain. And he saw this, too: the man at the front of the boat, who was wearing a blue life vest, was doing something illogical, an act that seemed to fly in the face of the most basic survival instincts.

With the dory now tilted almost straight to the sky, that man’s best option—his only option, really—was to crawl into the front footwell, using it like a foxhole. If he curled into a tight ball, he might be able to shield himself from the cannonade of water that was about to erupt over the bow.

The man was Wren, and he did just the opposite. Springing from his seat and lunging forward, he seized the gunwales on either side of the bow, anchoring himself to the front hatch so that his torso and head extended far out over the bow post. With his hooked nose and hawkish face, he was now jutting off the front of the Emerald Mile like a chrome-plated swan on the hood of a runaway tractor-trailer.

Wren’s primary hope was that his shift in body weight might somehow help drive the boat through the top of the water wall. But he was also trying to tap into something that transcended ordinary physics. Perhaps when the river gods saw him perched out there, they might fathom just how badly he wanted and needed the dory to get through Crystal. It was an act of supplication, a plea that the river would condescend to allow this little boat to surf through the chaos on the shining fortitude of her own righteousness.

No dice.

As the Emerald Mile reached the top of the wave, it simultaneously corkscrewed and fell back on itself—an end-over-end reverse flip with a twist. Thomas could see the three boatmen clinging like terror-stricken cats to the decking as the dory performed these dual rotations, a macabre ballet that he would later describe as a pirouette.

For Grua, Petschek, and Wren, getting tossed was brutal and blunt. “The flip was instantaneous—there was nothing rhythmic or graceful or easy about it at all—it was just boom,” said Petschek, who was summarily dumped into the river.

Grua was holding his oars as tight as he could. As the boat toppled, they flew from his hands, and he followed Petschek into the current. But the worst punishment was reserved for Wren.

The river was now handling the Emerald Mile like a 17-foot-long battering ram, and the force of the entire boat, all 400 pounds of her, was concentrated in the bow post. As the dory tipped and spun, the bow post shot out of the water with astonishing speed and drove itself into Wren’s face, smashing directly into his glabella, the part of the skull that sits between the eyebrows just above the top of the nose.

Then, like Petschek and Grua, he too was gone.


IN THE RIVER, each man was at the mercy of the same hydrodynamics—the savage turbulence and wrenching crosscurrents—that had dismantled a three-ton motorized rafting rig 24 hours earlier.

Grua got off easiest. He felt himself pulled down hard and twirled like a baton, but the current soon lost interest and spat him to the surface. When he blinked the water from his eyes, he saw that he was floating less than an arm’s length from his upside-down boat. Seizing the lifeline around the gunwale, he turned toward the sound of wet gurgles and spotted Petschek bobbing 20 feet downstream.

Petschek had been pulled a little deeper, but the river had released its grip after a few seconds, permitting him to flounder toward the surface. A few hard strokes were enough to put him within reach of Grua’s extended foot and grab on. At that moment, their priority was to right the dory, get her oars into the water, and lever her into Thank God Eddy, the last place to pull in before the current swept them into Tuna, the next rapid below Crystal. There was no time for discussion, but none was needed. Both men knew the drill, a laborious process of trying to turn the boat over using muscle, dexterity, and a flip line designed to help lever it upright.

Neither could see Wren, who was still in serious danger—wounded and battling the crosscurrents a yard below the surface. His first move was to run his hand across his forehead and hold it in front of his face to see if there was any blood. “What a stupid thing to do!” he would say later. “I’m three feet underwater and I’m wiping my head to see if it’s bleeding. Of course I didn’t see any blood. And then I just got sucked down deep.”

Going deep in the Grand Canyon is a horrifying ordeal, an involuntary trip to the absolute bottom of the bottom. It’s a poorly understood place—mysterious and frightening, where the topography and hydraulics can vary so radically, even within the space of a few yards, that no two visits are ever the same. Among those who’ve been dragged into that realm and permitted to return, some say it’s terribly still, a watery version of being locked inside a sarcophagus. Others describe currents so vicious that it feels like being caught in a cement mixer. A few report an eerie hissing sound, created by suspended particles of sediment as they sluice downstream. If the canyon has a symphonic requiem, this is it.

Whatever the case, almost everyone undergoes the same sequence of abuse. First, painful pressure builds in your inner ears, similar to what scuba divers suffer, and it gets worse as you’re pulled deeper. Next comes the cold—water temperature in the river is usually around 53 degrees, and it gets even chillier as you descend. But the scariest thing is watching the light vanish as the water color changes from foamy white to bright blue to deep emerald, then to absolute black.

Wren’s plan, following accepted wisdom, was to ball up while waiting for the current to release him. But after several seconds he was running out of air, and now he began a long and desperate crawl toward what he hoped was the surface.

At first he swam in darkness, but as his strength drained, he started to see signs of light—faint and tremulous and far above. He kept swimming, his arms and legs like dead weights. Finally, several seconds past the point where he thought he couldn’t muster another stroke, his head broke the surface and he drew a ragged, gasping breath of air.

When he cleared his eyes, he could see that he was in the middle of the river, racing downstream. Off to the right, he caught a glimpse of the dory, upside down, with Grua and Petschek clinging to the sides.

“OK,” Wren told himself, “get to the boat—get to the boat.”

But the current seized him and he disappeared again, pulled down for what he was certain would be the final time.


WREN’S SECOND dunking wasn’t as long as the first, but that hardly mattered. -Depleted, he was still reeling from the bow-post strike. When he flailed to the surface and caught his next breath, he had only one thought. “I just started swimming,” he said. “I don’t even know if I knew which direction I was going in.” He seemed to be making no progress—

he was barely able to go through the motions of dog paddling, and his life jacket was impeding what little progress he made.

Wren was swept past Thank God Eddy, and now the only remaining point of sanctuary was a tiny indentation in the cliffs just downriver. Somehow he made it, mustering an effort that let him paddle into the little pocket, where he wallowed through the shallows and draped himself over a boulder, convinced he would collapse and drown if he attempted to make the final steps to shore. When he wiped the blood from his eyes, he looked upstream and saw his companions standing on the bottom of the dory, which had been swept into Thank God Eddy, heaving on the lines and trying, without success, to right her.

