LOST IN TIBET, ALMOST
William of the NEUALP team tells us his story about his participation in an expedition in Tibet, which at an altitude of over 5,000 m almost ended up in a disaster. How this came about and what lessons he learned from it, you will read here in our first blog post.
When describing amazing experiences and trips, many people pick out gorgeous beaches or perfect evenings in a romantic city, however one of the best experiences of my life has actually been a near-death experience in Tibet in 2011, at 5,374 meters in a blinding snowstorm.
I was asked by the China Exploration and Research Society (CERS) to join their team for their planned 2011 Expedition to the source of the Salween River. CERS had already visited several headwaters of major Asian rivers and even redefined the source of the Yangtze in 2007. I was thrilled to get to show my geography and cartography skills in action and 'on the ground'. I have never been much for an office worker and even though I enjoy making maps, I always enjoy getting outside and exploring places myself.
The expedition started, as I would assume most do, with careful planning, supplies, a large team with a mixture of experts. We had in our company, several biologists, as flora and fauna in Tibet is quite fascinating, cooks, drivers, Tibetan guides and myself. In total we comprised of 15 people, separated into 4 Land Rovers, 3 Defenders and 1 Discovery. Quite the entourage and quite the journey across most of China, I joined the team early and traveled with them the initial few days from Kunming in the Yunnan Providence up to Dunhaung in the Northern Gansu Providence. A long and daunting journey, traversing over 2,859 km, with formidable mountains, varying road conditions and interesting sights along the way. Once in Dunhuang we were joined by other Expedition members to round-out our team and prepare for the journey south into Tibet.
As my role was 'Lead Navigator' I helped advise on the planned route to get close to the Salween River source, I also double checked to make sure we were going to the actual source. With the newest satellite images, multispectral imagery and every old chart I could find loaded on my tablet, the source seemed to be relatively easy to get to with tracks visible almost right up the source. It seemed almost 'too easy' and at this time I was actually a bit disappointed. It appeared that we could just drive up the source, say our piece and be done. How very wrong we all were. We decided on taking the southern route up the tributary as this route showed the most dirt tracks and seemed quite easy. China is extremely large and no one of us had been to this region, but we had a Tibetan guide with us for translations.
Our expedition started with great fanfare and filming. Almost all CERS expeditions result in a short documentary or summary video of the trip at the end. The road leaving Dunhuang toward Lhasa was actually quite nice and seemed to have been recently made. We were fortunate to see the Qinghai-Tibet Railway pass by, which is also quite a feat of engineering not only to lay the track but also equipped with specialized pressurized cars. We also drove through a small sandstorm, providing even more excitement. Eventually our caravan left the comforts of the highways and onto the backcountry tracks, at first it seemed rather easy as if it was just a small off-roading as I have done with my jeep. However, within only a few kilometers of our planned 40+ km off-road time, we hit deep mud. Mud as far as the eye could see, though it appeared to be solid ground, it was in fact de-freezing tundra that swallowed up our Land Rovers whole. Our adventures had begun.
With one land-rover pulling another, winches, planks, more winches we were able to slug along in these mud fields, covering only a few kilometers in 12 hours! Needless to say we were exhausted and decided that we could not keep up this rate all the way to the source. We found a suitable camping spot near a small stream and some rubble from a previous nomadic house and set up our basecamp at 4,907 m elevation and which was within 23.9 km to the base of the glacier source. After a few days with the use of our Tibetan guide and, of course, money, we secured enough horses for the Expedition team to make the journey and by the next morning we were off to the source. It was a perfect day with perfectly blue skies and breathtaking views of the Tanggula Mountains. What I find always fascinating when viewing mountains in Tibet is that they seem small, because you are already at around 5,000 m, so a peak of perhaps 6,000 m doesn't look too large as the difference is only 1,000 m.
We traveled quickly on our small pony carrying our gear and eventually separated into two groups, I was trailing behind with one of the teams biologists who was joining us walking as we were one pony to short. We switched back and forth riding, though our pony was perhaps the most stubborn horse in all of Tibet. Though with quite an early start and not too much of elevation gain planned, it seemed that we had all the time in the world, but we still kept a brisk pace. Our destination was easy to see, the other group clearly visible ahead and we were in good shape. What could possibly go wrong?
