Rainbow Falls, about 70 feet high. Hidden Falls, about 100 feet high, is downstream just out of sight.
Photo from the China Youth Travel Service Expedition (Yang Yong and Wan Lin, November, 1998)

Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo (Bramaputra headwaters) in Tibet

This is a huge river with a high gradient - there are 20 to 100 foot waterfalls, with some sections having a gradient of nearly 250 feet per mile - more than ten times a reasonable gradient for such a large river. At extremely low water (about 11,000 cfs in January 1942 is the lowest on record) it might be passable, but 1998 was a flood water year for China (including Tibet) - one of the worst in decades. It is difficult to obtain water flow information for rivers in China, but the flooding was well publicized this year. The expedition might have had a better chance of success had they waited for a low water year (see the link for 2002a). However, even at a winter low flow of 10,000 cfs, running this gorge is better referred to as "kayak packing".

The expedition was organized by Wick Walker and sponsored by the Explorer's Club and the National Geographic Expeditions Council. The high visibility sponsorship may have contributed to their decision to paddle the flooding river, even though the Currey team had aborted their attempt a week earlier (see 1998b).

They put-in at Pei (29 31 11N, 94 53 20E). The total length of the Great Bend is 140 miles, but the team of four kayakers gave up after running about 27 miles in four days when their lead kayaker, Doug Gordon, drowned near 29 45 30N, 94 58 14E. The flow was at least 40,000 cfs, which is extremely high for the 75'/mile average gradient of the section they ran.

The expedition reached the line of sight point between Namjabarwa (25,446', 29 37 33N, 95 03 26E) and Gyala Peri (23,462', 29 48 48N, 94 58 02E) - one of the deepest gorges on the land surface of our planet (about 15,000') - while searching for Doug Gordon. They did not reach the Hidden Falls area where recent visits by foreigners have rekindled interest in publicizing a possible location of the "Shangri La" of Tibetan Buddhism (assuming it physically exists somewhere besides James Hilton's novel "Lost Horizons").

References: Paddler Magazine, March/April 1999, pages 28 -31, "Tragedy on the Tsangpo" by Porter Fox, email by the McEwans circulated on the internet, Trip Report of the Yarlung Tsangpo Expedition, a letter submitted to Paddler by Pete Winn, Tsangpo Tragedy, a book by Wick Walker, "Courting the Diamond Sow: Kayaking Tibet's Forbidden Tsangpo River," 2000 (ISBN 07292279603), a book by Todd Balf, "The Last River - The Tragic Race for Shangri-La," 2000 (ISBN 0-609-60625-5), and a book by Michael McRae, "The Seige of Shangri La". If you're only going to read one of the three, McRae's book is an excellent summary. Balf's book is a better description of the river expedition than Walker's book, in spite of the fact that Balf wasn't there.

Return to Yarlung Tsangpo First Descents
Info about rivers of Tibet and western Sichuan