“The Long Hike Out”
Hiking out of the Upper Granite Gorge of the Yarlung Tsangpo River following our
aborted rafting attempt became significantly easier when we had an actual trail.
Expedition Member, Chris Grace’s 1994 journal notes:
I cannot help but have some concerns about Eric's story. His account of abandoning the boat and the manner in which he became separated is troubling. For an experienced group to have allowed themselves to be split up in that situation seems unthinkable to me. The other fact that I find confusing is that Eric is very vague on their plans upon abandoning the boat. It would seem to me that they would have discussed a game plan extensively. We do know that they abandoned their wetsuits, all their rafting gear and the metal camera box. While they had adequate gear to walk out it was not ideal, particularly their footwear. Eric stated that he thought they had headed up the mountain instead of following him along the river course. If they went back Mr. Luo should be able to pick them up at Sangri and return here by early afternoon.
The next morning we were still light headed. While helpful, the tsampa and hard boiled eggs hadn’t completely solved our nutrition problem. With the steep trail and the hot, high-altitude sun we were growing weaker by the hour. We knew the others had to be worried. We were three days overdue. Time was critical. With this in mind - and now that we were back in semi-civilization - we had hoped to find a couple of porters to carry our packs the rest of the way to our rendezvous in Gyatsa. But there was a noticeable lack of young people in this village. We found an old man who spoke broken English. He told us the Chinese had taken the children from their families and deported them to boarding schools in China. There they would be indoctrinated into the Chinese culture. Most would never return. It was sad. But Troy and I reflected - a hundred years prior we had a similar policy for the native Americans in our own country.
Shouldering our packs, we had a hard time finding the trail out of the hamlet. The path dwindled into a treacherous cliff-side hike above a sixteen foot high Yarlung Tsangpo waterfall. We knew this couldn’t be right so we backtracked to the village and found an old lady. She showed us the way. It was a pilgrimage route - an enchanted passage that seemingly breached a parallel dimension. The trail appeared ancient. We were walking on the sides of precipices with little handholds and footholds etched out of the rock. We’d traverse bridges made of notched logs and marvel through fern laced grottos. On the steep cliff face sections patches of sod had been planted. Evidently the roots grew into the stone enabling us to negotiate the spindly path 200 to 300 feet above the rushing river. It was a dramatic day of hiking.
Troy says goodbye to the village of Dabucun as we hike an ancient cliff side pilgrimage trail.
Towards late afternoon the trail ran into an enormous slab of vertical stone. We had to zigzag straight up for over 1,000 feet to get around it. The hot climb was grueling so late in the day. Dropping back down we ended up in another riverside settlement. From here the locals told us it was less than fifteen kilometers to Gyatsa.
We spent the night on a wooden deck. The curious villagers huddled around and stared. Our every move was mimicked with cackling laughter. They kept pulling the hair on our arms in wonder. A wizened woman bedecked in turquoise supplemented our tsampa with walnuts.
The next morning Rick was able to secure two porters. They charged us $100 yuan apiece (about $12 dollars each) to carry Rick’s pack and one of ours. This was twice the going rate. But we were desperate. We had another long hot climb out of the village. Troy and I rotated carrying our remaining river bag.
At a cliffed-out bend we took a $2 yuan (.24¢) ferry ride across the river in a traditional yak skinned coracle. This experience reminded me of Chögyam Trungpa’s coracle ride across the Yarlung Tsangpo in his legendary 1959 escape into India.
Photograph by Rick Fisher. Here Troy and Gil cross Tibet’s Yarlung Tsangpo River in a traditional yak skinned coracle.
The RailRiders© outdoor clothing company included this photograph on the cover of its Summer catalogue and ran an article on
the Gillenwater's Tibet adventures.
