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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
“How about this for a Buddhist lesson in impermanence.” I thought to myself. There was an aspect of being surrounded by human bones that seemed to accentuate our risk. Also, over the years I have noticed this about river running - especially in very cold water. As long as the sun is out everything seems ok. The environment is friendly and attitudes are good. But as soon as it clouds up, or the sun goes behind a canyon wall, the air becomes cold and the landscape becomes hostile - more sinister somehow. Attitudes have a tendency to turn negative.
After about nine miles we lost our sun to the gorge. We stopped for a quick lunch and that helped. And then we pushed on with Eric’s constant assurance that, “It gets better a little further down.” The raft still leaked air and we had to pump it up about every half hour.
I do have to say that the scenery was other-worldly. Rick’s calling this Upper Granite Gorge of the Yarlung Tsangpo the “Yosemite of Tibet” was spot on. And while the river landscape was barren - jagged, snow capped peaks began materializing thousands of feet above - lording over us.
The gorge itself was close to two miles deep. As we rafted further into the abyss the river got tighter and the rapids got bigger. We had one portage where we carried the raft and our gear - hopping and clawing from rock to rock - for a quarter of a mile around some huge falls. But we kept going. I’m guessing it was around four in the afternoon when we were able to run a few class three and four rapids. We encountered a couple of class fives that we really didn’t want to test - so we lined them.
The problem wasn’t always with the hydraulics themselves. Often our decisions not to run a rapid had more to do with the turbulence down river. One false move on a runnable class three or four rapid and you would be devoured by the blender below.
In one class four we came dangerously close to being swallowed by a huge hole. They call these “keepers” because once in - the recirculating water will hold you indefinitely. We were all paddling furiously through an obstacle course of surging caldrons when the water unexpectedly gaped open right next to us. It was unnerving looking over and seeing the savage whirl of the unforgiving reversal.
Suddenly our forward motion stopped. Time dilated. The raft literally stopped. Then it began shaking - almost vibrating. We started moving backwards. We were being sucked upriver into the hungry maw. “Paddle! Paddle! Paddle!” we were each giving it every ounce of energy we had. Suddenly the shifting waters gave us a cross current that caught the back of the raft and swung us around 180 degrees. We were now facing upriver. But at least we were moving downriver and away from the inhaling hydraulic.
Regaining our composure we each realized that in these untamed waters we were essentially powerless. Our strength - our will - meant nothing. Our journey and our lives were subject to the capricious whims of the river.
It was a good lesson to learn. Our Himalayan travels would teach us time and again to let go. Any sense of control in these savage environs was simply an illusion. The only thing we could control was how we chose to perceive and interpret our experiences. The control was in our own minds. We had to give up what Chögyam Trungpa referred to as the, “Trap of Hope”. We had to deal with things as they were - not forcing to make them the way we wanted them to be.
Soon we came upon two mid-river islands. Our paddling coordination was getting better and we were able to snake through and beach on the left island. From there we could scout another quarter of a mile. It didn’t look good.
It seemed to be just getting worse and worse. The sense of dread that followed me into the raft when we launched was strangling me. My confidence was in a nose-dive. I couldn’t tell if my rapid breathing was from exertion or hyperventilating fear.
Panic is a killer. I knew that. I looked for the only stable thing I had - Troy.
Troy was my voice of reason. He was more conservative. Over the years I’d learned to trust his judgment.
Just seeing him was reassuring. We’d had so many adventures together. I walked over. He was standing on a boulder calculating our next few moves. I hopped up next to him. Looking down river I asked as nonchalantly as I could, “We’re going to be ok - right?”
He thought for a while. “Yes, we’re going to be alright,” he said. “As long as we follow our instincts and don’t get pressured into doing anything stupid.”
There was a pause. We both burst out laughing. “Anything more stupid that what we’re already doing,” he clarified.
His assurance and the laugh calmed me down. My breathing slowed and we got back into the raft and shoved off. This section of the river was wider and the rapids spaced in such a way that we could weave around them. We paddled maybe a quarter of a mile before we had to portage. In this manner we leap-frogged down the river.
