Hidden deep inside a remote mountainous stretch of southeastern Tibet, the twisting, snaking Yarlung Tsangpo Gorge offers a wild, untamed brew of beauty, history, mystery and tragedy. Its river is reputed to be the most ferocious stretch of whitewater in the world-it drops an average of 65 feet per mile, which is eight times that of the Colorado through the Grand Canyon. As the holy grail for expeditionary kayakers the Tsangpo is the Everest of whitewater. No one has yet to bag a first descent; in 1998, a National Geographic Society-sponsored exploration party lost its lead kayaker to the unforgiving rapids. His body was never found.
For much of this century, this virginal slice of the Himalayas had been off-limits to Westerners until the Chinese granted travel permits in the early '90s. Among the first group of adventurers to explore the gorge by river and foot were two real estate developers and ardent students of Buddhism from Scottsdale, Arizona-Gil Gillenwater, 45, and his brother, Troy, 39, who ventured upon one of Earth's most sacred prizes: the fabled and legendary "Hidden Waterfalls of Shangri-La."
Originally known as Shambhala, which is Sanskrit for "place of peace", Shangri-La is a Tibetan Eden where people never age, trees grant wishes, and happiness reigns eternally. Geographically, this earthly paradise resides within the lush, subtropical area of the gorge- the planet's deepest canyon submerged between two skyscraping Himalayan peaks, each towering 24,000 feet in elevation. A central tenet to the Shangri-La myth is that the river's waterfalls conceal a secret passageway to the spirit world.
The Gillenwaters have returned to the Tsangpo Gorge two additional times, and plan another extended trip this summer. "It's a magical place and seeing the falls was one of the most profound experiences in my life," says Gil, who also runs a non-profit charitable foundation for homeless children and senior citizens in Mexico. Other exploration parties - including the ill-fated National Geographic group- have subsequently traveled into this region in the hope of further documenting its remarkable secrets.
"Western logic is inadequate to explain certain phenomena that we experienced here," says Gil. "We saw rivers flowing side-by-side but in opposite directions. We would be guided back onto lost trails by Tibetan priests directing us to follow brilliant double rainbows. Local hunters would miraculously appear out of the mists to lead us to our next destination. And when we were running out of food an Asian black bear appeared frozen in a glacier. We then lived on bear meat for a week."
RailRiders talked at length with Gil about his Tibetan wilderness experience. After all, he and his brother wore RailRiders during their most recent journey. "The Himalayan region in which we were hiking is one of the wettest and most rugged in the world," continues Gil. "During our month-long trek we climbed a cumulative elevation of over 75,000 feet. In terms of clothing, the first two trips over there, we wore cotton. That proved to be a mistake since this place is the rain catch for all the monsoons that are constantly flooding Bangladesh, coming off the Bay of Bengal. The water-laden clouds lumber up and hit the Himalayan Mountains right in this area and just dump. We were in constant moisture. The cotton simply rotted. It would never dry out. We'd get sweaty from the exertions of hiking and climbing, but we were at elevation so we had to keep our winter jackets on. At night we'd attempt to wash or ring out our cotton clothes but it was futile. After several weeks it was unbearable."
"When we used RailRiders on our last trip it was just a blessing because though the clothes felt like cotton they would quickly dry out, wore well, ventilated great, and packed well. They were lightweight, durable, and always comfortable. In jungles where it was really humid, RailRiders clothing was the only way to go. The Weatherpants, Expedition Shirts, and Rampage Shorts were great. When we left the wilds and returned to civilization, we'd wash our RailRiders in the hotel sink, hang them up in our room overnight, and they'd be clean and wrinkle-free for the next morning. RailRiders are just great, really! And now, back here in Scottsdale's hot desert climate, I often wear RailRiders at the office."
Q: What got you interested in journeying into the hidden regions of Tibet. Was it to look for the source of Shangri-La?
