In Tibet, when you died, if you had a good life your body was cut up and fed to the vultures. But if you led a wanton life your body was cut up and thrown in a river. We were to later learn that our launch site was the location of the ancient Sangri Bön (pre-Buddhist) Monastery.
We’d been rafting with a bunch of sinners.
“How about this for a Buddhist lesson in impermanence.” I thought to myself. There was an aspect of being surrounded by human bones that seemed to accentuate our risk. Also, over the years I have noticed this about river running - especially in very cold water. As long as the sun is out everything seems ok. The environment is friendly and attitudes are good. But as soon as it clouds up, or the sun goes behind a canyon wall, the air becomes cold and the landscape becomes hostile - more sinister somehow. Attitudes have a tendency to turn negative.
After about nine miles we lost our sun to the gorge. We stopped for a quick lunch and that helped. And then we pushed on with Eric’s constant assurance that, “It gets better a little further down.” The raft still leaked air and we had to pump it up about every half hour.
I do have to say that the scenery was other-worldly. Rick’s calling this Upper Granite Gorge of the Yarlung Tsangpo the “Yosemite of Tibet” was spot on. And while the river landscape was barren - jagged, snow capped peaks began materializing thousands of feet above - lording over us.
The gorge itself was close to two miles deep. As we rafted further into the abyss the river got tighter and the rapids got bigger. We had one portage where we carried the raft and our gear - hopping and clawing from rock to rock - for a quarter of a mile around some huge falls. But we kept going. I’m guessing it was around four in the afternoon when we were able to run a few class three and four rapids. We encountered a couple of class fives that we really didn’t want to test - so we lined them.
The problem wasn’t always with the hydraulics themselves. Often our decisions not to run a rapid had more to do with the turbulence down river. One false move on a runnable class three or four rapid and you would be devoured by the blender below.
In one class four we came dangerously close to being swallowed by a huge hole. They call these “keepers” because once in - the recirculating water will hold you indefinitely. We were all paddling furiously through an obstacle course of surging caldrons when the water unexpectedly gaped open right next to us. It was unnerving looking over and seeing the savage whirl of the unforgiving reversal.
Suddenly our forward motion stopped. Time dilated. The raft literally stopped. Then it began shaking - almost vibrating. We started moving backwards. We were being sucked upriver into the hungry maw. “Paddle! Paddle! Paddle!” we were each giving it every ounce of energy we had. Suddenly the shifting waters gave us a cross current that caught the back of the raft and swung us around 180 degrees. We were now facing upriver. But at least we were moving downriver and away from the inhaling hydraulic.
Regaining our composure we each realized that in these untamed waters we were essentially powerless. Our strength - our will - meant nothing. Our journey and our lives were subject to the capricious whims of the river.
It was a good lesson to learn. Our Himalayan travels would teach us time and again to let go. Any sense of control in these savage environs was simply an illusion. The only thing we could control was how we chose to perceive and interpret our experiences. The control was in our own minds. We had to give up what Chögyam Trungpa referred to as the, “Trap of Hope”. We had to deal with things as they were - not forcing to make them the way we wanted them to be.
Soon we came upon two mid-river islands. Our paddling coordination was getting better and we were able to snake through and beach on the left island. From there we could scout another quarter of a mile. It didn’t look good.
It seemed to be just getting worse and worse. The sense of dread that followed me into the raft when we launched was strangling me. My confidence was in a nose-dive. I couldn’t tell if my rapid breathing was from exertion or hyperventilating fear.
Panic is a killer. I knew that. I looked for the only stable thing I had - Troy.
Troy was my voice of reason. He was more conservative. Over the years I’d learned to trust his judgment.
Just seeing him was reassuring. We’d had so many adventures together. I walked over. He was standing on a boulder calculating our next few moves. I hopped up next to him. Looking down river I asked as nonchalantly as I could, “We’re going to be ok - right?”
He thought for a while. “Yes, we’re going to be alright,” he said. “As long as we follow our instincts and don’t get pressured into doing anything stupid.”
There was a pause. We both burst out laughing. “Anything more stupid that what we’re already doing,” he clarified.
His assurance and the laugh calmed me down. My breathing slowed and we got back into the raft and shoved off. This section of the river was wider and the rapids spaced in such a way that we could weave around them. We paddled maybe a quarter of a mile before we had to portage. In this manner we leap-frogged down the river.
Three hours later we were in a predicament. There was a succession of huge rapids. The water was very fast and powerful. We started lining on river right because river left was sheer cliffs. (River right and river left are always determined by the flow as you look downstream.)
That time of year it didn’t get dark until around 9:00pm. We were moving much slower than anticipated. With an estimated fifteen miles under our belt we knew we were only half way (or so we thought at the time) and we’d have to keep pushing if we were to reach the next day’s destination and reunite with our group. We ran two more class four rapids. And then we were stopped cold by a gigantic hydraulic.
One of the recirculating hydraulic holes (“keepers”) we encountered towards the end of the day on our first descent attempt of the
There is something mesmerizing about huge rapids or waterfalls that draws you in. They have a forbidding beauty. It’s like standing on a high bridge with that odd urge to jump. This was a monster. The hole itself was over twenty feet across. The raw power of the recirculating wave coupled with the sucking sound of the swallowing vortex sent shivers up our spines. I was fairly certain that, if harnessed, the energy of this watered rage could power all of New York City and Chicago combined.
I always marvel at these water formations. It’s really no mystery. Gravity-driven liquid is simply negotiating different terrains in a perpetual effort to seek its own level. With a river this size and a drop this severe, that can only be achieved by racing to the most level place on earth - the ocean two vertical miles below.
This rapid was located on a sharp left bend. It looked like we could run it further down on river right. Then Troy said, “We can’t see the whole thing. I’m going to look around the corner.” So, he went on down a 100 feet or so. He came back shaking his head. The rapid cascaded over a ledge between two huge vertical cliffs. There was no way around on river right or river left. In river parlance, we had “cliffed-out”.
We were trapped.
It became obvious by the depth of the gorge that there was no way Eric scouted the river. From 4,000 feet, the walls were too steep to catch anything but an occasional glimpse of the water below. The scouting we depended on hadn’t happened.
I wasn’t thinking clearly. My oxygen starved brain was entertaining running this rapid. If we could just make it through we were bound to find the smoother water Eric promised. It was a dangerous risk and that strange metallic taste returned to my mouth.
Troy asked me to sit down on a nearby rock. He sat across from me. He put his hands on his knees. He then leaned forward and said, “Gil, look at me. Listen to what I’m telling you. If we continue we are going to die.”
It was a simple statement. And I knew he was right. I mindlessly bent down and picked up some rounded river stones lying near my feet. Nervously jiggling them in my hand, I tried to think of a way out. We were so far from home. Darkness was consuming us. We were exhausted from the day’s efforts. At 12,000 feet the night’s chill had me shivering. And we were trapped in a two mile deep canyon on some god-forsaken river with a leaky raft.
Lost in thought I looked at the stones in my hand. They were polished by the river’s timeless flow. Suddenly they grabbed my attention. They were exactly like the ones I’d pick up on our rafting runs down the upper Salt River in Arizona. This realization jolted me back to one of Trungpa’s teachings. The solidity of the earth and the potentiality of the sky.
Yes, I was 8,000 miles away on the other side of the planet. But these river stones in my hand were the same ones I find at home. It was the same earth. According to Trungpa there is a stability and trustworthiness of the earth. How often do we take this for granted? The fact is that no matter what else is going on in our lives at any given moment the earth is always - without exception - solidly beneath us. It never lets us down. We are never going to just fly off the face of the earth. Trungpa asks us to take a moment, touch the earth with our hand and feel the strength in this knowledge of “grounded-ness”. (Buddha is most often depicted sitting in the lotus position with his right hand touching the earth.)
My mind and my panic began to calm. I was at home. I was at home on my planet earth.
Trungpa’s teaching further asks us to realize the immense and incalculable vastness of the heavens, or outer space as we call it. As he explained, it is just that - space. Space is such a necessary component of action, change and newness. With no space, nothing can occur. With a little space, a little can occur. But, with the unlimited space of the very sky above us, anything can occur. Anything. The point being - we are never trapped. Nothing is hopeless for we have incalculable potentiality right above us. It’s there for us.
The memory liberated me. “Let’s get off this god-damned river,” I said to Troy.
With solid ground beneath me, unlimited potentiality above me, and my brother Troy beside me, I could hike out of anywhere - even the Himalayas - even in Teva sandals.
A great weight had been lifted.
POST NOTE: I kept one of the enlightening river stones as a talisman for the remainder of the trip. I use it to this day.
Next Blog: “The Long Hike Out”
Portaging rapids in the Upper Granite Gorge of the Yarlung Tsangpo - the world’s highest river (right to left: Troy Gillenwater, Eric Manthey & Rick Fisher). I always marvel at these water formations. It’s really no mystery. Gravity-driven liquid is simply negotiating different terrains in a perpetual effort to seek its own level. With a river this size and a drop this sever, that can only be achieved by racing to the most level place on earth - the ocean two vertical miles below.
We’d floated a hundred yards or so when we passed a small Tibetan encampment on the right bank. It’s probably safe to say that this was the first time they’d seen an inflatable raft with four guys in brightly colored wet suits paddle by. They stared in wonder and waved continuously.