Please right the boat, he pleaded to himself. I don’t want to get back in that water! Please, please, please.

After several failed attempts, Grua and Petschek glanced downstream, caught sight of Wren, and glared. The meaning was unmistakable: What the hell are you doing? Get out here. We need your help!

Wren groaned and slithered off the rock, slid into the water, and started swimming.

When he reached the dory, Grua and Petschek hauled him out, and together the three of them hauled away until the bottom slowly flipped. After they clambered back aboard, they took a moment to collect themselves, taking stock of what had happened.

Chunks of the bow post and stern were missing. Their cooler was blown open, and they realized that the entire eddy was strewn with floating trash.

Some of it belonged to the canyon—driftwood and twigs and trembling little atolls of brown foam. But there were other objects, too—soggy sandwiches, bobbing pieces of fruit, and a sodden lump that turned out to be Grua’s wallet. The covered storage hatch at the front of the boat had blown open, and most of their gear had been hurled overboard. They scooped items into the boat as fast as they could. In the midst of this, something else appeared—something hulking and huge that emerged like a breaching whale.

A gray 37-foot motor rig was plowing into the eddy so fast that it nearly smeared them against the rocks on the shoreline. In the stern was a boatman with his hand on the throttle, and he was almost as surprised as they were.

“Wow, I’m glad I didn’t hit you, man,” shouted the boatman. “I’m sorry, but I have to make this eddy—and if I was you I’d get outta here, because in about two more seconds, another guy is pulling in right behind me, and he isn’t nearly as good at this as I am.” With Wren and Grua continuing to snatch up pieces of fruit, Petschek scrambled into the cockpit, seized the oars, and pulled toward the eddy line. He had just broken through into the main current when something even worse than a giant motor rig materialized. Over the roar of the river, they heard a dull thuk-thuk-thuk and looked up to see an orange-and-white helicopter hovering directly overhead. It was the Park Service.


WHEN THE Emerald Mile flipped and disappeared, Thomas had immediately reached for his two-way radio. His signal was picked up by one of the repeaters on the South Rim, bounced to the dispatcher’s office in the park’s Emergency Services Building, then relayed directly to Thomas’s boss, Curt Sauer. When Sauer learned that a lone dory had been involved in an accident at Crystal, he knew it was Grua. Fearing that an evacuation might be necessary, Thomas summoned Helo 210, which at the time was flying above Phantom Ranch, only a few minutes away, to conduct a sweep and find out if any of the boatmen were injured or dead.

When the chopper reached Thank God Eddy and hovered over the dory, Thomas spoke to the pilot by radio.

“You see the boat?”


“Is it right side up? What’s going on?”

“It’s upright.”

“How many people in it?”


“Do they have oars in the water?”

“Yeah, they have oars in the water.”

Thomas was relieved. The Park Service wasn’t going to need to stage an evacuation. But the wheels of law enforcement had now been set in motion. Sooner or later, Thomas knew, there would be a reckoning—a development that, at the moment, was only one of several big problems besetting the Emerald Mile.


AS HELO 210 BANKED away, Petschek pulled the boat into a small eddy just above Tuna Rapid, and Grua tied them off to some rocks. They needed a time-out to collect themselves and make some decisions. Grua applied a butterfly bandage to Wren’s forehead and then set about doctoring the dory with a roll of duct tape from the repair kit.

The situation was grim. Most of their food was either lost or soaked, along with their spare clothing. The Park Service obviously had a bead on where they were and what they were doing. Grua and Petschek were exhausted and almost as badly beaten up as the dory itself. Worst of all, one of their oarsmen had just been cut down. As the biggest and strongest member of the crew, Wren was absolutely critical to the venture; now he was dazed, concussed, and bleeding like a stuck pig.

They were barely a third of the way into this venture, with 179 miles still to go—a stretch that included the rest of the Inner Granite Gorge and another three dozen rapids, including Lava Falls, the biggest of them all. And in another ten hours, they’d confront their second sleepless night of rowing in the dark. “At that point, we were very demoralized—I mean, extremely so,” Petschek said. “We were so beat up. I remember just wanting to get out of there. To not even be there.”

Sitting in the boat, all three men acknowledged that the only remotely sane option was to haul the Emerald Mile out of the water, hike up to the rim, and limp home. No one in the river community would think any less of them for having been whipped by Crystal.

They looked at one another, each man seeking confirmation that his own instinct was shared.

Screw that, they agreed, and then started back downstream.

Fitness Tips from the World’s Greatest Athlete – Olympic Decathlete Trey Hardee

13 Jun


Outside Magazine, July 2012
Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The World’s Greatest Athlete

Spoiler alert! You’re not making this year’s Olympic team. But here’s your consolation prize: Priceless advice from reigning world champion decathlete Trey Hardee, who has distilled a decade of training and nutrition wisdom into one totally customizable gold-medal fitness formula.

By: Ryan Krogh



Hardee’s routine of choice is something he calls speed-endurance workouts. “They’re designed to tip you over the edge of your lactate threshold,” he says. “You’re in oxygen debt, and you’re forcing your body to work through it.” A common example for Hardee is a 450-meter run, a 350, and a 250, all with relatively short recovery times (roughly four minutes) between each one. He’ll follow those with a 10-minute break and then three 150-meter sprints, with a longer recovery period in between (five or six minutes). “At the end, your muscles are just swimming with lactic acid,” says Hardee. “Your body feels like it’s going to shut down, but it will learn to recover faster, which is particularly important for me when there are short times in between events.” For you, it means faster recovery between ascents on the bike or ski laps at the resort.

I’m just a runner/cyclist/swimmer. Is the weight room really worth my time?
Hitting the weights, insists Hardee, is necessary no matter what sport you do. But it’s not about getting bigger by isolating muscles. It’s about getting stronger for your sport through dynamic exercises. Hardee does heavy rotations of Olympic movements—power cleans, squats, and bench presses. “They’re our bread and butter,” he says. “There’s almost a one-to-one transfer of power we build there to all of the events we do on the track.” Not surprisingly, Olympic exercises are good for many outdoor sports, too, because they engage muscles throughout the body. Hardee and his coach incorporate other exercises, but Olympic movements are the foundation.