It was the year I turned forty. I'd been studying some of the Buddhist teachings, and I thought, 'I'm going to Tibet, come hell or high water. I don't know how I'm going to get there. I don't know really that much about the country, but I'm going.' Well, a week later the Arizona Republic ran a news story about a guy named Rick Fisher in Tucson who was going to Tibet to document the great bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo which is, in fact, the deepest canyon in the world. Coincidentally, he was looking for people with backpacking and river experience to go along. Talk about timing. This was in 1994, and so we ended up bringing along a twelve-foot paddle raft to the river.
Q: How far did you make it on the river?
We ran the rapids for one harrowing day and then we were forced to abandon the raft because the water was unbelievably treacherous. It's the world's highest major river, and our put-in started at 13,000 feet. We had a little bit of altitude problem. The drop is incredible and we were hitting these big rapids and the dilemma was that you couldn't even eddy out. Had we stayed on the river, we would have just had to take a chance that there wasn't a waterfall around the next bend. At that point, my brother, Troy, said, 'You know, this is insane. ' So, we'd abandoned all of our equipment-our raft, everything, and we ended up hiking out. It took us four days and along the way we kept finding human skeletons. When I got back to Lhasa I called home. At that time, there was only one public phone in the Tibetan capital. It was in the Holiday Inn hotel. While I was talking, a guy came up and tapped me on the back and said, 'Hey, I wasn't eavesdropping, but, boy, what an adventure.' We started talking and this guy's name was Ian Baker. He's a Buddhist scholar and an explorer. He said, 'I'm planning a trip back into that region for a sacred pilgrimage. Would you be interested in joining me?' So Troy, our younger brother Todd, and myself went back the following year with him.
Q: Explain all those skeletons.
Well, the ground is so hard at elevation and because there's not much wood for burning, they don't bury the bodies. They have a class of people who cut them up and they feed them to the vultures.They're called sky burials. The Buddhists say that the last compassionate act is to share one's body with another living creature. They also have water burials and so a lot of the bones and skulls that we were finding had been cast into the river.
Q: Did you travel with guides and porters?
Actually, we used several local guides from different villages. Every time we'd get to a place where we couldn't travel anymore, miraculously, one of the local hunters would just appear out of the mist. It's weird because they don't normally go out of their own valleys. They don't often know what's beyond. The villages are quite small- maybe 100 people at the most. They're just perched precariously up on the mountainsides. You walk in and they pull the hair on your arms because they have never seen Westerners, and they look in wonderment at your knives and other hi-tech gear. But the best carriers of all we found out were the women. In fact, you always wanted to have at least two or three women porters because the female energy really balanced the whole group out. If you had just male porters, you were always having troubles-demanding more money and going on sit-down strikes.
Q: Who were these local hunters? Were they Sherpas?
No, the Sherpas are a specific ethnic group, part Nepalese, part Tibetan, and they're trained for high altitude. These guys are the ultimate survivalists. They can start a fire in pouring down rain. Because of their unique wilderness abilities and unwavering dependability, Ian brought several with us from Kathmandu. However, we also relied heavily on the local 'Monpas', which means `people of the mountains'. They're tribal people. It wasn't but a couple of generations ago that you just didn't venture into their territory. They're brutal tribal fighters. You're on their turf. Even to this day, the Dalai Lama issues prohibitive travel warnings because the Monpas practice a poisoning cult. They believe that if they poison you, all your physical and psychological attributes float back to them.
Q: Is that hearsay and superstition or grounded in reality?
It's pretty well documented. Years after Tenzing Norgay summited Everest with Hilary, Norgay's wife died when a witch poisoned her while she was on a pilgrimage in this area.
Q: Did you have run-ins with them?
We did not accept food from them. There were certain villages where our porters would not stay because they were known as poison villages.
Q: Describe the hiking conditions.
