The Last River

The Tragic Race for Shangri-La

In October 1998, a four-member team of expert paddlers set out on a journey many deemed beyond human reach: navigating Tibet's Yarlung Tsangpo River. Funded by the National Geographic Society, the team planned to run a 140-mile stretch of the river, paddling some of the world's most coveted virgin whitewater in a never-before-seen section of the deepest gorge on the planet.

Known in paddling circles as the "Everest of whitewater," the Tsangpo River has long courted—and turned back—seekers of adventure. The land through which this knuckle-whitening behemoth runs is the ascribed source of the Western myth of Shangri-La. Being the first to descend the Tsangpo, one of the final uncharted rivers in the world, is a paradise all its own for world-class kayakers.

For former Green Beret Wick Walker and his old paddling buddy Tom McEwan, the Riddle of the Tsangpo Gorge Expedition is the culmination of twenty-five years of dreaming and planning. Walker is the logistical leader on land, McEwan on the water. Scientist and Ph.D. candidate Doug Gordon, Maryland paddler Roger Zbel, Olympic medal-winning paddler Jamie McEwan (Tom's brother), trip planner Harry Weatherbee, and videographer Paolo Castillo round out the team.

Catching sight of the water for the first time in the small village of Lhatse, the team discovers a different river than the one Walker and McEwan scouted the previous fall. A record monsoon season and the effects of la Niqa have combined to cause the Tsangpo to flow at two to three times its normal level. In regular conditions, the stretch from Pe to Medog is exceedingly challenging; at flood level it's almost certainly deadly.

From the moment they test the current, the Tsangpo lives up to its promise of difficulty. Vertical eddies, invisible streamers, and 12-foot waves of Class V water—where "swims are dangerous and rescue is often difficult"—impede their progress. Just as things begin to look up for an expedition that has already seen its fair share of disappointments, Doug Gordon—by all accounts the team's strongest paddler—attempts a line off an 8-foot waterfall. He flips and he and his overturned kayak are sucked toward the center of the river. The rest of the team looks on horrified and helpless, praying for Gordon to roll, but the moment never comes. He is swept downstream by the raging whitewater never to be seen again.

The following excerpt is a glimpse into the Riddle expedition's final days. High-spirited and optimistic as they head toward the world's deepest gorge, the men have no way of knowing that the river would soon claim one of their own, putting an end to their race for Shangri-La.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


Sign up to Away's Travel Insider

Preview newsletter »