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“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.”
On February 1, 1994, Gil Gillenwater sets his intention to go to Tibet. One week later, this article appears on the front page of Section C of The Arizona Republic, the local newspaper. The feature states: “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.”
Landing in Hong Kong.
Left to right: Jerry Dixon, Troy Gillenwater, and Chris Grace.
Chairman Mao welcomes us to the bustling Chinese city of Chengdu.
Flying over the Himalayas.
Coming from the deserts of Arizona, we are all thinking: What the hell are we getting ourselves into?
Our first up-close look at the river. We were told to expect a flow of around 5,000 CFS (cubic feet per second). What we find is a river surging at over 20,000 CFS. Left to right: Chris Grace, Mr. Changxun Luo (our Chinese liaison), Rick Fisher, Troy Gillenwater (looking up-river), Jerry Dixon (looking up-river), and Eric Manthey.
Readying 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 makes perfect sense.
Documentary film producer Bill Bacon records the departure on our un-permitted 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. Left to right: Rick Fisher, Gil Gillenwater, Troy Gillenwater, and Eric Manthey.
Soon we begin “lining” the raft through the more difficult sections.
Portaging rapids in the Upper Granite Gorge of the Yarlung Tsangpo - the world’s highest river. These water formations are simply gravity-driven liquids negotiating different terrains in a perpetual effort to seek their own levels. 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. Left to right: Eric Manthey, Gil Gillenwater, and Troy Gillenwater.
Gil Gillenwater holds a human mandible. “We’d been rafting with a bunch of sinners.”
These recirculating hydraulic holes, or “keepers,” are to be avoided at all cost.
Portaging rapids in the Upper Granite Gorge of the Yarlung Tsangpo - the world’s highest river. In many places the river is simply un-runnable. We come to accept that we are essentially powerless on the “Mt. Everest of Rivers.”
Left to right: Rick Fisher, Eric Manthey, Troy Gillenwater.
Abandoning the first-descent portion of our trip, we stash our raft and all our river gear under a house-sized boulder. It's probably there to this day. We later regret leaving our life jackets.
Though the hiking is difficult in river sandals, we never regret being off the river.
Many times we have to swim around riverbank obstacles.
A not-so-subtle lesson in impermanence.
Rick Fisher takes a break. Altitude sickness and lack of food are depleting all his energy.
Troy Gillenwater (on left in the shadow) scouts our next climb. Where is the hamlet Eric promised is just ahead? Where is Eric? Our energy is waning and our packs feel heavier.
Multi-colored Buddhist prayer flags guide us to civilization. Standing on the roof, Troy Gillenwater and Rick Fisher peer into the courtyard. There must be food!
Their minds - unadulterated by modernization and technology - welcome us as family.
Rick Fisher and Gil Gillenwater revel in outside human contact. Gil can feel his energy return as he chokes down the tsampa and gulps the high-fat yak butter tea.
Our host breaks out the homemade rice wine, poured from an old kerosene can, and the party begins. Though from opposite sides of the planet and cultural strangers, the human connection prevails.
After Gil Gillenwater gives his river knife to the father (who is ecstatic to receive it),Troy Gillenwater shows him how to remove it from the plastic scabbard. The boys look on in wonder.
The stacked-stone homes in the enchanted hamlet of Dabucun remind us of those we’ve seen on the Hopi Mesas in Arizona.
“There is a peace here I have never found before or since.” – Gil Gillenwater
Troy Gillenwater says goodbye to the village of Dabucun as we hike an ancient cliffside pilgrimage trail.
Hiking out of the Upper Granite Gorge of the Yarlung Tsangpo River following our aborted rafting attempt becomes significantly easier when we have an actual trail.
The Tibetan people we pass on our hike out always seem to be smiling.
Photograph by Rick Fisher. Here Troy and Gil Gillenwater cross Tibet’s Yarlung Tsangpo River in a traditional yak-skinned coracle. The RailRiders© outdoor clothing company included this photograph on the cover of its 1995 summer catalogue and ran an article on the Gillenwaters' Tibet adventures.
The drive to Pelung is rife with obstacles. The days seem endless.
The food at the roadside lunch houses are a challenge. Rick Fisher is still angry with Eric Manthey.
The Chinese invasion took a tremendous toll on Tibet.
On our long drive, we experience a traditional Tibet that is fast disappearing. Note: The Tibetans we encounter in rural areas are always smiling.
Nomadic herders and their yak-hair tents.
Gil and Troy Gillenwater at their first monastery – the Buchusergila Khang Temple (Buchu Monastery).
Troy Gillenwater stands atop the 15,300-foot Dakmo Serkyim La Pass surrounded by hundreds of prayer flags and Mani stones.
Tumbatse was the 1924 operating base for the British botanist explorers Francis Kingdon-Ward and Lord Cawdor.
Troy Gillenwater deep in a game of Khampa Billiards.
“The Monpa Mafia”
Direct decedents of the warring Mishimi and Abor tribes, our local porters are an interesting lot. Their load-carrying strength is matched only by their nefarious behavior.
We are continually amazed at the agility and durability of our porters. They are truly “people of the earth.”
Left to right: Gil Gillenwater, Bill Bacon, Jerry Dixon, Eric Manthey, and Chris Grace take a much-needed break at the top of a small pass. Prayer flags denote the crest. For Gil, Troy Gillenwater, Jerry, and Chris, this is “buzzed hiking.”
Gil Gillenwater winds his way through a combination of thick, jungled vegetation and hulking, old-growth forest.
A false step on the hanging bridge would deliver one to the raging maelstrom below.
Gil Gillenwater hikes the hand-gouged trail. Locals call these carved out sections the “Tiger’s Mouth.”
Troy Gillenwater and Jerry Dixon take a break at a Mani stone shrine. Jerry’s turquoise shirt may have saved him from wandering into Bhutan!
Cresting the ridge, it is a short hike down to Mondrong.
Following the brutal hike to Mondrong, Mr. Luo cooks up soup on an open fire in a one-room log hut offered us by the village elder. Left to right: Gil Gillenwater, Jerry Dixon, Chris Grace, Mr. Luo, and Bill Bacon.
Troy and Gil Gillenwater were serenaded by the sing-song harmony of these three Monpan nightingales.
A leech! These repulsive creatures torment us day and night.
Rick Fisher is obsessed with finding the fabled “Lost Falls of the Brahmaputra.” Left to right: Two porters, Rick Fisher, Eric Manthey, Troy Gillenwater, porter, and Jerry Dixon.
The village of Sengchen. The term “village” is misleading. Two or more houses constitute a village. These are hamlets - small collections of log houses.
Gil Gillenwater and Jerry Dixon lead the group down the ridgeline in hopes of fulfilling Rick Fisher’s dream – a glimpse of the “Lost Falls of the Brahmaputra.”
