Mark Lyons Himalaya
The Grand Canyon of the Himalaya …………………………
We had been travelling for 17 hours, over mountain passes 20,000 feet high and across a desert that appeared to stretch the entire length of India! , but now I saw it, far below us lay the mighty Tsarap-Zanskar river, this is what we had come for! And the scale of what lay in front made me feel that the life I had led before this trip , my years of kayaking , climbing and mountaineering were merely preparation for what lay ahead , a river so physically and mentally demanding that only a relative handful of people had kayaked it before us , it is a huge volume grade 4-5 torrent that rages through 220 miles of 2000 feet deep sheer sided canyon , a river where a single mistake could cost a life , where escape was impossible and a river that had a starting point of 14,500 feet in one of the most remote and inhospitable Himalayan regions of India , Kashmir
The Grand Canyon of the Himalaya …………………………
I have always focused my blog on running with occasional departures into inspirational people or equipment, mainly because I started the blog at the advice of my friend and Irish kayaking legend Adrian Shanahan to help in my MS Society fundraising when I started on my Marathon Des Sable goal , last night I found this old article , one of several that I have written in the past for magazines , after dinner presentations etc and I thought I would share it and some of my photos, hopefully I will blog more of them if this one is well received ….. for those of you who dont know , I have been a kayaker and climber for nearly 20 years , travelling to many far flung destinations in search of the worlds best rivers and rock faces , my shoulder injury now means I have had to leave that life behind but in its place is now running and all the adventures it has and is yet to bring so no regrets !!! I hope you enjoy the story, I certainly enjoyed the trip .. Unfortunately Chris Wheeler who was part of this trip later died in kayaking accident , he was an amazing character and an outstanding kayaker having ran many of the worlds hardest rivers , may he rest in peace and never be forgotten ………..
Neil Farmer, my good friend and companion on many trips and expeditions had started to put all the pieces together a few years previous, he had done the research, worked out the logistics and sat bug-eyed looking at Google for weeks, he had again come up trumps, it looked like it would work, the team he had put together was strong, 7 good friends, all solid boaters with their own areas of expertise, and all great company on a trip. Andy Holtham , ex Ugandan river guide now living in Glasgow , Matt Brook an expedition boater from Stirling , Chris Wheeler a very skilled boater with more trips and experience under his belt than the lot of us put together , Colin Kingswood a guy who has guided on some of the largest rivers in the world including Chile and Austria , Dug Rae a young apprentice on his first big trip , and myself a kayaker who has chased the dream of far away beautiful white water for nearly 15 years .The only problem was that Neil and Andy were teachers with set holidays , meaning that we would have to enter the gorge during the peak of summer ,most kayak it in September at “low” level , for us though the water levels would be exceptionally high and it could easily be 45 degrees in the sun , the Himalaya is a harsh environment , even more so in the summer heat.
Over the next 6 months all the pieces of an expedition are put together ,emails , telephone calls , flights , transport , equipment , maps , food , plans , plans , contingency plans and even more planning !!! And on the 24th of July we all fly to New Delhi airport and from there on to Leh, a shanty town in the Himalaya sitting at 13,500 feet, built on one of the old trade routes over the Himalaya, cashmere wool, salt, grain and cannabis are apparently the main products still brought across by Donkey trains, this is to be our base for the next 3 weeks….Walking off the plane in Leh the first thing that hits me is the altitude, nothing can prepare you for this, gentle acclimatization over time is the only way, we have to get all the equipment sorted and loaded into the awaiting transport, this proves a daunting task with limited oxygen, huffing and puffing we carry all our equipment from the airport to the trucks and then onwards to our accommodation.
Seeing the Himalaya for the first time is breathtaking , its on a scale that you could never imagine from photos , tv programmes , even people’s own description , you just have to see it for yourself to grasp it , it is rugged and harsh , yet has a jaw dropping beauty that no-one can deny. You get the feeling that you could pick up the entire French Alps and hide it behind just one Himalayan mountain.
Days 1 and 2 are spent just lazing around trying to acclimatize , looking at maps , taking in a bit of local culture and just getting our heads in gear for the mission ahead , trying to stay positive is very important on a trip where there is no room for fear or negativity .
Day 3 We head off to the river Indus for a warm up, the Indus is a huge volume river originating high up on the Tibetan Plateau and gave India its name. We run two 20km grade 4 sections and get a feel for the style of BIG water paddling , everything goes well and despite still acclimatizing we are all pretty much on form .
Day 4 Today is to be the final 25 mile section of the Zanskar gorge, this is accessible by road and should give us a real taste of what is to come, it is tough, huge river features, whirlpools and crashing water everywhere, this one started to worry us, if this section was so hard what would the harder more remote sections of river be like.