What about warming up? Should I stretch before I work out?
“Stretching isn’t warming up,” says Hardee. “Warming up is literally that—raising your body’s temperature and getting blood flowing to your muscles.” Hardee recommends dynamic exercises that are movement-oriented. Instead of going for a jog around the track and then bending over to touch his toes, Hardee goes for a jog around the track and then does lateral shuffles, jumping jacks, backward runs, lunges, box hops, legs swings, and other light exercises. “The idea is not to elongate your muscles,” explains Hardee. “It’s simply to wake them up and let them know what they’re about to do.” 

How much water should I drink when I’m training?
“For me, there’s no such thing as too much water,” says Hardee. “My body craves it from the moment I wake up until I go to bed, and I drink until my body tells me I’m loaded.” Good call. Recent research backs up this basic but intuitive guideline: Hydrate if you’re thirsty, don’t if you’re not. In a survey of distance runners last year, more than a third said they drink according to a preset schedule, such as one liter per hour, and nearly 10 percent simply down as much as they can. Thirst, which has been honed over millennia, turns out to be a pretty good measure of how much to drink when working out. As you pay more attention to your body’s signals, Hardee says, you’ll be able to recognize the subtleties of thirst more quickly. “Even if you don’t change your diet but pay more attention to how much water you drink, it will make a difference,” he says. “You’ll be surprised at how good you feel.”

I’ve just done a hard workout—what’s my recovery routine?
“I can spend as much time getting ready for the next day’s workout as actually doing the current day’s regimen,” Hardee says. After an intense sprint session, he’ll go for a low-intensity jog, do exercises like leg swings against a wall or lateral jumping jacks, then stretch for 10 to 15 minutes. Hardee says the biggest mistake most athletes make is not taking the time to properly cool down after a heavy session. “You’re breaking down your muscles when you’re working out,” Hardee explains, “and you need to work equally hard to help them recover. I’m always actively trying to recover and get ready for the next day.”

What do you mean by active recovery?
For one, Hardee soaks in a 55-degree cold tub daily—he has one in his house—to help reduce inflammation. More important for non-Olympians is one of his other protocols: a quality meal high in protein and carbs within an hour or so after the last workout of the day (see his daily meal plan, below). After a training session, your body is primed to take in nutrients and use them to build muscle. To end his daily recovery, he has a foam roller that he self-massages with at night. To use it, he simple lies on it and lets his body weight do the work as he rolls back and forth on tight spots. In addition, he gets a professional massage and visits a chiropractor every other week—the former to loosen any particularly tight muscles and the latter to make sure everything is in proper alignment. The massage-and-chiropractor protocol is not so much an immediate recovery technique, explains Hardee, as a way to make sure there are no weak links that might cause an injury.

What about off days?
There’s no such thing as an off day—but that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun on non-training days. “Instead of giving yourself the day off, which may make you feel even worse,” says Hardee, “do something to raise the metabolism a bit.” That may be as simple as a few push-ups and sit-ups and then stretching. “Sometimes I’ll ride my bike or go stand-up paddleboarding on Lake Travis here in Austin.”  

SUPing? Really?
“Oh yeah. It’s great, because it’s low impact and it’s left up to you how hard you want to go. I also like it because it gets me out on the water and I can be in my own serene little world.” 

What about food? Do I need to behave like a cyclist and weigh out every meal?
Not at all, insists Hardee, explaining that his meal plan probably looks a lot like a weekend warrior’s with a few hundred extra calories added in. “My meals are real simple,” says Hardee. “I use organic when I can and eat foods high in antioxidants to help my body recover.” Here’s Hardee’s prescription for a day’s nutrition:

Breakfast: A bowl of oatmeal with brown sugar, along with daily vitamins (more on that in a second).

Lunch: Because Hardee often eats lunch in between training sessions (weights in the morning and track in the afternoon), he likes a carb-heavy meal with a little lean protein, often something like whole-wheat pasta with turkey sausage and a side of broccoli. “If I’m still hungry after that,” says Hardee, “then I go to fruit, like bananas or apples, to fill in the gaps.”

Dinner: It needs to be a dish high in protein to help repair and build muscle, like grilled salmon or a bison-and-quinoa chili that has become a recent favorite of his. “We had a really good sweet Italian chili recipe and started throwing in quinoa to raise the caloric intake,” he says. “It’s unreal how good it is.” 

Pistachios. “I eat my weight in them each month,” says Hardee. “That’s my snack if I’m watching a movie or just vegging out. They’re a good source of amino acids and have a low glycemic index”—a measure of how quickly the food breaks down into glucose in the bloodstream—“so they’re a great healthy snack.”

What about supplements?
Hardee takes a multivitamin in the morning, as well as flax- and fish-oil supplements. Which isn’t a whole lot compared with many world-class athletes. “I try to rely as best I can on the food that I’m already putting in my body for my nutritional needs,” he says. “But I can’t eat or drink enough calories to repair my muscles like I need to.” To augment, Hardee will also down a whey protein shake after a heavy workout. On non-training days, though, he says whole-food nutrition will suffice. 

How do I stay motivated?
Set goals. But don’t make them unreasonable. “I set long-range goals that will be hard to achieve,” says Hardee, “but I keep it interesting by setting small, attainable goals, too. I get to accomplish these on a daily basis. In essence, I rehearse being successful.” For Hardee, the Olympics are always on the horizon, but a daily goal might be envisioning—and then completing—a flawless 27-foot long jump or a fast 400-meter run with perfect form. For you that might mean signing up for a race, like a sprint triathlon, which will serve as your long-term goal. Then, for a short-term objective, do five 100-meter sprint drills one day at two-thirds speed. Two days later, make it your goal to go a little faster or do an extra 100 meters. 

How do I maintain performance all year?
First, recognize that you can’t be at your peak at all times. “There’s a tiny window,” explains Hardee, and his periodized fitness plan is designed to let him peak during competition—and back off some in between. Second, never back off too much. Listen to what your body is telling you, but don’t be afraid to push it. “That’s why older athletes are sometimes better,” says Hardee, “because they know exactly what their body needs to peak, but also how hard they can push it without hurting themselves.” Once you start paying more attention to your training regimen—or start one in the first place—your brain will almost automatically become more in tune with your body, and you’ll be able to expand what you thought were your limits. Lastly, compete with yourself to get better. “People talk about rivalries,” Hardee says. “I don’t have that urge. I just want to get better than my old self. I want to be better today than I was yesterday, and better tomorrow than I was last year. That’s what’s most important to me.”