We were now heading towards the main current. This was a twelve foot paddle raft - small for this river. I was in the front left with Troy next to me. Rick was behind me and Eric was behind Troy. Our gear was in the middle. As absurd as this may sound, Troy and I had very little experience in a paddle raft. Our raft in Arizona was a fourteen foot oar raft. On an oar raft there is one rower who sits in the middle and operates both oars. Passengers sit in front and behind.
In a paddle raft each member has his or her own paddle that is operated independently. The key to paddle rafting is having a good captain. This individual sits in the back and is in charge of reading the river and issuing commands to the crew such as: hard forward paddle! or easy back paddle or right forward paddle, left back paddle and so on. In this way the crew works together as a team to propel the raft in the correct direction.
Good paddle raft teams practice for years perfecting their mobility skills and techniques. And here we were, looking like the Keystone Cops, zigzagging into the jaws of the world’s highest and most violent river. We had about another hundred yards to practice before we rounded the bend and disappeared into the mists below. Rick was barking orders but the raft wasn’t responding. “I said left back paddle!” he would scream and frantically dig his own paddle in the water trying to straighten the raft’s erratic behavior.
Part of the problem was the din of the river. We were entering a gorge that rumbled like an oncoming locomotive. Rick’s voice couldn’t compete and we couldn’t hear what he was yelling. This would frustrate him and his screams would go up an octave or two rendering his orders completely unintelligible. And then we’d hit a small wave and Troy and I would get drenched with bone-chilling Himalayan snow melt.
If I hadn’t felt so rotten it would have been funny. Actually, I wasn’t all that concerned with the river. In Rick’s Chengdu hotel room he’d told the group that Eric had gone ahead with two porters and was scouting the river. Rick said he didn’t think it would be too bad. I remember Troy and I let out an audible sigh of relief. “Low flow and not much drop.” We thought, “That will make for a fun float.” He went on to say we’d be off the river in a couple of days and then we’d go explore the uncharted four mile segment of the Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo and see if we could find the long-sought “Lost Falls of the Brahmaputra”.
When we met up with Eric in Sangri he reiterated that the river was definitely runnable and those few portions that weren’t had portagable banks on one or both sides. Well, with the river charging down the valley at a volume four times greater than we’d been told to expect, we were starting to question our intel. But higher water often makes for a smoother ride so we still weren’t that worried.
Floating further down the river we crossed the eddy line and merged with the main current. Troy and I were startled. It was like we’d been jerked into the flow. We were flying. And there was something going on with the water. Small waves had huge power, easily tossing us off course.
I have since researched this strange water behavior. Four principles were at play. First, our altitude was just under 12,000 feet. Thinner air means denser water (the reason water takes longer to boil at altitude). Secondly, the river drop - our angle of descent (not to be confused with volume or CFS) - was five times steeper than we were expecting. Thirdly, the Yarlung Tsangpo was the catch-basin for the Himalayas. This was glacial water hovering a few degrees above freezing. Water reaches its densest point at thirty nine degrees Fahrenheit. And fourthly, there is a hydrologic event called the “venturi effect”. This principle states than when a flow rate is compressed due to upstream pressure - as in squeezing a high volume river into a gorge - the velocity of the water must increase.
Well, the dense water, the steepened fall angle and the accelerated flow rate had us bobbing around like a wayward cork. Every paddle stroke was an eighth of a second behind. Between not being able to hear and the crazy action of the water, we were always playing catch-up. We never got ahead of the rapids. This is every river runner’s nightmare. It’s like the bad dream where you are running in slow motion. No matter how hard you try you’re always behind.
It was about this time that the river turned and we got our first view into the roiling maelstrom below. It was terrifying. A strange metallic taste invaded my mouth. It was the taste of raw fear.
“Right paddle… right paddle… right paddle… harder… harder…” Rick screamed. We had to get to over to the left bank and take a look at what we were getting into. But the water was just too strong. We got sucked into the drops.
My memories are clouded here. I do recall paddling as hard as I could. And I remember the noise. It wasn’t the roar of tumbling water. It was the wind-sucking compression that comes with tons of water slamming shut in the many hydrologic holes around us. You could feel it reverberate in your chest. I remember lateral waves swallowing our raft. I remember seeing Troy on my right paddling maniacally. I remember bursting water so aerated my paddle flailed. And I remember Rick’s gurgled commands and the river coming at us from all angles. They call big rapids “Maytags” as in the washing machines. This is exactly what it felt like. I couldn’t tell what direction we were headed or even which way was up. It was just a swirling, turbulent explosion of gushing ice water, unbridled momentum and sound.
The raft wasn’t self-bailing and I think that’s what saved us. We had swamped. It was filled with water - making it hard to control but equally hard to flip. We lumbered out of one rapid and barely made it to shore before the next set. Looking downriver the rapids appeared endless.
There was no river bank to speak of. It was just a jumble of large boulders. Troy jumped for one with the bowline and pulled the raft into an eddy. Tying it off, we each sought our own boulder and collapsed. At 12,000 feet every hard-bargained breath contained only 60% of the oxygen we were used to. The boulders were warm and felt good. Something solid felt good. Being alive felt good.
Catching our breaths and gaining a semblance of clarity, Troy and I looked at Eric, “What the hell? You said you scouted this river.” He just shrugged his shoulders and gave us a blinking look like he just woke up.
“It gets better a little further down.” He offered. Eric would be asked this same question fifty more times during the day and we always received the same spaced-out response - shrugged shoulders, a quizzically confused stare and the assurance that, “It gets better a little further down.”
Rick was also miffed by Eric’s response. As we bailed out the raft we noticed it had a leak. We brought a pump and were able to top it off. Though unpracticed paddle rafters, Troy and I had quite a bit of river experience in oar rafts. This helped as we charted our course moving forward. There were some “cheats” on the side (shallower water where we could avoid big rapids), a few places we could guide the empty raft next to the bank with a bow line and a stern line (this is called “lining”) and a couple of places we’d simply have to portage (unload the raft, pull it out of the water and carry it and our gear around the hazard). With the gorge’s steep sides, the river was essentially a rock garden of swirling waters and car-sized boulders.
I remember feeling so bad from altitude sickness that I really didn’t care if I lived or died. Curiously, this attitude removed some of the debilitating pressure of fear. I could focus more on the moment and not worry about the dangers that lay in wait.
Other than the continuous rapids, our most formidable obstacles were the river banks. There was no shoreline. We had entered a mammoth gorge whose steep walls and high gradient only allowed for rock falls. And the river-edge boulders had no consistency in size or placement. When the rapids were too big we’d have to get out. Here we had two options - to line the raft or to portage. Both were slow going as we had to either hop, climb or descend from rock to rock.
It was about two miles into the canyon that we started noticing the human bones. Troy was holding the bowline while we were guiding the raft around the rocks to avoid a particularly deep hydraulic. He looked down and there was a perfectly intact human jaw bone. Some of the teeth were still in place. And then I found a femur, a scapula and a couple of ribs. There were human bones everywhere.
In Tibet, when you died, if you had a good life your body was cut up and fed to the vultures. But if you led a wanton life your body was cut up and thrown in a river. We were to later learn that our launch site was the location of the ancient Sangri Bön (pre-Buddhist) Monastery.
We’d been rafting with a bunch of sinners.
Documentary film producer - Bill Bacon - records the departure on our unpermitted first descent attempt of the Upper Granite Gorge on the world’s highest river – the Yarlung Tsangpo. Here the Himalayan river surges over two miles above sea level. Pictured left to right:
For centuries the country of Tibet had been politically closed to outside travel. Initially to halt colonial expansionism followed by the strangling security of the Communist Chinese occupation. In the mid-1980’s China discovered the economy of tourism and relaxed it’s grip by allowing organized “group” tours to Tibet’s three major cities. However, due to its proximity to the disputed Indian border, the zone around the Hidden Lands remained off-limits to outsiders. In the early 1990’s China grudgingly opened the area to exploration by a fortunate few. We were among the fortunate few.
However, there was a glitch in Rick’s rafting plan. The permit price quoted by the Communist Chinese for boating the untamed Yarlung Tsangpo River was $1 million. We opted to smuggle a raft onto the river. In hindsight it seems extremely naive. But at the time it all made perfect sense.
Our May 8, 1994 departure date had finally arrived. Troy and I were on our way to Tibet. We had six bags between us. Five were the old style army canvas duffle bags and one was a huge clothes bag that harbored Rick’s well-worn 12 foot inflatable raft, four wetsuits and four paddles. We were a bit apprehensive about the big bag. With it we were 130 kilos (286 pounds) overweight at check-in. But that wasn’t the problem, it was the conspicuousness of our illegal raft bag with four recognizable paddle handles sticking out the top.
At that time there was still brutal Chinese suppression in Tibet. In fact, six days prior to our leaving the U.S. State Department issued a travel warning that read:
“Chinese troops in Tibet have abruptly been placed on red alert and warned of political protests leading up to the July birthday of the region’s god-king, the Dalai Lama, Army sources said Monday. The Chengdu Military Region last week ordered all soldiers to return from home leave, cancel all entertainment and directed everyone to sleep in uniform under the terms of a ‘first-level preparation for battle’ the sources said. Army traffic has increased on the road from the Chinese hinterland into the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, foreign travelers reported over the weekend, as military commanders beef up the already heavy military presence in the territory by an estimated 30,000 men. ‘The ‘first-level preparation for battle’ means there is a serious threat of political or social unrest in Tibet’ said another source close to the Chengdu Military Region military command, which is responsible for the entire southeast quarter of the country.”