Towards the end of the hike we came across a man carrying a log. He was thin and the log was huge. We estimated it weighing around 200 pounds. He had it on his back with a tumpline strap over his head. We offered him our last $10 yuan to carry the remaining pack the rest of the way to Gyatsa. We figured he could always come back and get the log. He agreed. But much to our amazement he threw the bag up on top of the log and staggered on down the trail.
As we continued along the river bank towards Gyatsa, Troy and I could never have fathomed that a year later we would be hiking along this same river - 300 miles downstream - at an elevation of 2,000 feet as it flowed into the jungles of India. Nor could we imagine that we would have three machine guns pointed at us and be placed under arrest while an angry, drunken Communist Chinese, PSB (Public Security Bureau) officer demanded confiscation of our film.
We stumbled out of the gorge and into Gyatsa on the afternoon of Sunday, May 15th. Rounding a bend we heard a screaming chorus of, “They’re here! They’re here!” as Jerry, Chris and Bill raced to greet us. We felt like prodigal sons. Each gave us a clenching bear hug. They were hungry to know what happened and insisted we leave nothing out. We could tell they’d been worried. Not being able to get a straight answer out of Eric, they were suspicious something really bad had happened.
It was a delicious homecoming. To get into the village, see our friends, eat real food and throw back a couple of iced beers was heavenly. What had started as an average day and a half river float degenerated into a daylong nightmare down an abyss of fear – punctuated by a four day survival hike.
Expedition Member, Chris Grace’s 1994 journal notes:
At 3 o'clock Rick, Gil and Troy appear with three porters. They are exhausted and rather shocked from their experiences. They had little food and the trip was mostly cross country, with Gil and Troy in sandals. The vehicle we had sent to Sangri returned about 4 PM – thankfully deciding not to retrace the trail east.
The unfortunate aspect of this episode is that it didn't have to happen and bad judgment could have easily resulted in the loss of life. In fact some of the traverses were extremely hazardous and at several points they found human bones including the skull of an unfortunate who didn't make it. They, for whatever reasons, became separated almost immediately after abandoning the boat 15 miles into the canyon and Eric proceeded on with all the food. Additionally they were not acclimatized and most importantly Eric’s scouting of the river was wholly inaccurate.
Finally we heard a land cruiser drive up and Eric sheepishly appeared in the door way. With three sets of eyes boring holes in him he just shrugged his shoulders and gave us a blinking look like he just woke up.
Rick went apoplectic. Troy and I pulled him outside and calmed him down. The three of us had been through a lot together. I think Rick realized this. He reached out and shook each of our hands and said, “How does it feel to be the first to raft the world’s highest river?”
Troy and I looked at each other knowingly. It was a little more adventure than either of us had bargained for. Yet, having lived to tell, it was priceless.
“It feels great Rick… fantastically great!”
A year later, in 1995, Rick published a book titled, “Earth’s Mystical Grand Canyons”. The book contains a chapter chronicling our 1994 expedition. In the acknowledgements Rick wrote:
“Powell “Gil” and Troy Gillenwater provided incredible strength after our aborted attempt to raft the Upper Granite Gorge of the Yarlung Tsangpo. I believe they actually saved my life in a situation in which I had very little personal power left.”
Soon we were ready for the second stage of our trip - finding the “Lost Falls of the Brahmaputra”. This would be Troy’s and my first journey into what was being called the “Hidden Lands of the Blossoming Lotus” or simply the “Hidden Lands”.
Unaware of its spiritual significance, we assumed the Hidden Lands were hidden due solely to their remote and inhospitable location. We knew the Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo River was the deepest, wettest, most geologically unstable and biologically diverse place on the planet. We also knew it had been politically sequestered off limits by the Communist Chinese for decades and that the nearly constant cloud cover had prevented any dependable mapping. As of 1994 these factors had rendered the heart of the Hidden Lands un-explorable. We were excited at Rick’s proposal to be the first westerners to see what he was calling the hidden “Inner Gorge” and locate its crown jewel - the elusive waterfall.