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A Harrowing Kayak Expedition in Tibet

Jan 15, 2005 (Weekend Edition Saturday)

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Peter Heller

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In February 2002, seven extreme kayakers attempted to paddle down the Tsangpo river gorge in Tibet. One of the most remote locations on earth, the Tsangpo is also the deepest river gorge in the world, three times deeper and eight times steeper than the Grand Canyon. High waterfalls make it the most difficult river running challenge ever attempted. Some call it the Mount Everest of rivers — but unlike Everest, no one had successfully made it down the Tsangpo alive until now.

The seven kayakers were accompanied by Nepali Sherpas and more than 60 porters carrying 2,500 pounds of food and gear. There was also a journalist, Peter Heller, a veteran kayaker himself. Heller, a contributing editor for Outside magazine, has written a book chronicling his experience, Hell or High Water: Surviving Tibet's Tsangpo River. He talks with NPR's Scott Simon.

Excerpt from Hell or High Water:

The most compelling difference between a river expedition like the Tsangpo and a great mountaineering exploit is that on the river the objective is hidden. A mountain stands up to be scrutinized. Climbers scope it for the best routes and draw dotted lines on photographs. The most dangerous sections reveal themselves as avalanche chutes and cornices and rockfall. But in the bottom of the Tsangpo Gorge ran a river of great power, and few people on earth could say with any certainty what it looked like. One reason is that a river is alive. It falls and jumps and leaps, never the same for a single instant. It sings in summer and roars in the spring. Huge waves and calamitous ledges at medium flow may get filled in and smoothed over—"washed out"—at high water levels. Or the reverse—a flat section at low flow may boil with crashing swells at flood.

Only a few expeditions in history had ever gone through the Upper Gorge, between Pe and Rainbow Falls, and only one was a river expedition whose members had an eye for river features—for what was within the realm of possibility for a person in a kayak. The McEwan team had gone only 27 miles. That left 20 unscouted miles to Rainbow Falls and all the Lower Gorge.

But Francis Kingdon Ward had taken a few photographs of the river on his arduous 1924 trek, as had a couple of scientists named Ludlow and Sherriff during a 1947 hike partway into the Upper Gorge, and these grainy black and white reproductions took on iconic importance for Scott Lindgren's kayakers. As did the series of satellite images shot over the Great Bend and donated by a company called Space Imaging of Thornton, Colorado.

Another difference between mountains and rivers: You can never "conquer" a river. For a river, the lowest place around is not enough. A river must go lower. Put onto a stream in a kayak and you're likely to drop from sight — away from the road, between two mountains. A river can't get away fast enough. It falls toward the coast in a headlong rush to empty itself in the salt. Tibetan Buddhism emphasizes the inherent emptiness of all things; a river seeks to prove the point. Every wave and crease and current dissolves and is reformed moment to moment, in a journey toward complete undifferentiation. A river's last act is to empty itself of its self. How can you conquer something that only seeks to disappear?

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