Gil Gillenwater and the others hike the same Mondrong-to-Sengchen trail that Captain Francis Kingdon-Ward and Lord Cawdor first explored 70 years earlier in 1924
Left to right: Gil Gillenwater, Troy Gillenwater, and Jerry Dixon in Sengchen.
A porter sets the line for our river cable crossing.
Troy Gillenwater offers a last-minute prayer before placing his life in the hands of our porters.
Troy Gillenwater grins as he’s lashed to the pulley.
Troy Gillenwater midway over the Po Tsangpo River. He must now pull himself up to our group waiting on the other side.
Gil Gillenwater readies for his cable crossing.
Tibetan bamboo pit viper coiled and camouflaged on a broad leaf. The porters call these vipers “Nagas.”
A tiger leech full of Gil Gillenwater’s blood.
The hamlet of Zachu has the cat-bird seat at the apex of the Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo River. Here the Himalayan views are endless.
A Monpa boy from Zachu. In addition to their ubiquitous daggers, note the Dalai Lama portrait on a string around his neck. Even in the Hidden Lands, they love their God King.
Our hosts in Zachu – a young Monpa family.
Troy Gillenwater shows his camera and zoom lens to a young Monpa boy above the village of Zachu. Introducing outside technology is tricky business.
A typical Monpan kitchen. That night we slept in the smoky attic above.
Tibetan tough guys.
Gil Gillenwater and Jerry Dixon above the stream where Jerry had a leech attach to his eye.
Troy Gillenwater mingling with the locals on our hike back to Pelung (Leaping Rat Lodge). We are as curious to them as they are to us.
Gil Gillenwater and Bill Bacon give the porters a break on the hike back to Pelung (Leaping Rat Lodge).
Left to right: Troy Gillenwater, Jerry Dixon, and Gil Gillenwater, happy to be safely back at the infamous Leaping Rat Lodge.
Tashi Island and its Tsozong Gongba Monastery appear to float as the crown jewel on the emerald Basong Tso Lake. Built in A.D. 1400, Tsozong means “Castle in the Lake.”
Riding a hand-pulled log ferry for the short crossing to Tashi Island. There, Troy Gilenwater, Gil Gillenwater, and Chris Grace each receive a special blessing from the head lama in the monastery’s inner sanctum.
A Buddhist ceremonial tent erected next to the lake.
Not to be rude, Troy Gillenwater, Chris Grace, and Gil Gillenwater get just as drunk on chang as the locals.
Ferrying back to the mainland from Tashi Island, we are immediately surrounded by a throng of Tibetans in traditional dress. Before we leave, we gather a brightly clad group of locals on the ferry landing for a parting photograph. Truly a day to remember.
The Potala (the Dalai Lama’s palace) is a 13-storied building containing over 1,000 rooms, 10,000 shrines, and 200,000 statues. Situated on top of Marpo Ri, the "Red Hill," at 384 feet in height, it has a commanding view over the Lhasa Valley. The year we are there – 1994 – it is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
94 #80 & #81
Built in AD 652, the Jokhang Temple is Tibet’s most revered sanctuary and the "spiritual heart” of Lhasa. In 2000, the Jokhang became a UNESCO World Heritage Site as an extension of the Potala Palace.
The Barkhor’s public square with the Potala Palace hovering on the top right. The two large incense burners (sangkangs) are fed juniper boughs constantly to please the gods protecting the Jokhang.
Gil Gillenwater and young “Monks in Training” at the Sera Monastery.
It’s a long, dusty 600-mile drive from Lhasa, Tibet, to Kathmandu, Nepal. But the view of Mt. Everest from the north makes it all worthwhile.
The ruins of the ancient Shelkar Dorje dzong (fort) snake up the mountain above New Tingri. This fortress was constructed in 1266 to protect the Kagyu Monastery.
The climb up to the Shelkar Dorje dzong affords spectacular views.
Soon the climbing becomes very steep.
Skulking through town to avoid detection, we follow a centuries-worn pilgrimage path up to a saddle. Troy Gillenwater stands amongst 800 years of devotional Mani stones and prayer flags crowding the pass. Now the real climbing is about to begin.
A night Troy and Gil Gillenwater shall never forget atop the Shelkar Dorje dzong.
Todd and Gil Gillenwater on the streets of Kowloon, Hong Kong with their new friend and fellow expedition member - Christiaan Kuypers.
Left to right: Gil, Todd, Troy Gillenwater with fellow expedition member Christiaan Kuypers - having a gay old time in the, “Top Gun” bar. This did wonders for our jet-lag.
Buddha eyes on the Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu.
Bodies burning at the Pashupatinath Temple funeral pyres in Kathmandu on the edge of the Bagmati River.
Left to right: Oy Kanjanavanit, Christiaan Kuypers, Troy Gillenwater, Todd Gillenwater, Gil Gillenwater
Bhakha Tulku appeases the Himalayan mountain gods with a two-hour Puja Ceremony.
Photo taken in Tucson, Arizona, of the Dalai Lama in front of a saguaro cactus. I had 100 copies laminated and smuggled them into Tibet.
Left to right: Todd Gillenwater, Christiaan Kuypers & Oy Kanjanavanit. On our way to Lhasa, Tibet. Little did we know what lay in store.
Hamid Sardar pretending to eat a chicken foot while Ian Baker searches for the elusive chicken breast.
Following a military convoy in the rain, the muddy road leads us deeper and deeper into the land of Vajrayogini.
Slogging through the logging town of Tumbatse. Not much has changed in 13 months.
Passing Pelung (Leaping Rat Lodge), the road conditions are deteriorated.
95 #13, 14, 15
“Landslide Alley” - a lottery of luck. Some made it. Some didn’t.
Through cloud tangled skies waterfalls appeared as wedding veils, serenading the valley with pouring grace.
At the Bhakha Monastery, Ian Baker and our Chinese travel liaison - Geng Quanru - (AKA Mr. Gunn) negotiate with the monks and local Monpa tribal people to serve as porters on our pilgrimage. A few females are a must to balance the male energy.
At the Bhakha Monastery, the local Monpa tribal people weave their own backpacks.
At the Bhakha Monastery. Left to right: Todd Gillenwater, Christiaan Kuypers, Mr. Zang (seated in army camouflage), Mr. Gunn, Troy Gillenwater and Oy Kanjanavanit. Note: nobody is swallowing the rancid Yak butter tea.
Todd and Troy Gillenwater eating a lukewarm dinner at the “Carnage Cafe”. When we got back to our dumpy room Troy asked Todd, “Did that dinner taste a little weird to you?”
“Surreal” is the only way to describe a roller skating rink in the squalid frontier town of Pome.
The Communist Chinese forbade the Bhakha Buddhist monks to travel with us. Ian Baker counts the group’s cash. Certainly a bribe will change their minds.
