"The Long Hike Out"
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.
To this day it makes no sense. We came to a place where we had to cross a steeply sloping cliff face. It was a drop of 300 feet to the rocks below. Eric went first. Rick didn't think it was a good idea to cross with our bulky packs. The angle of repose was too steep. As we stood there it became clear to both Troy and me that Rick had an innate fear of heights. This was an odd characteristic for a world-class canyoneer. But in this situation discretion ruled and we appreciated his decision. The three of us started looking for an alternate route. We couldn't find one. So we took our packs off and lashed them together. Troy took one end of the cord and inched his way across the rock face. It was hard for me to watch. Once he reached a flatter surface we passed the packs through with the cord belay and all three of us made the traverse.
But once on the other side we couldn't find Eric. Earlier Troy had seen him far below but when we got down there we couldn't find him. We yelled for him for about ten minutes. We then rested under a big cottonwood-like tree on the river's edge and waited for him. But he never showed up. So we continued on.
We hit a cliff where there was no way around. Nor was there a way up unless we hiked all the way back to where we'd been. This would mean another mile around and another 400 foot scramble up through the thick brush. We just didn't have the energy. So I said I'd swim the river. I swam around the cliff and climbed up the other side. Dropping the thin nylon cord I hauled the three packs up. And then, Troy and Rick climbed up with the help of the flimsy cord. Once on top of the cliff we continued.
We soon came to a similar cliff face. But this one was hike-able below near the river.
And then in a small clearing I saw it.
"It's a human skeleton!" I shouted.
"It's a human skeleton!" I shouted louder.
Troy was only ten feet behind me but he couldn't hear. The pounding river was all consuming. Exploding waves and slamming holes echoed endlessly off the walls of the two-mile deep gorge. Normal conversation was reduced to yelling.
"This one is different." Troy shouted as he saddled up next to me. "It's pretty much intact. And look here…" he said as he pointed out a shattered femur. "And here…" he said pointing to a small fire ring.
We both looked to the cliff above. It appeared even steeper from below. It was obvious this poor soul had fallen, broken his leg and kept warm by a small fire until he died.
The faded bones and the skull's grinning smile brought forth our own vulnerability - our own impermanence. As we stood in thought the din of the river faded. Our self-significance soon followed. That's the thing about nature. Its sheer grandeur bullies you into perspective.
"It makes you feel pretty small - doesn't it?" Troy said as we both looked up the towering canyon walls and craggy Himalayan peaks far above. "Just think of the hundreds of thousands of years it took to carve this gorge. And I've been here for thirty-three of them."
Nature is an ego killer. Here immensity crushes the mind's self-important chatter. This creates a vacuum - or space. Suddenly we have room for intuitive wisdom to be heard. It's no coincidence that Jesus, Muhammad, and Buddha all attained their enlightenment in the wilderness.
I picked up the skull and cradled it in my hands. "Imagine the parent's joy when this guy was born; his first steps, his love for his brothers and sisters, his first hunt, his hopes, his disappointments, his revelations, how he made sense of the world around him and his place in it during the microscopically small amount of time he was here."
It was obvious this poor soul had fallen off the cliff above, broken his leg and kept warm by a small fire until he died.
"That's exactly why we're here." Troy said. “We can’t take a single second for granted.”
I thought back on the Buddhist view of the human experience. It contends that with all the living creatures on this planet, the odds of a human birth are the same as if you took a donut sized float and threw it in the vast ocean and a blind turtle just happened to surface through the hole. It's that impossibly rare.
And with the lottery fortune of a precious human birth comes the responsibility to make every second count.
Troy and I both resonate with Leo Tolstoy's statement in The Death of Ivan Ilyich: "A life most simple and most ordinary is therefore most terrible."
I gently replaced the skull. Not only had our skeleton friend been a reminder of impermanence - but equally a reminder to pay attention. We still had a way to go.
Offering our final respects, we shouldered our packs and continued picking our way down the slopes and boulders of the constricting canyon.