Freediving or as I like to call it… “omgwtfbbqinsanity…why”

9 Feb

Start with this… a little video of Guillaume Nery freediving Dean’s Blue Hole.


And now for some light reading:



Outside Magazine, March 2012
Wednesday, January 25, 2012 4


Open Your Mouth and You’re Dead

The freediving world championships occur at the outer limits of competitive risk. ­During the 2011 event, held off the coast of Greece, more than 130 athletes assembled to swim hundreds of feet straight down on a single breath—without (they hoped) ­passing out, freaking out, or drowning. JAMES NESTOR reports on the amazingly fit, unques­tionably brave, and possibly crazy people who line up for the ultimate plunge.



JUNKO KITAHAMA’S FACE is pale blue, her mouth agape, her head craned back like a dead bird’s. Through her swim mask, her eyes are wide and unblinking, staring at the sun. She isn’t breathing.

“Blow on her face!” yells a man swimming next to her. Another man grabs her head from behind and pushes her chin out of the water. “Breathe!” he yells. Someone from the deck of a boat yells for oxygen. “Breathe!” the man repeats. But Kitahama, who just surfaced from a breath-hold dive 180 feet below the surface of the ocean, doesn’t breathe. She doesn’t move. Kitahama looks dead. 

Moments later, she coughs, jerks, twitches her shoulders, flutters her lips. Her face softens as she comes to. “I was swimming and…” She laughs and continues. “Then I just started dreaming!” Two men slowly float her over to an oxygen tank sitting on a raft. While she recovers behind a surgical mask, another freediver takes her place and prepares to plunge even deeper.

Kitahama, a female competitor from Japan, is one of more than 130 freedivers from 31 countries who have gathered here—one mile off the coast of Kalamata, Greece, in the deep, mouthwash blue waters of Messinian Bay—for the 2011 Individual Freediving Depth World Championships, the largest competition ever held for the sport. Over the next week, in an event organized by the International Association for the Development of Apnea (AIDA), they’ll test themselves and each other to see who can swim the deepest on a single lungful of air without passing out, losing muscle control, or drowning. The winners get a medal.

How deep can they go? Nobody knows. Competitive freediving is a relatively new sport, and since the first world championships were held in 1996, records have been broken every year, sometimes every few months. Fifty years ago, scientists believed that the deepest a human could freedive was about 160 feet. Recently, freedivers have routinely doubled and tripled that mark. In 2007, Herbert Nitsch, a 41-year-old Austrian, dove more than 700 feet—assisted by a watersled on the way down and an air bladder to pull him to the surface—to claim a new world record for absolute depth. Nitsch, who didn’t compete in Greece, plans to dive 800 feet in June, deeper than two football fields are long.

Nobody has ever drowned at an organized freediving event, but enough people have died outside of competition that freediving ranks as the second-most-dangerous adventure sport, right after BASE jumping. The statistics are a bit murky: some deaths go unreported, and the numbers that are kept include people who freedive as part of other activities, like spearfishing. But one estimate of worldwide freediving-related fatalities revealed a nearly threefold increase, from 21 deaths in 2005 to 60 in 2008.

Only a few of these fatalities have been widely publicized. The famed French freediver Audrey Mestre—wife of freediving pioneer Francisco “Pipin” Ferreras—died in 2002 during a weight-aided descent to 561 feet, leading to controversy that continues still about whether Ferreras, who managed safety for the attempt, did his job properly. More recently, just three months before the 2011 world championships, Adel Abu Haliqa, a 40-year-old founding member of a freediving club in the United Arab Emirates, drowned in Santorini, Greece, during a 230-foot attempt. His body still hasn’t been found. A month later, Patrick Musimu, a former world-record holder from Belgium, drowned while training alone in a pool in Brussels.

Competitive freedivers blame such deaths on carelessness, arguing that each dead diver was going it alone or relying on machines to assist the dives—both very high-risk pursuits. “Competitive freediving is a safe sport. It’s all very regulated, very controlled,” says William Trubridge, a 31-year-old world-record freediver from New Zealand. “I would never do it if it wasn’t.” He points out that, during some 39,000 competition freedives over the past 12 years, there has never been a fatality.

Through events like the world championships, Trubridge and others hope to change freediving’s shaky image and bring it closer to the mainstream. City officials in Kalamata, a freediving hub, are trying to help. To that end, they hosted an opening ceremony for the event on a Saturday night along a crowded boardwalk. There, hundreds of competitors, coaches, and crew members in matching T-shirts and tracksuits waved national flags and screamed their countries’ anthems from an enormous stage—a scene that looked like a low-rent Olympics. Behind them, a 40-piece marching band played a ragged version of the Rocky theme as grainy video highlights from past freedives were projected onto a 30-foot screen. 

“You ask me, this all looks crazy,” said Xaris Vgenis, a Kalamatan who runs a watersports shop near the beach. A video of a 300-foot dive appeared on the screen, and Vgenis shook his head. “You’ll never get me to do it!”

Then the lights of the stage darkened, the video screen dimmed, and the PA system went silent. Moments later, strobe lights flashed and streams of fireworks exploded in the night sky. The participants cheered while a few hundred locals scratched their heads. The 2011 freediving world championships were on.

TWO DAYS AFTER THE OPENING CEREMONY, on a windless and hot Monday morning, I head for the Kalamata Marina, where a scruffy Quebecois expat named Yanis Georgoulis is waiting on a 27-foot boat to carry me to the first event. For all its mainstream hopes, freediving has a built-in problem: it’s almost impossible to watch. The playing field is underwater, there are no video feeds beamed back to land, and it’s a logistical challenge even to get near the action. Today’s staging area is a sketchy-looking 20-by-20-foot flotilla of boats, platforms, and gear that looks like it was swiped from the set of Waterworld.

While we motor out in the shadow of toothy coastal mountains, I use the time to brush up on freediving’s complicated rules. The competition officially starts the night before a dive, when divers secretly submit the proposed depths of the next day’s dive attempts to a panel of judges. It’s basically a bid, and there’s gamesmanship involved as each diver tries to guess what the other divers will do. “It’s like playing poker,” Trubridge told me. “You are playing the other divers as much as you are playing yourself.” The hope is that your foes will choose a shallower dive than you can do, or that they’ll choose a deeper dive than they can do and end up “busting.” 

