March 30, 1999
Editor, Paddler Magazine P.O. Box 775450 Steamboat Springs, CO 80477
Lessons from the Tsangpo Tragedy (Paddler, March/April 1999)
"The Tsangpo is the Mt. Everest of the paddling world ... I don't think it will happen without some more people dying," as Porter Fox quotes Andy Bridge. Jon Krakauer's account of the deaths on Mt. Everest in 1996 ("Into Thin Air) notes that over the past 75 years approximately one in four of the climbers who have attempted Everest have died. There were four kayakers on the Tsangpo expedition and one died. In 1985-86, one of the three Chinese boaters who attempted the first descent of Tiger Leaping Gorge of the Yangzte drowned. Nine others died on other stretches of the Yangtze - over 25% of the teams.
A Chinese team completed the first descent of the Yarlung Tsangpo from the source to the town of Pai at the entrance of the Great Bend in the fall of 1998. The expedition leader was Mr. Yang Yong, a member of the Research Committee of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau and manager of China Youth Travel Service. They boated about 1000 miles at an average gradient of 9 feet per mile and hiked the Great Bend rather than boat it. The Chinese learned their lesson on the Yangtze and are letting foreigners take the risk on the Tsangpo.
Although it is difficult to obtain water flow information in China, it is possible if there are gauges. I've led several first descents on the Mekong in China and have been able to get flow information. For the Yarlung Tsangpo, the only guage that exists is downstream from the Great Bend, near the border with India. Unfortunately, this guage was wiped out at 400,000 cfs in the 1998 floods and who knows when they'll replace it. I couldn't get water flows for specific dates, but the average annual flow at the border recognized by China is about 156,000 cfs. For most major rivers, there is a 10 fold range between average low and high flows, so average low flows (January - February) would be about 15,000 cfs. Based on the size of tributary drainage basins, inflows below the Great Bend, including the Po, at winter low flows are probably 20% of this, so average low flows through the Great Bend would be about 12,000 cfs. In a drought year, winter flows might be lower than 10,000 cfs, and perhaps 15-20,000 cfs in Oct.-Nov. or Mar.-Apr.
Flows probably were as high as 50,000 cfs in November, 1998. Many have suggested that the expedition would have had a greater chance of success had they waited until a low water year. However, the likelihood of drowning at flow of 15,000 cfs with gradients as high as 190 feet per mile is still pretty high.
Doug Gordon knew before he left the USA that the river was high, yet went anyway. He chose to paddle the drop that drowned him - no one made him do it. The quotes in Fox's article indicate that he obviously knew the risks. Doug Gordon died doing what he loved to do - perhaps sooner than he wanted to, but most of us will die in a car wreck or hospital bed. In some ways I envy him, but in reality I hope I'm never quoted posthumously in an article titled "Tragedy on the Mekong."
Pete Winn, Grand Junction, CO