Photos: Dan Yates; Travis Winn; Sam Ellis
Words: Tom Mclay
Part 2 of Yellow Fever
(click here for Part 1)
As the alarmingly small truck bounced and clawed its way higher and higher on the dirt track littered with rocks, we all looked ominously at the glacier below us and the drop between. I was certain that the driver would call it a day sooner or later and leave us stranded, in the snowline, forcing us to walk over the pass to the put in. Sam sat with his fingers crossed, whilst Travis tried in vain to soothe the driver as his truck bottomed out over every obstacle.
His vehicle began to struggle, a coughing, spluttering symptom of the altitude combined with four loaded kayaks and kayakers weighing him down. To our surprise, he remained solid and single minded, he clearly did not want to be pushing his pick up alone! Surviving solely on UHT milk he persevered and we broke the back of the journey when we topped out on a high pass and negotiated a daring river crossing, descending into our chosen valley.
After two days of travel and 87km of hard off road driving we arrived at a stunning monastery perfectly positioned at the confluence of two rivers and decided to camp for the night and start paddling in the morning. The Marmots scurried away sharply as we found a patch of grassland suitably flat enough for the group and we struck camp at 1730.
Sheltering from the rain, Dan once again proclaimed his rice dish, made from the same ingredients as mine to be far superior. Just how he made it tastier remains a mystery to me.
Visibility was poor as low cloud and rain hung in the valley. The mountain from which our river sourced was hidden from view. Standing tall at 6282m, the Amne Machin mountain is a very sacred mountain for Tibetans who live at its foot believing it to be the world’s axe, with its peak rising in the spheres of the moon & sun and its foundations in the centre of the earth. Before the annexing of Tibet by communist China in the 1950’s, up to 10,000 Tibetan pilgrims would make the 193km circumambulation of the mountain each year.
We had no such intentions, especially after the snowline crept closer and closer to our camp through the night, along with a wolf that was sniffing around; presumably he had heard about Dan’s rice. Scared away by the driver, we all struggled to sleep in the poor weather, drawing uncomfortably close to each other, just for the warmth.
A game of two halves
Delaying going kayaking until after a guided tour of the monastery the following morning; we started on a low volume glacial melt river with a biting wind. Trying to forget the woes of paddling what could be endless kilometres of freezing cold class II, I let my mind wander. This area is locally known as the Watertower of China, with the sources of the Yangtze, Yellow, and Mekong rivers all within a very small area of Qinghai province. Like the circle of life, each of waters states can be experienced here; from water being locked away in snowpack, to a brook bouncing down a hill full of meltwater, building into one of the country’s and in fact the continent’s largest drainages, supporting millions of people along its way. We were fortunate enough to be witnessing this whole process, plus rain, on a small scale, including further downstream man’s influence on waters natural state. Dams.
The silence at lunchtime was only broken by star jumps that we were forced to do in order to keep the blood flowing. Getting back on the river we began to be teased with nice long rapids and increased gradient, things were looking up. After the confluence with another river of the same size we were finally paddling on a river of decent proportion and began some fantastic continuous sections of powerful read and run white water in a lush green valley with trees lining the shores. A rare landscape I hadn’t experienced in China before.
The lion and the witch
When just beginning to think that we were alone in this wilderness, shouting and wild gesticulating ensued from the river right side. Caterpillar fungus collectors? How on earth did they get here? Toothless Tibetan women beckoned us over to try their wares, known throughout China as being a powerful virility potion. Sam was intend on eating some of this fungus; like the White Witch offering Edmund magical Turkish Delight it was up to Peter, Susan and Lucy (Travis, Dan and I) to save Sam from this enchantment as well as share a tarp with him!
Sam reluctantly camped with us on the far bank where he and Travis battled hard with wet wood to make a fire, with a twenty strong expert audience on the far bank critical of their every move. Happy to be back on the river once again we roasted strange fruit flavoured marshmallows procured from the last town.
For the first three hours the following day we were treated to nonstop white water, pushing our limits of what we could boat scout, we pressed on until reaching a significant landslide. With flashbacks to the Yellow landslide rapids we named this one ‘Return of the Terror’ and gingerly picked our way down the scree to the bottom.
This came as no surprise to us as Peter Winn, Travis’ father and a geologist of note had warned us that this area would pass through a band of unstable rock, similar to what we had experienced on the Yellow river.
After lunch the gradient jacked up and the rapids became more defined. Longer scouts meant slower progress but after six hours on the water and numerous tricky sections complete, we camped in the woods and whilst hiding from the rain drinking tea, Sam was intent on melting every item of kayaking equipment he owned trying to dry it by the fire. A fruitless task as heavy rain soon persisted and we awoke to find the river level had risen by two feet. Compressed in this mini gorge the boulder style rapids had changed from a river puzzle that was easy to break down into individual components to a big brown nonstop freight train.
