“Getting to the World’s Highest River”
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:
Rick Fisher, Gil Gillenwater, Troy Gillenwater & Eric Manthey.
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.