This was exactly where we were going and here we were trying to smuggle a contraband paddle raft into the country for a first descent attempt on the word’s highest river.
We did have one of the more inauspicious arrivals in Hong Kong. Waiting at the circular baggage claim, we had retrieved our raft bag and four of our duffle bags. We were one bag short and it happened to be Troy’s. Our anxiety grew as we waited. Suddenly out the conveyer belt came one of Troy’s boots. And then a water bottle appeared and then a rain jacket and pretty soon all Troy’s personal belongs were being regurgitated one-by-one down the conveyer belt. We couldn’t believe it. We gathered his stuff and a quick inventory told us that the only thing missing was one glove. Not bad considering the circumstances.
So our big challenge was to get the raft bag into Chengdu, China and on to Lhasa, Tibet. In Hong Kong we were charged an overweight fee of $460 that we were able to negotiate down to $300. It was smooth sailing after that. We were surprised.
Once in Chengdu Rick called us all into his hotel room for a meeting. He seemed jumpy - distracted somehow. He reiterated our group’s goals: four of us would spend a day and a half rafting the thirty mile Upper Granite Gorge of the Yarlung Tsangpo river. The balance of the team would drive around and wait for us at the take-out (our landing spot). After this we would all drive along the river some 300 miles to the “Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo” where we would explore the inner gorge. He told us we’d be looking for a hidden waterfall that had eluded explorers for years.
Landing in Gongkar, forty miles south of Lhasa, was fascinating. At the time it was the world’s highest airport at 12,000 feet. Coming from Chengdu’s 1,200 foot elevation, we could feel the altitude immediately. And it was a bit unnerving to see all the Communist Chinese flags waving and the large military presence. But mostly it was the sheer vastness of the countryside that captured our attention. We were on the “Rooftop of the World” and it felt like it.
With our raft secured we piled into the land cruisers and began our bumpy journey east. In 1994, there was only one paved road in Tibet - the main street in downtown Lhasa. Our 800 miles of round-trip driving would all be on dirt roads in various stages of disrepair.
The initial route would roughly follow the Yarlung Tsangpo River. This river has an average altitude of 13,000 feet. It flows easterly across southern Tibet for 750 miles and then grinds its way through the Himalayas creating massive gorges. Tumbling thousands of feet in elevation, the river hooks around (hence the “Great Bend") the eastern Himalaya’s highest peak - Namcha Barwa. It then snakes south to the border of India where it is known as the Dihang River. From there it turns back on itself and travels westerly in the opposite direction through Assam where the river is renamed the Brahmaputra.
Due to the river’s easterly flow through Tibet and its opposing westerly flow through India and the extreme elevation difference between the two, for years it was thought to be two different rivers.
In 1913 it was discovered that the river entering the “Upper Granite Gorge” on the north at 12,000 feet was the same river that emerged onto the plains of Assam on the south at an elevation of only 1,000 feet. For the Tsangpo to become the Brahmaputra required a drop of more than 11,000 feet. This discovery prompted excited speculation - there had to be a hidden waterfall to rival all waterfalls. Explorers’ minds reeled with the possibility of discovering another Niagara Falls or even Victoria Falls. This conundrum was known as the “Lost Falls of the Brahmaputra” and would captivate exploration for the next eighty-four years.
To put the ferocity of the Yarlung Tsangpo River in perspective, it helped when Rick compared it to the southwestern United State’s Colorado River as it flows through the Grand Canyon. The Tsangpo’s inner gorge has a river drop over 10 times that of the Colorado. This violent plunge produces horrendous rapids whose savage waters rush through the swallowing gorges at forty feet per second* - almost thirty miles per hour.
*Jimin, Zhang, The Yarlung Tsangpo Great Canyon: The Last Secret World, Foreign Languages Press, Beijing, China, 2006. Pg. 6
Its dangerously unique features earned the Yarlung Tsangpo the dubious distinction as the “Mt. Everest of Rivers”.
As we jostled along in the land cruisers Rick recounted his plan. Four of us were going to raft the Yarlung Tsangpo’s, Upper Granite Gorge. According to Rick, this “Yosemite of Tibet” was 10,000 feet deep, twelve miles wide, thirty miles long and stunningly beautiful. As a world class “canyoneer” Rick knew what he was talking about – or so we thought at the time. Hearing him wax on and on about the majesty of this canyon filled Troy and me with anticipation.
The four rafters would include Troy, Rick and a friend of Rick’s - Eric Manthey and me. The logistics included dropping us off at an access point on the river called Sangri just above the gorge. The rest of the group would drive the long, mountainous road around the gorge and wait for us thirty miles downstream at a riverside cluster of shacks called Gyatsa.
According to Rick, Manthey had scouted our rafting route and deemed it challenging but runnable. He reported there were quite a few rapids and we’d have a few portages. But he assured us there was shoreline the whole way. We wouldn’t have to worry about entrapment. What Eric didn’t tell us was that his supposed “scouting” was conducted through binoculars from a distance of about three miles away and 4,000 feet above the river.*
*McRae, Michael. “Race to the Lost Horizon” - Men’s Journal. September 1994.
Rick allocated a day and a half for us to complete the thirty mile white-water journey. Rick was into “firsts”. This first descent of the Yarlung Tsangpo’s Upper Granite Gorge followed by our locating the Lost Falls of the Brahmaputra would be two big feathers in his canyoneering cap.
On our approach to Sangri we drove up and over a 16,000 foot pass. Around this time several of us started feeling bad. It was undoubtably altitude sickness. My swelling brain made my head feel like an ax was buried in it. The pain made me nauseous. Once at the river we took a mule-pulled ferry across to our Sangri launch site. This was our first up-close view of the river’s current. Back in Tucson, Rick told us that we could expect a volume of around 5,000 CFS (cubic feet per second). This was the size of the rivers we were used to running in Arizona and New Mexico. However, with spring runoffs, the river flow pulsing under the ferry we estimated at over 20,000 CFS.
Our first up-close look at the river. Troy and I were told to expect a flow of around 5,000 CFS (cubic feet per second). What we found was a river surging at over 20,000 CFS. Pictured left to right: Chris Grace, Mr. Changxun Luo (our Chinese liaison), Rick Fisher, Troy Gillenwater (looking up-river), Jerry Dixon (looking up river) & Eric Manthey.
Troy and I looked at each other. Our years of white water rafting told us this was going to be a whole different ball game. Once across the channel we needed to shake down our equipment and set camp. My ripping headache made this an almost impossible effort. We would inflate the raft after dark so as not to draw attention. In the meantime Troy and I put up our tent. I crawled in, adopted the fetal position, tried to get some sleep, and groaned until dawn.
We got up early. It was Wednesday, May 11th 1994. I forced myself to have a bowl of rice and an egg. We out-fitted the raft down at the beach and donned our wetsuits. There was a documentary filmmaker from Anchorage, Alaska with us. His name was William “Bill” W. Bacon III. He was 67 years old, engaging and immediately likable. Tall with rugged good looks, he could have been a body double for the protagonist in, “The Bridges of Madison County.” He set his large 18mm camera up on a tripod and took some departing footage.
My head was absolutely killing me and I was still nauseous. I had no strength. “Great way to start a river trip.” I thought. We said our brief goodbyes. It was 9:00am and Rick told them to start looking for us to arrive around 10:00am the next day. With no further ado, we jumped in the raft and shoved off.
Ready to launch. In hindsight, attempting an illegal first descent of Tibet’s, Yarlung Tsangpo River (the “Mt. Everest of Rivers”) in a smuggled 12 foot paddle raft seems extremely naive. But at the time it all made perfect sense.
“Into the Mouth of the Tiger”… to be continued.
Quick Update on the Book: I spent the first four months of this year on Whidbey Island immersed in writing my book. Then I put the book aside for seven months. I intentionally haven’t thought about it since. This January & February I will dive back in determined to finish it. I must confess, it’s a lot more work than I ever thought.
My brother Troy will be co-authoring the book with me. His notes and writing are excellent. We have eight additional contributors including fellow expedition members and a unique perspective offered by one of our Sherpa’s – Dawa Lama.
As I plunge back into writing I have decided to increase my Blog posts to one every two weeks. With my posts now following the book’s narrative, I don’t want the story line getting lost in month-long gaps. So here we go!
Following my last post several people asked me if I was a Buddhist. My answer is patently “no”. I don’t believe in labels and the divisions they innately encourage. Once you put a label on yourself – you define everything you’re not. (I cover the fine human art of conceptualization in the book.)
I am a student of Buddhism. But I don’t see Buddhism as a religion. To me it is a science of the mind. Not only does it show us that our unhappiness is largely self-induced, but it provides pragmatic remedies. It’s important to remember that, “In the arena of the mind, what we believe to be true – is.”
Nor am I a Mormon – as I am often accused and the story below might indicate. I attended Brigham Young University in 1972 & 1973 on football scholarships. And while I have many Mormon friends, I myself am not of that faith.
In my last Blog I discussed my lifelong obsession with understanding the human mind as the path that led to our Tibet adventures. As a boy I was fascinated by people’s different perceptions of reality. But more than that, I was intrigued by the prospects of manipulating realities.
“I found strong evidence of this in both practical jokes and hypnosis.” In the book I footnote this statement as follows:
Since I can remember I have been fascinated by the mind, perception and the idea of reality. Though an object or situation could be the same, how could people’s beliefs, points of views, and experiences with it be so different?
