Open Letter to Friends of Doug Gordon

To friends of Doug Gordon's, following is an account, written by Jamie McEwan, of the accident in which Doug lost his life. Please pass this on to people who may have known Doug. Bruce Lessels

On October 16, 1998, Douglas Cameron Gordon lost his life while kayaking a rapid on the Tsangpo river in eastern Tibet. An expedition of four American kayakers, Tom and Jamie McEwan, Roger Zbel, and Doug Gordon, had launched their boats on the Tsangpo at the town of Pei on October 5th. The river at this time, while considerably higher than the low fall levels the expedition members had hoped for, was approximately thirty vertical feet below that summer's flood level.

After completing the first eighteen miles of river, a warm-up stretch between the towns of Pei and Gyala, Doug and his three river teammates chose to continue paddling and portaging their way into the Tsangpo Gorge itself. On October 16, at about 11 AM, after careful study from the bank, Doug decided to attempt a steep drop near shore, choosing a line over an eight-foot waterfall, aiming for the eddy just below. He was unable to clear the recoil of water at the bottom of the drop, and his boat flipped upside down and was held for some moments. When he floated free, there was still time for him to roll his boat upright and paddle to safety, but his two roll attempts failed; his teammates later surmised that he had been pulled partway out of his boat, as had happened to him once before, early in the trip.

Doug was then swept into the main current, where a series of very large recirculating hydraulics made navigation impossible. The other three paddlers portaged this rapid and searched the river over the next four days, but were unable to locate Doug or any trace of his equipment. After joining one of the expedition support teams, which had been searching the river further downstream, the expedition members left the river and hiked out to the nearest road.

The expedition members mourn the death of this fine kayaker and outstanding human being, and extend their sympathy and support to his wife, Connie L. Gordon, and his young sons Tyler and Bryce.

Trip Report of the Yarlung Tsangpo Expedition October 1998, Lhasa (I believe this is Tom McEwan's account. Rsk)

Four American kayakers on October 5 launched boats onto the Yarlung Tsangpo River in East Tibet. At the town of Pei the water appeared a medium-brown color, flowing swiftly, about 1/3 mile wide. Considering high water marks left recently on the banks, the river had been at high water about ten days before. Now, it was estimated to be at a medium-high level, 10 ft.-20 ft. lower on the banks. Over the next few weeks, water levels continued to drop 2"-4" daily.

The River Team considered the stretch from Pei to Gyala, about 18 mi., a warm-up before entering the heart of the gorge. From topographical information, the gradient was not judged to be as steep above Gyala as would be encountered below. A well-travelled trail following the river allowed the Support Team of Harry and Doris Wetherbee and videographer, Paulo Castillo, to walk to Gyala, and provide resupply. In this part of the trip the four paddlers, Jamie McEwan, Roger Zbel, Doug Gordon, and Tom McEwan, were able to assess the "Himalayan" magnitude of river and terrain, and to develop appropriate methods.

Paddling and carrying, usually avoiding the main flow, and scouting far ahead, they took four days to arrive at Gyala. Jamie paddled for only two, as on the second day, preparing to launch, he slipped off a rock along the edge of a large rapid. His sprayskirt was not fully attached, allowing his boat to fill with water, and he was forced to swim. While he easily attained an eddy, his boat with all his equipment disappeared downstream. He was forced from that point to hike to Gyala. Later, his boat and all his equipment would be found and returned to Gyala by Tibetan hunters and pilgrims.

Leaving Gyala the four kayakers, expecting to spend significant time on foot scouting the river, carried 15 days of food. Their plan was to meet up with the Support Team of Wick Walker and Dave Phillips near Rainbow Falls, about 26 miles from Gayala. The latter were hiking up the gorge with porters and supplies for the Expedition's next segment.

On October 16, at about 11 AM, as the River Team made their way down the left side of the river, avoiding the main current out in the middle, they stopped to scout the rocky edge of a large rapid. Doug, Jamie, and Roger considered several possible routes, while Tom set up downstream on a boulder to do video and to hold a safety rope. Doug went first, choosing a line over an 8 ft. waterfall hugging the side of the river. Aiming for an eddy just below, he would boof/skip over the rock and land himself in the left-hand eddy. However, he was unable to clear the hydraulic at the foot of the falls, causing him to be caught and pushed toward the main part of the river. Then, freed from the hydraulic and still in his upturned boat, he yet had opportunity to recover, allowing him room to paddle to shore. During this time whilst in the reaches of safety Doug attempted two rolls which were both unsuccessful,and he continued to drift further out into the middle of the current.