Early afternoon, the skies started to darken quickly and the weather went from a typical summer day to below zero temperatures in less than an hour. We quickly tried to catch up to the other group only to lose them when they passed around a peak, and a wet snow started to fall. With our horse refusing to move, the other group out of sight and already cold from the wind and snow, we took a moment to consider our options. Luckily during this time the second group was seen coming back towards us, they also had quickly turned around. They had reached closer to the glacier, had a quick photo-op and immediately turned around. They were in a rush to get back to basecamp before the weather became even worse. With still only 1 horse for 2 people, I offered to follow them walking, as I was the navigator, youngest and most likely to not get lost. Though within the first few hundred meters it was clear that things were going to get much worse. The snow picked up into a full blizzard and I quickly lost the group ahead of me, with visibility only to within a few meters at best. I then took the time to orientate myself with my GPS, took note of the direction I needed to be heading and tried to prepare for a long cold walk with the light quickly fading. However the bad luck was not finished yet. With limited visibility, snow covered ground and unknown terrain, I became subject to a classic blunder of hiking in wintery conditions, I stepped fully into a flowing stream up to my knees. Now with both feet and legs completely wet up, I knew that this was not good. I had even packed an extra pair of socks with this scenario in mind, though I had lent them to my friend during the day hike.
So my 'easy' adventure slowly slid into self-mental arguments and ultimate survival. I knew I was heading in the right direction, I also knew that I had over 20 km to hike before basecamp and at every ridge I searched for the other group. Every few minutes I thought I had seen them, but it was just my eyes playing tricks, each time my hope flared up and then was lost. With the night already upon me, feet freezing and wet, GPS battery dying, it is fascinating what thoughts and memories you think over in your head. At first I was angry contemplating what to say to those who got me into this situation, but quickly I moved to acceptance and understanding. I realized it was an expedition, even extreme as I had hoped. I had seen the world, traveled to far off places and was overall content with my life. With a short break in the snow, I decided to veer off the bearing and head up a higher ridge to see if could spot my group or shelter. I had already decided that this was my last hope, I would continue as far as I could but my optimism was spent. I climbed the final ridge and crouched down, waiting for a break in the snow and to scan the horizon for any signs of hope. I was so sleepy though knew that if I decided to lie down it would be the last thing I ever would do. After a few minutes the snow had a short pause and I quickly looked to see any signs of life, much to my surprise I could make out a small hut in the distance surrounded by a herd of yaks. If this was my chance, I was going to take it. I managed to climb down the hill and across the valley to the hut and without any knock or announcement I opened the door.
There sitting inside the small hut was almost the entire team, all looking similarly cold, wet, exhausted and just thankful to be alive. Eyes looked up and were happy to see me, and then asked me if I had seen or traveled with the last missing team member, as he was separated from the group during the heaviest snow. Unfortunately, I hadn't seen anyone and was just happy to be in the hut warming my feet by the fire fueled by dried yak dung. Little was spoken by the team, each person dealing with the situation in their own way and thankful of the generosity of the yak header. He had warm yak milk to drink and the fire was kept full and warm, a second herder was sent off to search for the missing member and after a few hours returned to say that he was safe at a smaller hut over the ridge. With knowing the entire team was accounted for, we dozed off to sleep in a communal bed covered in jackets, yak hides, tarps and anything else for warmth. Our near-death adventure was passed, we had survived and were just thankful that everyone else did as well.
The next day was clear and warm. The snow quickly melted and we continued back to basecamp, they were very thankful to see us return. Our expedition to the Salween source was considered a success, as we technically reached the glacier and returned to tell the tale. In the next days we broke camp and headed off for the next adventure and expedition in the Tibetan antelope birthing grounds.
So what did this expedition teach me?
In the end I realized the importance of expecting the unexpected. Though the day was warm, clear as far as the eye could see, you can never predict what might be right over the horizon. Another important lesson was the need for proper gear – when properly prepared, it is amazing what the human body can survive and endure. An expedition without proper gear is just waiting for the unexpected. Finally the largest lesson that I came away with was the need to accept the situation and continue moving forward. You can never be perfectly prepared, you can never have everything with you at all times, you can never know everything, but once you accept your situation and move forward, you can then handle whatever life throws at you.