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The Thin Line Between Life And Death, Running A River In Ladakh, Kashmir (PHOTOS)

09/19/2012 07:25 am ET | Updated Nov 19, 2012

"There is no happiness for him who does not travel. Therefore, wander. The fortune of him who is sitting sits, it rises when he rises, it sleeps when he sleeps, it moves when he moves. Therefore, wander!" -- The Rig Veda

Walking down a vacant road on the way to Padum, capital of the ancient kingdom of Zanskar, about five kilometers off the river, I pass a Tibetan monk with his distinctive red kasaya wrapped obliquely about his shoulders. He stops, and in halting English asks my age. When I tell him, he looks me in the eyes and says, "Ah, you have short life left."

It's a daunting thought, as we are on the roof of the world, close to heaven, and about to enter the Zanskar Gorge, one of the most remote canyons on the planet, 11,000 feet high, surging with ice-cold water from the Himalayan glaciers that feed this wild rift.

This is a reunion trip of sorts. It's the first time George Wendt, John Yost and I have traveled together in the 40 years since we founded Sobek (the other founder, Lew Greenwald, drowned on the Blue Nile in 1975). Though a team from Sobek first descended the Zanskar in 1978, Kashmir, with its troubled border with Pakistan, soon afterwards closed to foreign travelers, and the river ran wordlessly for over 20 years. John first rafted the Zanskar in 2007, and has made yearly pilgrimages since. This is his seventh descent, and John invited his old partners -- and we brought along a cadre of friends and fellow rafters.

This is not an easy place to get to. I flew Turkish Airlines to Istanbul, overnighted and then continued to Delhi for a total of 20 hours in the air. Then we all flew to Srinagar at the nubbin at the top India and overnighted on a cedar houseboat on Lake Dal. Then a three-day hard drive over steep, crumbling mountain pass roads, where a glance downwards sometimes revealed the skeleton of an unlucky bus or truck. We passed through the town of Drass, which seductively bills itself as "The Second Coldest Inhabited Place on Earth," and Kargil, site of the 1999 conflict with Pakistan that saw more than 1,000 killed from both sides. Now the town is lined on the northern side with high concrete "shelling walls" so vehicles and passersby can hug the edge and avoid incoming rockets or gunfire.

We passed bearded goats that look like little devils, pine martens, hyraxes and, the ultimate Scrabble word, dzos, the offspring of yaks and cows.

Before descending into the Zanskar Valley we trundled over the 14,600-foot Panzila Pass, camped between the snowy tonsure of the twin 23,000-foot peaks of Nun and Kun and visited various chortens and gompas, turning the many prayer wheels, seeking blessings for our endeavor.

We finally launched at 11,930 feet on the Doda, a tributary draining the giant Darang Durong glacier. It joins with the Tsarap to create the Zanskar -- which never gets below 11,000 feet -- and we paddled half a day to our first camp at the base of the Karsha Gompa, a Buddhist monastery that is stacked up the mountain like a birthday cake. It is here I met my monk.

That night John gives his quotidian briefing. He speaks in little archipelagos of thought. "I'm sorry we forgot one of the tables, but we'll think of something. And tomorrow there is a Class V rapid that was created two years ago from a road blast. I'm not even sure we can walk around."

This news worries and riles. One of the members, a Himalayan high-altitude expert and his wife, approach the bench. "John, if we had known there was a class V rapid, we would not have come. We expect you will find a way for us to walk around."

John is suffering from some sort of flu, and doesn't have the strength to argue. "We'll figure something out."

The next day we leave civilization behind, carrying everything we will need for the passage, including a half-dozen live chickens riding atop one of the rafts. The Nepalese guide for the chicken raft is good and glides through the first rapids with virtuoso artistry. It is, from my vantage in the next raft, poultry in motion.

We enter the gorge, dark and sheer. It swallows the sunlight. The walls swirl with different colored dikes and aplites, discordant swarms of magma that cut through and across strata in patterns that look as though the walls swallowed hallucinogens. We run a few chilly rapids, and then pull over at a small eddy.

