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.