The confluence of the Po (flowing south in upper left) with the Yarlung Tsangpo in the Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo. Space Imaging Archives archives (

2002, Yarlung and Po Tsangpo in Tibet

In its Great Bend, the Tsangpo flows through one of the deepest gorges on earth - three miles deep between Namcha Barwa (25,446, 29 45 30N, 94 58 14E) and Gyala Peri (23,462', 29 48 48N, 94 58 02E), 13 miles apart. The gorge was partially expored by foreigners in the late 1800s and early 1900's but only in the past few years has the Chinese government allowed foreign access. In the summer of 1998, local hunters led a team sponsored by National Geographic and others to Hidden Falls, a one hundred foot high nearly inaccessible waterfall in the narrow gorge (29 46 12N, 95 10 38E). According to the Chinese Academy of Sciences, a record flood occurred that summer - nearly 400,000 cfs crashed over the falls. In contrast, the lowest flow measured by the Chinese was 10,000 cfs in February 1962, still a huge amount of water for gradients as high as 250 ft per mile.

In November, 1998, Wick Walker arrived at the entrance to the gorge with a team of four American kayakers who attempted to boat it at a flow around 40,000 cfs, but one of them, Doug Gordon, drowned about 27 miles below Pei, ending their expedition (see link to 1998c).

On another 1998 kayak expedition, this one organized by Steve Currey, Scott Lindgren planned to run the Great Bend, referred to as the Everest of rivers, but cancelled due to high water a week before the Walker team arrived in Pei. Instead, he ran about 10 miles of the Po, a large tributary that enters near the crest of the Great Bend (see link to 1998b, upper Po).

The 2002 expedition was sponsored by Outside Magazine and Chevy Avalanche. Lindgren planned this trip for February, when flows are lowest, to maximize the possibility of completing the 100 miles or so that Walker's 1998 team had been unable to run at flood levels. The team of seven of the worlds most experienced kayakers was able to boat 44 miles. This was 17 miles further than Walker's team had boated in 1998 - from the rapid where Doug Gordon drowned, near 29 45 30N, 94 58 14E to a half mile above Hidden Falls, near 29 46 29N, 95 11 17E. The expedition is better described as kayak packing - they carried their boats a much greater distance than they paddled them. Both the river and the trail were Class 6+.

Flow was estimated to be about 15,000 cfs. The average gradient was about 85' per mile, very high for these flows. The video produced by Outside (Into the Tsangpo Gorge) shows very dramatic footage of some of the rapids.

Knowing they would need to portage Rainbow and Hidden falls via an 11,000 ft pass, the team hired a several Nepali and about 70 Tibetan porters. Unfortunately, the team had problems with the Tibetans, who, according to author Peter Heller (Hell or High Water), felt they were seriously underpaid for the difficulty and hazard of the portage and nearly rioted to get the team to pay them what they considered a fair wage. Even more unfortunately, both the Outside Magazine web site, their print article describing this expedition (July 2002, page 82) and the video leave the reader with a negative impression of the Tibetans porters. If you lived in a culture that had been abused by foreigners for centuries, you'd understand why they felt abused. Even the British invaded and captured Lhasa for a few years (1904-07), killing stone throwing Tibetans with rifle bullets. It takes a lot of effort and patience to overcome this aspect of working with Tibetans, but the result is well worth it. Hopefully future expeditions will learn that even though Tibetans are not accustomed to the income that foreigners enjoy, Tibetans should not be treated as poor people who don't know their worth. They have adapted to living in an environment where most other people would never survive.

After exiting the Great Bend, the team ran the Po Tsangpo to its confluence with the Yarlung Tsangpo, completing the section Lindgren and Munsey had attempted to run at flood levels in 1998 (see 1998b). However, the flood resulting from the failure of a natural dam on the Yigong (a large tributary to the Po, see Parlung, 1999) had scoured the river banks below the confluence (29 42 32N, 95 07 22E) in 2000, making it impossible to scout or portage the Yarlung below the confluence, so this section has not been explored as of 2008.

References: July, 2002 Outside Magazine article, also online at Liquid Thunder. The video "Into the Tsangpo Gorge"may still be available from OM. Michael McRae in his 2002 book, "The Seige of Shangri La," does an excellent job of summarizing the history of exploration of this area. Peter Heller's "Hell or High Water" (2004) describes this trip in detail.

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