By Michael McRae April 2000(First Descent)
Trip Note: The first descent of the Po Tsangpo chronicled below was a success and Earth River planned to run a commercial trip the following year. Unfortunately, later that year, a massive landslide took out the access road to the put in forcing Earth River to cancel the trip. It was years before the road was repaired and we never had the chance to bring another group down this remarkable stretch of river.
Since 1992, when the Chinese began admitting foreign adventurers to Tibet’s “Great Canyon.” The chasm’s whitewater rivers have acquired a sinister reputation. The Yarlung Tsangpo has so far claimed the lives of two kayakers attempting first descents: Yoshitaka Takei, a Japanese man who vanished in a monstrous rapid in 1993, and Doug Gordon, a virtuoso former U.S. Team member who disappeared under similar circumstances in October 1998. Other world- class paddlers who’ve challenged the lethal currents of the Tsangpo (in the upper gorge) and its tributary, the Po Tsangpo, have come away humbled, and some have declared the rivers all but unboatable. But this same river system that is only now revealing its dangerous power is also, incongruously, giving hints of what some believe to be enormous recreational potential. Last October, after two years of scouting, an international team led Earth River Expeditions safely completed a four- day, first rafting descent on the upper Po Tsangpo. Afterwards, the expedition leaders announced that they believe the stretch of the Po Tsangpo they had completed is viable for commercial led rafting trips.
If that turns out to be true, that would be major news for proficient recreational boaters with dreams of pioneering select portions of one of the world’s last great untapped river systems- provided they are willing to take the significant risks necessary to do so. The heart of the system, which is in southeastern Tibet at the eastern terminus of the Himalaya, is the 200- mile long, 16,500- foot deep Yarlung Tsangpo canyon, the world’s deepest river gorge, and one of the least explored, The canyon’s upper reaches contain rapids that even the daring expeditionary Scott Lindgren characterizes as “right off the Richter”. Everyone who has sized up this forbidding stretch of the Yarlung Tsangpo agrees that it will never see guided rafting trips. The river descends an average of 65 feet per mile- eight times the rate of the Colorado through the Grand Canyon- and portions drop more than 250 feet per mile. Many consider the inner gorge an impossible run for even the most seasoned professional paddlers. The Po Tsangpo, however, which connects to the main river below the inner gorge, contains stretches that are, by comparison, manageable. Earth River Expeditions plans to run commercial trips on a 50 mile section that averages a steep but sane 30- foot per mile descent with mainly Class IV rapids.
“The Po Tsangpo is the most spectacular river I’ve ever been on,” says expedition coordinator, Steve Curry, a 30-year veteran of wilderness rivers from Alaska to Asia to Patagonia. “You look ahead at one 23,000 foot snowcapped peak, turn around, and two more are on each side. Your neck gets sore.” Eric Hertz, the president of Earth River Expeditions, likens the scenery to “Mount McKinley rising out of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River,” and ranks the Po with such epic rivers as Chile’s Futaleufu, the Grand Canyon’s Colorado and and Peru’s Colca.
“The Po Tsangpo has the potential to become one of the world’s greatest whitewater trips,” Hertz says. “To find a river like that nowadays is almost unheard of.”
But Richards Bangs, a founding partner of Mountain Travel-Sobek, was less effusive. “Eric has a vested interest in promoting the river that way.” Says Bangs, who has led trips on more than 35 of the world’s great rivers in the past 30 years. “Look at a map of western China. There are hundreds of rivers to be run there alone, most of them with huge tributaries that also haven’t been done.”
Few of those rivers can match the raw power of the Tsangpo system, though. Originating in western Tibet, the Yarlung Tsangpo flows wide and muddy across the breadth of the Tibetan Plateau before pouring into a canyon scarcely wider than Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue. At its narrowest, steepest point, the Tsangpo crashes between the adjacent peaks of Namche Barwa (25,446) and Gyala Pelri (23,462), who’s glaciated summits are only 13 miles apart. Then the river enters the so-called Great Bend, where it joins forces with Po Tsangpo, doubles back on itself, and continues crashing down through a sub-tropical jungle.
It took extensive planning and scouting to locate a stretch of the Po Ysangpo that were deemed safe enough for commercial guided trips. The first mission, in April- May 1998, Scott Lindgren, and Charlie Munsey planned to kayak the Yarlung Tsangpo canyon from top to bottom, portaging around the worst rapids and waterfalls. Yet as soon as they were able to scout the waters from the banks at river level, they realized how foolhardy this would be. Rapids that had appeared from a distance to be Class III turned out to be explosively powerful Class V+, Lindgren said.