The hiking conditions in Beyul Pemako, or the Hidden Lands of the southeastern Tibetan Himalayas, are formidable. Geologically unstable, the rugged area is a living landscape of constant motion. Incessant monsoon rains create thundering rivers which flow as boiling foam sandwiched between towering peaks. It's also important to remember that the Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo is bent because it is located at the thrust pivot point of two major colliding continents. Consequently, the grinding geologic movement results in endless landslides, rockfalls, avalanches and earth fissuring. Without warning, entire sides of mountains will slough off and fall away. From the beginning our climbing was torturous. To avoid the major underbrush we had to inch along bared edges of the latest landslide. The exposure was horrific since one slip would send you tumbling to the jungle a half mile below. Couple this with the tremendous variance in elevation- the Gorge itself is over three miles deep-and you have, dense, wet, leech and viper infested, bamboo jungles next to ominous glacier covered passes which have kept this area truly hidden, lost from the rest of the outside world.
Q: When did you come across the Hidden Waterfalls?
During our third trip in 1997, we went back with Ian as part of a larger group, but the group dynamics weren't working, so my brother and I decided to split from the expedition. We were later joined by another team member, Ken Storm. As we headed north into the hidden and uncharted "Inner Gorge" region of the Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo River, we knew that we entering a politically sensitive, highly-disputed border area which demarcates Tibet from India. But Ken knew a lot about the area from the writings of British explorer and botanist, Kingdon-Ward, who mapped a portion of this region in the 1920s. So, between what Ken knew and our guides' knowledge, we spent five days climbing, scrambling, and sliding into the uncharted sections of the Inner Gorge. Since the route had never been fully traveled we had no idea if it was even possible. We met out first major obstacle after dropping 10,000 vertical feet to the Yarlung Tsangpo river. To get across the river we had to pull ourselves, hand-over-hand, across a suspended, 200-yard-long, single-cable bridge. But the Lugu villagers on the west side of the river claimed they owned the cable and were not going to allow us passage because we had only hired porters from another village. After several hours of shouting and animated gesticulations the dispute was finally settled near dusk. The ensuing treacherous river crossing will long stand out in my mind as one of the most exciting and dangerous things I have ever done. Two porters had plunged to their deaths in the violent river the year before when a similar cable collapsed. Once on the other side we then had to hike the 2,300 vertical feet in the dark up to the small village of Gogden. The sky was pitch black and one false step on this exposed climb would have resulted in a distant free-fall to the churning river below.
We slept well that night in the Buddhist shrine room of a small house. In the morning we began our long, grueling climb up and out of the west bank of the gigantic gorge. We had 6,000 feet of climbing ahead of us. It was a very hot day and we sweated profusely as we inched our way up. At long last we broke over one ridge and hiked to a pilgrimage cave deep in the forest-like jungle where we spent the night. The next day was even steeper as we often lost the trail due to the constant landslides and torrential rains. When we reached the Tsebum La Pass we were exhausted from all the bushwhacking. We had hiked over slippery fallen logs, across bogs and through dense wet forest. By this time the skies had completely darkened with clouds and the wind was howling through the trees. Blazing lightning and ear-splitting thunder was exploding all around us, yet our guide continued at full pace. Still we pushed on until we came to an extremely exposed area that literally dropped off into a void of swirling clouds.
Q: This sounds quite dangerous.
