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World’s greatest kayaking adventure unveiled

Shauna Farnell
Charlie Munsey/Special to the DailyKayakers carry their boats up snowfields during a 2002 expedition down the Tsangpo River in Tibet. Peter Heller wrote a best-selling book about the journey and will speak tonight in Vail.
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WEST VAIL – Mythology expert Joseph Campbell broke down the science of an adventure as something that involves, among other things, a journey, several different elements of danger, conflict and a holy land.

Peter Heller’s adventure in the Tsangpo Gorge in Tibet, in the heart of Shangri-La, fit this formula down to every possible ingredient. Plus, the elements of conflict swam into all new pitches, drops and ravines.Heller, a senior writer for “Outside” magazine and an avid kayaker himself, retells the story he’s painted in his new book “Hell or High Water: Surviving Tibet’s Tsangpo River,” for free tonight courtesy of Verbatim Booksellers in Vail as part of the Vail Library and Vail Symposium’s Unlimited Adventure Series.When Scott Lindgren, a renowned extreme kayaker, put the finishing touches on planning the expedition – a process that took 10 years to complete – he enlisted a sponsorship from “Outside.” As part of the deal, Heller would come along and act as the official scribe.”Going into the Tsangpo Gorge was like going to the moon,” Heller said. “The place is really almost mythical in its scale, history and in the religious significance. It had this ‘Lord of the Rings’ sort of allure to it.”The news of his involvement hit Heller with a sharp wave of prickly anticipation.

“I was in a hot tub in northern California doing a kayaking trip,” he said. “My editor came up and said, ‘We’re thinking of sending you some place thrilling. Have you heard of the Tsangpo Gorge?’ I was in this hot tub and I just got goose bumps.”At the time of learning he would be part of the expedition, Heller’s immediate feelings about the place stemmed from a memorial service he had attended a couple years earlier. The service was for a paddler killed by the river and its pounding current – a member of the Walker-McEwan expedition – one of the only two groups ever to tackle the waters before Lindgren’s group. Both met a fatal end. The man who died was one of Heller’s long-standing friends who had helped Heller learn to kayak.”That was my most recent memory of the Tsangpo,” Heller said. “I got this rush. Then (Heller’s editor) said, ‘By the way, they won’t let you kayak in it. You’re going on the ground crew.’ I was so relieved.”Physical barriers



One can stand at the base of Tsangpo Gorge, which is three times deeper than the Grand Canyon, and strain their eyes to see the top of its walls 16,000 feet overhead. In the Tsangpo Gorge there are rare tigers, glaciers, four species of leopard, species of bananas that don’t exist anywhere else, climates ranging from subtropical to arctic and ancient Buddhist hunting tribes known to still practice rituals of human sacrifice.Thus, being a part of the expedition’s ground crew was no walk in the park.Heller and the group would embark on their journey in January, 2002. They would be in the gorge for 37 days and the group would consist of 87 men, including 64 porters and five Nepali sherpas.”They told me the window where they were looking to go. I stopped for a second and said, ‘Wait. That’s the middle of winter. That’s the middle of the Himalayas. We had desertions and mutiny. We had 19 porters leave (in the first few days) because the conditions were so harsh,” Heller said.The seven paddlers made their way through the pummeling, icy currents of the river; the water, Heller said, was a steady 38 degrees. The seven made a pact to die in their boats rather than capsize, pull their wet skirts and swim, subsequently endangering each others’ lives with a rescue. Heller and the ground crew trekked along the base of the gorge, up and over ravines and snow walls, some of which required climbing gear and ice picks.

“It was 45 miles in,” Heller said. “The whole (way) is blocked by these huge waterfalls – one is 112 feet and one is 78. The only way out is to climb straight up over the snow. The kayakers were climbing these faces holding their kayaks. I was really glad to have an ice ax.”Heller is no stranger to being the one in the boat. He spent several years as an instructor, ran his own canoe club and partook in many of his own watery journeys, including a 17-day trip in 1989, when he was the first person ever to tackle the Muksu River in the former Soviet Union. Emotional conflictsDespite the many physical barriers Heller has overcome, one of the biggest obstacles during his adventure in the Tsangpo Gorge was the clash he immediately had with Lindgren, who responded scathingly to “Hell or High Water” after it was released in October.



“He hated the book,” Heller said. “He could not stand the idea that a ringer writer was sent at the last minute to document the trip he’d been planning for 10 years. He really resented it. He didn’t trust journalists and it was a bit of self-fulfilling prophecy – the fear of having someone write something about you that you’re not happy with. I’m a participatory journalist. I like to write about stuff I love. I’ve never once had a negative response form a piece I’ve written. Most everyone I’ve written about (besides Lindgren) is pretty thrilled. It was a great emotional challenge for me to meet the emotional hostility from Scott. But, I think I’m better for it. You have to have faith in yourself and the love and esteem (with which) you hold the world around you.”Heller wrote “Hell or High Water” in a way that everyone, not just seasoned paddlers, could relate to the scale of the dangers overcome during the expedition. He wrote it believing strongly that he was recounting one of the greatest feats of all time.”I want to leave (readers) with one of the great adventure tales of history,” he said. “I’m certain that anyone who reads the book will have images drifting back from this place and this expedition.”Heller also said he would like to return one day to the Tsangpo Gorge, the tribes from which, he’s heard, have since been evicted by the Chinese government in an effort to protect other organisms in the gorge’s rare habitat.”In the lower gorge there were little hamlets and fields everywhere. They were Buddhist hunters and farmers. The experience was not just an adventure but a real moment in cultural and anthropological history,” Heller said. “I’d very much like to go back and see how the gorge feels in silence.”Shauna Farnell can be reached at sfarnell@vaildaily.comVail Colorado


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