In freediving, you bust either by flubbing one of dozens of technical requirements during and after the dive or by blacking out before you reach the surface, grounds for immediate disqualification. While not common in competitions (I’m told), blackouts happen often enough that layers of safety precautions are put in place, including rescue divers who monitor each dive, sonar tracking from the flotilla, and a lanyard guide attached to divers’ ankles that keeps them from drifting off course—a potentially fatal hazard, I’ll later learn.

A few minutes before each dive, a metal plate covered in white Velcro is attached to a rope and sunk to the depth the competitor submitted the night before. An official counts down, and the diver submerges and follows the rope to the plate, grabs any of dozens of tags affixed to it, and follows the rope back to the surface. About 60 feet down or lower, the competitor is met by rescue divers who are there to assist in the event of a blackout. If he passes out so deep that the safety divers can’t see him, that will be detected by the sonar. The rope will then be hoisted up and the diver’s unconscious body dragged to the surface, rag-doll style. 

Divers who successfully resurface are put through a battery of tests known as the surface protocol. This gauges their coherence and motor skills by requiring them, among other things, to remove their face masks, quickly flash a sign to a judge, and say “I’m OK.” If you pass, you get a white card, validating the dive.

“The rules are there to make freediving safe, measurable, and comparable,” says CarlaSue Hanson, the media spokesperson for AIDA. “They are set up to ensure that, through the whole dive, the diver is in full control. That’s what competitive freediving is all about: control.” As long as you’re in control, it’s all right if (as sometimes happens) blood vessels burst in your nose and you come out looking like Sissy Spacek in Carrie. “The judges don’t care how someone looks,” Hanson says. “Blood? That’s nothing. As far as the rules go, blood is OK.”

AFTER AN HOUR, Georgoulis ties up to the flotilla. In the distance, a motorboat cuts a white line from the shore to deliver the first competitors to the site. There are no fans present. Only officials, divers, coaches, and a handful of staff are allowed out here, a group numbering about 15 today.

The divers show up wearing hooded wetsuits and insectoid goggles, each moving with syrupy-slow steps as they warm up on the sailboat, staring with wide, lucid eyes lost in meditation. One, two, three—they slide like otters into the sea, then lie back, looking semi-comatose as their coaches slowly float them over to one of three lines dangling from the flotilla. A judge issues a one-minute warning, and then the competition begins.

Freediving is broken down into multiple disciplines: today’s is called constant weight no fins, abbreviated as CNF. In CNF, divers go down using their lungs, bodies, and an optional weight that, if used, must be brought back to the surface. Of the six areas in competitive freediving—which include everything from depth disciplines like free immersion (the diver can use the guide rope to propel himself up and down) to pool disciplines like static apnea (simple breath holding)—CNF is considered the purest. Its reigning king is Trubridge, who broke the world record in December 2010 with a 331-foot dive. Today he’s trying for 305 feet, a conservative figure for him but the deepest attempt on the schedule. Before he arrives, a dozen other divers kick things off.

An official on line one counts down from ten, announces “official top,” and begins counting up: “One, two, three, four, five…” The first diver, Wendy Timmermans of the Netherlands, has until 30 to go. She inhales a few last mouthfuls of air, ducks her head beneath the water, and descends. As her body sinks into the shadows of the Mediterranean, the monitoring official announces her depth every few seconds. Two minutes later, after reaching 171 feet, Timmermans emerges and passes the surface protocol, setting a new national record. Another diver goes down on line two; another preps on three.

The diver on three takes one last breath, descends 200 feet, touches down, and, after three painfully long minutes, resurfaces. “Breathe!” his coach yells. He smiles, gulps, then breathes. His face is white. He tries to take off his mask, but his hands are cramped and shaking. Lack of oxygen has sapped his muscle control, and he just floats there, with blank eyes and an idiotic grin on his face, probably with no idea where he is.

Behind him another diver resurfaces. “Breathe! Breathe!” a safety diver yells. The man’s face is blue, and he isn’t breathing. “Breathe!” another yells. Finally he coughs, jiggles his head, and makes a tiny squeaking sound like a dolphin. 

For the next half-hour, as divers come and go, these scenes repeat. I stand in the sailboat with my stomach tightening, wondering if this is the norm—and if it is, how the hell any of it could be allowed. All the competitors sign waivers acknowledging that heart attacks, blackouts, oxygen toxicity, and drowning may be part of the price. But I have a feeling that competitive freediving’s continued existence has more to do with the fact that the local authorities don’t know what really goes on out here.

Trubridge arrives, wearing sunglasses and headphones, his lean spider limbs dangling from the oversize thorax that is his chest. I can see his gargantuan lungs heaving in and out from 30 feet away. He’s so lost in a meditative haze that he looks half dead by the time he enters the water, latches his ankle to the lanyard, and gets set to go. 

“Five, four, three, two, one,” the official says. Trubridge dives, kicking with bare feet, descending rapidly. The official announces “twenty meters,” and I watch through the clear blue water. Trubridge places his arms at his sides and floats down effortlessly until he’s out of sight, drifting barefoot into the shadows of the deep. The image is both beautiful and spooky. I try to hold my breath along with him and give up after 30 seconds.

Trubridge passes 100 feet, 150 feet, 200 feet. Almost two minutes into the dive, the sonar-monitoring official announces “touchdown”—at 305 feet—and begins monitoring Trubridge’s progress on the way back up. After a total of 3 minutes and 43 seconds, I see Trubridge rematerialize from the shadows. A few more strokes and he surfaces, exhales, removes his goggles, gives the high sign, and says in his crisp New Zealand accent, “I’m OK.” He looks bored, his body and brain seemingly unaffected by the fact that he just swam—without fins, without anything—30 stories down.

THE NEXT TWO DAYS ARE rest days. By midmorning on Tuesday, the courtyard at the Messinian Bay Hotel is buzzing with the chatter of a dozen languages as teams gather around patio tables to sip bottled water, talk strategy, and e-mail worried relatives. The group here is largely male, mostly over 30, and generally skinny. Some are short, a few are pudgy, and most have shaved heads and wear sleeveless T-shirts, action-strap Teva sandals, and baggy shorts. They hardly look like extreme athletes. 