Rising early to try and bushwack downstream as far as possible on foot, we could see the canyon widening and the river easing. Relieved, we started paddling but within ten minutes were faced with a huge horizon line marking an un-runnable rapid. Portaging river left, the sun began to blaze. Following a small animal track to above the un-runnable white water, we were unable to get back to the river at a low level. High on the hillside, we chose the most secure looking bush and sending Dan as our probe we lowered him with one of the two way radios to have a look at our options.
“Take in, take in’ we heard over the radio, ‘it gets vertical here” Dan reported. After carefully lowering him through the vertical section he came back onto the radio, “It’s all good, you have the choice; a 30ft seal launch or a manky rapid with a big hole, come on down!”
The three of us remaining carefully sent down the rest of the gear and before long we were all standing on a precarious ledge with Dan. Having pulled our ropes through, into the river was the only way. I opted for the seal launch and climbing into my boat the others lifted me up and had to slide me through a bush where I then began falling. Tucked and ready, I hit the water hard but upright and paddled the next rapid with ease. One by one I was joined in the eddy, everyone seal launching with style and grace.
We continued through some heavy white water in a small canyon before a few kilometres of class II water. I have never seen everyone so happy to be on easy water, happy to be on the river, not abseiling from a bush in the midday heat.
At 1630 we arrived as yet another big horizon line, surely not another landslide? Travis and Sam went to look and reported back that not only was this rapid un-runnable, it was impossible to portage at river level so we would be forced to climb the hill behind our camp the following morning. This river was certainly putting some obstacles in our path and trying its best to dent our morale.
Rising early, the river had risen another two feet and we hiked with our empty boats up the steep hill. So steep, one false move and both kayak and owner would have ended up at the bottom. With this in mind, I made sure not to traverse too far along the hill, remaining over the beach so if I did slip and my kayak fell, it had a good chance of landing on the dry land rather than in the drink.
Securing our kayaks on the ridgeline we returned at 1030 with our gear and the ever persisting rain. The next challenge was to negotiate a knife edge ridge of great consequence, a ridge similar to one which Dan and I regularly scramble in our home of Snowdonia, Wales but with kayaks and equipment now. Carefully completing the crossing a number of times we then began a three pitched descent to the river, totalling 170m.
Relieved to be back at river level, Travis checked our GPS position; we were only 2km from a confluence with a significant tributary. This was of particular significance to us as Travis had attempted to paddle the tributary in autumn 2011 and had plotted the confluence of the two rivers. This was to be one of our potential evacuation points as dam works in the area had brought a road all the way to Qiemu Qu. With a height loss of only twelve metres between the two points we would be there in no time at all.
Paddling two swollen rapids we entered an enormous vertical sided quartzite gorge. In awe, we floated through the gorge, awaiting the tributary and road to appear.
Exploring our options
Our progress was halted with a formidable horizon line. As we crept down the canyon wall, Travis and Sam got out inspecting downstream. I knew the outcome from both their reactions and their body language immediately after. Even so, Dan and I got out seeing what little we could see of yet another un-runnable rapid as it crashed its way through landslide boulders and debris into the unknown. We hastily had to make a plan of action as this rapid was boxed in by both canyon walls and trying to cat walk along the walls or paddle the rapid would have only ended one way.
Attaining back upstream, we reached a beach, with a 70m vertical face behind. The sand was littered with fist sized rocks, no doubt some fresh. Whilst Dan and Sam continued to see if they could get any further upstream by boat, I opted to try and climb out. Like the ‘Travelator’ on Gladiators, I trudged up the steep scree, with two bits of driftwood adorned as walking poles. Knowing my two friends were in the river below I was trying to be as careful as possible not to send any debris river bound. Resting at a dead tree, I could survey both the rest of the canyon and the un-runnable rapid below.
From here it was clear how serious the situation we faced was. This looked like our only option so determined to make it work I inched upwards until I was at the base of a ten metre vertical slab of rock. Convinced I could climb it unaided, I paused a moment to figure out if I could down climb it safely enough. Safety was all relative I guess and Dan’s words from our first portage echoed in my mind ‘…the least sketchy option’.
Climbing to the top of the rock face I slumped against a tree, exhausted. I then continued up a ridge line, presumably directly above the kayaks now. Careful not to dislodge any rocks I climbed further until I reached the tree line. I thought I could see an animal track and by now I had been missing from the team for over an hour. Going any further would supply me with limited extra information and what I had found I should report as soon as I could.
Surfing the virgin scree back towards the beach, I was within earshot of the team.
“How did you get on?” I shouted
“Not possible our way” Dan responded
“Well that’s OK, ‘cos it looks like we can escape this way.”
