First Descents of the Yangtze River in China
In the early 80s, the Chinese press learned that Sobek, a famous international rafting outfitter, led by Rich Bangs and now called Mountain Travel – Sobek, was competing with a small Oregon company, Warren River Expeditions, for a permit to complete a first descent of the upper Yangzte.
Yao Maoshu, a photographer from Sichuan, had long dreamed of rafting the Yangzte from source to sea, and decided he had to beat the Americans to the first descent. Starting in June 1985 at Lake Qemo, near the spiritual source on the flank of Mt. Gelandandong, he made it through 500 miles of Class 2 to 3 gravel bar rapids before he drowned in the first major rapids below Yushu.
The Chinese originally demanded a million dollar permit fee for the first descent, based on the high fees they had been able to get for Mountain Everest climbing expeditions. In 1986, Warren managed to convince them to accept half a million, paid by Mutual of Omaha. As part of the deal, Warren brought three young Chinese men to Oregon - Zhang Jiewe, Xu Jusheng, and Chu Siming, for three months to teach them row, then included them as guides and renamed his expedition the Sino-American Yangtze Expedition. Mutual of Omaha eventually made a two hour film of the expedition to kick off their new TV program, Spirit of Adventure.
Chinese nationalist fervor following Yao Maoshu’s death spurred four other Chinese teams to join the race: three from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, or CAS, and one from Luoyang, the capital of China several centuries ago. Two CAS groups began at Lake Qemo and the other one began at the geographic source on the Dam Qu. The Luoyang group, led by Lang Baoluo, also put-in at Lake Qemo. The Chinese teams began rafting the Yangzte about a month before the Warren Expedition.
It is a well known fact among river runners that rivers in flood are far more dangerous than they are at low to mid level water flows, so first descents should never be run in flood. However, in the spring and fall when the lower stretches are most likely to be safely runnable, the river at the source is to low to float. To avoid the cost of running the headwaters at high water in July and returning in October to run the rest of the river, Warren chose to follow the summer flood down the river. The result was a disaster.
The Chinese teams had virtually no rafting experience, so they didn’t have a clue that they shouldn’t be running a first descent in flood. They were also paddling small life rafts, which flipped easily in the huge rapids, and eventually resorted to an uncontrollable rubber ball that sometimes got stuck in huge holes, damaging the craft and drowning the inhabitants. The Chinese teams even ran this craft though the Class 6 rapids of Tiger Leaping Gorge, not knowing that an experienced boater would never consider running rapids at flows of 100,000 cfs with gradients as high as 50 feet per mile. The Chinese did beat the Warren Expedition to a first descent of the upper 1200 miles of river, but at a high cost: ten more drowned before the race ended with the success of the CAS team.
Although no one on the Warren team drowned, their photographer, David Shippee, died of pneumonia associated with high altitude sickness. The team suffered a mutiny about 700 miles from the source, resulting in the loss of most of their experienced oarsmen. Everyone finally hiked out another hundred miles downstream, at the beginning of a huge rapid near the border between Tibet and Yunnan.
As a result of the disastrous race to raft the Yangzte, it has the reputation of a killer river.
In 1987, the Chinese gave Sobek a permit to raft a section of the Great Bend below Tiger Leaping Gorge, where the river returns to its moderate gradient of about 15 feet per mile and has some spectacular rapids that can be safely run at low water. The Chinese had run all but 30 miles of this stretch at high water in August, 1986. The river flows around the 18,000 ft Jade Dragon Mountains near the famous resort town of Lijiang. Sobek wisely waited until October when the flow was about 50,000 cfs. Their expedition resulted one of the best river stories ever written – Riding the Dragon’s Back - the race to raft the Yangtze, by Rich Bangs and Christian Kallen.
In 1995, Earth River Expeditions attempted a first descent of about 100 miles of the Shuiluo River, which joins the Yangtze at the top of the Great Bend. The team of eighteen rafters and kayakers included Zhang Jiewe from Warren’s 1986 expedition. The expedition was led by Eric Hertz, whose concern for safety wisely led them to abort the expedition a few days before reaching the Yangtze and before losing any lives. The river’s gradient averaged 75 feet per mile, a bit high for the 3000 cfs they encountered. The kayaks managed to provide support for flipped rafts, but some stretches were so dangerous they had to make numerous very difficult portages and were lucky to make two miles a day.
The eighty mile stretch from the footbridge where Earth River aborted their expedition to the confluence with the Yangzte was run in January 2005 by a team of expert kayakers which included Jed Weingarten, Willie Kern, Polk Deters, Travis Winn, Dunbar Harvey and Land Heflin. Although they planned for an eight day expedition, it only took them four days.
A team of Irish kayakers led by Travis Winn of Last Descents ran the stretch of the main stream from Batang to Benzilan, about 100 km upstream from Tiger Leaping Gorge in the Great Bend, in November, 2010.
The Chinese are building several large dams on the Yangzte in the Great Bend. Liyuan and Ahai dams are under construction, Jinanquio was completed in 2010 and three other dams are in the planning stages. If constructed, the Longpan Dam above Shigu at the first bend of the Yangzte, located just upstream from Tiger Leaping Gorge, will produce as much hydropower as the Three Gorges Dam 800 miles downstream. As a result, by 2015 the only non-reservoir section of the Yangtze in the Great Bend will be the spectacular but un-runnable Tiger Leaping Gorge. In 2008, two large earthquakes devastated China east and northeast of the Great Bend Area. The largest was northwest of Chengdu and the other was near the Ertan dam, which is located at the confluence of the Yalong and Yangzte. In 2010, a large earthquake devasted the town of Yushu, Qinghai, about 500 miles from the source. In other areas of the world, the weight of reservoirs and the lubrication of faults by the reservoir has been shown to cause earthquakes. One can only hope that the construction of multiple large dams on the Yangtze won't contribute to additional devastating earthquakes in this highly seismic area.
Links to first descents of the Yalong and other tributaries of the Yangtze in western Sichuan are at: