“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.