As a young boy I realized I could alter realities through the medium of practical jokes. By finding people’s blind spots, vulnerabilities and limits of perception it’s easy to construct a false set of circumstances. This becomes their reality and they believe and act accordingly. Magicians do this all the time.
I observed that the subconscious mind would filter out all evidence that didn’t reinforce the current belief and only allow supporting evidence to find its way into consciousness.
The “joke” came when the “victim” realized his or her mental construct of reality didn’t correspond with actual reality. The collision of the two belief systems and its resulting confusion could be hysterical. To me, the implications were much more than a joke.
A Separate Reality
BLOG WARNING: The account below is meant for mature audiences only. Discretion is advised.
Case in point. In 1973 I was a sophomore at Brigham Young University My roommate, Bill, and I harbored a young man in our apartment. I will call him Jake (we called him the Butler). Jake had gone AWOL from the Army. In exchange for hiding out, he provided us cooking and light house cleaning. It worked for Bill and me.
One bored afternoon we came up with the novel idea to dress Jake up as a wayward coed. This was no small task as Jake was a fairly large guy. Our plan was to get him all dolled up and then call over a fellow student named Chuck (not his real name for reasons soon obvious). Chuck was a tackle on our football team. He weighed no less than 260 pounds. We’d tell him we had a girl for him.
Chuck had just come off a two-year church mission in Guatemala. He was still a virgin and this tortured him. He brought it up several times and frankly we were tired of hearing it. So we went to work on Jake. We had a neighbor named Lilly. She was in her mid-20’s and familiar with our practical jokes. She was full on board for this one. We borrowed a bra and panties. Jake’s thick torso blew out the panties. But with rubber bands we could hold the bra in place. We returned the shredded panties to Lilly and exchanged them to for a lacy slip. It wasn’t perfect but it was the best we could do. Lilly had an old wig and we asked her to bring it over with some makeup. We stuffed the bra with gym socks, attached the auburn wig and Lilly artfully applied the deep red lipstick, rouge and eyeliner. This was punctuated by a quick spray of cheap perfume. Done.
We stood back to admire our Venus. Lilly burst out laughing. Jake looked like a hermaphrodite Hulk Hogan. The call was made and in the blink of a loved starved eye there was a timid knock on the door. Inside, last minute instructions were whispered and the lights turned down.
I opened the door. “Hey Chuck…. come on in.” I said. “Listen, before we get going I have to tell you a couple of things. First of all, Vanessa is quite shy. Secondly, please be gentle.”
The stage was set.
Chuck walked in blinking for his eyes to adjust. And there she was in the corner on the couch, legs crossed, our Madonna.
“Well this gig is up.” I said to myself. “There’s no way Chuck is going to believe that monstrosity is a female.”
The Butler had a five o’clock shadow, hairy legs, broad shoulders and huge knuckled hands and feet. But subconsciously Chuck didn’t want to see those things. All he wanted to see - and all his subconscious mind allowed himself to see - was the object of his deflowerment. The Butler had been well coached. He wasn’t to open his big mouth but rather to giggle furtively, bat his eyes and occasionally flip back his wig hair.
That’s all it took. It was like watching a train wreck. Everything slowed way down. It was a joke gone terribly bad and I wanted to stop it. But that devil on my left shoulder the Mormons warned me about kept my protests at bay. The lurid side of me wanted to see where this was going.
Chuck sauntered over rather stiffly and sat. The couch quivered under his weight. He was a lineman. The Butler giggled three octaves too low and almost knocked his wig off with a flip of his hand. Repositioning the hairpiece he giggled again.
“You know, he’s not that bad.” I thought to myself.
Then it happened, without so much as a word Chuck slid his hand under the slip and up the Butler’s leg to his crotch. However, with suprising foresight the Butler had shoved his privates down between his crossed legs. This was hard to watch as Chuck’s searching hand, his heavy breathing and the lump in his trousers could only mean one thing. In his mind, in his reality, our Butler was going to be his first lay.
I think this dawned on the Butler at the same time. With no intention whatsoever of being the love cushion of BYU’s starting tackle, he stood up in disgust, his pecker flopped out, and he marched into the bathroom admonishing Chuck as a pervert.
Chuck’s reality exploded. He stood there in a daze, his mind racing to make sense of it all. By the time he gained some manner of conscious equilibrium Bill had vanished and I was on a dead run fifty yards down the street.
In high school a few of us went to see a hypnotist perform in the school’s auditorium. It was fun to watch students under hypnosis play pretend musical instruments or race around the room like they were cars.
But the final act was truly provocative. The hypnotist asked for a volunteer. A friend of mine raised his hand and was called on stage. He was hypnotized. And then the strangest thing happened.
Taking a large yellow pencil, the hypnotist told my friend it was a lit cigarette. He began puffing on it. Suddenly he took the pencil from his mouth and acted like he was putting it out on my friend’s arm. My buddy screamed and jerked away looking at the hypnotist in disbelief.
“What the hell did you do that for?” he asked.
Well, that was strange. But what happened next was profound. A blister formed. I was astounded. I thought to myself, “You mean the mind is so strong that by belief alone it can change the molecular cell structure of the skin?”
The implications were staggering. If I could harness my mind, I could influence my reality and the quality of my experience.
This single realization set me on a lifelong quest to understand the workings of the human brain.
How Did We Get Here?
At this time I would like these Blog Posts to chronicle our 1994, 1995 and 1997’s expeditions by featuring excerpts from the draft book accompanied by corresponding photographs.
It’s interesting to witness the three expeditions weaving – almost seamlessly – in and out of one another in a consistent and ever evolving story-line. It’s truly an ordered A-B-C chronology that ultimately culminates in an unforeseen but climactic conclusion – a conclusion not possible without the prior two odysseys.
It was a rather linear path, centered around a great interest in the outdoors and my lifelong obsession with understanding the human mind. The outdoors part was easy. Our father loved to hunt and fish. We were exposed to camping and hiking as far back as we could remember.
And my interest in the workings of the mind also had a clear path. As a boy I was fascinated by people’s different perceptions of reality. The idea that – in the arena of the mind, what you believe to be true, is – intrigued me. I found strong evidence of this in both practical jokes and hypnosis. Hypnosis led to the Hindu - Paramahansa Yogananda’s – mind science teachings as a way to visualize and rewire our brains – thus manipulating our realities. I utilized visualization and self-hypnosis as a way to achieve my goals.
My journey of the mind finally settled on Tibetan Buddhism and meditation as a means to a happier life. I loved the pragmatism of Tibetan Buddhism. I loved the outrageous teachings of Tibetan meditation master Chögyam Trungpa.
It was this interest in the mind that led directly to our adventures in Tibet.
I remember clearly, February 1st 1994. I was turning forty in twenty-five days. This was a big one for me. My gift to myself was a promise to go to Tibet. I had no idea how or where in Tibet. I knew nothing about Tibet other than Chögyam Trungpa was from there. So I set my intention.
Meditation is not a matter of trying to achieve ecstasy, spiritual bliss or tranquility, nor is it attempting to be a better person. It is simply the creation of space in which we are able to expose and undo our neurotic games, our self-deception, our hidden fears and hopes.
Exactly one week later on the front page of Section C of our Arizona Republic newspaper there was a long article written by Hal Mattern titled, “Crazy about Canyons”. The feature stated:
“Tucson resident Richard D. Fisher is looking for people to join his 21-day expedition in May to Tibet, where a team will explore the Namche Barwa Canyon. Fisher, who has visited the canyon three times already and found it to be the deepest gorge in the world, stresses that the trip will be no walk in the park. ‘We’re talking about a real adventure,’ Fisher says.”
The article was punctuated by a photograph of an enormous, cloud-shrouded and lush green canyon with a colossal river churning through it. I sat there stunned. “This is it. This is perfect. What a coincidence!”, I thought to myself.
There was a phone number. I was going on that trip. I found a pay phone and called Rick. But before I could finish introducing myself he said, “Do you have any rafting experience?”
“Hell yes I have rafting experience.” I told him. “My brother Troy and I rafted 430-miles down the Green River. We’ve rafted the Big Drops in the Colorado River’s Cataract Canyon and we’ve rafted the upper Salt River here in Arizona many times.” I was going to tell him we’d rafted Africa’s Zambezi but I thought that might be pushing it. I told him we’d hiked across the states of Arizona and Washington. Here the conversation took on the needy flavor of a job interview so I shut up.
“That all sounds good,” said Rick. “I’m getting married this weekend so why don’t we get back in touch in a couple of weeks?”
A couple of weeks! No way. I was going on that trip. I told him Troy and I were coming the next day (Tucson is only 120 miles south of Scottsdale) and it wouldn’t take us five minutes to introduce ourselves and give him the required deposit to secure our slots on the expedition. He reluctantly agreed.
Well I knew Troy would be all in. I was excited to tell him. After listening to me babbling for five minutes he looked at me and said, “When do we go?”
The bad news is you’re falling through the air, nothing to hang on to, no parachute.
“Were we Poisoned?”
The Original Warriors of S/E Tibet’s “Hidden Lands”
At the time of our 1994, 1995 & 1997 expeditions into S/E Tibet’s “Hidden Lands” it was one of the least known and last unexplored places on the planet. In addition to housing the world’s deepest gorge (almost 4 miles deep), the geologic instability and average rainfall of over 25 feet per year, coupled with its politically “off limits” status enforced by the Communist Chinese, were all effective repellents to even the hardiest explorers.
