By George Ramsay, CNN
When Dane Jackson turned around and looked back at the tower of frothing water above him, he could scarcely believe what he had just experienced.
The American has taken his trademark pink kayak to some of the most remote waterfalls in the world, but few, he says, compared to the Santo Domingo Gorge in Mexico — home to the steepest, runnable section of whitewater in the world.
Buried deep in a jungle in the southern state of Chiapas, the four tightly-packed waterfalls are well secluded from civilization, as hazardous as they are paradise for kayakers like Jackson.
“It’s one of those sections that you just cannot believe even exists,” he tells CNN Sport, several weeks after descending the whitewater section in March.
The run drops more than 300 feet in the space of 0.2 miles and is broken up into four sections: Angel Wings, The Dome, Toboggan, and Raw Dog.
The first two are the tallest and therefore the most challenging; Angel Wings drops about 80 feet and runs almost directly into The Dome, which is 85 feet.
“They’re very uniquely-shaped,” says Jackson, “particularly those first two waterfalls — they’re very close together, which means from that first big, more challenging waterfall to the next, there’s almost no time.
“You have to really make sure you’re on line, which is why we really prioritized getting as much safety around that particular waterfall.”
As part of those safety precautions, Jackson and his team checked the water levels and studied the surrounding area, then fitted ropes on either side of the river to help with any extraction if anything went awry.
The whole section is high-risk, especially as the nearest hospital is nearly two hours away by car. With one waterfall running straight into another, even a small mistake at the top of the descent can create problems later on.
Jackson and his friend Bren Orton became only the fourth and fifth people to ever complete the entire sequence, according to Jackson’s representative, due to the potentially dangerous nature of having such big waterfalls so close together.
Rush Struges, Rafa Ortiz, and Evan Garcia were the first people to run the waterfalls from top to bottom in 2013.
“It is a very remote spot,” says Jackson, “so you really have to make sure you trust your decision to run it and also the people there to help you.”
The 29-year-old Jackson is as comfortable kayaking down an isolated gorge as he is competing internationally, having won four freestyle world championship titles since 2013.
Three years ago, he descended the 134-foot Salto del Maule waterfall in Chile, the second-highest waterfall descent in history and an experience he likened to “falling off the face of the earth.”
Jackson’s achievements in the sport are perhaps not wholly surprising give his family background. His father, Eric, was an Olympic kayaker and freestyle world champion, while his sister, Emily, has also won world titles.
But that doesn’t stop Jackson’s family getting anxious when he embarks on a big project, including his descent in the Santo Domingo Gorge.
“My dad’s a pro kayaker, my sister’s a pro kayaker, my mom has been there every step of the way,” says Jackson. “I think especially my mom and my sister in particular, they don’t love when I do the big stuff like this.
“I usually just let them know after the fact what’s happened, what I’m doing … They’re always stoked to hear when it goes well.”
Amid the dangers presented by Jackson’s latest challenge in the Santo Domingo Gorge was also a reminder of why he fell in love with kayaking in the first place.
“To do it well and safely and be at the bottom with your friends?” he says. “There’s nothing like it.”
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