Behind the camera: Aniol Serrasolses’ kayak descent of the Villarrica volcano

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 Photo: Nicolas GantzPhoto: Nicolas Gantz

By Paulo Urrutia
Translation by Rebecca Neal
At the height of the pandemic, clips of Aniol Serrasolses kayaking down the Villarrica volcano were all over social media. The video of the feat demonstrates not only the skill of a world-renowned whitewater kayaker, but also the creativity of those behind the camera. Among other things, the video highlights the water cycle from the snow-capped summit of the volcano, down through forests and rivers before culminating in a trick that has never been seen before in the world of kayaking. A little over a year after one of the most astonishing kayaking videos of recent times was filmed, Paulo Urrutia, cofounder of Bestias del Sur Salvaje (Beasts of the Wild South), talked to Nicolás Gantz, a documentary photographer from the video team, and Aniol Serrasolses, the star of the video.


Nicolas Gantz is an adventure sports photographer, and photographs sports such as skiing, climbing and mountaineering around the world. He talked to us about his passion, the message behind his photographs, and what it was like shooting the volcano descent.

How did you first become interested in photography, and how did this develop into photographing extreme sports?
Since I was a child, I’ve always been interested in visual arts; I loved to draw. As a teenager, I started using my sister’s single-lens reflex camera and an old analogue camera that we had at home. From there, I started taking photos of everything. In 2010, I bought my first digital single-lens reflex camera. The reason I started shooting adventure sports is that, during my first years taking photos, I got into climbing and started spending a lot of time doing mountain sports. Eventually I developed skills, such as managing ropes and rescue techniques, that allowed me to shoot comfortably and safely in complex terrain with incredible panoramic views. As I was getting more photography experience, I started producing images that showed a side of Chile that hadn’t really been explored and attracted the attention of different brands, which gave me the opportunity to shoot a wide variety of athletes from different disciplines.

Many people have asked whether Aniol Serrasolses really kayaked from the summit of the volcano and through forests down to the river without stopping. Tell us what the filming process was like.
Haha. It wasn’t really from the summit, but we found it fascinating that that’s how people imagined it. This has been the best recognition we’ve received for the project. Social media contributed to this idea, as the video was shared with some surprising titles. Anyone who knows the volcano and understands anything about kayaking can tell that that would be impossible. It’s very difficult to control a kayak in the snow and there’s no way to stop it on very steep slopes. We were trying to amaze people and fuel their imaginations thanks to a narrative process that connects various sections to tell a story.

You’re a renowned mountain photographer and your experience depicting climbers and skiers in their natural environment really comes through in your work. Now we see you working in nature again, this time with rivers. What was the experience of shooting whitewater kayakers like Aniol like?
In truth, it was by chance that I met him and started shooting some of his trips. In 2016, during a skiing project in Patagonia, I met a North American photographer and kayaker who invited me kayaking with him and his friends. I’ve always found whitewater kayaking fascinating and I was looking to expand my repertoire, so I accepted the invitation. I joined the group to shoot a trip of around eight days through different rivers in Araucania Andina with Aniol Serrasolses, Evan García, Pedro Astorga, Chris Corbulik and my photographer friend Erick Parker (…) all legends. For me it was a real luxury to shoot the world kayaking elite in some of the most technical descents and rivers in Chile. For them, it was a luxury to have a dedicated photographer who knew some rope handling hanging from the edge of the waterfall to take pictures from angles that have never been seen before. Since this trip, Aniol and I have seen each other at least once a year, and we always want to create something together.

To expand a little, what attracts me to mountain sports is the connection between the subject and the natural environment. To bring out this connection, you have to have a very deep understanding of the environment where these disciplines take place. This understanding is essential to minimise the risk factor of the activity in an inherently dangerous environment, and it can only be gained through experience. You have to be able to see what the terrain is telling you, plan, read the geography, understand the climate and learn rescue techniques, all while working with a team of people who you have to be ready to trust with your life in many situations. All of this is what makes activities like climbing, skiing and mountaineering so beautiful and so nourishing for the soul: beyond the action of the sport in itself, it comes with this deep understanding of nature, the elements and friendship. Kayaking and rivers symbolise the same thing for me, this connection that fascinates me and that I want to immortalise, just in a different setting and element.
Aniol Serrasoles going down the Villarrica volcano in southern Chile. Photo: Nicolas GantzAniol Serrasoles going down the Villarrica volcano in southern Chile. Photo: Nicolas Gantz
Photo: Nicolas GantzPhoto: Nicolas Gantz

Chile is a unique location for adventure sports. What were you trying to communicate and achieve with this challenging project?
Thanks to its geographical features, Chile is an idyllic place for adventures in nature regardless of which sport or activity you take part in; all you need is motivation and a desire to explore. As a photographer and an audiovisual producer, what I want to achieve with this and other projects is the growth of these sports in our country. I also want to encourage the development of the infrastructure that is needed for these activities, which leads to more people taking an interest in nature and working to protect it. It’s a tremendous opportunity to promote tourism, which is a sustainable economic activity and which enables us to protect our country’s unique natural and cultural richness.