The head Lama of the Taksham Monastery bears a remarkable resemblance to Yoda.
At the Taksham Monastery (the, “Tiger Skin Monastery”) we find a most unusual mural depicting five tigers devouring a corpse.
An elderly Ani (Nun) looks on in knowing devotion as Buddhist monks conduct a divination ceremony known as a "prasena" to manifested a rainbow to guide us to our trailhead.
The Rainbow of “Divine Guidance.”
Driving out of Pome, we passed this sign claiming the Communist Chinese as the protectors of the Himalayas.
The Himalayan scenery from our first camp is other-worldly.
Seemingly out of nowhere a Lama - Kaba Tulku (pronounced Kawa) - and his small entourage arrive. What a gift!
The enigmatic Kaba Tulku (the “Cloud Lama” ) with his tell-tale red hat. This represents his adherence to the Nyingma or “Old School” sect of Tibetan Buddhism. The ethereal Lama was to become an integral part of our pilgrimage and the mystery of our journey.
We are surrounded by massive Himalayan glaciers.
Double loads equal double pay. Here our “Gentle Giant” carries over 120 pounds.
Finally we are hiking! Our group moves as a multi-legged centipede wending its way along and across the glacial spillway.
Soon the climbing begins. At first I feel bad – me carrying 25 pounds and the porters carrying from 60 pounds to double that. I soon get over it. That is what they are trained and paid to do.
It is a dream come true. Hiking the Himalayan “Hidden Lands” with the two people I can count on the most – my brothers Troy (left) and Todd Gillenwater (right).
Camping at the base of the Dashing La Pass. At an elevation of 12,850 feet, we have half a mile of vertical climbing to reach the pass. Then we will descend into the depths of Pemako’s “Hidden Lands”.
Following a dip in the glacial stream, Gil Gillenwater and his “Buddha Eyes” survey the Dashing Valley.
Finding a dead bear incurs no negative karma. Our food shortage is solved. We will eat like Kings! Kaba Tulku guides the bear’s soul to a better rebirth.
Gutting the bear in search of the prized gallbladder. Soon we will have meat aplenty.
Roasting the meat takes all night. We have over 200 pounds of bear steaks.
The butchering and tribal incantations go on for hours. The Guardian Spirits are pleased. They’ve given us this gift. The porters chanted their gratefulness.
The porters play with the bear’s head throughout the night hoping to embody its spirit. They keep the head for several days.
At 14,000 feet in elevation, climbing up and out of the Dashing Valley is a formidable task.
95 #44 & #45
The Sherpas and porters are super-human.
95 #46 & #47
Stopping to soak in the scenery. At times it is overwhelming.
Hiking the ice fields is treacherous. Especially with a 100 pound load.
One final look back into the Dashing Valley.
Todd reaches the Dashing La Pass.
Troy and Pasang Sherpa reach the Dashing La Pass.
A pony caravan emerges from the roiling Pemako abyss.
With Mr. Zang well ahead I offer Dalai Lama photographs.
Dropping off the Dashing La Pass and negotiating the ice fields at the head of the Chimdro Valley.
Hundres of waterfalls cascade into the Chimdro Valley. Waterfalls have special significance in Pemako.
The throat of the Chimdro Valley.
This cabin has wall to wall porters chomping on putrefied bear meat.
The ground is so saturated with water our tent feels like a waterbed.
Our dropping elevation takes us deep into leech country.
A steep descent off Dashiing La Pass and into Chimdro Valley.
Pemako weather vacillates from pounding rain to scorching sun several times a day. Here Todd Gillenwater crosses a cantilevered bridge.
Pemako is a fairyland.
The Crazy Nun.
Here the Crazy Nun is proving to us she is not a poison witch. Poison witches in Pemako have tattooed tongues. Therefore, local etiquette requires the sticking out of tongues for all female introductions.
Two different rivers - 30 feet apart - flowing in opposite directions?
Troy Gillenwater wins the “worst place to find a leech” contest.
Leech bites becomes common occurrences.
The tunneled bamboo thickets are very disorienting. Knowing of the area’s large tiger population doesn't help.
Troy Gillenwater and porters hope they’re on the right trail.
95 #70 & #71
The hot and tangled Rhododendron forests becomes oppressive.
The local children would stare at us for hours. Inbreeding has taken a toll in these isolated villages.
With Mr. Zang in Ghutan trying to secure our permits, I have free license to hand out Dalai Lama photographs in the village of Samdrup. This man lost the sight in his left eye due to a leech bite.
95 #74 & #75
The tribal people’s love for the Dalai Lama knows no bounds.
I love this photo. Here our Lama rests in meditative peace. Next to him, exhausted, is our Communist Chinese military escort – Mr. Zang. Mr. Zang is conflicted. He can't square the spiritual magic of Pemako, he witnesses through the Lama, with his atheistic Communist beliefs.
95 #77 & #78
Porters setting the lines for our cable crossing over the tumultuous Chimdro Chu River.
The odds of surviving a plunge into the river are not good.
Gil pulls himself across.
95 #81, #82, #83
Todd Gillenwater makes it safely across and promptly takes a nap. Next to the river is the only place we can escape the relentless heat.
95 #84 & #85
Ian Baker makes it across the raging river.
Hamid Sardar gets tied in.
Once across the river, the trail to the PungPung La Pass is almost non-existent.
Our trail steepened as we leave the bamboo and rhododendron thickets on our wet climb up to the 15,150 foot high PungPung La Pass.
We began to lose our light as the group gets separated. The higher we go the more landslides we encountered. The earth is alive.
Finally daylight! Troy Gillenwater stands next to the makeshift camp. Todd Gillenwater, Gil Gillenwater, Troy Gillenwater, Christiaan Kuypers, Oy Kanjanavanit, & Hamid Sardar spend the longest, wettest, most leech infested night of their lives under this crude shelter.
Pemba Sherpa can start a fire in an aquarium. These guys are the ultimate outdoorsmen. Left to right - Pemba Sherpa (far left), Oy Kanjanavanit, Troy Gillenwater, Hamid Sardar, Christiaan Kuypers.
One misstep on the slippery log and it is “game over”.
Lobsong and his wife find dinner. Suspicious not to look at the camera, Lobsong carries his “Gau” with him at all times. (A Gau is a portable Buddhist shrine worn as a protection amulet).
Pemba Sherpa (far right) sliced the mushroom into the pot. Chombi Sherpa (far left) checks on its progress.
Taking a break on the trail. “Is this our trail?”, we wonder as it disappears into the clouds above. Nobody knows for sure.
This is Beyul Pemako, “Hidden Land of the Blossoming Lotus”.
Todd Gillenwater (left) and Troy Gillenwater (right) pose with our senior porter – Puntsok (middle). We have another 1,000 feet to climb to gain the PungPung La pass. Punstok’s eyes avoid the camera.