“Freediving is as much a mental game as a physical one,” says Trubridge, who, in his wraparound dark glasses, cropped hair, and worn-out T-shirt, fits right in. He pulls up a seat beside me at the swimming pool. “It’s a sport that’s open to everybody.”

Well, maybe. You still have to be able to hold your breath an incredibly long time, exert yourself tremendously, and not freak out—something I find extremely challenging, even though I spend most of my spare time surfing. Recreational freediving is one of the fastest-growing watersports—a trend that will accelerate this year when Scuba Schools International expands its freediving courses to dozens of locations worldwide—but it’s hard to imagine competitive freediving in the Olympics anytime soon. It just seems too damned dangerous. I ask Trubridge to walk me through the physics and physiology of what he endures. Before long my stomach is tightening again.

In the first 30 or so feet underwater, the lungs, full of air, buoy your body to the surface, requiring strenuous paddling and constant equalization of the middle-ear cavities to gain depth. “This is where you use up to 15 percent of your energy,” Trubridge says. And you’ve still got 600 feet of swimming to go.

As you dive past 30 feet, you feel the pressure on your body double, compressing your lungs to about half their normal size. You suddenly feel weightless, your body suspended in a gravityless state called neutral buoyancy. Then something amazing happens: as you keep diving, the ocean no longer pushes your body toward the surface but instead pulls you relentlessly toward the seafloor below. You place your arms at your sides in a skydiver pose and effortlessly go deeper.

At 100 feet, the pressure has quadrupled, the ocean’s surface is barely visible, and you close your eyes and prepare for the deep water’s tightening clutch. 

Further still, at 150 feet, you enter a dream state caused by the high levels of carbon dioxide and nitrogen gas in your bloodstream: for a moment, you can forget where you are and why. At 300 feet, the pressure is so extreme that your lungs shrink to the size of oranges and your heart beats at less than half its normal rate to conserve oxygen. You lose some motor control. Most of the blood in your arms and legs has flooded to your body’s core as the vessels in your extremities constrict. Vessels in your lungs swell to several times their normal size so they won’t be crushed by the incredible pressure.

Then comes the really hard part. You open your eyes, struggle to force your semiparalyzed hand to grab a ticket from the plate, and head back up. With the ocean’s weight working against you, you tap your meager energy reserves to swim toward the surface. Ascending to 200 feet, 150 feet, 100 feet, your lungs ache with an almost unbearable desire to breathe, your vision fades, and your chest convulses from the buildup of carbon dioxide in your bloodstream. You need to hurry before you black out. Above you, the haze of blue water transforms into a sheen of sunlight on the water’s surface. You’re going to make it.

You resurface, the world spins, people are yelling at you to breathe. Is this just another altered-state dream? It’s hard to tell. So you sit there, whacked out, trying to come to quickly enough to complete the surface protocol. You take off your goggles, flick a sign, say “I’m OK”—then you get out of the way and make room for the next diver.

HOW DO YOU DECIDE THIS IS something you want to do? That you can do?

“I was always drawn to the ocean,” Trubridge shrugs when I ask him how he got into freediving. “My first memories were of the sea.” Born near the small village of Haltwhistle, Scotland, Trubridge was 20 months old when his parents, seeking adventure, sold their house, bought a 45-foot sailboat, loaded up Trubridge and his brother, Sam, and took off. For the next nine years they lived on the boat, sailing west. For fun, William and Sam would challenge each other to breath-holding dives. “We probably made it to 25 or 30 feet,” he says, then laughs. “Which, you know, in retrospect was all pretty dangerous.”

By the time Trubridge was 12, the family had settled in Havelock, a tiny town near New Zealand’s east coast. He studied genetic biology at the University of Auckland, where he tested himself one day to see if he could swim 80 feet underwater on one breath. One lap soon became two. Trubridge was slowly drawn into the sport.

After a stint in London as a bellhop in his early twenties, Trubridge took off for Honduras to explore freediving. “I remember diving one day, to maybe 60 feet, and lying down in a sea garden, relaxing, meditating, watching all the life and just being part of the environment,” he says. “Not having to breathe for a minute or two. It was just the most amazing and peaceful feeling you can imagine.”

For the next few years, Trubridge dropped out and dedicated himself full-time to freediving, honing his body into a machine built for undersea performance. He trained for hours a day, every day, swimming, doing yoga and breathing exercises. A rower and junior chess champion, Trubridge found that the combination of mental and physical training came naturally to him. “Freediving requires body, mind, and even spirit to be aligned and directed toward a common intent,” he says. “I’m the sort of person who requires a challenge.” When not diving, he translated freediving manuals, taught, and studied videotapes. At the end of a two-year stint bouncing around Central America, the Bahamas, and Europe, he hit the freediving scene as one of the best in the world.

“Here’s a guy who spent two years sitting on a mountain alone, just waiting,” says Sebastian Näslund, a Swedish freediver. “And when he came down, he was just kind of unstoppable.”

Between 2007 and 2010, Trubridge broke 14 world records (mostly his own) in the disciplines of constant weight no fins and free immersion, which allows divers to pull on the rope to gain depth and to ascend. Today he and his wife of two years, Brittany, live mostly out of suitcases, wintering in the Bahamas and summering in Europe. They teach courses between competitions to help make ends meet.

I wonder what keeps Trubridge bound to the sport. It can’t be the money: at the world championships, competitors pay about $700 to dive, plus accommodations, and win nothing but a medal. He makes a pittance through sponsorships. It’s not the fame, either. Few people outside freediving know who he is.

“To me, I don’t really have a choice,” he says in a soft voice. “There is an immortal peace confronting the underwater world on its own terms, with your breath at your breast. The ocean is just where I am meant to be.”

IT’S THURSDAY, AND THE GLASSY blue waters of Messinian Bay are gray and wind-chopped from a storm that came through yesterday. It’s not raining now but clouds loom overhead, and subsurface visibility has diminished to about 40 feet. By 9 a.m. the first divers are in the water.