My dream is for some protected areas like national parks, national properties and private parks to be open not only to people who want to walk and take photos, but also to people who want to enjoy nature through activities like cross-country skiing, cycling, climbing, kayaking, surfing and paragliding. I understand that this is quite complicated from a planning point of view, but there are plenty of examples from around the world that we could emulate. It would of course be important to take into account the conservation priorities of each area. 
Aniol Serrasolses, is a whitewater kayaker who was born in Spain and currently lives in Futaleufú, the rafting mecca of Chilean Patagonia. He talked to us about his experience in front of the camera and his love for the rivers. 

There is no doubt that you are the kayaker of the moment. Every so often you surprise us with something new, like the first descent in a perfectly straight line down challenging rapids. Where did you get the idea to kayak down the side of a volcano at almost 100km/h?
The truth is that the experience was unique and impossible to repeat. I’d always wanted to do a project in the snow, and because of the pandemic I stayed in Chile for the whole year. This gave me a unique opportunity to embark on the project.

We got the team together and set out for the Villarrica volcano. After a few days of searching, we realised that our initial idea of going directly from the snow to the river wasn’t going to work, so we decided that the descent should go through the forest before reaching the river. We were always very flexible when it came to deciding on the concept for the video. The 100km/h thing wasn’t planned in advance: on one of the many descents, starting from the Capilla section of the volcano, things got out of my hands and I suddenly realised that I was going very fast.

Can you describe the double kickflip/dub and explain why people were so excited by it? Why did you decide the present the trick this way?
It was very important for me to do something that would resonate beyond the kayaking community. I knew that for a normal person, a high-speed descent of the Villarrica volcano would be very attention-grabbing. Personally, I needed the project to be more than just this; it had to have something unique and progressive that would take the sport to the next level. This is the first dub in history, and it had been a long time coming. Limits and barriers are there to be broken; we’re entering a new era for kayaking, where we’re going to start to see a new way of going down white water, and I’m happy to still be at the forefront of everything that’s happening in the kayaking world.
Photo: Nicolas GantzPhoto: Nicolas Gantz

As soon as sportspeople reach one goal, they are already thinking about the next one. It could be a new trick, exploring previously inaccessible rivers in Patagonia or introducing children to kayaking thanks to the Serrasolses Brothers Program (SBP). What inspires you?
I’m 30 now, and when I look back I can’t believe how quickly the last ten years have gone by. I’m thinking more and more about leaving a legacy. SBP is something that motivates me and that I’m very proud of. Our fourth edition should have taken place in Costa Rica in April 2020, but it was cancelled due to COVID. However, we’re currently planning the next edition. In terms of my career as a professional kayaker, I still feel like I have a lot more to give. I have ideas for new tricks, first descents, expeditions in epic locations and really interesting audiovisual projects. I’m going to make the most of the next few years!
We know that the rivers of Chile hold a special place in your life and that Futaleufú, where you’re currently building your home, is one of them. What have you encountered in our rivers and their people that has kept you coming back?
I’ve felt at home in Chile since my first visit: the rivers, the people, the forests and the mountains. It’s a unique place. My first paddle in the Futa is engraved in my memory; from that moment, I knew that I would live there one day. Building my cabin in the winter of the pandemic was a beautiful process. I live at the mouth of the river and I walk home after I’ve been out in my kayak. Being in a place that lets me be so connected to the river is priceless.

You’re a big inspiration to many people, and lots of young people look up to you. We’ve noticed your interest in issues around Chile’s rivers and the simple things we can learn from life around the river. What message would you give to the new generation of kayakers?
In the end, nobody will remember you for what you achieved in the kayak, but for the kind of person you were because of it, for what you contributed to the community and the river. I’m very concerned about the future of many of Chile’s rivers. We’re all part of the problem. When you travel the world and see really poor communities, who want more than anything to see a bit of progress, the conversation gets complicated. The key is to find a balance by carrying out projects that aren’t so invasive and that really make sense for the community and the river.

This is an incredibly important moment for humanity. More than ever before, now is the time to fight for the planet and for drastic changes in how we do things and the way we use energy. It’s in our power to save the world; at the end the day, we don’t have anywhere else to go.
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