Dropping off the PungPung La pass. Todd Gillenwater is not looking real thrilled about continuing the steep, wet descent ahead. Through the mists on the far ridgeline, porters can be seen beginning their descent.
Troy and Todd Gillenwater resting with three of our porters. It is an uncharacteristically clear day for Pemako.
Carrying two loads, our “Gentle Giant” porter is enjoying the drier weather and firmer trails.
Todd Gillenwater negotiates a moss covered log.
The “Jolly Lama” is imperturbable.
The young, married porter couple examines bear tracks on the banks of the animal spirit lake.
Our “Jolly Lama” often sits by himself in deep thought. This Vajrayogini pilgrimage in the “Year of the Pig” is his life-long dream come true.
Todd Gillenwater admires one of the many waterfalls cascading into the sacred lake.
Little could we have known the dangers that lay in wait in this idyllic spot.
Gil, Troy and Todd Gillenwater marvel over the paradisiacal landscape. Who made this place?
Gil Gillenwater walks through a scene from Hobbit Land.
Clouds begin to gather in Paradise.
The cantilevered bridges are primitive engineering masterpieces.
A sure-footed porter crosses the cantilevered bridge.
The skies become foreboding as Gil Gillenwater says good bye to Paradise.
The forest is cold and wet as we slog into a ferocious storm.
Todd Gillenwater deathly ill in the middle. Malevolent water spirits or food poisoning? At his point Todd doesn't care. He just wants to die. It is an excruciatingly long night.
Ghastly ill, Todd Gillenwater somehow manages the 1,100 foot, rain drenched climb to the dreaded Adrothang swamp.
In a super-human effort Todd Gillenwater continues to move forward. But in his sickened condition we fall farther and farther behind.
As brothers we fell horrible for Todd Gillenwater but there is little we can do but try and encourage him onward. Waiting for him is difficult in the glacial cold and rain. We become chilled to the bone and can feel the insidious onset of hypothermia tighten its lethal grip.
Looking off the lip of Adrothang into the swirling abyss.
Todd Gillenwater (left) starts feeling a little better. Gil Gillenwater (right) doesn't.
Todd Gillenwater waits patiently as Troy Gillenwater continues to vomit. The high elevation exacerbates the symptoms of our illness.
This photograph is taken at lower elevation of Chimed Gompo, the "Deathless Lord.” We are convinced he saved our lives.
The climbing continues. Far above timerline, we knew the SangMen La Pass (14,200 feet) has to be close.
Chimed Gompo is carrying two of our packs at once. Our destination, Kundu Dorsempotrang Mountain, the “All Gathering Home of the Vajrasattva Mind”, (Vajrayogini’s heart chakra) reigns prominently on the distant horizon. We have a long way to go.
Chombi Sherpa sends two Sherpas back to us with hot water and noodles. Now we have three Sherpas to carry our packs and help us down to the day’s camp on the banks of another glacial lake.
Dropping off of the SangMen La Pass, we can see part of our group approaching the glacial lake.
As the others surge on, Gil Gillenwater looks for camp near the lake. “What is the hurry?” the Gillenwaters wondered.
Close examination shows our vanguard porters, like ants, on the ridgeline in the middle left of the photograph. The ice capped peak on the right is the 25,531 foot Namcha Barwa.
Kundu Dorsempotrang Mountain is easily recognizable by the anvil shaped stone on its summit.
Steep climbs up and steep climbs down. This is hiking in the Himalayas.
With her keen interest in botany, Oy Kanjanavanit is forever examining trailside plants. We feel that she, Christiaan Kuypers, Chombi & Chimed Gompo are the only expedition members who have our well-being at heart. It is becoming increasingly obvious that Ian Baker and Hamid Sardar have a different agenda they aren't sharing - the one that doesn't include us.
Guru Shugstrethang Lake - an extremely revered pilgrimage site.
To the porters, theirs is a living landscape.
The climb up to our Kundu Dorsempotrang base camp is severe. Here our lagging group inches its way up to the holy mountain.
Kundu Lhatso Lake, “The All Gathering Soul Lake". Photo by: Christiaan Kuypers
The porters stare at the cliff face in veneration. Photo by: Christiaan Kuypers
The Jolly Lama and his young attendant join Scarface at a holy boulder. Photo by: Christiaan Kuypers
Vajrayogini’s essence manifests as sacred lakes dotting the landscape. Photo by: Christiaan Kuypers
Kundu Dorsempotrang offers us one final view as the porters labor below.
Ongel, the old Sherpa with his cheap rubber boots, is a stabilizing influence and a wonderful companion.
Matuk (far right) and his companions are stunned at the manifestation of the, “deities from the sky”.
The Gillenwater brothers can’t shake their dogged illness as evidenced in Troy Gillenwater’s expression.
We finally find a fallen log where we can inch our way across the rushing waters.
Back in leech country.
The Rinchenpung Monastery translates to "Mound of Jewels”. It is a welcome sight.
Troy Gillenwater shares photos from home with an older lama. His left hand and all his fingers have been severed by Mao's "Red Guard".
Rang Rig Gyapo the "King of Self-Awareness,” is a rare wrathful emanation of Padmasambhava.
A Garuda, representing the consciously awakened mind, hovers above the "King of Self-Awareness.”
The Old School of Tibetan Buddhism ingeniously incorporates many animistic traditions of the indigenous Bön religion seamlessly into its theology.
With our military escort - Mr. Zang - gone we can freely hand out our coveted Dalai Lama photographs. Here Gil Gillenwater hands several out to the porters.
The love and reverence they have for “His Holiness” is difficult to describe.
Our distribution of the Dalai Lama photos gains us great status at Rinchenpung. They truly are “spiritual currency” in this remote frontier - forgotten by time.
As Todd Gillenwater looks on, Troy Gillenwater presents our foam football to the caretaker’s sons.
The caretaker family at the Rinchenpung Monestary. Note: The brothers' foam football and ball point pen.
The Rinchenpung Monastery. Vajrayogini’s naval chakra is arguably Pemako’s most revered pilgrimage site. Meditation in this power spot generates compounding benefits.
By this time, the leeches don't seem to bother us that much. We've learned that in Pemako it is just a way of life.
It is difficult for us to say goodbye to Kaba Tulku – our “Jolly Lama”. He is such a presence and living example of clear thought. It’s doubtful we could have ever located the magic mountain - Kundu Dorsempotrang - without his knowledge and intuition.
Visiting with the local villagers as we are leaving the Rinchenpung Monestary was fun. Their homes are perpetually filled with smoke.
Trading beads are a big part of the villagers’ lives.
The day’s hike to Medog begins with an unexpected 600 foot climb.
It is a hot and muggy 4,000 foot descent into the military outpost of Medog.
At these lower elevations leeches are everywhere.
