Descending " mind, body and soul
October 6, 2007
Imagine running the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon at peak flows without any knowledge of the terrain.
That’s what Jason Moore did last month when he and a group made a first descent on the Salween River in Tibet.
“It was the equivalent to running the Grand [Canyon] blind,” Moore said. “But [the Salween] has twice the grading.”
Following a long journey to the river and overcoming obstacles like washed-out bridges, the group got its first view of the Salween.
“We anticipated the flow was 20,000-25,000 CFS [cubic feet per second],” Moore said. “We got there and it looked like it was pushing 40,000. Big water, steep gradient ” about 15 feet per mile.”
After waiting for the levels to settle down a bit, they finally ran the river.
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“This far exceeded any expectations or anything everyone could have planned for,” said Moore, who is a physician’s assistant at the Vail Valley Medical Center. “In terms of whitewater, I think this will end up being in the top five for whitewater runs in the world.”
This certainly isn’t hyperbole, coming from a man who had previously done a first descent in Costa Rica and has vast experience in the most challenging conditions.
“There is absolutely no question that this is the culmination of everything I’ve done in terms of whitewater, both training as a guide, being a professional guide and then training guides,” Moore said.
But tackling 25-foot waves, naming a set of rapids and being the first person in his group to head down one of the most technical spots on the Salween wasn’t even the most awe-inspiring part of the trip for Moore.
In the first days of the trip spent in Lhasa, Tibet, Moore had some time to explore the historic city.
“I was fortunate enough for whatever the reason to find areas of old Lhasa and spend time with Tibetans in their home.”
When the group arrived where they were to put the boats in on the Salween and saw raging water, they also encountered another marvel.
“We stumbled upon a monastery that had never seen white people,” Moore said. “We spent five days living with monks.”
Although the group was able to converse with the monks verbally ” members of the trip spoke Chinese and one monk spoke a rudimentary form of Chinese, and the group used Tibetan phrases from a guide book that were somewhat similar to the local dialect ” there wasn’t always the need for translation.
The group viewed scriptures 1,300 years old, golden statues of Buddha, cooked with the monks over open flames and joined the monks in their chant rooms.
“Interacting with the monks on such an intimate level ” being able to live with them, do the day-to-day activities … being able to see the inner sanctum of their monastery ” it opens you up.”
Moore, whose religious beliefs are best described as spiritual, said the experience at the monastery helped him mentally prepare for the giant task ahead, and a whole lot more.
“That will help me for the rest of my life,” Moore said, pausing for a few seconds, then continuing on. “This is something I will carry with me for the rest of my life ” the time at the monastery.
“The river, as magical as it was, and the expedition, as magical as it was, was secondary to that component. Yeah, the experience helped carry us through.”
Before launching into the Salween, the group explored a 28-mile section of Gyle, one of the Salween’s tributaries.
“Unlike the Salween, which has no roadside access, this at least had some,” Moore said. “Although it’s tough to get an idea how fast the water is moving, and how big the features are from [that] high up because you lose depth perception.
“It was big, and it was good. It was continuous Class IV [rapids]. And nobody ran it before.”
Among the many challenging parts of the Salween, there was one particularly difficult section.
“The biggest [rapids] we came across was at a landslide,” Moore said. “It was daunting. The initial take was, ‘Let’s not try to run it.’ The waves were, with a conservative estimate, 20-25 feet. … The other worry was that it was raining and an active landslide
see area. It was one of the most dangerous situations I’ve been in.”
After they portaged the passengers through, the boat captains had to decide what to do. Moore, who was to captain the first boat down, analyzed the situation.
“When I first looked at it, I gave myself a 20 percent chance of making it through upright. And a swim there is bad. If we went in, it would have likely been miles before we could get ashore,” he said. “It was an ocean of water moving through this canyon. So when we put on the water level was more respectable ” 30,000-35,000 CFS, lower than we initially thought, but still a lot of water. Once we sat and looked at it a bit longer, it was a 50-50 chance of [making it through]. I went first and it was clean.”
And as was his right and duty, Moore named the rapids: Waimea ” after the big surf spot in Hawaii.
While there were calmer parts of the river, there wasn’t much time to relax.
“Every day there was something,” Moore said. “It’s draining. We ended up doing the river in half the time we planned because the flows were up and we moved faster. It wasn’t all life-and-death rapids. But everything was unknown and for the most part, everything was big ” 12-foot waves were the norm. There was this gorge ” we’re not sure what we’re going to call it now, tentatively 6-mile gorge, and it has half a dozen rapids, all waves from 8-15 feet.
“It was an expedition in a lot of senses of the word, but the most important was the team effort because everybody pulled together,” Moore said. “This whole trip was the most physical, emotional and spiritually intense time in my life. Everything about it.”
After being the first to navigate the waters of the Salween, Moore’s group would like to share its experience with the world.
“This is one of the most beautiful rivers in the world,” Moore said. “I hope, because of the exposure that it gets the appreciation it deserves.”
Like any river in Tibet, and China for that matter, the Salween is a potential source for hydroelectric power.
“The goal would be to get national appreciation in China, like the Grand [Canyon] is here, to prevent it from being dammed.”
If others get to see what Moore saw, and feel what he felt, it’s tough to think that a gem like Salween would be corralled by man-made structures.
“The views are unbelievable. It’s through areas of the Himalayas and the water is world class,” Moore said. “It has all the ingredients for success.”