We scramble up to a dirt road and walk a couple hundred meters downstream where a deep-throated roar ricochets around the locked canyon. It is at this point the road-builders set off a stack of dynamite that didn't go as planned. It triggered an avalanche that threw a house-sized boulder into the river, pressing the flow against the opposite bank, and creating a powerful sluice that erupts into a huge, re-circulating hole, a potential killer.

The blast also buried a bulldozer, and at the edge of the road the yellow frame of the earthmover is partially exposed. A little further down in the rubble, our guide tells us, is the driver, who was cut in half with the detonation. John has named this rapid "Jackhammer."

The road is blocked ahead, ending in a hummock of blast debris and then an abrupt impassable cliff. But down below, at river's edge, there is a fan of sharp rock behind the giant boulder that will make a hike-around possible, to everyone's relief.

But as the guides try to line the people-less rafts around the rapid, one flips, with no consequences; but the bowline of a second raft, filled with gear, snaps, and the raft plunges downstream around the bend, a ghost boat into the maw. This could have consequences, as there is but one camp in the narrow gorge with enough level ground to hold the group, and it is just a few kilometers from here. The runaway raft has group and personal gear, tents, sleeping bags, food and medicinal alcohol, so this trip could transmute into an expedition if the boat cannot be retrieved in time.

The guides, all young Nepalese, hastily line another raft around the rapid, and two of them hop in and start rowing madly downstream hoping to catch the fugitive. All the rest of us can do is scramble over the edged and acicular rock pile, re-load with double up the passengers squeezed into the remaining rafts and hope, as we head downstream, we will rendezvous with the lost boys.

After a few rapids, and a few shadowy bends, we see the two guides waving frantically from a shoreline rock. How did they get there? Where are the rafts? It turns out they successfully rescued the runaway raft, pulled it to shore and hiked upstream as far as possible to let us know.

The evening bleeds away the daylight as we celebrate at camp, local whiskey and brandy flowing. One of the Nepalese guides plays Justin Timberlake on his Samsung phone, amplified by inserting it into a plastic cup. The nearest light we can see is the moon.

The morning next we take a hike to the Tibetan village of Nyerag, high up an unreasonably steep canyon tributary. John has been cultivating visits to the 25-family village since he started running the Zanskar, and it has made a difference. Tashi Dorje, the village leader, greets each of us with a vigorous bear hug and then serves us Ladakhi tea (barley and salt... tasty); yak butter tea (a septic cocktail); and Chhaang (a barley beer so good it is said the Yeti often raids isolated mountain villages to drink it). Then he rolls out the Tibetan rugs, and we start to buy. He says the rugs are absolutely guaranteed, so if there is a problem, all we have to do is return it to his home in Nyerag and he will swap out, no questions asked. At the end of the trading he thanks us and says because of the rafters and their purchases the last few years he has been able to send his four children to boarding school.

My 17-year-old son Walker is on the trip, and before the hike to the village he heard tell that John Yost's eldest son, David, had spent four years traveling the Americas barefoot. He bicycled from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska to Ushuaia, Argentina without ever wearing a shoe. Walker is inspired, so he has made this climb barefoot. But on the way down he steps on a series of thorns, and a sharp rock cuts deep into his sole. He limps back to camp, bloodied and bruised, and after a round of ointments and bandages, slips back into his shoes.

The next day dawns cloudy, plunging the air temperature to a notch above shiver, but the morning float is relaxed after the successful negotiation around Jackhammer. The geology has gone insane, with hoodoos mutating into giant teeth, anticlines morphing into synclines, statra bending, breaking, folding and spinning kaleidoscopic patterns and orogenic rocks performing acrobatics. The canyon here is more stunning than any George Wendt has ever seen; he who has been operating rafting trips down the Grand Canyon of the Colorado for almost half a century.