Medog. What a disappointment.
Even in this military pigsty with its Mad Max characters - the Dalai Lama photographs carry a huge significance.
The Medog General Store. Todd Gillenwater purchases snacks for us and beers for our life-saving Sherpas.
Troy Gillenwater relaxes in our Medog luxury suite.
Though beer and high doses of Flagyl don’t mix – we can't resist. (Flagyl has been our drug of choice for treating parasitic infections and amebic dysentery. We've been popping the pills like M&M’s.)
At just over 2,000 feet in elevation the jungle heat is stifling. Bepuk lies in the background. Close examination of the photo shows the Doshong River flowing aqua green into the muddy Yarlung Tsangpo. We will cross the Yarlung Tsangpo and follow the Doshong Valley up to the 15,300 foot high Doshong La Pass – our gateway out of Pemako and on to the village of Pei.
Early outside of Bepuk we encounter a local Lopa tribal woman carrying ferns.
Close examination shows the “Liberation Bridge” and its shadow cast on the river in the left of the photo. The aqua-green Doshong River flows in from the right.
The Doshong River.
Our trail virtually “tunnels” up the side of the canyon.
Close examination of this photo shows Troy Gillenwater on the trail in the top right with his arms raised high.
Our well-traveled trail leads us by a few Lopa homes. There is a simplicity in their primitiveness we find alluring.
Pemako is a magic place.
Little by little our climbing takes us above and out of the stifling heat.
Troy Gillenwater looks up the Doshong Valley. Our pass out of Pemako is a half mile above us.
Setting camp for our last night in Pemako.
Wet and cold at the “Doshong La Base-Camp”, we are ready to leave Pemako.
Here the climbing to the Doshong La Pass begins in earnest.
Todd Gillenwater filters water as we climb higher into the mists.
Chombi (shirtless) and a fellow Sherpa climb on by. These guys are tough!
95 #181 & #182
Our porters are unfathomably strong.
Porters inching their way up the Doshong La Pass.
Todd Gillenwater moves on ahead.
Visibility is difficult as Todd Gillenwater disappeared into the clouds.
There is too much water in the streams to be close to the pass. Either we are on the wrong trail or we are nowhere near Doshong La Pass.
Gil (left) and Todd (right) Gillenwater work their way up to the Doshong La Pass.
Precarious hiking in the ice fields.
The porters push on. It is near here that we see a dead man.
Troy Gillenwater poses for a quick picture on the Doshong La Pass.
Leaving Pemako is just as dramatic as entering it three weeks earlier.
The road! Todd and Troy Gillenwater relish in the moment.
The end of the Pemako trail.
Left to right: Todd, Gil & Troy Gillenwater. The outpost of Pei. Finally civilization!
In the village of Pei, Chombi Sherpa (right) has the thankless job of calculating porter wages. When nobody is around, Troy, Todd and Gil Gil Gillenwater give Chimed Gompo (middle) a large tip. He literally saved our lives.
As we ready for the long drive back to Lhasa, Christiaan Kuypers has a celebratory smoke and entertains the residents of Pei with a juggling act.
Gil Gillenwater can’t stop smiling. “We made it. We made it. We’re finally out of Pemako!”
High on a hill just outside the town of Tsethang sits Tibet’s oldest fortress/castle - Yumbulakhar.
95 #199, #200, #201
Some of the interesting Tibetans we pass on our long drive back to Lhasa.
Left to right: Raktayamari and Vajravetali - Yab (father)-Yum (mother), (to follow), White Tara
Eating in an actual restaurant. We are all smiles.
Eating at Mike’s - restaurant known for serving American style food. Having dreamed of eating here for a month, our breakfast lasts for two hours and ends with hot fudge brownie sundaes.
Still not feeling that well, Todd Gillenwater gets some fresh air atop our Hotel Marshyangdi overlooking Kathmandu. Later that evening he has a severe intestinal relapse.
Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche and an unforgettable lesson in Buddhist Dependent Origination and Emptiness.
95 #207 & #208
A final night of fun in Kathmandu.
Three very strong shots of tequila are in order upon landing at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. We are home!
In the military town of Bayi, Gil Gillenwater gets a mohawk.
Hamid Sardar emerges hairless from the Noble Lady Beauty Shop.
Left to right: Troy Gillenwater, Bunny, Pasang and Gil Gillenwater with his newly acquired mojo Mohawk. (Bunny rarely looks at the camera.) The fading double rainbow in the background burns brilliant a few moments before indicating the passing of a high Buddhist lama.
Injecting an anticoagulant, leech bites can bleed for hours.
“Landslide Alley” - The geologic instability of the Great Bend area renders vehicular travel extremely dangerous.
As the ground continues to crumble under the trucks rear wheel we all know this vehicle is doomed.
The monks are spellbound by the photos of our 1995 Dorje Phagmo pilgrimage. Ani Rigsang, the tantric Tibetan nun on the right, looks at the camera.
Ian Baker negotiating porter selections and daily wages with the head Bhakha Lama.
At the Bhakha Monastery, Ian Baker becomes frustrated with the porters’ increasing wage demands.
Lining up at the Bhakha Monastery for a departing photo, many of the monks will not look at the camera. Gil and Troy Gillenwater, in white shirts, standing in the back row on the right; then Ian Baker and the head Bhakha Lama (with yellow sleeves). Ani Rigsang, the tantric Tibetan nun, is on the far right of the back row.
Entering the jungles of Pemako brings back many painful memories.
Waterfalls are everywhere as we headed up towards the Su La Pass.
Troy Gillenwater hiking the ice fields up to Su La Pass.
Left to right: Pasang, Gil Gillenwater, Troy Gillenwater and Ani Rigsang on top of the Su La Pass. According to Ian, we are the first Westerners to hike this pass since the British explorers Bailey’s and Morshead’s clandestine dash in 1911.
There is water everywhere. Here Troy Gillenwater negotiates a slick two log bridge over a tumbling cascade. A slip would be disastrous.
Arriving at the end of the day we find two porters and Ani Rigsang enjoying a cup of tea at Cabin Camp. It has been a long day with over 4,000 feet of climbing. Soon the others stagger in and the cabin is stuffed with bodies. Nobody minds – at least it is dry.
Hiking in the rain we descended from alpine glacier country to the tropics. We have GORE-TEX while our porters have simple sheets of plastic.
A severed chicken foot is a simple Lopa tribal toy. The young boy shows us with great amusement how pulling a tendon causes the claw to contract.
Here Troy Gillenwater and the porters cross a makeshift bridge. It is a very steep descent with water everywhere.
Here Troy Gillenwater negotiates the tricky jungle slopes. Even though the village of Charasa is 2,000 feet below us, this portion of the trail heads steadily upwards.
