“Into the Mouth of the Tiger”
Scouting rapids was a must. Going in blind was suicide.
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.
Rafting rivers is easier bathed in sunlight.
(From right to left: Troy Gillenwater, Gil Gillenwater & Eric Manthey.)
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
Yarlung Tsangpo River:
“The Mt. Everest of Whitewater”
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”