The Perils of Big Plunges: Jesse Coombs Collapses Lung on Abiqua, Tyler Bradt Healing from Broken Back


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While Jesse Coombs nailed Oregon’s 101-foot Abiqua Falls in March, it came at the cost of a collapsed lung. Ten days later, world waterfall record holder Tyler Bradt, who ran 186-foot Palouse Falls a year earlier, ran it and broke his back, sidelining him at least for the first half of the season. Yup… running waterfalls is serious business, where even the best are often at the mercy of fate’s hands.
PL checks in with both Combs and Bradt to get their current injury status and take on whopping waterfalls…

Though those at the upper end of the game often make it look easy, running big drops is serious business. As well as the recent impairments to Coombs and Bradt, on March 20, 2009 Junior World Freestyle Kayak Champion Jason Craig, 17, suffered a severe spine injury after hitting a rock at the base of a 25-footer on Cali’s Dry Creek. Last year Rush Sturges broke his back running Bonito Falls in Mexico. And last summer, after Steve Fisher and Sturges ran it, Shane Raw broke his arm in three places running Icland’s 64-foot Aldeyjarfoss Falls, just from the pressure of the water. A week later Germany’s Matzi Brustmann broke his ear drums on the drop.

Yep, running big drops is serious business. But back to Abiqua. Ten days after Coombs ran Abiqua, Bradt ran it at lower water. Landing a hair too flat, his spine suffered the consequences, pulling apart at the L1 vertebrae. He underwent surgery the next morning. Now two-thirds of the way through his expected 12 weeks of recovery time, he plans to be back on the water soon, with his eyes set on still more falls, including Abiqua. Read on for their updates from the field…

Coombs Reports from the Field
My shoulder was tweaked when the paddle was ripped from my hands. I assume the front paddle blade caught some water and pulled the paddle which pulled my shoulder.

This is what happened with my lung. I spent 94 feet falling and accelerating. I then hit the water and spent 20 feet decelerating. It’s basically a small car crash. I took a big breath at the top of the falls and held my breath to the bottom. Imagine a balloon full of air. That’s what the lung is like. Then when I hit the bottom there was a huge compression of the balloon, my lungs. The air needed to escape so it tore a small hole in my right lung. When that happens some air escaped into the plural cavity each time I breathed. That air eventually grows and gains pressure and pushes down on the lung. The doctor inserted a tube in my chest to allow the air in the plural cavity to escape.The lung fully re-inflated within two days and I was cleared for full activity within a week.

I’ve known the risks of big drops all along. The person who taught me to kayak, legend Eric Brown, told me from the beginning he never goes over waterfalls over 20 feet because higher than that and the forces are too big even if the line is perfect. Like any ‘extreme’ athletic endeavor there are risks involved. Sometimes those risks are realized, sometimes they aren’t.

When you’re 20-something you’re more bendable and heal faster, and you feel invincible. I’m not 20-something any more. I try to weigh the ‘feat’ very closely with the risks and how well I think I can do the line. In this case I had an almost perfect line. But even so I sustained two injuries. I try to re-assess every time I look at a big drop, and I try to make sure I keep my ego squarely out of the decision process.”

Tyler Bradt on Abiqua and his Back

My back is doing great! I’m cleared to get out of my plastic clam shell back brace in the next couple of weeks. I then plan on spending the summer doing a bunch of paddling and getting strong again. I will have an operation this fall to take the four screws and one rod which out were put in my back to demobilize the broken vertebrate while it heals. After this operation I should have full mobility back in my spine and my neurosurgeon assures me it will be as stronger as ever.

There are a couple of things I could have done to prevent this injury. My main mistake was air stroking halfway the waterfall which brought my bow up. If it wasn’t for this stroke I would have had a perfect entry angel and most likely have stomped the shit out of it.

There is no question that higher water would have padded out the landing better but with a waterfall of that height the margin for error is very low; I’m sure I would have still broken my back even at higher flows landing the way I did. Because of my reaction to try to stomp by bow back down just before entering the pool, by body was upright, not tucked forward in proper position. This combined with the boat flattening out like it did is a recipe for disaster.

This was also right at the beginning of the season and unlike most years I didn’t head overseas to spend the winter paddling, I was in good shape but not at peak paddling shape like I usually am, which also contributed to the injury. I feel very fortunate to have gotten away with it and I will be stronger than ever moving forward from this accident. So at the end of the day, this has all been a tremendously positive experience.

As far as respect goes, I have always had a huge amount of respect for tall waterfalls, rivers and drops. It’s this respect which has kept me safe over the years. When you look at this in retrospect, at everything I have paddled safely and successfully over the years you will see my batting average is about 99 percent successful. The river is a huge part of my life and has my full attention and respect, I will continue to run high waterfalls and in fact one of the first waterfalls I hope to return to when I get strong again is Abiqua.

An Earlier Update from the Coombs Desk:
Lucas and I were looking for first descent waterfalls, and Heather Herbeck suggested Abiqua. We showed up on March 11 after looking at a couple other waterfalls that did not have enough water. As soon as I saw the waterfall from the bottom I knew it was in the realm of possible. After talking with Heather and Christie Glissmeyer and getting their perspectives, I walked to the top and saw that the lip was actually quite friendly.

We set up all the cameras and got in place. Ben Church from Oregon State University set up the rigging to keep everyone safe. I got in position at the top and slipped my JK Villain into the pool at the top. The height of this waterfall is no joke. It looks like you will fall off the earth. I made sure I was calm and happy, and that I was ready to be in the pool below. Lucas called on the radio and said he was ready and in place. I put the radio inside my dry top and paddled for the lip. I pulled off once wanting to make sure my head was in the right mindset. I paddled again for the lip, picked up a little speed and took a left stroke at the lip to set my angle. The thought in my head was that this waterfall is every bit as tall as it looks.

I kept every motion smooth. I began my tuck half way down and got as tight as possible. I wondered in my head how hard the hit would be. And BOOM. My paddle got ripped way faster than I can contemplate. I surfaced to the right of the falls. I went for a hand roll and my skirt was blown. I saw that I was near the back pool and pulled water for it. I rolled up on a rock at the back of the pool and raised my fist in celebration.

This was the tallest waterfall I have ever run and I had a super clean line. I was stoked! I had Lucas Gilman shooting it, which means I know he got the shot. He was shooting two Nikon video cameras and a still camera, so we got tons of great footage. Plus, we put a camera on the back of my boat that has beautiful footage. It was an amazing day!

Abiqua Falls has extra lore in the Pacific Northwest as it was first run in 2002 by my good friend Tim Gross. Unfortunately Tim landed upside down and was thrown from his boat, hurting his knees. My second call after my successful descent was to Tim to share the good news. Ironically, Abiqua dealt me a collapsed lung and some shoulder damage. Sadly, nine days after I ran Abiqua, Tyler Bradt ran it at lower level and broke his back. Here’s to a full and speedy recovery, Tyler.

Many thanks to Lucas Gilman for nailing the shot like always and being a great teammate in our productions.

Staff Post
Staff Post
Paddlers writing about all things paddling.


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