"The Long Hike Out"
In 11 hours we rafted 15 miles. We were to soon learn that we had 35 more miles to go - not 15 as we had been told.
At this time I'd like to introduce six fellow expedition members:
Troy Gillenwater - At 33 years of age, my younger brother Troy and I shared an affinity for the outdoors. I remember hiking him around the desert when he was five. Our father's love of hunting and fishing transformed into our love for long outdoor adventures. We hiked the length of Washington and were the first to hike the length of Arizona. We rafted the Green River from Flaming Gorge, Wyoming into Lake Powell, Arizona. Troy was tough and dependable. It seems as though our shared adventures prepared us for - and led us inexorably to - Tibet.
Rick Fisher - At 41 years of age, Rick was an enigma. He was short and scrappy with piercing eyes. He was most often seen wearing a signature bandana holding down his scraggly long hair. He was persistent, tenacious and focused. Coming from humble Tucson, Arizona beginnings, Rick was a self-promoter. He had to be. He carved a niche for himself as an adventure canyoneer locating and documenting canyons throughout Arizona and the world. For all Rick's successful canyoneering qualities, he also had a dark side. You were always on pins and needles around him. One wrong word could set him off on an Attila the Hun rage. This unfortunate trait would haunt him on our trip and for years to come.
Eric Manthey - We had never met Eric before. He was in his early 40's and a travel friend of Rick's. With his shoulder length brown hair, bushy beard and strapping frame, Eric reminded me of a Daniel Boone. He was one tough guy with a bit of a Neanderthal, low-brow look. He didn't talk much and was prone to "spacing out".
Chris Grace - Chris was 45 years old and in good shape. He stood around 5'10" and had one of those sturdy frames. The fact that he was a Vietnam vet may have explained his balding head. He's the only guy I've met who said Vietnam wasn't that bad. It turns out his arena was strategic and tactical intelligence. He played the game well but he hated the war. Chris was introspective with a dry and ironic sense of humor.
Jerry Dixon - At 53, Jerry was interesting and interested. He was a successful developer and well-traveled. I've always said, there are two types of people in this world. It's a simple test. In a phone conversation - when you hang up do you feel better or worse? With Jerry you always felt better. He stood just under six feet tall and took good care of himself. A rancher at heart, he always wore the coolest clothes.
William "Bill" W. Bacon III - Bill was a documentary filmmaker from Anchorage, Alaska. He was 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." Bill sensed our foray into the uncharted "Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo" was an historic event. He wanted to film as much as possible with his bulky 18mm movie camera. At 67 years old Bill was an inspiration to us all.
Left to Right: Gil Gillenwater, Troy Gillenwater & Jerry Dixon.
Left to Right: Gil Gillenwater, Eric Manthey & Rick Fisher.
Left to Right: Chris Grace, Bill Bacon & Gil Gillenwater.
Our story continues…
"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.
We hiked back up to report to Rick. With what appeared to be constant rapids ahead and not being able to see what we would be rafting into, we all knew the first descent, river-running chapter of this trip was over. Looking up the gorge's steep walls we also well understood that our extraction challenges were just beginning. At least it would be on solid ground. We'd worry about that in the morning.
Since down river right was completely blocked by cliffs, we'd have to cross the current to the opposite bank to climb out of the canyon. And we'd have to do this without getting swept into the falls. We knew we could never fight the on-coming current. We'd have to line the raft back up river right to give us enough room to cross the sweeping waters.
The problem was the bouldered bank had an impassable cliff about 150 feet up. This gave our crossing no room for error.
We were spent. We'd been on the river for eleven hours. Depleted and cold, we began lining. What had been a mere effort that morning was now an exhaustive strain. Tugging up-river, the bowline cut into our freezing hands. We shook uncontrollably trying to keep the raft off the rocks while slipping, scraping and falling amongst the wet boulders. Hypothermia muddled our minds. Every foot was toil as we labored the raft up stream.
Upon reaching the impasse we tied the raft off and collapsed. But the cold afforded no rest and forced us to continue. We calculated our crossing. With the strong flow, our most efficient line was a forty five degree downriver angle. This felt counter intuitive. We instinctively wanted to paddle straight across, not on angle towards the falls. But we knew this river's power all too well. We'd have to work with it to avoid the crushing hydraulics.
Little was said as we climbed back into the raft. We all felt the gravity. For this last crossing we each became river captains. Screaming our own indignant commands, we dug our paddles deep. The river's velocity surged as it rushed us into the swallowing gorge. It seemed like we were being sucked ten feet down river for every one foot across. Was our angle of efficiency correct? We hadn't time to adjust and only seconds to find out.
Hearing the rumble of the rapids and seeing a seething curtain of spray I wanted to panic. I impulsively wanted to paddle straight across. It's like a beginning mountain climber hugging the cliff face when only pushing away from the rock will provide purchase angle to the feet.
Somehow, we all stuck to our plan.
Approaching the opposite bank at a downriver speed of around eight feet per second, I dove on to the rocks with the bowline and pulled for all I was worth. Our partially deflated raft groaned as it pendulumed into the bouldered bank below. Here the rest of the crew was able to jump out and help me pull the soggy raft up to a small inlet.
We'd made it. We were off the river. Following a round of high-fives we looked over at the massive hydraulics. No one said a word. It's a vision I will never forget.
Looking up-river we spotted a house-sized boulder with a sand-floored overhang. A perfect shelter. We hauled our gear a hundred yards up the strangled shore line to the campsite. The water was calmer here. It was a peaceful setting. We hurriedly got into dry clothes. Our shivering slowed down and we slumped to the ground. The sand felt luxurious imitating vestiges of the day's heat. In seconds we were all fast asleep.