We expected to find a settlement around every bend. But we weren't that concerned because we still had a fair amount of food. Or at least Eric had the food.
But where was Eric?
He had vanished. We never saw him again for the rest of the hike.
Expedition Member, Chris Grace's 1994 journal notes:
The next morning we walked along a goat path above the river to set Bill's camera. Rick expected to be through the gorge by 10 AM. We waited laying in the sun for thirty minutes, until Mr. Luo* and I decided to walk further up the canyon in the hope of spotting them. The trail is difficult weaving over rocks and sand banks formed by the river. We walked for several hours, perhaps 6 miles or more without a sign of the raft. The trail ended and we dozed for an hour to no avail. Finally we returned. Mr. Luo is worried but I am confident the trip took more time than expected due to portages and scouting.
*Due to the Hidden Land's strategic location abutting India, it was designated a "special military region" and foreign travel was strictly prohibited. Recognizing the economy of tourism, in the early 1990's China relaxed its iron grip on the "Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo" area and issued its first travel permits. Incredibly, Rick was able to secure one of these early permits for us. In addition to passports and Chinese visas, certain other travel permits were required from China's Bureau of Foreign Affairs, the Military High Command in Beijing, the China National Tourism Administration also in Beijing, and Lhasa's Public Security Bureau (PSB). The documents could fill a book. Certain areas remained off-limits and for the others you were required to have a Chinese travel agent accompany you. Ours was Mr. Changxun Luo. Thin and of normal height, Mr. Luo (pronounced "Low") had a wispy mustache and always wore a ball cap. He was a pleasant man who took his job seriously. He had our interests in mind and over the weeks we became quite good friends.
On the second day of hiking Troy and I were getting a little concerned about Rick. Altitude sickness was still dogging him. This coupled with the trail's huge climbs and the lack of food was depleting all his energy. Though he would lag behind at times, he always caught up. Rick was one tough and determined guy.
Rick takes a break. Altitude sickness and lack of food was depleting all his energy.
As we continued up and down the walls of the gorge the vegetation increased. Switchbacking to higher elevations the trail would meander through aspen-like forests, traversing lush meadows with ancient ruins. Old pecan trees and wild peach trees guarded foundations of tumbling monasteries. The ruins held grudgingly to rock outcroppings. We spent hours speculating their existence.
By now, with every step through the gorge Rick grew increasingly irate with Eric. His disappearing with all our food placed the three of us in severe jeopardy. It was bad enough that his river scouting had been bungled, but then to abandon us? We just couldn't imagine his motive.
Expedition Member, Chris Grace's 1994 journal notes:
Mr. Luo is very concerned that we have not heard from the raft group and has dispatched our Chinese cook and a porter to follow the path he and I took yesterday. I think it is a waste of time but he feels he must do something.
Mostly now we find ourselves waiting. The raft group is now long overdue and while few words are discussed, there is a serious concern. Even if they had some difficulty merely delaying them, the rest of the trip could be jeopardized. We have limited fuel and time.
We had to feed our long days of climbing at high elevation. Our bodies screamed for fat and carbohydrates. We were reduced to foraging wild peaches and nuts. As our energy waned our packs felt heavier. The dry bags had no waist straps so all the weight was borne on the shoulders. And it was rough terrain to be hiking in sandals. But the majestic scenery compensated somehow.
Troy (on left in the shadow) scouts our next climb. Where was the hamlet Eric promised was just ahead? Where was Eric?
Our energy was waning and our packs felt heavier.
When I first heard Rick speak of the "Yosemite of Tibet" I thought for sure he was exaggerating. Yet now, I believed his claims were understated. Troy and I would stop and marvel at the cobalt blue, cloud-speckled skies, the jagged snow-capped peaks skirted with lush green forests which blended into the bouldered canyon below and finally punctuated by the foaming Yarlung Tsangpo. It was truly spectacular. Somehow we drew energy from this landscape.
And then off in the distance, I think Troy sighted it first, there was a Buddhist prayer flag flapping lazily in the breeze.