Friends and family, as well as the Colorado and Oregon kayaking communities, are mourning the death of kayaker Adam Mayo, 43, who passed away on Fri., Dec. 17, while paddling Mexico’s Class V Upper Rio Jalacingo near Veracruz, Mexico. Fellow kayaker Nathan Werner, of Ft. Collins., CO, was also severely injured in the accident with multiple spine fractures and a clavicle fracture.
According to reports, the incident occurred from the two expert kayakers accidentally running a mandatory portage on the classic, basalt-lined Mexican river in the Veracruz region, getting ushered over an unrunnable waterfall.
When reached in Mexico, kayaker Emmett de Maynadier, who helped affect the rescue, said he went up looking for the two kayakers when they failed to return to the lodge they were staying in. He started at the put-in and worked his way down yelling, eventually hearing a reply from Werner and initiating his rescue. He adds he didn’t realize Mayo had perished in the plunge until about four hours after his initial contact with Werner.
“It happened at about 1 p.m., I made my first verbal contact with Nathan at about 9 p.m., and then we didn’t get him back over the lip of the gorge until 7:30 a.m. the next morning,” he says of the vertical backboard extraction required to carry Werner out. “There were a lot of people involved, including members of the local search and rescue team as well as other kayakers experienced with rope work.”
The water level wasn’t likely a factor in the accident, with the river running low to medium flows. But he adds missing the eddy “could be a relatively easy mistake because a lot of it looks the same once you’re in there.”
Other experienced paddlers agree. “A lot of it all looks the same, with its volcanic basalt,” says Mayo’s longtime friend and kayaker Marty Smith, who runs Mountain Sports Kayak School in Steamboat and had boated the section with Mayo before. “And a lot of the drops have long approaches where you can’t get out because it gorges-up.”
Mayo was a high-level kayaker experienced with the run, having run the river multiple times over the past few years, including once just a week prior to the accident.
“It’s not a hard eddy to catch,” adds longtime friend Taylor Barker, who kayaked the river with Mayo two years ago. “I can only speculate that they somehow went past the point of no return on it.”
One of several on the run, the portage in question, adds Smith, comes early in the run, just three or so drops and slides from the start, and is a bear. “It’s about a mile long and took us two hours when we were down there,” he says, adding that the run is extremely low volume, maybe 50 cfs or so, and at times no more than five feet wide.
“That portage is super gnarly,” adds Dane Jackson, one of the top kayakers in the world who has paddled that section numerous times. “It’s basically a 60- to 70-foot drop that lands on rocks and a shelf that I have actually stood on. I’ve rappelled around it before to check out what was below it, and run the section to where you normally put back in.”
The first descent of the run, which has since become a classic among Class V kayakers in Mexico, was reportedly made in 2008 by a team including Rafa Ortiz, who called the river’s lower portion “a river section like no other.”
Contrary to rumors, the accident occurred on a different section than the one five years ago when a team including world-class paddler Aniol Serrasolses accidentally paddled over a 90-foot drop known as the “Black Hole” below the take-out of the Lower section of the river.
Loved by all
Mayo, an attorney in both Steamboat Springs, CO, and Hood River, OR, two areas he loved, was a well-known and loved expert kayaker who also enjoyed snowmobiling and other mountain pursuits in his hometown of Steamboat. He was also a longtime board member for Friends of the Yampa, helping protect a river system he loved and cherished.
“Adam not only played on the rivers and creeks of Colorado but he was also dedicated to protecting them,” said former FOTY president Kent Vertrees. “His legal guidance helped the Friends of the Yampa become a legit 501-C3 in 2011, and almost every year since then, Adam was an integral part of the Yampa River Festival, organizing the Fish Creek and Slalom races.”
He held equal status in local legal circles.
“He was a real zealous advocate for his clients. He hated losing and loved winning,” said Kris Hammond, who has practiced law in Steamboat for more than 35 years and hired Mayo when he first moved to town nearly 20 years ago.
He adds that Mayo was in the kind of law that’s almost analogous to his passion for expert-level kayaking. “He was a courtroom lawyer, doing all kinds of criminal law,” he said. “You’re there with no safety net, and you don’t get a do-over. It’s high risk and everything’s riding on the line — you either win or lose.”
Friends and family were quick to show their outpouring of support for both Mayo and Werner.
“Adam was the best kind of friend, he always had his friend’s backs, no matter how much trouble they got into, was kind, humble, wise, kept you accountable, and was always up for or planning the next adventure,” says longtime paddling friend Chris Fleming. “He was pursuing the sport he loved in one of the most amazing places on earth. He showed a lot of us how to live a great life, be better people, and I am going to miss him immensely.”
Adds longtime kayaking friend Dan Piano: “We shared a lot of great adventures, laughs and times together — some of my best memories in life. The crazy thing is how much he packed into his life. He honestly lived it like he knew he wasn’t going to be here forever, squeezing everything out of every day.”
Mayo originally from Chapmansboro and a graduate of the University of Tennessee and the Denver School of Law, was preceded in death by his sister Emily Claire Mayo. He is survived by the love of his life Sallie Holmes, mother Connie Fort Mayo, father Barry Wayne (Dawn) Mayo, brother Matthew Fort (Ann) Mayo, nephew Rowan Manning, sister Lauren (Don) Bischoff, and niece Charlotte Bischoff.
A GoFundMe campaign has been set up to help defray Werner’s recovery at
Services are pending. For more information, visit www.austinandbell.com/obituaries/Adam-Mayo/#!/Obituary
Adam is my nephew. This is a beautiful tribute to a remarkable young man. I have shared it with my sister. She will love it!
Thank you for your kind words. 💙
My sincere condolences to you and your family. He sounds like he was a remarkable person. May he Rest In Peace.
Bummer, sorry to hear about this, RIP!!
I’ve known Adam for 30 years. We graduated high school together. Right about the first year or two of college He and several of us would go down to the Ocoee River here in TN and take these cheap little inflatable kayaks down the river. People would look at us like we were crazy paddling the rapids in those “pool floats” that we jokingly dubbed them. None of us were very good paddlers at the time, but Adam noticeably was discovering his passion. As the years went he took things to a whole new level and was truly living the dream. He was an INCREDIBLY funny guy, always trying to make everyone laugh. (Successfully). When we would all hang out he and I would bounce a joke back and forth seeing how funny we could make it; how much comedy we could squeeze out of a subject. He had an insane sense of humor. I will never forget when we were maybe 17-18 years old he threw a party so well organized [by him] that there were parking attendants, security, and catered food. I bet no less than a thousand people showed up- as was par for HIS course, being a real life “Ferris Bueler”. He was one of a kind and will be missed. The silver lining can only be that he was doing what he loved.
RIP Old Friend, until I see ya on the other side…..
Thank you for telling his story. He was driven to pursue his passion his entire life. He discovered kayaking in high school, attended college at university of Tennessee in Knoxville, Tn. where he spent his weekends on the mountain streams of east Tennessee. He obtained his law degree in Denver to be closer to the kayaking community and immediately moved to Steamboat Springs to begin his career in law and kayaking.
As his father, I questioned the inherent risk in kayaking but his love for the sport and more importantly his love for the incredible friends he made along his journey dominated.
He moved to Colorado on his own and with the help of some extraordinary people he chose for friends, he created the life he loved. He was only 43 but he got every minute out of every year.