The tribal women of Pemako are remarkable. In addition to their natural beauty, their strength and sure-footedness as porters is phenomenal. And their calm and even demeanor helps balance out the aggressive energy of the male porters.
The tribal women of Pemako can also be extremely seductive and beguiling.
This is Pemako in all its immensity and magic. Note the tiny porter crossing the stream at the bottom of the waterfall.
Our first glimpse of the Yarlung Tsangpo River. Even from 2,000 feet above it looked daunting.
Gil Gillenwater and a Lopa takin hunter pose with flintlocks. These smooth-bore rifles looked like they are right out of the American Revolutionary War.
Troy Gillenwater scopes out our evenings camp – Charasa – 1,000 feet below.
At an elevation of only 4,100 feet the barrack grounds of Charasa are sweltering hot and crawling with bugs and leeches.
A surprise visit from three of our 1995 porters. We are convinced Chimed Gompo saved our lives on that fateful expedition. Left to right: Chimed Gompo (avoiding the camera), Troy Gillenwater, Lobsang, Gil Gillenwater, and Sonam Chimbe (avoiding the camera).
Dawa (in green shirt) translates as Gil Gillenwater records the conversation. Left to right: Chimed Gompo, Lobsang, and Sonam Chimbe laugh as they recount the trials and tribulations of our 1995 Kundu Dorsempotrang expedition.
Like moths drawn to light, the heat-seeking leeches would slither into the flame and die.
The day’s climbing is hot – really hot.
Ken Storm decides to also split from the expedition and join us on our unpermitted dash to Pelung. His study and knowledge of the Pemako area will be key to our extraction and exploration efforts.
Troy Gillenwater and Ken Storm cross a cliff face over a primitive scaffolding on their way to Longlep.
Gil Gillenwater and Ken Storm get their first view of Longlep.
Arriving in Longlep late in the day, the few villagers welcomes us as family.
We are graciously offered a place to stay in Longlep. While waiting for dinner Troy Gillenwater and Ken Storm discuss possible escape routes out of Pemako. Our wet clothes can be seen drying in the background.
In addition to Stalin and Lenin, our host cabin sports a poster of the Kalachakra. In Vajrayana Buddhism this symbol represents the “wheel(s) of time” and is one of many of the tantric teachings and esoteric practices.
The view from our cabin’s glassless window is spectacular. The mighty Yarlung Tsangpo churns through the serpentine valley below.
Initially, cloudless skies escort us on the trail back down to the river and the village of Gande.
A telephoto view of Kangla Karpo.
Two Gande boys with Kangla Karpo in the background.
Our “coincidental” second encounter with Matuk is the key that will unlock the guarded entrance to Pemako’s forbidden Inner Gorge for our clandestine expedition.
We are such a curiosity in the sequestered world of Gande that the children follow us everywhere.
Our two young Tibetan Sherpas, Dawa and Bhim, hire local porters to assist in our escape from Pemako. We are a motley looking crew. Left to right: Bhim (back row), Troy Gillenwater and Dawa (hands in the air) and Gil Gillenwater (far right). Many are wearing the scarves Gil Gillenwater have passed out.
Matuk points out a tiny rock spire situated high on a cross-valley mountain shoulder (as seen in the top right of the photograph). This stone outcropping will play a pivotal role in our upcoming journey and in our lives.
With an average annual rainfall of around 25 feet, these uncharacteristically clear Pemako skies are a true blessing. Gil Gillenwater hikes down a grassy shoulder in the bottom right of the photograph.
While Dawa is negotiating with the porters we hike down and explore the river. Here we were 8,000 feet lower in elevation than we were when we rafted this same river three years ago - in 1994. Even at these lower elevations the “Everest of Whitewater” is earning its name.
With our porter dispute settled everyone jumps into action to set the lines and get us across the Yarlung Tsangpo River in the fading day’s light.
The immensity of the Yarlung Tsangpo River gorge makes this late afternoon cable crossing a daunting task.
We have 12 people and a lot of gear to cross in the fading daylight.
The heights and churning waters below are daunting. Notice the lone porter at the top of the photo.
Matuk looks on as Troy Gillenwater gets lashed to the pully for his cable crossing of the Yarlung Tsangpo River.
Photo taken in the middle of the crossing.
Troy Gillenwater is half way across his cable crossing of the Yarlung Tsangpo River.
This night hike brings us together as a group. The extreme circumstances allow us to better recognized our shared human condition. This bond will grow tighter as our journey continues.
In Lugu we peeked inside a small home. It is filthy. A Lopa man and his son lived there and Gil Gillenwater gives the boy a glow-in-the-dark pen. He hangs it proudly from his neck.
In Gogden we are offered a shrine room as a place to sleep. Here a thangka of the goddess White Tara is displayed prominently.
Two boys from Gogden. The locals are always so happy to see us.
Our porters Matuk, Brad Watts and Trashi Padi load up on yak butter tea in preparation of the day’s grueling hike ahead.
In Gogden we spy a propaganda poster tacked to a wall purportedly representing the harmony between the Communist Chinese military and the Tibetan people. To see this brain washing propaganda in a cabin this remote is absurd.
In Gogden the village chieftain proudly shows us his flintlock rifle. There are only three such rifles in the village.
Uncharacteristically clear skies shine on Troy Gillenwater and the chieftain’s flourishing marijuana crop.
The ongoing collision of two continents creates seismic geologic instability and constant landslides.
Negotiating the many landslide areas is hard on our bodies as well as our nerves.
The steep climb out of the Yarlung Tsangpo Gorge to the Tsebung La Pass is two vertical miles in elevation.
Cresting the Tsebung La Pass we have our first view of the 23,891-foot-high Gyala Pelri Mountain. Standing on the Asian continent, it is only 13 miles away from the 25,531-foot-high Namcha Barwa Mountain situated on the Indian sub-continent.
At Tsebung Rock, Matuk ceremoniously offers three full prostrations and then beckons us to follow.
Takin skulls adorn mossy grottos along the shrine site.
An unnoticed crack in the stone leads us to the inner sanctum of Tsebung - “Million Lives.”
Gil Gillenwater and Matuk. The Tsebung “Long Life” ceremony includes carving a notch in a stick for each year you have been alive.
Troy Gillenwater emerges from the birth canal of Mother Earth.
As we emerge from the womb of Mother Earth the storm abates and the skies miraculously clears - affording us unique views all the way into India.
Our telephoto lens captures a distant peak manifesting from the clouds (see top of photo).
Dorje Phagmo Mountain – our guidepost into the Inner Gorge.
Leaving the trail, we climb up into the unknown.
The climbing is difficult, but the porters don’t slow down, even though they are anxious. Entrapment by monsoon clouds is a constant threat.
Hacking our way through the entangled rhododendron thickets slows our progress and zaps our energy.
The geologic exposure is frightening. See Troy Gillenwater in the foreground on the bottom-right and the porters are dotting the top of the hill in the upper-left.