He and his boat were now well out of range of the safety rope. His three team mates watched helplessly as he was then swept into the rapid below.- a certainly fatal series of recirculating hydraulics - and out of sight. The search for Doug began immediately. Tom and Roger raced over rocks down the shore, while Jamie unloaded his boat, carried the stretches of difficult rapids, and paddled down the river.

The next four days were devoted to moving downstream and scanning the shores for any remains of Doug or his equipment. Wick and Dave (support-team), alerted by satellite phone, reached the river and began a search downstream. On October 20, 8.5 miles below the accident site, the two groups met, and the search was called off. Doug was presumed dead.

All local and national authorities, as well as families concerned, were notified of the accident. At this point expedition members made the decision to discontinue the expedition and to return home by the most direct route. They were still seven days of hiking and three days driving from Lhasa. A small ceremony alongside the river was held, with the local Tibetan porters and the Americans participating. Songs both Tibetan and American were sung. A square stone with Doug's name written on it was cast into the river according to local custom.

The next day while all were preparing to leave, the porters, hoping to bargain for more more money, decided it was in their best advantage to threaten abandonment of the Americans and of their equipment. They packed their bags and marched out of camp, only to return in a couple of hours when their manoeuvre did not seem to be working. The Expedition arrived back in Lhasa Nov. 3.

The River Team travelled a total of 35 miles down the Tsangpo (out of the 140 mile gorge originally intended), passing between the 25,000 and 23,000 ft. peaks of Namcha Barwa and Galiperi respectively. New methods of long range scouting were developed to prevent the team's being trapped into a position of no escape, and which allowed the team to make the progress that it did. The Support Team was able to meet up with the River Team deep within the gorge after journeying over some of the most extreme, Himalayan terrain. The expedition members deeply regret the death of loyal friend and team mate, Doug Gordon, an expert kayaker who lost his life in this challenging undertaking.

WERE WE FOOLISH TO BE ON THE RIVER AT THAT LEVEL? by Jamie McEwan

In light of what happened to Doug, it's easy to say yes to the question above. At this point, knowing the consequences to him, naturally, I wish we had never put on. And yet, take away the benefit of hindsight, I believe I would again make the same decision, if I were in the same situation:

When we arrived at Pei and first looked at the river's flow not far above the gorge, Roger at once voiced some doubts about the enterprise, suggesting that it might be wise to run an easier canyon upstream, or perhaps the tributary Po Tsangpo. Tom suggested a long scout, giving the river a chance to drop, or perhaps to paddle down to the first major obstacle, where we might camp and wait for the water to further recede. (We had a report from 10 days earlier, from German kayaker Lukas Blucher, that the river was 70-90,000 cfs; we estimated the flow at our arrival at between 25 and 50,000.

The banks showed evidence of a 10-20 foot vertical drop within the last few weeks, and we knew, from placing markers, that it was dropping still. It was no longer flood level - the river was well within its banks, probably 30 vertical feet below its vegetation line. Still, it was considerably higher than the 5,000 to 15,000 we had hoped for.)

Doug and I were consistently on the side of putting in and working our way downstream in something approaching our normal river-running mode: paddle what we could, scout and portage where we must. Yes, Doug admitted, it might quickly turn into "boat-assisted hiking," rather than river running, and we would not cover anything close to the full mileage planned. But why not paddle down and at least begin our hike from a point further downstream? If need be we could always retreat to Pei, but if we could get anywhere close to Rainbow Falls, we could hike out with Wick and "complete the loop."

And, not entirely incidentally, we would have passed that theoretical line joining the two peaks - through the deepest canyon in the world. We had all been in places on other rivers, above unrunnable waterfalls, huge holes, or rock sieves, where a missed eddy or a swim would have sent us into situations of great danger, even of probable death. This, in itself, was not new. The difference was not in degree, but rather in the constancy of the danger.

It was hard for us to get used to the idea that we could not often find a place where we could safely ferry the river; the current in the river's center was so inexorable that we rarely dared venture there, for fear of being swept into the next unrunnable portion. However, we felt that by taking the same sort of precautions we always took, we would only tackle those risks that we felt we could handle. Even if this meant hiking most of the way. I don't see the flaw in this reasoning.

The only way I can imagine that we were affected by the "Tsangpo difference"--by the unusually unrelenting downstream push of the current--was that our healthy fear may have become dulled, we might have become inured to the danger because of its constant nature. Yet, in all, and judging particularly from Doug's comments that morning, including soon before his run, I don't think this was the case.

I believe that there is no particular "reason" for Doug's death, nor moral to be drawn, other than that which Doug wrote about in reference to Richie Weiss's death the summer before: that running hard whitewater is dangerous, and that those doing so must accept that danger as the price of pursuing their sport at a high level.

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