The rapids are large, but rolling, with long pools between the whitewater. One sports an oversized souse-hole where John capsized a couple years back, but we all make it through unswimmingly. Then the river, which has been at times a half-kilometer wide, narrows to a slot, just a few meters wall-to-wall, and the forced water is a crazy quilt of turbulence, moving boils, whirlpools, eddy fences and suck holes.

Our paddle boat is pushed against the left wall, but with some high-siding and strategic paddling, we pull away. The oar boat behind is not so lucky, and when pressed against the wall, it slowly climbs the cliff like a monkey and flips. The guide, the cook and three passengers, all over 60, are in the churning cold water, one pinned under the raft. The kayaks and the other rafts are quick to rescue, and in less than a minute all are safely onboard other rafts, though clearly in shock.

The cook and Ollie, a veteran adventurer from Seattle, aren't wearing wetsuits, and hypothermia is setting in. Everyone acts fast. The overturned boat is towed to the nearest beach, the dunked passengers helped to shore, a bonfire is made from driftwood and limbs are rubbed and massaged to stimulate circulation.

"It was terrifying," says Laurel, who had been stuck under the raft. The others don't disagree.

Though the only wounds are psychic, there is the lingering mist that things could have gone differently, perhaps terribly so. We have been unable to observe the basic hygiene of modern communications, as the Indian Army, ever alert to Pakistani aggression, allows no satellite phones, so a serious injury or accident has to be dealt with on the spot. It's not unlike our early Sobek exploratories, when we took a country bus to the place on a crude map that showed a river crossing, blew up our inflatable rafts and headed downstream into the unknown. Things didn't always work out, but it was an authentic adventure, an unaffectedly nourishing journey of discovery, as this is today. In risk there is reward.

That night, after the whiskey and beer, chilled perfectly by the river, we head to respective tents and collapse in exhaustion. But sometime in the early morning, rain against the fly wakes me, and I crawl out to see the river rising to within a few feet of the camp. I've been in flash floods before, on the Colorado, in New Guinea and in Africa, and I've watched helplessly as vital gear washed away. Once, on the Omo River in Ethiopia, an ammo box with a camera inside was torn away, only to be discovered on a beach a year later with a bullet hole through the top. Apparently a local found the metal box and couldn't figure out the latch, so took a shot instead. But the camera inside was dry, and the pictures developed were catalogue-quality.

So, I stand at the river's edge watching the river rise, ready to alert the camp if it laps too high. But the rain stops, and after a spell the water starts to recede. I head back to the warmth of my sleeping bag.

The final day begins calmly, floating into a canyon so blunt and stark it looks as though they could have filmed the moon landing here. John has assured we are through the worst of the rapids, and it is a sail to our take-out at Leh. But within a few minutes of launching there is a shrill whistle. The guides all carry whistles, and used them during the capsize, the runaway raft and when approaching big rapids. But with a quick glance to all the guides it is evident none is holding a whistle to his lips. Then, Kaboom!

It sounds as if a bomb has been dropped, an avalanche triggered -- or as if Pakistan has attacked. Everyone ducks and then peeks up to see an explosion of rock and dust fly across the river just 100 meters downstream. It is the road construction team, trying to blast a route from Leh to Padum to where the downstream crew stopped at Jackhammer two years before. Not many boaters pass here -- more people have climbed Everest than have rafted the length of the Zanskar -- so the blasters did not expect us. But, still, it is a reminder how thin the line runs here, and we all rush to propel the boats through the settling rock powder to beyond the blast zone.

At the confluence with the Indus we look downstream towards Pakistan, where John Yost and I made the first descent sometime back, with an equal share of close calls. But the border, of course, is closed, so we head upstream to Leh and clean sheets and hot showers. At dinner we toast our "zurvival," but then hear some sad news.

A Swiss kayaker, Ian Beecroft, not far behind us, drowned on the Tsarap, the river that joined us at the Doda to form the Zanskar, just a few kilometers from where the monk met me on the road to Padum.

George Wendt, the founder/owner of O.A.R.S., is offering two departures for the Zanskar for 2013, both led by John Yost.

The Wilds of Zanskar