Hiking on the edge of the rhododendron thickets is easier going. But the risk of a landslide and an endless fall is also heightened.
Our porters gain the ridgeline.
Fresh evidence of landslides and earth fissuring are everywhere.
On the steeper sections we are reduced to crawling on our hands and knees.
The higher we climb, the more spectacular the Himalayan views. Gil Gillenwater in the forefront.
As the mists get thicker and thicker our group spread out.
Every now and then the clouds would part and we would, with relief, see our porters traversing the same ridgeline.
Who is this apparition manifesting from the clouds? With no pack he isn't one of ours.
When the clouds lift, we see our porters scattered all over. Note Troy Gillenwater and Ken Storm are in the foreground and some of our porters are in the top-left on the distant ridge.
Suddenly the apparition, with his flintlock, charges us.
“Mystical Warrior from the Mists” - our guide for the next leg of our journey.
Our porters are breakfasting after a long rainy night. Their plastic rain cover lies nearby. They are truly people of the earth.
Namcha Barwa - 25,531 feet
Kangla Karpo - 23,891 feet
Gyala Pelri - 23,733 feet
The Kangla Karpo peak (Sanglung) on the Indian sub-continent, looms large on the left of the photograph. The Namcha Barwa peak, also on the Indian sub-continent, is the pyramidical peak just to the right of Kangla Karpo. The Gyala Pelri peak, on the Asian continent, is situated on the far right of the photograph. Between Namcha Barwa and Gyala Pelri lies the deepest gorge in the world. With these landmarks revealed we know how to find our destination. The uncharacteristically clear weather allows these to be the first photographs ever taken from this vantage point. The spirit of Pemako is with us.
We are miraculously granted clear skies and unprecedented views. Troy Gillenwater and Gil Gillenwater know a divine guidance is at play in revealing this once in a lifetime experience. Luminous Kangla Karpo is in the background.
With the 23,733-foot Gyala Pelri in the center, Troy Gillenwater scopes out the Guardian Protector’s Dorje Traktsen Mountain on the left. This will be our gateway into the Inner Gorge.
Mesmerized by the mountain, our porters revolt and refuse to continue. They understand that this is the Guardian Protector’s gateway into the Inner Gorge. To take Westerners into this most sacred place could incur the wrath of the local spirits. In this photograph Gil Gillenwater attempts to convince the porters to continue. His pleas, offers of more money and cajoling fall on deaf ears.
Our Buddhist-shaman guide’s mystical dream the night before assured the porters that we can continue up and over the sacred mountain without incurring the Fuardian Protector’s wrath, so Matuk and the others debate the surest route of ascent. This will be our gateway into the Inner Gorge.
The porters can be seen as tiny specs on the ridge approaching the formidable Dorje Traktsen Mountain.
Troy Gillenwater readies to ascend the almost vertical slope up Dorje Traktsen. Porters can be seen inching their ways skyward.
Without ropes the exposure of this climb is daunting. Here we stop and take a break. Dawa is in the green shirt.
Gil Gillenwater approaches the summit of Dorje Traktsen.
Our Buddhist-shaman guide reaches the summit of Dorje Traktsen.
On top of Dorje Traktsen our porters get a “bird’s-eye-view” of the region they live in but have never seen from this vantage. Dawa is in the green shirt with our Buddhist-shaman guide to his left in the photo and Bhim to his right. Matuk points from the tip of the hill.
Rock solid Matuk on the left with a pair of socks I gave him, and our hunter/shaman guide who appeared from the mists on the right. Nobody can believe how clear the skies are. They tell us the Pemako Guardian Protectors are pleased!
We are truly on top of the world.
The sheer grandeur of Pemako is an acute lesson in the transiency of continual process. Troy Gillenwater is in the left-hand-bottom-comer.
Troy Gillenwater and Gil Gillenwater realize this experience is a mystical gift. Pemako is revealing herself.
Matuk points our way down and into the long-sought Inner Gorge. The porters are ecstatic to be on top of the mountain.
A porter marvels over the use of Troy Gillenwater’s binoculars. Bhim is looking at the camera. We are provided an unprecedented view into the Inner Gorge.
Readying to descend into the Inner Gorge, Troy Gillenwater confers with our Buddhist-shaman guide as to which route to take. Unfortunately, our hunter guide from the mists have never been this far out of his territory and can offer no advice. We would have to proceed on intuition alone.
With the clouds moving in, we begin our long descent down Dorje Traktsen.
Our porters are rock solid as they descend into unknown territory. Note the line of porters tracing down the mountain in the upper-right.
Sooner than expected our Buddhist-shaman guide calls a halt to the day’s march. He says the weather is too unstable to continue that late in the day.
We pitch our tent on the platform constructed by one of our Gogden porters. The porters' camp is below.
Troy Gillenwater surveys the scene from the tent porch of our platform perch.
Our setting affords us miraculous views into the upper portion of the Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo. The gorge is so steep we can't yet see the river.
Our porters’ camp. There is magic afoot as we all know we are on the adventure of a lifetime.
With clouds moving in and out we proceed to climb. In this photograph our porters can been seen in a tiny line on the left.
Gil Gillenwater and Ken Storm look on as the porters gather crystals. They called the stones, “Vajrayogini’s tears”.
We are startled to find that Buddhist pilgrims traveled this way many years before.
Another hunter manifests from the mists.
The hunter’s name is JamYang. We nick-named him the Gentleman Hunter.
JamYang knows the way to a large waterfall. We negotiated a price and he agrees to guide us.
The clouds briefly lift and we see our porters scattered in the background. With JamYang’s help we have located the elusive Sechen La Pass. On the right, Ken Storm, JamYang and Troy Gillenwater (on the right side of the photograph) celebrate reaching this long-sought landmark.
With JamYang’s guidance we are finally able to reach the Sechen La ridge which leads to the pass. With the constant severe and unstable weather conditions, the porters want to descend into the gorge as quickly as possible.
With the swirling cloud movement, the massive Himalayan landscape is displaying itself like an I-Max movie.
From this vantage, Troy Gillenwater has a bird’s eye view of the deepest canyon in the world. The perpetually cloaked Inner Gorge is beginning to reveal itself as the veils of clouds are lifted.
As the mists lift we can clearly see the Yarlung Tsangpo River on the left but what is going on down on the right?
Ken Storm films the Yarlung Tsangpo River as it flows between Namcha Barwa Mountain situated on the Indian sub-continent and Gyala Pelri Mountain on the Asian continent. Ken has dreamed of this moment for years.
It looks like an “S” turn on the bottom right. Is the river flowing back on itself?
Are we looking at the “Lost Falls of the Brahmaputra”?
