“Into the Mouth of the Tiger”
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.