Three hours later we were in a predicament. There was a succession of huge rapids. The water was very fast and powerful. We started lining on river right because river left was sheer cliffs. (River right and river left are always determined by the flow as you look downstream.)
That time of year it didn’t get dark until around 9:00pm. We were moving much slower than anticipated. With an estimated fifteen miles under our belt we knew we were only half way (or so we thought at the time) and we’d have to keep pushing if we were to reach the next day’s destination and reunite with our group. We ran two more class four rapids. And then we were stopped cold by a gigantic hydraulic.
One of the recirculating hydraulic holes (“keepers”) we encountered towards the end of the day on our first descent attempt of the
There is something mesmerizing about huge rapids or waterfalls that draws you in. They have a forbidding beauty. It’s like standing on a high bridge with that odd urge to jump. This was a monster. The hole itself was over twenty feet across. The raw power of the recirculating wave coupled with the sucking sound of the swallowing vortex sent shivers up our spines. I was fairly certain that, if harnessed, the energy of this watered rage could power all of New York City and Chicago combined.
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 severe, that can only be achieved by racing to the most level place on earth - the ocean two vertical miles below.
This rapid was located on a sharp left bend. It looked like we could run it further down on river right. Then Troy said, “We can’t see the whole thing. I’m going to look around the corner.” So, he went on down a 100 feet or so. He came back shaking his head. The rapid cascaded over a ledge between two huge vertical cliffs. There was no way around on river right or river left. In river parlance, we had “cliffed-out”.
We were trapped.
It became obvious by the depth of the gorge that there was no way Eric scouted the river. From 4,000 feet, the walls were too steep to catch anything but an occasional glimpse of the water below. The scouting we depended on hadn’t happened.
I wasn’t thinking clearly. My oxygen starved brain was entertaining running this rapid. If we could just make it through we were bound to find the smoother water Eric promised. It was a dangerous risk and that strange metallic taste returned to my mouth.
Troy asked me to sit down on a nearby rock. He sat across from me. He put his hands on his knees. He then leaned forward and said, “Gil, look at me. Listen to what I’m telling you. If we continue we are going to die.”
It was a simple statement. And I knew he was right. I mindlessly bent down and picked up some rounded river stones lying near my feet. Nervously jiggling them in my hand, I tried to think of a way out. We were so far from home. Darkness was consuming us. We were exhausted from the day’s efforts. At 12,000 feet the night’s chill had me shivering. And we were trapped in a two mile deep canyon on some god-forsaken river with a leaky raft.
Lost in thought I looked at the stones in my hand. They were polished by the river’s timeless flow. Suddenly they grabbed my attention. They were exactly like the ones I’d pick up on our rafting runs down the upper Salt River in Arizona. This realization jolted me back to one of Trungpa’s teachings. The solidity of the earth and the potentiality of the sky.
Yes, I was 8,000 miles away on the other side of the planet. But these river stones in my hand were the same ones I find at home. It was the same earth. According to Trungpa there is a stability and trustworthiness of the earth. How often do we take this for granted? The fact is that no matter what else is going on in our lives at any given moment the earth is always - without exception - solidly beneath us. It never lets us down. We are never going to just fly off the face of the earth. Trungpa asks us to take a moment, touch the earth with our hand and feel the strength in this knowledge of “grounded-ness”. (Buddha is most often depicted sitting in the lotus position with his right hand touching the earth.)
My mind and my panic began to calm. I was at home. I was at home on my planet earth.
Trungpa’s teaching further asks us to realize the immense and incalculable vastness of the heavens, or outer space as we call it. As he explained, it is just that - space. Space is such a necessary component of action, change and newness. With no space, nothing can occur. With a little space, a little can occur. But, with the unlimited space of the very sky above us, anything can occur. Anything. The point being - we are never trapped. Nothing is hopeless for we have incalculable potentiality right above us. It’s there for us.
The memory liberated me. “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.
POST NOTE: I kept one of the enlightening river stones as a talisman for the remainder of the trip. I use it to this day.
Next Blog: “The Long Hike Out”
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.
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.
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.
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