Having been caught in these destructive Himalayan storms at lower elevations on prior expeditions, we knew the real and ever-present danger of being helplessly trapped at elevation - with zero visibility - on a trail-less, unexplored and unstable ridgeline. We had no idea what lay ahead in these constantly moving, living mountains. We could be swallowed up in enormous, rain-soaked cloudbanks for weeks at a time. There would be no possible way we could obtain our bearings. Furthermore, our porters staged an immediate revolt. They had never traveled this route, and due to the dangers involved we had to raise their daily wage from $7 to $12. So, with that matter settled, we moved as a single unit beyond the timberline. but it soon became evident that travel on this unexplored route would be even more treacherous. Gaping crevasses hid in the tangled foliage patiently waiting for one misguided step. They were like crevasses in a glacier only we could not see them. In addition, rhododendron-choked hillsides forced the expedition out on the edge of the sheer-walled precipices where the strangling vegetation was less menacing. Bringing up the rear, in the distance I could slowly see our entourage emerging from the clouds and into view. It was a frightening scene as there were porters scattered everywhere, calling back and forth to each other. Nobody seemed to know which direction to travel. With all landmarks obscured by the ever-present clouds, the panic of confusion was beginning to take hold. I began looking around for some discernable feature when I noticed the silhouette of a hunter with a rifle standing off to my right on a mountain crest in the distance. Instinctively, I yelled at him to get his attention-at which point he looked over at me and began charging towards us fast as he could with his antiquated flintlock rifle in the ready position. After we exchanged greetings by saying "Tashi delek,"
which means "my spirit honors your spirit" in Tibetan, it was soon established that this enigmatic apparition-this mystical warrior from the clouds-was a local Buddhist shaman who agreed to guide us on the next leg of our journey into the hidden inner gorge.
So, following an ancient and seldom-traveled pilgrimage route known only to our new-found guide, a day of strenuous hiking along the ridgeline path, coupled with a rain-soaked layover day, brought us to the base of a huge knife-edged mountain. Local myth had this formidable massif as the sacred abode of the Guardian Protector-Dorje Bragsen who watched over the Inner Gorge. Our porters, however, didn't want to take us to the top of this most sacred, wild and dangerous mountain. They were deathly afraid that our presence-as foreigners-would anger the protector spirit, most certainly resulting in snowstorms, landslides, and other perilous natural disasters. Even the prospect of additional pay met with no interest. They simply didn't want to die or jeopardize the well-being of their families and villages as a result of angering the protector spirit-Dorje Bragsen! But that night the Buddhist hunter had a prophetic dream that we should be taken to the top of the Dorje Bragsen, and by virtue of his vision we must be taken there. The porters relented, and with their assistance we scratched, pulled and dangled our way skyward to the spectacular summit. The thundering Yarlung Tsangpo River was more than a mile below. We were blessed with a once in a lifetime glimpse into the secret gateway of the Hidden Lands, the deepest and most impenetrable hidden gorge in the world.
Q: And the Falls?
We soon found out that our hunter-guide was now out of his territory and could offer us no further advice on which way we should continue. Groping our way through the soup of swirling moisture, another lone hunter ethereally appeared from within the shrouded landscape. He was tall and standing proudly erect as two hungry dogs cowered at his feet. After some discussion it was learned that he knew of a secret passage down into the gorge and agreed to guide us. He also told us of a massive waterfall. Ken, Troy and I stared at each other in disbelief. Could this possibly be the Hidden Falls of Shangri-La? We literally danced with joy and gratefulness at our unbelievably good fortune. As the afternoon light began to fade we made our arduous descent through thick tangles of bamboo and rhododendron. As we neared the river, we could see all this white water and spray as the narrowly-confined current jetted out over what must have been a formidable drop. The violent plunge of the great river, coupled with the constricted stone-walled throat of the canyon, created the hydrologic "venturi" effect whereby the entire river appeared as though it were being shot out of a giant fire hose. The unbridled turbulence was so furious that the river could not be contained within its own banks. Huge walls of water splashed intermittently twenty and thirty feet up onto the canyon walls. Sleep came difficult that night as we were anxious for the light of morning to further explore our new discovery. And so, the next morning, we snaked our way 2,000 vertical feet down towards the waterfall. Felling trees for makeshift bridges and handrails, this was one of our most exposed and dangerous climbs yet. When it was impossible to go any further along our machete-hacked trail we stopped and photographed the fall's existence, estimating its vertical drop to be approximately 100 feet. We had arrived at the elusive and long-sought Hidden Falls of Shangri-La.
Q: Has anyone else ever seen these falls?