This time they’re using monofins—three-foot-wide wedges of plastic attached to neoprene boots. Compared with traditional fins (one on each foot), a monofin gives a diver more thrust with less effort. As a result, today’s dives will be about 25 percent deeper than the no-fins dives on Monday. The current world record in this category (called constant weight with fins, or CWT) is 124 meters—more than 400 feet—set in 2010 by Herbert Nitsch. Until 2009, only ten freedivers in the world had reached that mark. Today, 15 competitors will be attempting 100 meters, an almost unheard-of number.

British diver David King is one of them. King surprised everyone last night by announcing that he would try a 102-meter dive (335 feet), which would be a new UK national record. According to his teammates, he hasn’t gone deeper than 80 meters in the past twelve months.

The judge counts down. King wets his head, upends, and goes. I watch from the sailboat as his silhouette fades into the gray water below like a headlight disappearing in fog.

“My God, he is flying down,” says Hanli Prinsloo, a South African freediver who has joined me on the prow of the boat. Speed isn’t necessarily a good thing in freediving, she reminds me. The faster King goes, the more energy he burns and the less oxygen he’ll have for his ascent. 

“Eighty meters, ninety meters,” the dive official says. “Touchdown,” he announces, and King starts coming back up.

“Ninety meters, eighty meters.” Then the official pauses. King is coming up at about half the speed of his descent. At 60 meters, the updates come slower. At 40 meters they stop altogether. 

Five seconds pass. King has been underwater for more than two minutes. “Forty meters,” the official repeats. Pause. “Forty meters.”

A sickening anticipation sets in. I look around the sailboat. The officials, divers, and crews all stare at the choppy water and wait. And wait.

“Thirty meters.”

King appears to be moving, but too slowly. Five more seconds. He should have surfaced by now, but he’s still 100 feet down. Five more seconds. “Thirty meters,” the official repeats.

“Oh God,” says Prinsloo, holding her hand over her mouth. Five more seconds. In the water we see nothing—no sign of King, no ripples at the surface, no movement.

“Thirty meters.” Silence. “Thirty meters.”

“Blackout!” a safety diver yells. King is unconscious ten stories below the surface. The divers kick down into the water.

“Safety!” the judge on line three yells. About 30 seconds later, the water around the line explodes in a cauldron of white wash. The wetsuit-covered heads of two safety divers reappear. Between them is King. His face is bright blue, and he’s not moving. His neck is stiff.

The divers push his face out of the water. His cheeks, mouth, and chin are slicked with blood. “Breathe! Breathe!” the divers yell. No response. Bright drops of blood drip from King’s chin into the ocean.

“CPR! CPR!” the judge yells. A diver puts his mouth over King’s blood-covered mouth and blows. “CPR now!” the judge yells. King’s coach, Dave Kent, is yelling into King’s ear: “Dave! Dave!” No response. Ten seconds pass and still nothing. Someone yells for oxygen. Someone else for CPR. Georgoulis screams, “Why isn’t anyone calling a medic? Get a helicopter!” Everyone is yelling.

Behind us, on line one, another diver heads down. Then another surfaces, blacked out. The safety divers move King’s stick-figure form to the flotilla and punch an oxygen mask to his face. Still no response. His facial muscles are frozen into a sickly smile, his eyes wide and lost, staring out at the open sea.

The consensus on the sailboat is that King has died. But we’re 40 feet away from him now, and nobody can really tell what’s happening. The safety crew keep pumping his chest, tapping his face, yelling. “Dave! Dave!”

Then, miraculously, King’s fingers quiver, his lips flutter, and he breathes. Color returns to his face; his eyes open, then softly close again. He is breathing deeply, tapping his coach’s leg to let him know he’s OK.

In the wake of all this, Trubridge attempts a 118-meter dive on line one, but he turns around early and fails his surface protocol. British freediver Sara Campbell turns back after just 22 meters on a world-record attempt. “I couldn’t do it,” she says, hopping back on the sailboat. She was too shaken by King, who’s now being taken by motorboat to a hospital. As it races back to shore, there’s another blackout on line two. Then another on three.

“My God, this is getting messy,” says Campbell. The west winds are up now, chopping the ocean, fluttering the sail above us. “It’s like dominoes. Everything’s falling apart. This is the worst I’ve ever seen.”

The competition goes on for three more hours. On the last dive of the day, a Ukrainian, new to the sport, attempts a beginning descent of 40 meters. He surfaces and removes his mask to flash the OK sign, and a stream of blood gushes from his nose. Then he completes the surface protocol and is awarded a white card. The dive is accepted. Blood is OK.

THAT NIGHT AT THE HOTEL the divers cavort, some laugh, others casually shake their heads at all the drama. Of the day’s 93 competitors, 15 attempted dives of 100 meters or more. Of those, two were disqualified, three came up short, and four blacked out—a 60 percent failure rate. King is in the hospital. Nobody knows for sure, but the rumor is that the pressure tore his larynx, which is fairly common on deep dives. A minor injury, they say.

“This kind of thing never happens,” the divers repeat over and over, rolling their eyes. But I think this kind of thing happens all the time: it’s just that nobody here wants to admit it. The challenge now is to see who can move beyond today’s “messy” events, erase them from their minds, and dive to even greater depths on the final day of competition.

One person who seems unfazed is Guillaume Néry, a 29-year-old French freediver and the winner of yesterday’s CWT competition. The day after King’s near-death episode, I meet him midmorning at a table crowded with other members of the French team.

“I was not there, so don’t know exactly,” he says in a thick accent. “But I think the main mistake is not for Dave King but for all freedivers. They were focused on this 100-meter number and not on their feelings, not what they really want to do.” Néry, who started freediving at 14, gained international fame last year with the release of “Free Fall,” a short film that follows him on a 13-story freedive in the Bahamas. The clip has been viewed on YouTube more than 10 million times.

“I learned long ago that patience is the key to success in freediving,” he says. “You have to forget the target, to enjoy and relax in the water.” Néry smiles and runs his fingers through his mop of sandy hair, mentioning that he hasn’t blacked out in more than five years of steady freediving. “What is important now is trying to do the dive, surface, and have a smile on my face. That’s what I did.”

Not everybody is so philosophical. “Blacking out is like shitting yourself,” Sebastian Näslund tells me. “It’s an embarrassment to you and everyone else around you.” Fred Buyle, who became one of the first competitive freedivers in the 1990s and is now retired, echoes Näslund. “Honestly, I think the guy is a fucking idiot,” he says of King. “I thought he was dead. His coach thought he was dead. I’ve been freediving since 1990, and that’s the worst I’ve ever seen.”