The other effective repellent was tribal. For hundreds of years the aboriginal Abor (Hill People) and Mishimi (Not Civilized) tribes straddled the southeastern frontier of Tibet. Fiercely territorial, these warring tribes attacked all who attempted to enter the Hidden Lands. They effectively thwarted Europe’s colonial expansion efforts of the mid-1800’s.
In addition, their descendants, the indigenous Monpas of the upper gorge and the Lopas of the lower gorge, possessed the same xenophobic and aggressive attitude. “Poison Cults” flourished. Several early explorers were murdered and three British military incursions were defeated and chased out of the country, further isolating the area.
Tibetan Buddhism believes the more hostile the environment, the more sacred the landscape and the faster the journey to realization. Accordingly, these Hidden Lands are referred to as, “Beyul Pemako” meaning the “Hidden Land of the Blossoming Lotus". Tibetan Buddhist philosophy extols sacred landscapes as hidden places (beyuls) where pilgrims can greatly accelerate their paths to enlightenment. As the deepest, wettest, most geologically unstable and biologically diverse areas on the planet, the Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo River is Tibet’s most revered “Hidden Land”.
Ancient prophecies foretold a time when:
Men will lose sight of truth and religion and will turn to warfare and the pursuit of power for it’s own sake. Dishonesty, greed, and cunning will prevail; an ideology of brutal materialism will spread over the earth.*
*Bernbaum, Edwin. The Way to Shambhala: A Search for the Mythical Kingdom Beyond the Himalayas, (1980) St. Martin’s Press, New York
With the projected inevitability of worldwide destruction, Buddhist texts described pilgrimage routes into Pemako where those with pure karma could retreat. Here they would find Shangri La - a land with no disease or poverty, where sacred waters ensured longevity and food would grow without work. Here they would be liberated from the bondage of time. There would be no toil and inhabitants were free to master the highest science of them all, the science of the mind. Great lamas would teach true wisdom and all would accelerate their spiritual progress. This Shambhala would be a heaven on earth.
Following the annihilation of the outside world, Shambhala residents would emerge to repopulate the earth with an enlightened society.
However, the prophecies were clear - Pemako could only be reached with enormous hardship and pure intention. Those with ulterior motives or negative karma were certain to encounter failure or death.
To many Tibetans, the Communist Chinese invasion of the 1950’s was the prophesied destruction of their world. They fled their oppressors seeking refuge in the “Hidden Lands" or “Shambhala” of the “Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo”. However, despite tremendous efforts the promised paradise failed to materialize. What the pilgrims found instead were devastating landslides, incessant rains, warring tribes, vipers, jungle diseases, blood sucking leeches, tigers, hordes of insects, dense vegetation….. in short, hell on earth.
Thousands of these paradise seekers died while some survivors made it on to resettlement camps in India, Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan.
At the time of our mid-1990’s explorations into the Hidden Lands, Buddhism and the indigenous superstitions walked a thin line. There were Monpa poison witches who practiced black magic. They were called Dugmas. It was a cult and their superstition held that if they killed you, all your positive physical and mental attributes would flow into them. But, a strict protocol had to be followed. A Monpa sorceress would make a “poison vow”. But this could only be executed on a full moon. On that night she would paint half her face black and braid the hair on one side of her head. Once committed, the Dugma was obligated to poison someone within 30 days. In the event she missed the deadline she was bound to poison herself or a family member.
Passing strangers were favorite victims, especially if they seemed strong since the purpose was to gain control over the victim's spirit and energy. The victim died after ingesting a slow-acting lethal concoction of mushroom, snake and frog toxins. The poison could be secreted in food or drink. Dugmas were also known to put the poison under their fingernails and scratch your neck while you were sleeping. Many times concerned locals would warn us not to accept offers of food in certain villages. Our porters were equally as leery and would steer clear of “poison villages”.
In 1995, Troy, Todd and I were offered peaches by a local Monpa. Though tempted, we respectfully declined. He responded with a wry smile saying, “Don’t worry… it’s not the right phase of the moon to poison you!”
It is well known that Daku Norgay - the wife of Tenzing Norgay, Sir Edmund Hillary’s companion on the 1953 first ascent of Everest, had been poisoned in 1992 by a Dugma while on pilgrimage in Pemako. Even the Dalai Lama issued warnings to those considering pilgrimage in Pemako.
Many of our porters were direct descendants of these warring tribal people. In 1995, it was rumored that Troy, Todd and I had been poisoned by a Dugma for swimming in sacred waters. I do know that the three of us fell deathly ill and almost didn’t make it out. We go into great detail about this in our book.
During our three forays into this hostile environment we formed strong friendships with several of our Monpa, Lopa and Khampa porters. It was on these trips that we realized the striking differences between our cultural reality and theirs. We never could get them to understand the concept of a map. Their directions were all in their heads - trails traveled since birth. And chronologic time escaped them. “We’ll meet you there at 3:00pm” meant nothing.
Their lives were lived in a sub-context of malevolent spirits and guardian protectors as real to them as maps and time were to us. The reality gaps were considerable and we had to keep reminding ourselves of this fact.
Unfortunately, the Chinese targeted this area for several hydro-electric damns and most of the locals have been relocated. This culture is now forever lost. We feel extremely fortunate to have experienced it when we did.
For this Blog post I have included a collection of photographs above of Pemako’s local inhabitants. I hope you find them as interesting as we did.
It Can’t be Real?
I haven’t thought about the book since I left Whidbey Island.
Every author I’ve spoken to says that once the first draft is complete you should step away and forget about it for three months. After that you can re-engage with a clear mind and begin the editing process.
Well, I’m now thoroughly enmeshed in my day-to-day life and the thought of wading back into over 500 pages and carving it down to 300–350 pages is daunting at best. It gives me a headache.
But the story is there. Rock solid. And my brother Troy and author Claire Scobie (who was on our 1997 expedition) have promised to help.
In the meantime, the four months of solid writing have left me in a mental cul-de-sac. I have no creativity to even pen a simple Blog post. So I’m going to feature a 1995 journal entry written by my brother Todd. I hope you enjoy it, and the accompanying photograph, as much as I do.
Note: Todd’s excerpt references Dugmas and poison cults. These are real. They will be discussed in greater detail in future posts and in the book.
Todd Gillenwater’s notes:
Sunday - August 6, 1995
We’ve been hiking for about three hours today, and it is a glorious day. Scattered clouds, sunshine - probably the nicest day so far. It’s day four or thereabouts on our expedition through Pemako - the sacred lands of Tibetan Buddhism. This is a place where Heaven and Hell converge, where monks can fly and poison witches with backwards feet try to lure you into eating something and gaining access to your soul.
I’m a pretty pragmatic American, so I go along with it from a curiosity standpoint more than one of belief. I don’t buy into the mystical stuff - but it's fun to listen to those that really believe it.
Then again… there was that lady I saw with her feet on backwards who stared directly at me through the dirt-smeared rear window of our land cruiser as we drove past. When I asked the guys about it, they said, “Oh, she’s a Dugma, a poison witch, they all have their feet on backwards. Don’t eat anything she gives you.” Oh, well, that’s fine - just a poison witch staring at me. What on Earth does that mean?!
Now, aside from that, I’ve seen nothing mystical, magical or Heaven meets Hell-like, just mountains and forests. It is an incredibly beautiful, wild and remote place, no doubt.
Gil and I are hiking together now, through a forested valley and along the banks of a river. It’s maybe 40’ across with fast moving greenish water. Looks like a New Zealand river, actually. We are chatting and having a wonderful hike on this beautiful day.
After some time, the trail leads us near the river’s edge and we stop for a breather - something is not right here. The river that was on our right all morning is now on our left, and we hadn’t crossed it. Hold on here - it’s not greenish, it's distinctly chalky in color from snowmelt. And it’s half the size it was five minutes ago. And it’s flowing in the opposite direction. We look at each other in confusion and disbelief - had we walked into a side-canyon and just not realized it? The valley is broad here, and there aren't any side canyons. We turn to look back down the trail and there is the green river, flowing big and trail-left just like we thought. And here we stand next to another river, of a different color, flowing the other way and clearly they are different rivers. We are on a strand of land that’s at the most 30’ wide between two different rivers flowing in opposite directions. It isn’t a hairpin, oxbow or meander in one river - it’s TWO DIFFERENT RIVERS!
Impossible, yet here it is, we are seeing it, we are photographing it, but it is impossible. My brain keeps telling me this can't be real. Then I recall the look on the face of the Dugma as she leered at me when we drove past - backwards feet weren’t possible either...
Goodbye Whidbey Island!
Goodbye Whidbey Island!
A blink of the eye and my 4-month writing sabbatical is over. The timing was perfect. I penned my final word a day before I was scheduled to leave.
It was a daunting task. I started my writing every morning at 4:30am and often continued into the evening. I left Whidbey having written over 122,000 words (408 pages).
Troy will be adding an additional 100 pages for the 1997 portion – so we will be over 500 pages.
Our task now is to weed it back down to around 300 pages.
We will find a good editor to help us. Of course I’m biased, but with the photos we have as a compliment, I believe we have one hell of a book.
As a final tribute to the effort – on my long drive home to Scottsdale I went by Ketchum, Idaho. Here I located Earnest Hemingway’s grave and shared a smoke and a beer in his memory.