“I love you!” I heard back, before seeing Dan embrace Sam.
I can only attribute Dan’s new fondness of both Sam and I to the affects of altitude, as before this trip we couldn’t even get a high five from a very reserved, very British Dan.
Stripping our kayaks of essential equipment and loading each other like pack horses, it was clear that attempting to try and take kayaks would be suicidal and expose the rest of the team to unnecessary danger. Leaving these and some other equipment we reluctantly had to ditch our beloved Frisbee. Playing one last game on a rock fall ridden beach in a deep gorge before trying to hike out for an undisclosed amount of time was a very surreal experience. Noticing two dead vultures, I stopped playing, this place was inhospitable and stunk of death and I wasn’t about to become part of that.
Back on the ‘Travelator’ we trudged upwards, laden with gear, using my paddle as a support I rested, gasping for air. Travis made it to the foot of the vertical pitch first and as Dan ascended it to drop a line down for the gear I disturbed a lot of loose rock.
Falling backwards with my hands in front of a fridge sized block I was certain that I would be crushed but in a cat like moment I managed to jump away from the cascading boulders and they careered past me, down deep into the canyon with a spine chilling boom that blasted around the walls.
Suffering only minor injuries was fortunate; my final resting place after bouncing across the cliff line was metres from a significant drop that would have spelled the end for me. Adrenaline fuelled, I sprang up to see a very white faced Sam, who had feared the worse for me witnessing this escapade.
Thirsty and exhausted we continued up the rock face and ridgeline, into the treeline and onto new territory for me. This had taken three times as long as it took me first time round. In the treeline, we bench cut a ledge from the loose dirt just big enough for the four of us. Travis masterminded a water collection system but within an hour it stopped raining for the first time since breakfast. Having not eaten since 0800 I tucked into my lunch and tried to sleep, worrying what our fate was to be.
Three major landslides through the night were loud enough to keep Dan awake. Perhaps our kayaks are now buried under fallen rock? I wonder if the landslides were a result of us moving about on the steep, loose terrain? Either way, we were extremely lucky to be where we were and glad we didn’t even consider sleeping at river level, even though we were not yet out of reach of a landslide.
A very sombre mood filled the tarp the next morning and with 600ml of water each we began hiking at 0810. With so much equipment adorning my buoyancy aid in awkward shapes, both my breathing and movement were severely restricted. As the haze began to lift, we all note our close proximity to the snowline but as the Sun appears, the temperature begins to climb. Not great for people with limited water supply.
As we find shade under a tree, Travis checks the GPS once again but now, high on the ridgeline with good visibility, the confluence we were aiming for and the ridge that will lead us there can be seen. An encouraging thought as we take water and continue upwards.
Animal scat littering the route encourages the group to push forward and we maintain a steady pace. Stopping to strip down in the heat, we shed yet more non-essential equipment to lighten our loads. It would be easy to lay in the grass watching the eagles and vultures, longing to be airborn and free like they are but we must continue upwards.
Spearheading our attack Dan stops suddenly, “I’ve found a fag butt!” he cries, waving the spent cigarette aloft. Finally some signs of human travel in this area, “Owt left on it?’ shouts Sam from the rear of the group in his thick Yorkshire accent.
So far, humour had not left the group and we remained a tight unit.
As the water situation began to be of serious concern we started to ascend a number of false summits to our intended ridgeline. My breathing was laboured and I had spells of dizziness that left me sitting down or reliant on the support of my paddle. We must find some water soon. Traversing around one of the false summits, Sam and I rested at what would be our last glimpse of the Qiemu Qu. Finding a water source soon after was of great relief, it took work to filter the cow muck puddle but we each drank eagerly until we felt ill.
Finding people was our next great discovery and I watched on as Travis told them of our endeavours with suitable animations for me to bridge the language barrier. They reacted with suitable expressions and told us that we were nearer to civilization than we thought.
Under their guidance we walked for another three hours until, descending a gully, we arrived at a Tibetan house, with a small shop, river and grassy area suitable for camping, a true Shangri-La!
Resting under the tarp between drinking and eating as much as our shrivelled stomachs could handle, we all felt from the safety of our sleeping bags that we were extremely lucky to have found an exit point, escaping under our own steam, unscathed. Content that we made the right decisions all the way along the Qiemu Qu and confident that any other group would have made the same choices I couldn’t help feel in hindsight that the river gods had, by putting some obstacles in our path, (namely; rising water levels, more animal carcasses than I have ever seen and very involved portages) been providing us with clues to our eventual outcome.
Dan Yates was paddling the red Dagger Nomad
Travis Winn the green Jackson Zen
Tom Mclay the Liquid Logic Remix
Sam Ellis the green Pyranha Everest