The boaters then approached the bottom section of the Po Tsangpo, a large tributary of the Yarlung Tsangpo and found it to be nearly as intense as the main river. They had thought it might be possible to run down the confluence, hang a left, and continue to the Indian border. “It was chaos as soon as we got onto the river,” Munsey said. Crater- like “death holes” cluttered the mid channel, and the current there was so violent that Munsey said “it would have humanly impossible to hang onto your paddle and stay in your boat.” Video footage shows Lindgren’s and Munsey’s tiny kayaks dwarfed by waves standing 20 feet high or more. It was all the two could do to stay upright and avoid catastrophe. “If you made a mistake and slid into the wrong hole,” recalls Munsey, “you were done”. (That is exactly what happened to Doug Gordon some six months later, when the flood-swollen Yarlung flipped his boat and sucked him- still inverted- into a hole from which there was no escape. His body was never recovered. After being beaten up for about seven miles, the two gave up to investigate the upper Po Tsangpo, above the road connecting Llasa, Tibet, to the province of Sichuan, China. The water there was just as angry. “ We were still facing must-make moves and places that were just out of hand. We knew there was no way to take rafts commercially on that part of the river,” said Munsey.
With the Yarlung Tsangpo being virtually impossible to do commercaily, attention switched to some of the larger tributaries like the Po Tsangpo. Jeff Boyd, a mountain guide and emergency physician from Banff, Alberta and Boyd’s partner, Anne- Marie Fisher, scouted the the Po Tsangpo up to its source at a lake called Ngan Tso, 12,500 feet high on the barren plateau. The couple came home from a fall 1998 trip enthusing about the possibilities on the upper Po. “It’s solid Class V water, but by avoiding the worst rapids and unscoutable gorges, you could kayak from the plateau all the way down into the jungle,” says Boyd.
Seeing Boyd’s report, Steve Curry, a veteran river runner from Idaho, teamed up with Earth River Expediitons and Jiyue Zhang, Earth River's Chinese partner to launch an expedition. Jiyue secured the necessary government permits and organized the land logistics. The trip would be led by Earth River's Vice President, Robert Currie. The other two boats would be guided by Earth River guides, Stephen Mahan and Ben Fadeley. The group included six paying Earth River and Steve Currey clients with Class V experience. They were all from the US and ranged in age from 24 to 59: three doctors, a son of one of the doctors, a building contractor, and a retired cabinet maker.
The team gathered in Llasa on October 19, 1999, around the time that water levels on Tibetan rivers typically are dropping, and reached the put-in, above the military outpost of Tangmai, two days later. (For Tsangpo trips, timing is essential. Generally speaking, river levels in the Himalaya are at their lowest- and thus safest- from October through March.) As the expedition’s paddle catarafts were being assembled, Colorado orthopedist Peter Weingarten and his 24 year old soon Jed, a 200 day a year paddler, took off in their kayaks to investigate downstream. “My dad and I were apprehensive about the trip,” confessed Jed. “I’d seen a video of Scott and Charlie on the lower Po, and I knew what happened to Doug Gordon.”
At the first bend in the river, the two encountered a huge rapid. Jed negotiated it successfully, but the elder Weingarten “flipped and was being pulled upside down towards the main current,” Jed says. “I was thinking, ‘this is how Gordon died’, but my dad rolled up on the first try.”
The pair paddled about eight miles farther and was forced to portage twice. Based on their recommendation, the catarafts were dismantled and moved downstream to a safer put-in. After launching the next day, the team members found themselves in what they considered to be Class 4-5 Shangri-La. “It was awesomely fun whitewater,” says Peter, “and it was a thrill to be making a first descent.”
After four days, the crew had knocked off approximately 50 miles of river and found a place to take out. While the rapids were impressive, the run was relatively straightforward, mainly class 4, compared to the treacherous sections immediately downstream, where the river’s translucent blue waters burst through blind canyons with an average nearly twice what they had just run. Nonetheless, the boaters did not downplay the section of river they had successfully boated. “There’s nothing in the US I’d compare it to,” Peter says.
Trip leader, Robert Currie is similarly careful with his descriptions of the Po. “The power of the river is not to be taken lightly,” he says. “You can look at it from shore, but you can only get a true perspective of it from a boat. Rapids you thought were a certain size turned out to be bigger then expected. The water lever was nearly perfect and we happened to catch it at a perfect level, and it was dropping. I would not have wanted to run it at even two feet higher.”
After leaving the rafting river, the group drove an hour downstream and trekked to the confluence of the Yarlung Tsangpo and Po Tsangpo. “That was the hairiest part of the trip,” explains Currie. “We had to crawl on our hands and knees across a landslide of unstable scree. One slip and that would have been it. I’ll take Class V rapids any day.” A plague of leeches set upon the group, and Matt Bergey, a 24 year old contractor from Oregon, got into something similar to poison oak, which he says caused his face to expand to ‘the size of a basketball’. One eye was swollen completely shut.
“It got to the point where I was taking two steps with the eye open and two with it closed,” says Bergey. “My foot went over a cliff, but fortunately a porter was right there- a 15 year old kid who might have weighed a hundred pounds wet but was unbelievable strong. He yanked me back up on the trail like a rag doll.”
Given the killer whitewater and treacherous jungles, the Great Canyon is not very likely to be overrun with adventure tourists. But Earth River Expeditions’ Eric Hertz think its potential for rafting and trekking is wide open. Earth River Expeditions plans to offer a run on the upper Po this year.
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