A year ago I said to myself, “I’m going to take the first 4 months of 2017 and write a book about our 3 Tibet expeditions. I want to write in a cold climate in a cottage on the sea.”
I had no notions of where or even on what continent.
Well I’ll be damned if soon thereafter I didn’t receive an email from life-long friend Craig Hannay that said, “Mom and Dad told me you were looking for a place on the ocean to write a book. Carrie and I would like to offer our beach cottage on Whidbey Island.”
As you can see by the photographs, it was perfect. It was inspirational. It was magnificent. It was a vision come true.
I will forever be indebted to the Hannay’s for their generosity and I will attribute any successes of the book in a large part to this magical setting.
And here’s the icing on the cake – as a final gift – on my last day I was presented with a splendid rainbow arching majestically over Hat Island. Even the locals had never seen anything like it. Rainbows play a significant role in the Hidden Lands of Tibet. They also play a significant role in the book. Was Pemako telling me goodbye?
In my last Blog post I talked about finding and eating a dead bear. I had several people contact me asking, “I thought Buddhists were vegetarian?”
I address this paradox in the book as follows:
We stood there in astonishment as Kaba Tulku performed a “Powa” ceremony, sending the bear’s soul to a better rebirth. When he finished he looked at my brothers and me and smiled as if to say, “A lack of food problem…. What problem?”
As we followed the group back to the cabin I asked Ian, “I thought Buddhists didn’t eat meat?”
“A lot of people think that.” He answered. “But it’s not true. Even the Dalai Lama will eat meat on rare occasions. You see Gil, Buddhists live by the law of karma. Karma is the Buddhist’s “Golden Rule”. And killing incurs the worst karma of all. It has nothing to do with eating meat.
Look at our Monpa porters. They’re drunk with anticipation of a big, fat, juicy bear steak. They realize the bear is a precious gift from the guardian spirits of Pemako. They can feast until their heart’s content and incur zero negative karma because they had nothing to do with its death. You see, the further removed from the actual act of killing the less negative karma you contract.”
And so ends this Blog post. It is my full intention to continue monthly Blogs up and through the publishing of the book. I appreciate your readership and your joining me on this remarkable journey.
Eating Dead Bear
Blessed Morning from Whidbey Island!
The “Hidden Land” of southeastern Tibet (Pemako) is the heart of Vajrayana Buddhism – the “Old School”. The severe landscape pushes one to experience the ultimate nature of mind and phenomena, beyond all divisions and conceptually constrained perceptions. Pemako plays havoc with Western-trained, logic-based thinking.
The meditational deity “Vajrayogini” is the patron Goddess of Pemako. She is represented geographically spread out over the region.
It was 1995 and we were going into Pemako on a pilgrimage to circumambulate her heart chakra - a mystical mountain called Kundu Dorsempotrang (“All Gathering Home of the Vajrasattva Mind”). The problem was, nobody knew if the mountain existed. It was purportedly located in a disputed border area with India and there were no maps. Pemako was one of the last uncharted regions in the world.
Our only guides would be local Buddhist monks and ancient texts researched by Ian Baker.
A day before we were to begin, Communist Chinese soldiers confiscated our monk porters. They were cruel landlords at this stage of their Tibet occupation. Their suppression of Buddhism was brutal. We had to scramble to find local Monpa tribal replacements and we came up short.
With not enough porters we had to sell a large portion of our rice. This was of grave concern heading into a remote region on a month-long expedition. Plus, the monks were to be our guides – without them nobody knew where the trail began.
Vajrayogini’s left arm chakra is the Taksham Monastery located high on a hill. We went there seeking guidance. The abbot agreed to conduct a form of divination known as a "prasena". In a large monk-filled hall, mantras were repeated, drums were beat, symbols clashed, long horns were blown and potions in a human skull cup were sprinkled.
After an hour the ceremony abruptly stopped. The abbot motioned us outside. Here we saw a most magnificent rainbow. It arched electrically across the sky and disappeared behind the third forested ridge on the horizon. The abbot smiled and nodded. That was the beginning of our hike - the Dashing Valley.
The next morning our group of 7 Westerners and 20 porters began the trek. Just then a jeep drove up. A high lama (an incarnate) got out. His name was Kaba Tulku and he just arrived from Kham – 300 miles north. He was going on the same pilgrimage and offered to guide us.
My brothers Troy and Todd and I just couldn’t get our minds around these seemingly random coincidences.
We explained to the Lama our concern for having to sell a large portion of the expedition’s rice. He just smiled and said through a translator, “Don’t worry – you are in Pemako.”
“What the hell did that mean?” we thought.
Two days later expedition member - Christiaan Kuypers - found an Asian Black Bear frozen in a glacier. We stood there in astonishment as Kaba Tulku performed a “Powa” ceremony, sending the bear’s soul to a better rebirth.
When he finished he looked at my brothers and me and smiled as if to say, “A lack of food problem…. What problem?”
That evening was savage. As we all crammed into a hand-hewn cabin the rain returned with a vengeance. The Monpa porters had a fire going - its orange flames danced frantically on the rough stone walls. They were all chanting in unison as they butchered the bear with their daggers and began roasting the meat on the open fire.
They played with the bear’s bloody head. Holding it menacingly, they attacked each other growling and clawing. The rain, the chants, the flames, the knives, the smoke and the foul stench of roasting rotten flesh was intoxicating. It was rich. It was medieval. It was something my brothers and I will never forget.
We took several rolls of film to insure our memories. And we had 50 kilos of roasted bear meat to replace our lack of rice.
INSERT: Pemako was stilling the velocity of my disconnected thoughts. Like a slowing bird losing lift - certain ideas began to fall - landing in a more orderly sequence. Pemako was expanding the boundaries of my conceptual thinking.
Had we not experienced more than our share of coincidences? How does one explain this? Could our minds not only be the perception of experiences - but also the experiences themselves? Could our minds actually extend beyond our physical selves? In other words - could our subjective view of the world influence outcomes?
I was beginning to understand that the mind is not just brain activity. It has a significant relationship with our outside experience.
Our lives seemed obviously entangled with our circumstances. What was the force that compelled a rainbow to appear leading exactly to our trailhead – at the very same time the monks were conducting its divination?
What was the force that compelled Kaba Tulku to get in his jeep and drive several hundred miles to the trailhead - and cause us to fly and drive half way around the world so that we could each arrive at the same remote location - at the same exact time?
What was the force that delivered 100 pounds of bear meat to us when we found ourselves low on food?
And not understanding – we call these coincidences?
Pemako was speaking to me.
Again – this is the condensed version.
Wait until you read the book!
Don’t Look Down!
Good Moring from Whidbey Island!
I have been up here now for 3 months and I have 1 month to go. I’m about three-quarters finished with the book so the timing is good.
Today I’d like to talk about how we crossed rivers and streams in Tibet’s mystical “Hidden Lands”.
Tibet is the source of 6 of Asia’s major rivers; the Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Irrawaddy, Salween and Mekong. An incredible 46% of the world’s population depends upon rivers originating in Tibet
In addition, the Himalayas are the third largest producer of glaciers in the world.
There is water everywhere.
On our mid-1990’s explorations into the “Hidden Lands” there were only 2 ways to cross rivers and streams: logs or cables. I have copied excerpts below that deal with both:
Tuesday - August 8, 1995 - dawned rainy and glum. Inclement weather always makes rivers seem more sinister. We experienced that the year before surviving our first-descent attempt on the highest river in the world - the Yarlung Tsangpo.
And this rickety cable crossing made the prior year’s pulley crossing of the PoTsangpo river look like a light rail system. This was going to be daunting. There were actually two cables stretched across the river: one with its high point on the north bank and the other with its high point on the south. With no pulleys, this design employed gravity’s help - on each side - in pulling the wooden yoke over the cable.
The crossing looked to be around 200 feet. Ian pulled out a climbing rope as a means to retrieve the yoke after each run. But it was too short and we had to tie additional lengths of hemp and leather straps to make it reach. Noticing the sagging rope catching the swift current, the Sherpas made hoops of bamboo around the cable and threaded the rope through to keep it out of the water.
The cables themselves were old and sagging. I questioned their ability to keep us out of the fierce current. It was decided the porters and Sherpas would go first. The size of our group and mounds of gear made this an all-day effort. Our Sherpa cook - Pemba - was the guinea pig. It was awkward but he made it.
Sitting next to Christiaan, we watched the porters - monkey like - haul themselves and our baggage over the thousands of gallons of turbulent water. Raising his voice above the river roar Christiaan said, “Just look at all this water. It’s an avalanche of rapids with no placid stretches. All this liquid will end up in the Yarlung Tsangpo, drop off the plateau and flow as the Brahmaputra into the Bay of Bengal.”
The river’s volume compared with the flow Troy and I battled the year before on the Yarlung Tsangpo. As river runners we had done the math. I told Christiaan, “I estimate this river is flowing around 20,000 cubic feet per second. That means 150,000 gallons of water are passing us every second. That’s close to a million a minute. And this is a tiny tributary. I guess that’s why Tibet is known as the ‘Water Tower of Asia’.”
Suddenly one of the porter loads broke and the bag fell - slow motion - into the surge below. Unweighted the cable snapped up and the porter held on for all he was worth. Wrapping his legs around the line he froze in fear. It took several minutes for Pemba to coax him across.