Awaking to blackness, I knew we had to eat. I made bean burritos as the others set camp.
Searching for firewood, Troy found a small cave with an ancient wall built in front. Somebody had obviously occupied this shelter. There was old soot on the ceiling and ceramic pottery shards on the floor. And there was yet another human jawbone in the corner. Who had lived there and why? This was the topic of conversation as the four of us finished dinner and hunkered into our sleeping bags. Soon I was lolling in my "Movies of the Mind". It was a fitful but relieved night's sleep.
The next morning we deflated the raft and stashed it under the boulder along with the paddles, our wetsuits, our life jackets and the pump. Troy and I later regretted leaving our life jackets. Impassable shorelines would force us to swim portions of the river. Fortunately, our dry bags had shoulder straps and would serve as adequate backpacks. Footwear was another story. All we had were our Teva sandals.
Abandoning the "First Descent" portion of our trip - we stashed our raft and all our river gear under a house-sized boulder.
It's probably there to this day. Troy and I regretted leaving our life jackets
We weren't the first westerners to be stopped by the inhospitable Upper Granite Gorge of the Yarlung Tsangpo River. Both military explorers Frederick M. Bailey and Henry T. Morshead in 1913 and botanists Francis Kingdon-Ward and his side-kick Lord Cawdor in 1924 had to find alternate routes around the abyss. Here Kingdon-Ward describes it in a paper he read to the Royal Geographical Society on May 25, 1925:
"In the first place the river below Trap (located below Sangri) flows for 30 or 40 miles in an impossible gorge, descending several hundred feet. To avoid this gorge, Bailey and Morshead crossed a pass over 16,000 feet high to the south, while we crossed one about the same height to the north."
Expedition Member, Chris Grace's 1994 journal notes:
We launched the boat this morning with Eric, Rick, Gil and Troy. We should connect up with them by midday tomorrow. Tonight we are camping in a small village (Gyatsa) on the Tsangpo. I tossed out my bedroll on straw in what looks like to have been a manger. The village could have been lifted whole from the 12th-century. Mud block walls and corrals for goats made of thorn bushes. Several families, perhaps 75 people living in an interconnected structure. Perhaps a clan of sorts. As I am writing six elderly women stand staring at me, spinning bobbins of wool yarn and cackling amongst themselves. They are an exuberant, proud people with a willingness to smile I have never seen equal. In the dark, a circle of faces surrounds me as I fall to sleep.
Thankful to be off the river, when I awoke the next morning my head felt better and I could feel my energy returning. Unfortunately, for Troy and Rick the effects of high altitude were just kicking in. They both had the signature pounding headaches and low energy.
Rick cooked up some muffins for breakfast and we broke camp and loaded up the gear. All Troy and I had for clothes were a pair of shorts, a t-shirt and a pair of sandals each. We packed our sleeping bags, bivy sacks, water purifier and tent. Rick packed his bag and Eric packed his, offering to carry the food. Soon we were loaded up and ready to go. As a gesture of exploration, I stuck a paddle up high on a cliff with a red life jacket tied to it. My hope was that one day it might catch some wanderer's attention and they could find all the river gear.
We felt certain we had covered at least fifteen miles the day before. This left us with fifteen to go. Even in this rough terrain we figured we could get to the others in two days. Plus, Eric assured us we would find a primitive settlement within a mile or so.
(We were to later learn that Rick had grossly miscalculated the distance of the gorge. It was fifty miles long, not thirty. We had thirty five miles to go and it would take four grueling days to hike out. In Rick's defense, this was the early 1990's. There simply were no reliable maps or information on the area. In addition, the first primitive hamlet we would encounter was over fifteen miles further into the gorge - not one mile as Eric had concluded from his ill-executed scout.)
We had brought food for our estimated day and a half float so, though a bit thin, we felt sufficiently provisioned for the trek out. Plus, we could supplement food from the collection of crude houses Eric said was just ahead.
As we were readying to leave Rick called a quick meeting. "Listen you guys," he said, "We are now in a survival situation. One misstep, one sprained ankle or broken bone will be disastrous. Pay attention to every move. Don't jeopardize the group with a careless step or grab. And be sure to stick together. We are stronger that way. We cannot afford to get separated."
His little talk brought the gravity of our situation front and center. Rick was right and we appreciated his leadership.
We had some huge downriver cliffs to get over so we immediately started climbing. It was tough going but compared to the gnawing fear and uncertainty of the prior day's river debacle this was a walk in the park. It was the type of cross country bushwhacking Troy and I did almost every weekend back in Arizona.
Though the hiking was difficult - Troy and I never regretted being off the river.
It was a beautiful day and we were climbing, real steep climbs. The sandals were a challenge. We'd scramble up to get over a cliff and then snake down to the river and hop the boulders until we'd come to another cliff and we'd have to hike up and over it - and so it went. Every now and then we'd come to a riverside cliff that we couldn't get over. For these we'd have to get in the river and swim ourselves and our gear around. The currents were complex and the glacial water was numbing.
Many times we had to swim around river bank obstacles.
Fortunately, I brought some red nylon cord. This came in handy hauling dry bags up cliffs. With a stick looped through the cord, it even gave us something to hang onto as we negotiated up and down steep areas.
We hiked and hiked and hiked that day. We filtered river water to stay hydrated. At one point we climbed up into a grassy area and tried to find a trail. There wasn't one. But we did locate some little footholds notched out of the cliff where we could walk. Who were these people? It reminded Troy and me of the prehistoric cliff dwellings we explore in southeast Utah.
And then the strangest thing happened.