Yes. Two years later, the National Geographic expedition came out with its announcement that it "discovered" the same falls. Meanwhile the Chinese said, 'Hey, wait a minute, what are you talking about? We've had groups down in here for a number of years,' and then they even provided photographs. They've flown over it and hiked it. Then, there's the locals. It's like Columbus saying he discovered America, when the Indians were already here. National Geographic had a monetary investment and they are known for making marvelous discoveries all over the world. There's not as many places left to discover. We had been invited to go on their trip, but we declined. We had already been there. Still, prior to their expedition, we gladly shared our photographs and maps with them. They later said that they were the first ones to see these falls. It just wasn't true. We've got hundreds of photographs of them. Though I later learned that Everest climber David Breashears saw the falls in 1993.
Q: Did National Geographic respond to your objections?
Yes. Their contention was. 'Well, discovery is a subjective word and, yes, you may have seen them, but you didn't measure them.' So we jokingly replied, 'Okay. You win,' though the truth was on our side and we had the actual photographs to support our claim.
Q: So there's always a little turmoil in discovering paradise. Have you met the Dalai Lama?
Yes, I met him here in Tucson, Arizona.
Q: What is he like?
There's a presence about him that you don't find very often. There were two of us in the room and only one ego, and it certainly wasn't his. It just becomes blatantly apparent. You just want to hug the guy. There's a peace and fatherly love about him.
Q: Did you encounter other lamas or Tibetan priests during your expeditions?
Our most memorable encounter was with one lama who suddenly appeared and started hiking with us. We nicknamed him the Jolly Lama because he was always smiling. Kind of a portly guy. Always in a good mood. It would be pouring down rain and you'd look over and it'd be raining on everybody's tent but his! I am not kidding you, it was the weirdest thing. We just got the biggest kick out of this guy. Well, one time it had been raining for about seven days. I was miserable and covered with leeches. I'll never forget what happened next. Sloshing along the muddy trail in the pounding rain I came upon a large, slimy log that had fallen chest high across our brush-choked path. In my agitated state I viewed the log as a menacing obstacle. With no way under or around it, I jumped, stomach-first, and slid over the top. Regaining my balance on the other side, I was infuriated at the mud and decaying mush that seemed to have covered the entire front of my body. Rubbing off the crud I cursed the log and the rain. My brother Todd then suggested that we wait and see how the Lama would handle this formidable impediment. Surely this test would break him. Hiding off the trail we peeked through the undergrowth just in time to see him trudge up to the log. Ever smiling, he took a couple of steps back and tried his jump with a running start. With not enough momentum, coupled with a portly belly, he slid back down on the same side of the log and landed on his back in a large puddle. Shaking his rain drenched head he burst into spasms of uproarious laughter. Staggering to his feet, he repeated the same maneuver with the same results three more times. With each collapse back into the puddle his laughter grew stronger and louder. On his fourth attempt he made it over the top and slid headlong into the muddy puddle on the other side. Again, the laughter. Continuing to chuckle, he wiped himself off as best he could and lovingly patted the log as though it were a dear friend. He then proceeded up the trail, still smiling. Todd and I just stared at each other in amazement. At that moment it became experientially obvious to me that it wasn't the external or natural world that was my problem. Rather it was how I chose to perceive it. The Jolly Lama's rainy, leech-infested day wasn't bad quite simply because he chose not to conceptualize it that way. It was blatantly evident that there was a choice, and that choice was mine alone. The Jolly Lama chose to experience his encounter with the log as a happy thing, therefore he had joy. I chose to perceive my experience as miserable, and therefore I felt miserable.
Q: I think you described the essence of Shangri-La.
To read Gil and Troy Gillenwaters' complete account of the 1997 expedition into the "Hidden Lands" of southeastern Tibet, visit www.hiddenfalls.org. For information about their non-profit Rancho Feliz foundation, which assists in humanitarian projects in the Southwest and Mexico, go to www.ranchofeliz.org.