Months later, King tells me by e-mail that he is aware of the criticism he received and offers his own perspective on what happened. “I am not a reckless diver,” he writes, noting that the blackout in Greece was his only one in ten years of freediving. He argues that his work schedule doesn’t allow him to train as much as other elite divers and that he had time for only three dives before the competition. “I got to 102 meters, equalizing easily,” he says. “I just had problems as I reached the surface.”

SATURDAY, THE FINAL DAY OF COMPETITION, brings scalding sunshine, still air, and clear, calm waters—perfect conditions. The discipline today is free immersion, where divers are allowed to pull themselves down the line to reach their target depth. Free-immersion dives are a little shallower than CWT, but they can take a while, sometimes more than four minutes, making them excruciating to watch. The divers got a wrist slap last night from event director Stavros Kastrinakis, who told them, “Dive your limits.” The announced dives today appear to be more conservative. Still, there are a number of world- and national-record attempts planned. 

As the morning unfolds, more blackouts occur, but today they don’t look so bad. Or maybe I’m just getting used to the sight of inert bodies and blue faces. Most competitors recover quickly, then swim back to the boat in silence, ashamed to have, again, pushed beyond their limits.

I keep watching as the next dozen athletes make their dives. Then the elite divers begin: Malina Mateusz of Poland breaks a national record with a dive of 106 meters. The women’s world champion, Russian Natalia Molchanova, sets a world record of 88 meters. Anton Koderman dives 105 meters to set a new Slovenian mark. Néry breaks the French record with 103. Trubridge does 112, almost effortlessly. Seven national records are broken in an hour. Everyone is in control. The sport, again, is awe inspiring and beautiful.

Then, at line two, a commotion breaks out. The safety divers have lost a Czech diver named Michal Risian. Literally lost him. He’s at least 200 feet underwater, but the sonar is no longer picking him up. He has somehow drifted away from the rope.

“Safety! Safety!” yells the judge. The safety divers go down but come up a minute later with nothing. “Safety! Safety! Now!” Thirty seconds pass. No sign of Risian anywhere.

On line one, Sara Campbell is preparing to dive. From below her, three and a half minutes after he went down on line two, Risian emerges—40 feet away from the line he was first attached to.

There’s confusion. Campbell jerks away, frightened. Risian snaps off his goggles, saying, “Don’t touch me. I’m OK.” Then he swims back to the sailboat under his own steam. He plops down on a seat beside me on the hull, laughs, and says, “Wow, that was a weird dive.”

Yeah, that’s one way of putting it. Before Risian’s dive and per the usual routine, his coach attached the lanyard on Risian’s right ankle to the line. As Risian turned and plummeted, the Velcro securing the lanyard came loose and fell off. The safety divers saw it floating, unattached, and rushed down to stop Risian, but he was already gone, 100 feet deep. Risian, unaware, closed his eyes, meditated, and drifted downward. But he wasn’t going straight down—he was angling 45 degrees away from the line, into open ocean. 

Risian’s coach, realizing that death was the likely outcome of this screwup, floated motionless at the surface, gazing at the safety divers, who were too stunned to blink. “I’ll remember their looks for a long time,” he said later. “Terror, awe, fear, and sadness.”

Meanwhile, 250 feet below, Risian was diving farther down and farther away, oblivious to the problem. At 272 feet, he reached out to grab the metal plate, but there was no plate. “I couldn’t see any tickets, any plate, any rope, nothing,” he said. “I was completely lost. Even when I turned up and looked around, I saw only blue.”

At 29 stories down, even in the clearest water, all directions look the same. And all directions feel the same—the water pressure makes it impossible to gauge whether you’re swimming up or down, east or west. 

For a moment, Risian panicked. Then he calmed himself, knowing that panic would only kill him faster. “In one direction there was a bit more light,” he told me. “I figured that this is where the surface was.” He figured wrong. Risian was swimming horizontally. But as he swam, trying to remain conscious and calm, he saw a white rope. “I knew if I could find the rope, I would be OK,” he said.

The chances of Risian finding a line 250 feet down—especially one so far from his original line of descent—were, I would estimate, about the same as hitting a particular number on a roulette wheel. Twice. But there it was, the line Sara Campbell was about to descend, some 40 feet away from where he had first gone down. Risian grabbed it, aimed for the surface, and somehow made it up before he drowned.

ON THE FINAL NIGHT, THE DIVERS, coaches, and judges gather on the beach for closing ceremonies. Strobes and spotlights glare from an enormous stage, Euro pop blasts from a DJ booth, and a crowd of a few hundred dance and drink beneath a night sky sequined with stars. Behind the stage a bonfire rages, heating the bare, wet bodies of those who couldn’t resist one last splash.

The winners are announced. All told, the divers broke two world and 48 national records. Competitors also suffered 19 blackouts. Trubridge won gold in both constant weight no fins and free immersion.

“Risian is the real winner here,” says Trubridge, sipping a beer beside his wife, Brittany. Behind us, every 20 minutes or so, an enormous video screen shows the chilling footage of Risian’s tetherless dive, which was recorded on underwater cameras. At the end of the video, the crowd cheers and Risian, who’s had a few, rushes to the stage to take a bow. Dave King, the diver who suffered the horrific blackout just two days ago, walks through the crowd with the British team, smiling and seemingly in perfect health. Néry, in quintessential French style, is smoking a cigarette. 

“There is such a strong community here,” says Hanli Prinsloo, drinking a cocktail by the bonfire. “It’s like all of us, we have no choice. We have to be in the water, we’ve chosen to live our lives in it, and by doing that we accept its risks.” She takes a sip. “But we also reap its rewards.”

I begin to understand her point. Freedivers have access to a world that the rest of us see only from the surface—from boats, surfboards, and airplanes 36,000 feet up. It’s safe, where most of us are, but it’s also isolating: we can never know the ocean’s true wonder, power, strength, or beauty. The real mysteries of nature are revealed to those who reach farther, push harder, and go deeper. 

For freedivers, access to the hidden universe that covers 70 percent of the planet is worth the price of admission—blackouts, ripped larynxes, and all. And blood? What’s a little blood when you’ve made it to the other side?


%d bloggers like this: