Letters from Tibet – Salween First Descent


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Editor’s Note: In September, Colorado-born brother and sister Eric and Jennifer Ladd were part of a team that finished a 200-mile first descent on the upper section of the Salween in Eastern Tibet. Paddling Life was lucky enough to receive correspondence from them both. Following is their first-person accounts of the trip. Jennifer’s letters are italicized.

I find myself on the back of a motorcycle in a remote region of Eastern Tibet. I’m holding on to a monk, and as he propels us forward I take in the smell of smoke and yak butter tea from his russet-colored robes. I brace myself as he accelerates through a corner bringing us onto the main path through the monastery.

This is a place few, if any, Westerners have seen, especially given the response of the locals, children especially – they swarm us, sneaking ever closer to examine our strangeness. Earlier in the morning we arrived in Shading, a long three days of driving from Lhasa. Dirt roads with severe topography, high altitude passes, combined with drivers who prefer third gear, even if it requires them to accelerate on corners hovering over 3,000-foot drops, means we’re not only thankful to be in this small Tibetan village, but to be alive.

My eldest brother, Eric, has always enjoyed rafting and our childhood was filled with adventure as we were encouraged to push boundaries by our parents. I suppose a childhood of that nature, combined with a passion for boating is what inspired my brother to put together this group with his friend, Travis Winn. Twelve of us have traveled nearly 10,000 miles around the world to attempt a first descent on the Salween (Nu River) River of Eastern Tibet.

The Nu Jiang or Salween River runs 2815 km from the snowy peaks of Tibet to the salt water of the Andaman Sea. The river is replenished each July and August by monsoons that raise water levels over 40,000 cfs. After two years of planning my wife, sister and I teamed up with Pete and Travis Winn of Grand Junction, Colorado to organize permits and logistics of one of the most demanding trips in Asia for 2007.

The group of 12 also included a mix of participants from Colorado, Wyoming, Oregon, Hawaii, Tibet, and China all of whom met in Lhasa on September 1st. While acclimating to 12,000 feet, gear was sorted and packed, maps were perused and food was purchased from local markets including copious amount of yak and cabbage. “Lhasa is a unique mixture of tradition and capitalism,” noted my wife, Brandy Ladd. “Buddhism permeates most facets of Tibetan daily life with a respect for the power of natural elements. Meanwhile, urban sprawl has hit with new shops, banks, tourist attractions and auto dealers developing very quickly.”

The group departed Lhasa in four Land Cruisers and a 1-ton military truck loaded with rafts, kayaks, gear and enough food for over three weeks. Tibetan drivers maneuvered through yak herds, over 17,000-foot mountain passes, past creeks and small villages venturing into a very remote section of Tibet.

We’ve been holed up in the monastery for five days waiting for the Salween to drop but the rain keeps coming. The days pass beneath the Tibeatan sun, afternoons are filled with drawing and signing lyrics from the Counting Crows with the monks. Nights of rain encourage my brother to draw a picture of a sun and rain perpetuating a humorous act of charades in which he begs the monks to pray for sun, and no more precipitation!

A decision is made to head back the way we came and run a lower volume tributary of the Salween, locally named the Gyel Chu. We decide that it would be a good “warm up” for the group, a moral booster while also giving the Salween two more days to drop in water volume.

The Gyel Chu was an amazing river, similar to the Selway or Middle Fork Rivers at big flows. After two days of incredible boating, our group reached the confluence of the Gyel Chu and Salween we were stoked to see that the Salween had finally dropped, so we decided to proceed with our trip.

From the size of the whitewater to the immense heights of the canyon walls, the Salween reminded the group members of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado. We were welcomed with large Class III & IV rapids with waves reaching 15 feet. Towards the end of the first day the group came into a narrow section of a gorge and pulled up to an enormous rapid, later named Waimea due to the extremely large “ocean-size” waves.

After initial moments of fear at this seemingly insurmountable obstacle, the group quickly pulled together and worked out the safest of several risky options. Jenny and Brandy led the other raft passengers down to climb around a cliff that prevented portage of the rapid, and kayakers paddled the rapid to check around the corner and set safety. Last, the boat captains rowed down in groups of two. “Seeing all four boats come around the corner right-side up was a highlight of the trip,” said trip leader and kayaker, Travis Winn. Minutes later, the group was further rewarded with an excellent campsite tucked up against a mossy cliff among the pine trees.

The end of our first day on the Salween placed us above a large, landslide-caused, rapid. Unable to camp we sent scouts, and set forth to make a decision that would hopefully guide everyone safely through this stretch of river. A decision was made that everyone except the oarsmen should walk, and I set off to rig a fixed line that would aid in scrambling over the rocks bordering the river. Four expedition members including my brother Eric and family friend Jason Moore decided the best choice was to run the rapid. With the intense water volume and flow within this constriction all the oarsmen knew that there was a good chance of flipping a boat. Other options such as “lining” the boats, or “ghost floating” them seemed more dangerous or costly. Speaking with Jason after his run he recalled that the best one can do in this situation is to line up and hit the waves straight hoping that they crest and break at the right time. Watching from the shore I saw Jason and my brother Eric descend as the first pair of boats. At times I could see two to four feet of water above and below their 16-foot catarafts as they ascended a wave. I had a hard time watching. We all knew the stakes involved and I felt sick to my stomach watching my friend and brother descend into the rapid. Moments later, I was relieved when we got a radio call letting us know that all four boats and kayaks had gotten through safely.

We covered ninety miles over the next two days, unheard of on most first descents, and aside from avoiding whirlpools, hardly had to work to move downstream. The canyon walls remained immense, towering skyward in chiseled black and silver faces, vegetated wherever the deep green conifers could seek purchase. The muddy river backed up into the many blue green tributaries, creating long snaking estuaries that often seemed to open to larger canyons beyond the main river canyon. Villages perched themselves wherever the canyon walls flattened out enough to farm, with wheat for the yaks drying on wooden frames sprinkled throughout the fields. True to the team’s admittedly optimistic prediction, the water level dropped an average of two feet per night, quickly bringing flows down to a level that felt more like big rivers at home.

On day 6 we embarked on what we knew would be our final day on the river. Another gorge loomed ahead, and although we felt confident with the successful whitewater runs behind us, we were all hopeful to continue our good fortune long enough to emerge safely at the end of the day. This gorge was committing in nature with more swift water, large waves, and sheer granite walls. Eric equated the topography to boating at the base of the Tetons. It was so spectacular in scale that you couldn’t even fit it within your camera frame. Our focus however, was continually brought downward to the ever-churning whitewater that stood between us and a safe completion of this first descent. Our skilled oarsmen and kayakers continued to navigate the water beautifully, so well in fact that it seemed surreal to watch an oar slice through the air as a raft overturned. Holding a throw bag downstream it seemed as if time slowed watching the swimmers emerge, the kayakers react, all while we continued to descend through more rapids. With a combination of raft and kayak rescue, all three swimmers were pulled to safety. Foot entrapment for one expedition member, and mile or so long swims for the others was both sobering and motivating for us all. Forward progress was our only option venturing deeper into the same kind of whitewater we had been dealing with for days, the type of whitewater that has the potential to either obliterate you, or allow you to pass gracefully depending on your skill, timing, and luck. Near the end of the gorge cautious elation began to circulate within the group just before we rounded another corner and saw water spurting into the air indicating more, if not bigger water ahead. Emotions changed rapidly and all that could be felt was a desperate need to emerge safely. We had had our fun, and this rapid was like a final gauntlet. Rowing with all residual energy, the oarsmen navigated through the waves, strategically steering us away from the sheer granite wall to our left, while accepting the brutal pounding of the water.

We were through, we were done, we did it.

As our Tibetan friends set in for a winter of drinking butter tea with their families, and our Chinese partners fiddle with rafting equipment in their Yunnan Province homes, we are scheming a way to develop river running opportunities for Americans and Chinese alike on the rivers draining the Tibetan Plateau. “When you go for the first time, you expect an amazing river and cultural experience,” said Winn. “What you discover in the process is a China and Tibet that you never knew existed.” As more and more people come over to see this place, there are bound to be positive ramifications for China-Tibet-US relations, as well as river conservation.

For more information about the trip visit salweenfirstdescent.com Want in on future trips? Check out lastdescents.com.

Jennifer now lives in Hawaii while Eric resides in Big Sky, Montana. We’re pretty sure they’ll raft together again.


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