The sun is blazing hot as we relocate our porters in the seemingly impenetrable rhododendron thickets. Earth fissures - well concealed under the thick underbrush - pose a constant threat. Troy Gillenwater is in the foreground and the porters are on the ridge in the middle.
In the waning light, we have a magnificent view of what Ken Storm convinces us are the “The Lost Falls of the Brahmaputra”.
With our camera’s telephoto lenses we can clearly see the pleated geography of two colliding continents. It is this unique twisted formation that has kept the Falls hidden for so many years.
The porters camp nestles under the overhang of a giant boulder.
Our tents are set on the most level area available – the top of a house-sized boulder. Our porters camp below.
Awaking early, we know we have an exciting day ahead. The views from our perch are mystical. Magic is afoot.
Gil Gillenwater looks upriver. As we worked our way farther and farther down into the Gorge, we can mark our progress by eyeing the slopes on the opposite side of the river.
With a clear sight of both Rainbow Falls and Hidden Falls, Ken Storm insists we proceed north for another view angle.
Instead of walking across the wet and slippery homemade bridge like the porters do, we opt for the more stable “butt-slide” maneuver. At this point we aren't taking any chances.
As we worked our way horizontally down the Gorge we get an unobstructed view of Rainbow Falls (center) with the Hidden Falls just around the corner.
Ken Storm can recognize Rainbow Falls by the large boulder at the Fall’s pour-over on river right (bottom left of the photo above & bottom right in the photo below). It is the same boulder as that featured in Lord Cawdor’s 1924 photo of Rainbow Falls. Kingdon Ward and Lord Cawdor got to within – what they estimated to be 1,800 feet upstream from Rainbow Falls and photographed their discovery. They never saw what lay just around the corner – Hidden Falls.
Lord Cawdor’s 1924 photograph of Rainbow Falls shows the same boulder that Ken Storm pointed out to us. Close examination of Lord Cawdor’s 1924 photo (97 #144) and our 1997 photo (97 #143) also shows the same cliff markings where the river slams into the wall before its 90-degree turn into Hidden Falls. Stopped at river level in 1924, Kingdon Ward and Lord Cawdor never saw Hidden Falls.
Convinced we have located the “Lost Falls of the Brahmaputra”, we estimate the Falls height at 100 feet.
Today’s aerial photography allows a bird’s-eye view of the tectonic upheaval experienced in this section of the Inner Gorge. In several places tremendous geologic forces have pleated the earth’s crust and bent the river back upon itself. This aerial IKONOS image was taken from a commercial earth observation satellite on May 9, 2000, at a height of 423 miles.
Our porters are exhausted. But we still have a dangerous 3,000 foot climb back up to camp.
Trashipati (far right) clicks the auto shutter release for this photo. Next to him is Gil Gillenwater (kneeling) then Troy Gillenwater with the Buddhist hunter shaman kneeling to his left. Behind Troy is Matuk with JamYang looking over Matuk’s shoulder. Having completed the Rainbow Traverse of the Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo River, we are on an explorer’s high. We have penetrated Pemako’s fabled Inner Gorge and photographed our discovery of the “Lost Falls of the Brahmaputra." A visceral sense of interconnectedness pervades our group. We are family.
Troy Gillenwater gives our porters a geography lesson. Left to right: the Buddhist-shaman hunter, Troy, Matuk and Trashipati.
It is an afternoon of camaraderie and joy as Hominid Man and Matuk laugh out loud at the other porters’ antics.
The porters are transfixed by Troy Gillenwater’s small book of photographs from home. Here our Buddhist-shaman hunter is looking at the Kentucky State Capitol building. Our guide JamYang is on the far right.
While our Buddhist-shaman hunter holds the photo book, Matuk used Troy Gillenwater’s binoculars to see who is inside the building. Their innocence is priceless. It is an afternoon we will never forget.
We watch the fading light in the world’s deepest canyon.
We hike the ridgeline for hours. The trail improve and we begin seeing prayer flags as we neared Payu.
Slogging through the rain. This is a long day. Ken Storm, Gil Gillenwater and the porters are ready for home.
Our hike along the ridge seem to go on forever. By this time everyone is ready to go home.
The misty forests seem surreal.
How our porters are able to negotiate this weather and terrain in cheap Chairman Mao tennis shoes and worn out socks we will never know.
Finally our long-sought hamlet of Payu.
After a long day of hiking Gil Gillenwater takes a rest while the others prepare for pay-day.
They liked Troy Gillenwater’s watch but the concept of time eludes them.
Paying our porters turns into a complicated and often times, frantic process.
We are squarely back in leech country.
When the clouds lift we can see waterfalls like sky-born ribbons cascading into the Yarlung Tsangpo.
Seeing Zachu on the other side of the canyon gives us our bearings. We were there in 1994.
Dropping into the Gorge we can see our bridge far below (bottom left of the photo) and our trail traversing up the other side. Zachu is in the saddle on the top third right of the photo with the earth slide next to it. We have a lot of climbing ahead.
Our bridge crossing of the Yarlung Tsangpo River.
Instead of thermal soaking pools, the Zachu hot springs offer only sulfur stench and yak droppings.
The hanging bridge on the Po Tsangpo River.
Back at the Leaping Rat Lodge we have a great feeling of accomplishment. Little do we know there is plenty of adventure still to come.
Believing the road is closed due to a rockfall on “Landslide Alley”, primitive loggers are cutting old growth trees and tobogganing them down for easy pick-up. Had we been a single second faster we would have been skewered.
We are reunited with Dawa and the porters from Ian Baker and Hamid Sardar’s group. We know several from past expeditions. We are greatly relieved to be released from house arrest with our 2,900 photographs miraculously intact. Some of our companions weren’t so lucky. Most importantly, we have over 300 photos of Hidden Falls documenting its long-sought existence.
The Tibet we knew is forever gone. The four contiguous hydroelectric dams pictured above are located in the Yarlung Tsangpo’s, Upper Granite Gorge. This is the same gorge we rafted and hiked in 1994.
On October 31, 2013, the 73-mile road to Medog was opened. What took us 18 days of hiking can now be reached by vehicle in one afternoon. The city of Medog is now a bustling tourist attraction. Over 70,000 Han Chinese tourists visited Medog in 2016. Resort Hotels and restaurants are flourishing.
His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama looks at one of our photographs of a local Lopa tribesman in the Chimdro Valley lovingly holding onto his picture. Through a contact Gil Gillenwater has with His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso’s niece—Khando Chazotsang—we were able to have her share our Tibet photographs with him. Like all Tibetan Buddhists, he is fascinated by these firsthand views of Pemako–the Hidden Land of the Blossoming Lotus. Our cover letter told of handing out photographs of him and the reverence and awe the photos elicited. We told him that to the residents of Pemako, he will forever be their “God King.” In a follow-up letter, he thanked us profusely for this unique glimpse into Tibet’s most sacred landscape and the people who live there.