Day 5 is spent preparing our equipment and double checking everything, forgetting something like a water filter would be very serious, once we are all in the gorge there is no going back so nothing can be forgotten, we then set off on our 17 hour journey from hell, the roads in the Himalaya are more dirt tracks than roads and sat in a 6 wheel drive bus bouncing around for hours on end isn’t good for the back! Travelling over 2 of the highest passes in the world and crossing a desert plain the size of 1000 Wembley stadiums started to give us a real idea of how remote we were going to be in the upper sections of the river, even if we could escape the gorge, how long would we last in the 45 degree heat, we were at least a weeks hike to the nearest tiny village, nothing could go wrong or we were in very serious trouble!
Day 6 It is all go, we get on and kayak down to the start of the gorge, where the walls started to close in and the two mountain ranges come together, here we will camp, a last check of our equipment and then rest up after our long and journey to the drop off point, there wasn’t much chat around the camp, everyone was nervous with anticipation of what was to come.
Day 7 As soon as we enter the gorge it all goes crazy, the river is huge, far bigger than we expected, the sides are all washed out so there is nowhere to stop, rest or inspect what lies ahead, we have to read and run from the kayak, It feels like we are being flushed down a giant toilet! , a few lucky escapes ensued and before we know it we have kayaked 30-35 miles of grade 4-5 in one day ! , we manage to find a raised platform above river level so we camp , the air this night is filled with tales of huge waves and man-eating holes, oh and of course smelly thermals .
Day 8 Is spent fighting our way through more “toilet bowl” gorges and a long section of very difficult technical white water where I have to dig deep in my psyche and keep cool, even though I know the feeling of fear is trying to fight its way into my head , fear is no good , even a split second of hesitation can prove fatal in this type of environment ,everything must be done positively , fear will only slow your responses down and I have no choice , I must kayak this canyon because I cannot get out , so I must be positive , fear will only spread , your friends do not need to hear it , they’re having their own mental battle , fear has to be boxed and tossed into the back of your mind , the only way is forward , literally in kayaking ! , we made it through, nobody said it was going to be easy and it isn’t but we are all sitting in our boats and most of us are smiling, we grab the next available campsite, with the gorge looming 2000 feet above us it is getting dark within 30 minutes of the sun disappearing, so we had to move quick, still sitting in my boat in the dark was not an option!
Day 9 After a short hard section the gorge leads us to the Buddhist monastery of Phugtal , the monastery is built into the Cliff-face , high above the river , only accessible by walking up the river when it is frozen in the winter, it is the ultimate refuge and as a wannabe buddhist I was very excited to see it , we climb up and walk around , amazing , time is passing so we head back down to the kayaks and head down river to a horrendous section of un-runnable grade 6 called Reru falls , this is a mandatory portage and just one look was enough to know this wasn’t going to go ! , hours later we have portaged over and up huge boulders avoiding the grade 6.
Day 10 The upper Gorge has opened out into a desert plain, it’s very weird to be sitting on a huge torrent of white-water snaking its way through a desert , this meant we are already half way , we are really eating up the miles , the huge water levels and continuous nature of the river has pushed us through quickly , we are a full day and a half in front of our schedule , already through the first set of gorges we decide to camp at the mouth of the next gorge , this takes us most of the day to reach and with no mountains to shade us it is hard going , the heat is over 40 degrees , the backs of my hands are blistering before my eyes and my dry-suit was heating up fast , rolling the kayak is the only way to get cool , 40 degree heat into 5 degree water , it was like running out of a sauna and diving in an ice pool.
Day 11 We are up early and straight to it , we kayak into the final gorge, keen to get out of the early morning heat , the gorge moves up another notch , tough hard paddling , in one section the gorge which is more than 60 foot wide squeezes down to 10-12 foot , and I’m shot through it !! , rapid after rapid loomed, there was no stopping! , 4-5 hours without a chance to stop and we are spat out at a place we recognise , it is the start of the lowest section , the section we had run nearly a week ago , things looked different though , it was much bigger ! , the river had risen considerably , almost 15 feet higher than before , we could camp here or we could go on and complete our journey , doing the final gorge in one day , this was unheard of , something to be very proud of !! , “If Carlsberg did kayak day trips “ , we decide to go for it and 3 hours later we leave the Zanskar gorge behind us and float out into the safety of the confluence with the Indus , amazingly 2 days faster than had been planned for.
That night we celebrate cooked food, rum, and beer and eventually when we can no longer keep our eyes open some uninterrupted sleep in a bed, it had been my finest trip and now, although I was glad to be standing on safe dry land, I was also very sad that the adventure was all over.