Next it was my turn. Climbing the rotten stairs I watched closely as the porters wrapped the leather thong around me and the yoke-like piece of rhododendron. Remembering Jerry’s close call the year before, I inspected every wrap and knot. It all appeared solid. I jumped. Again, in the “Hidden Lands” of Pemako if it’s your time - it’s your time. There’s really no sense in thinking about it. I was concerned about the sag in the line. I could see the waves lapping up at me just a few feet below. Soon - too soon - my momentum petered out and I swung myself around upside down and grabbed the cable and began to pull. It was harder than I expected. Soon enough I was safely across. My arms felt like lead. I was able to get some great photographs of Troy and Todd’s crossings. Even the Crazy Nun made it across.
Thursday - August 10, 1995 - It was a long wet day. The rain never relented. As we climbed higher and higher the canyon got steeper. The large stream we were following became a furious torrent. At one point we had to cross. Long ago two trees - on opposite banks - had been felled to span the rushing waters. Their top trunks crossed mid-stream requiring gingerly stepping from one to the other. Pilgrims had gone before. We could see where notches had been carved. But the logs were covered with the same slimy moss that coated everything green. Broken handrails offered little.
This was our most dangerous obstacle yet. To fall in the rushing current… I couldn’t think about it. Nor could I watch as Todd inched his way across. Same with Troy. I just couldn’t watch.
Next it was my turn. I unfastened my pack belt as had the others. The last thing you’d want on your back falling into this current was a waterlogged pack. Never had my concentration been so intense. We all knew better than to shout encouragement or make a sudden move - anything that might distract the crosser. Reminding myself to breath - I had to fight the urge to straddle and hug the log. That would never work. I shut out the roar of the rapids and calculated each foot placement. Once my boot was set, I’d slowly shift my weight to test its purchase. In this manner I traversed the log and stepped safely onto the far bank. What seemed like an hour probably took only seven or eight minutes.
It was a lot of risk and a lot of effort to penetrate the “Hidden Lands”. But when you read what - by miracle – awaited us, it will all make sense.
Thank you for sharing this remarkable journey with me. Next month we’ll talk about eating a dead bear.
Well I would estimate the book is 70% down on paper. It’s been a wild ride laced with good, bad and sometimes uncomfortable memories. Fortunately, Troy, Todd and I kept copious notes. Otherwise a lot of the events and details would have forever drifted into forgotten. The exercise itself has forced me into a routine. I’ve never cared for routines and I’m not thrilled about this one.
Today I have copied three excerpts on the rigors of just getting to the trailhead. It could take up to 10 days. Quick background: The Himalayan Mountains are the result of the Indian tectonic plate crashing into the Asian tectonic plate:
“This ongoing geologic movement generates frenetic seismic actively. The 1950 Assam-Tibet earthquake measured 8.6 on the Richter scale and was the strongest recorded as of that date. The epicenter was directly beneath the “Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo”. Smaller earthquakes, landslides and earth fissuring plague the area to this day. The locals refer to the region as “tremor land”. Maintaining passable roads and trails is an ongoing effort.”
“India’s continued northward drift is warped by compounding lateral tensions. These counter tortions have created a "thrust-pivot point" whereby the earth’s surface is pleated and bent back upon itself like a geologic gymnast. Easily recognized on the map as the horseshoe shaped “Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo”, this pivot point is the heart of the Hidden Lands. It contains the deepest gorge in the world - 19,714 feet (almost 4 miles). Comparing this to the southwest United States, Grand Canyon’s depth of 6,093 feet helps put its immensity in perspective.
In 1993 the Guinness Book of World Records recognized the inner gorge of the “Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo” as the deepest in the world.
Equally challenging were the occasional mud bogs. We were driving east into one of the wettest regions on the planet. Every now and then when negotiating a puddle the land cruisers would sink to their axels. Hopelessly stuck, we would all have to pile out, lock the hubs into four wheel drive, and push the truck out of the mire. Invariably, when it started to move and gain some purchase the driver would gun it spackling each of us with mud from head to toe."
"From Pelung east it was all new territory for us.
A little further down the road we entered “landslide alley”. This five mile stretch was notorious for its unpredictable mountain slides. Here the rain soaked soil was just too heavy to support itself. The sloughing scarification looked like gigantic open sores. The winding road inched along 600 feet above the rushing currents of the Parlung Tsangpo. Stories were legion of trucks and busses being swept into the churning waters below. Several wreckages remained - crumpled and half submerged.
With this type of visible ground movement I started to understand the local people’s strong belief in earth spirits. It wasn’t uncommon for an entire village to slough off the side of a mountain. Keeping passable roads and trails was virtually impossible. This geologic shifting could be felt and heard constantly. It was to become a major consideration when setting our camps. And the unceasing earth fissuring put the danger of hiking Pemako hillsides on par with dodging glacial crevasses in the Antarctic. These yawning gaps would open at a moment’s notice.
I remember crossing one dangerous zone in particular. My brothers and I were crammed in the back seat. Todd was on the hillside, I was in the middle and Troy was cliff side. As the land cruiser crawled along the near vertical incline a Volkswagen-sized bolder suddenly came crashing down the landslide chute. It was headed in our general direction and both Troy and I screamed and pointed. Todd looked over, saw it, and frantically began rolling up his window. The boulder missed us by a good thirty feet and we all three burst into laughter. “Thanks a lot Todd!” Troy and I said in unison. His rolling up the window to protect us from a hurdling three ton boulder was like zipping up your tent door so the bear doesn’t get in.
After that we got out and walked the more exposed stretches. I felt bad for the driver. But even walking was a risk. In addition to never knowing when the hillside would collapse - smaller stones and baseball sized rocks whizzed by from heights you couldn’t see. You had to pay attention. It was obvious some of the landslides had just occurred. The soil was lose and disheveled with freshly fallen rocks all over. Where some of the recent slides blocked the road you could see where prior drivers shoveled an angled track. There were two narrow places in particular where I don’t know how we could have cut it any closer.
Once thorough, we all thanked Buddha and Pemako’s benevolent Padmasambhava and continued on our way."
More to follow!
Yours in reclusion,
For The Love of A Leech…
After viewing my December 13, 2016 Blog post several people contacted me asking, “Why were you bleeding…. had you been shot?”
Well, not quite, but almost. Nobody told us that the Buddhist “Paradise” of Pemako, (The Hidden Land of the Blossoming Lotus) was infested, literally overrun with famished blood sucking leeches.
Just in case you don’t know, Tibetan leeches are terrestrial annelid worms with suckers at both ends. They are blood-guzzling parasites that target vertebrates (with humans at the top of the list). A leech can suck 5 times its body weight in blood.
To feed, a leech first attaches itself to the host (usually me) using the suckers. One of these suckers surrounds the leech's mouth, which contains three sets of jaws that bite into the host's flesh, making a Y-shaped incision. As the leech begins to feed, its saliva releases chemicals that dilate blood vessels, thin the blood and deaden the pain of the bite. In other words, it first injects you with an anesthetic so you don’t know you’re being bitten and then it injects you with an anticoagulant so that your blood flows freely.
Because of the saliva's effects, a person bitten by a leech usually isn’t aware of it until afterwards when he or she sees the incision and the streaming of blood that stains their clothes and is difficult to stop (hence my photo on the prior Blog post).
Leeches are heat seeking. At night we’d place a candle in the jungle and watch as 1000’s inched their ways toward the flame. The jungle floor would come alive with an undulating tide of advancing leeches. At night in your tent you could look up and see countless slimy silhouettes writhing to get in.
They are elastic and expandable by nature. You just can’t keep them out. They can go skinny and climb thru the eyelets of your boots and weasel thru two pairs of socks only to reconstitute on your feet leaving you hiking in squishy pools of your own blood. It was also important to have a very good friend (in my case my brothers Troy or Todd and visa-versa) who could give you a full body inspection before you got in the tent. I handled the reciprocity of these inspections with some indignation but it was better than going to bed with leeches on you. (It happened on more than one occasion when I would awake only to find a blood engorged leech or two clinging to the ceiling of our tent and blood soaking my sleeping bag.)
My personal record was 22 of the little bastards sucking on me at one time. And while they carry no diseases, they can leave infections if removed incorrectly by simply pulling them off.
We found there were two ways to effectively remove a leech - a cigarette or lit match, or by a generous sprinkle of salt. Of course the Buddhist pathfinders and porters would not kill them and they showed me how to skillfully rotate the leech in a clockwise direction (with the Buddha) and pretty soon the leech would simply release its death grip and fall off.
This “enlightened” technique came in very handy in 1994 when my fellow expedition member and friend, Jerry Dixon, found he had a leech on his eyeball. I gagged as he held his eye open asking me to remove it. It had attached below his pupil and was wiggling to and fro securing its bite.
“We have a major malfunction here…” I told Jerry as I tried to think of what to do. Then I remembered the Buddhist circular technique, pulled off my bandana and began rotating the leech. I was worried about scraping off Jerry’s pupil but what the hell – this thing had to come off before it sucked all the juice out of his eye.
Sure enough, it finally plopped off and we placed it gently back into the jungle. Jerry’s vision was somewhat blurred for a while but I believe it eventually healed. I do know that he asked me for the bandana and has it framed on his wall.
