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.
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.
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.
“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.
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