And there was another leech incident that stands out. On our 1995 expedition a group of us had gotten ahead of the porters. It was raining hard and night was falling. We had no option but to bivouac for the night. It was cold and wet as the 6 of us snuggled together under a single plastic sheet trying to stay warm. Somewhere in the night I was awakened by horrific screams, “Get it out! Get it out!” A leech had climbed into Hamid Sardar’s mouth and attached to his throat. As I peered down his gullet I was sickened to see a blood fattened leech squirming in full-fed ecstasy.
We had some wooden matches but they were wet, like everything else, and wouldn’t light. Finally a flame held but I burned Hamid’s teeth and top of his mouth in a desperate attempt to get the god-damned leech out of his throat. When this didn’t work my brother Todd suggested lighting the match and then blowing it out and touching the leech with the still hot match head. Brilliant. It worked! The leech released but then started sucking on Hamid’s lip before we got rid of it all together.
When asked how he knew he had a leech in his mouth Hamid explained, “I was kind of asleep you know….. and I thought I was dreaming. I was running my tongue around my mouth and wondering why the hell part of my mouth was a different temperature that the rest of my mouth. And then I could kind of taste it and I woke up.”
Needless to say, none of us got any sleep the rest of that night.
So, if you have plans to visit the Shangri La of Pemako make sure you start smoking and take lots of salt.
Ethan Bindelglas, Troy, & Gil in Bangkok Buddhist Temple
Gil & Troy in a Rickshaw. The Tibet expeditions were major undertakings. Pemako is so remote that it usually took us a full 10 days of travel just to get to the trailhead. But we always had a good time along the way.
Hola Amigos y Amigas!
Well, the writing is going well. I’m over 40,000 words and it’s been astounding revisiting these adventures. Troy, Todd and I have such fantastic documentation. Two decades ago Pemako (the “Hidden Lands” of S/E Tibet) was one of the last unexplored Eden’s on the planet. It was exotic. It was mystical. There was a sense of a unique place in time - a time that could never be recaptured.
This was on the cusp of the internet and the world was shrinking by the day. Tibet was deluged with Han Chinese. Large bonuses were paid for them to relocate. Tibetans would soon be a minority in their own country and their ancient culture was under siege. As the planet’s last frontier we understood that each step we took into Pemako was historic.
One other bit of good news. Troy just flew up and visited. He will be co-authoring the book with me. It only makes sense. Troy was on all three expeditions and he is a fantastic writer. I am really excited about his involvement. Our brother Todd will also be contributing stories on the 1995 expedition.
Through offering different perspectives we hope to keep the book lively, fast paced and most importantly - interesting.
I have included a small story from one of our trips through Bangkok on our way to Tibet. I hope you enjoy it.
Changing planes in Osaka, we had a day layover in Bangkok. It just so happened that a grade school friend of Troy’s - Ethan Bindelglas - was traveling in Burma and he made the short hop down to Bangkok to visit. We landed at 9:30 in the morning and he was there. It was great to see him. It’s always fun to see home town friends half way around the world. We loaded our mountains of gear in two taxis and headed into the city. It was sweltering and the gridlock was the worst we’d seen. I noticed billboards selling “pee bottles” for drivers sentenced to endless rush hours. On a portion of our crawl I saw this guy on crutches on the sidewalk next to us. For a couple of miles we were neck and neck. The long sleepless flight coupled with the swirl of colors, the darting of tuk tuks, over-loaded bicycles, the ceaseless honking, the endless congestion, and the acidic smell of pollution made me light headed. Sensory overload - that’s Bangkok.
Troy and Ethan had another grade school friend - Reid Bracken - who lived in Bangkok. Oddly and with no explanation, one day he sold his business in Phoenix and moved to Bangkok. It was a gutsy move - one that prompted endless speculation on our part. Reid had reserved rooms for us at the Stable Lodge on Sukhumvit Road. Touting itself as, “A Tropical Garden with Swimming Pool” it was perfect.
After Troy and I checked into our room and showered off twenty hours of travel, the four of us jumped in a taxi and headed to the Chao Praya River. This sluggish waterway flows through the city. Traveling it in long boats is one of our favorite Bangkok pastimes. The city was extremely crowded and all the homes clustered on the river banks only had three walls. So careening through the s-turns we had a bird’s eye view into these people’s lives. Some waved - some just went about their business. With a twinge of voyeurism – it was a great way to spend the afternoon. Another added feature was the small “beer boats” that saddled up next to us selling local brews. It was a glorious way to unwind.
As the sun was setting the light turned splendid against the city’s high rises. Swinging wide we headed back for dinner.
“Ugh, here we go again.” I thought as we sat gridlocked with the taxi’s air-conditioning blasting. We were captives under a blanket of mushrooming fumes. I was leaning against the widow in mindless thought. I noticed there was an old gray bus stopped next to us. It was crammed with people - so crammed that many were standing. I don’t think they could have squeezed one more soul in there. It was un-airconditioned and obviously lugging exhausted laborers home from a long day of whatever they did. And then the strangest thing happened. My vision shifted. The entire scene became a sepia brown - except for one girl on the bus. She was in technicolor. With an ocean of tired humanity pressed around her - she had her face, likewise, leaning against the window. She was pretty in a plain way. Our eyes locked and time stopped.
I’ve had these experiences before in other third world countries. And it’s not a sexual thing as it’s happened with old and young, male and female. I think about it a lot. Perhaps it’s some kind of psychic connection - or interconnection as the Buddhists would say. I believe it’s a recognition of our shared human experience and a blatant reminder of the inequities of our world. I’m looking forward to a great dinner and then getting on an airplane for the trip of a lifetime. She’s caught in a grinding life of survival. We’re both human beings. We both laugh and cry and love and get out of bed in the morning. Yet by virtue of birth she is held prisoner in a cycle of struggle and despair while I dance with the world.
But this isn’t guilt. I trace it back to my meditation practice. Meditation changes us. It changes our brains. It changes the way we think and relate to our world. It wasn’t a girl I was looking at on that bus. It was me. I saw myself in her. And with that fundamental recognition flows the most amazing realization - I must help her, for in doing so I am helping myself. Her survival - her well being - her happiness - are my own.
At Rancho Feliz we call this, “enlightened self interest”. Loosely defined, it means that the most selfish thing we can do for ourselves is to help others - those not born into our same fortunate circumstances. And we do this, not by providing welfare, but through the redistribution of opportunity. To me the words “opportunity” and “freedom” are synonymous. Without opportunity we are victims held in the bondage of ignorance - as with the girl on the bus. But with opportunity we can become creators. We can exercise free will and chart the courses of our lives.
But there is a cruel paradox for the present human condition. Acts of giving are counter intuitive to our habitual thought patterns of self identification and its grasping and attachment. The Buddhists call this a “false view”. The idea of an independent self cannot withstand the scrutiny of reasoning and logic. This simple concept is at the very core of Tibetan Buddhism and will be examined in greater detail in the book.
Suddenly I’m jolted back into reality as our lane opens and we move forward. I hold her gaze for as long as I can. But then she’s gone - swallowed in the sea of her own destiny.
“Perhaps she saw a part of herself in me.” I wondered.
I’ll never know.
The “Paradise” of Beyul Pemako (The Hidden Land of the Blossoming Lotus)
It can be heaven or it can be hell…
Either way, be prepared to lose 25 pounds and be under constant siege of blood sucking leeches.
Well, the countdown is on…. I leave on January 2nd to escape to my generously donated beach cottage on Whidbey Island to begin my book. Over the last few months I have been busy gathering notes, digitizing slides and phone conversations, and reading the wealth of information that has been written on the “Hidden Lands of the Blossoming Lotus” and its exploration since our trips in 1994, 1995 & 1997. In fact, the “Gillenwater Brothers” and our expeditions are discussed in each of the nine subsequent books listed below.
I find it interesting that each book has its own agenda and many times, self-serving claims. I’m starting to understand that this is the nature of exploration and its concomitant rewards. And it is the grasping nature of the human mind - a flaw endlessly addressed in the Tibetan Buddhist teachings. What an odd paradox for this most sacred landscape!
On the other hand, on our journeys we weren’t seeking fame or financial gain or a place to conquer. We had only one agenda. As one of the most spiritual and last unexplored places on the planet, our expeditions were motivated by a life-long interest in Tibetan Buddhism and a lust for the adventure and magic of the natural world. And I believe it was traveling with this intention that compelled the “Hidden Lands” to uniquely reveal themselves to us.
After 20 years it’s our turn to tell our story.
And what a story it is!
Earth’s Mystical Grand Canyons
The Last River: The Tragic Race for Shangri-la
Courting the Diamond Sow: A Whitewater Expedition on Tibet’s Forbidden River
Frank Kingdon Ward’s Riddle of The Tsangpo Gorges: Retracing the Epic Journey of 1924-25
The Siege of Shangri~La: The Quest for Tibet’s Legendary Hidden Paradise
Hell or High Water: Surviving Tibet's Tsangpo River
The Heart of the World: A Journey to Tibet's Lost Paradise
Last Seen in Lhasa: The story of an extraordinary friendship in modern Tibet
Tibet Wild: A Naturalist’s Journeys to the Roof of the World
In addition to many articles, the following books and films provide updated information on the area.
Namche Barwa Grand Canyon: Revealing the Secrets of a Green Canyon
Secrets of the Tsangpo Gorge - A National Geographic Special for National Geographic TV
Into the Tsangpo Gorge: The epic first descent of the Everest of rivers…
The Yarlung Tsangpo Great Canyon: The Last Secret World
Water: Asia's New Battleground
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