Nothing on the Rocks:

Heavy thoughts from Tibet’s Tsangpo Gorge.

This story first ran in the August 2014 issue of Canoe & Kayak magazine.

~1~

We didn’t come to Tibet for enlightenment. We came to run the river that had carved what many call the deepest canyon in the world. We came to add our names to the roster of famous Himalayan explorers. We came to make our mark.

The mark was left on us.

As soon as we drove into Tibet from Nepal, we knew that we were in for trouble. The river was only slowly receding from a 50-year high. Bridges were gone, roads washed out. Should we delay our attempt until next year? But it’s unlikely we would get another National Geographic grant. Should we wait until the river recedes? But it’s October, the snows might soon close the high passes.

And so we put on, the four of us, and started down the river, while our two support teams struggled to reach their assigned resupply points along the way.

On Day Four, in a careless moment, I slid into the water with my sprayskirt unattached. A frightening swim ensued, and I lost my boat—only to have it recovered the next day, a dozen miles downstream by two religious pilgrims, the sanctity of whose quest did not preclude a bit of sharp bargaining for the price of its return.

Reunited on the water, resupplied with 15 days of food, we embarked on the crux of the expedition, away from all paths, into the deepest section of canyon, between two 20,000-foot peaks.

In this gigantic landscape the eye kept being fooled, seeing everything as much smaller than it was—and then wave and whirlpool ballooned in size as you approached and experienced the real scale of things. Thoroughly intimidated, we paddled down the sides of the rapids, avoiding the main flow. Often we took out and walked.

Tom McEwan and Roger Zbel leaving the Tsangpo Gorge, 1998. Photo by Jamie McEwan

Our 100-pound boats were slippery, awkward burdens, best carried hanging off one shoulder. And where the river banks were not cliffs or slabs of rock, they were piles of boulders that seemed freshly deposited by the summer’s flood—raw and unstable as a freshly dug construction pit. Man-sized rocks shifted and tumbled at the lightest touch. Piles of smaller stones collapsed and slid underfoot. We had trained for the river, and we had hiked, we had rock climbed—but nothing had prepared us for this. Even the slightest mistake, even a sprained ankle would be a major setback, here a week’s or more pathless hike from the nearest village. And our food was limited. We had to keep moving.

As I scrambled, climbed atop house-sized boulders and pulled my boat after me, lowered it down again, teetered across rock slabs, forded side-streams, crouched to slide through waist-high game trails, fell, got up again, struggled on, a phrase began repeating itself, quite on its own: “Do nothing.” I would pause, catching my breath, becoming aware for a moment of the overloud booming and roaring of the rapid below me, daunted by the terrain ahead, when an inner voice would say, “do nothing.” Do Nothing—and a solution to the huge puzzle that lay ahead would present itself. Do Nothing—and I would lift the boat again. Do Nothing—and I would go on.

Why would “do nothing” provide inspiration? Why did it act as a call to arms? I cannot say.

Heavy thoughts: Jamie McEwan journaling in camp. Photo by Wick Walker

~2~

I had to keep moving. I had to keep up. My brother had wondered aloud if I had trained enough for the Tsangpo challenge. Our friend, kayak racer Roger Zbel, had shown that he as a tireless high-altitude hiker. And then there was the omni-competent Doug Gordon— Ph.D. candidate, National Science Foundation Scholarship winner—and also agile as a goat. I had to keep up with the others … and this was why, I think, a second contrarian phrase added itself to the first: “Be no one.”

Don’t prove yourself. Don’t try to be anything. Have no identity. Be No One.

It was too much strain, being anyone. It was too hard, to prove myself. It was too dangerous, to try. And it didn’t matter. There was no one there to prove anything to. There was no one at all; there was only action. Do Nothing. Be No One.

With distant curiosity, I noticed that I was, in fact, keeping up.

~3~

It was an all-day effort. We put onto the water, we paddled the easier sections, and the while careful to not go too far, to not venture into the engulfing mouth of the monster rapids. We took out on the rocky banks on which the surf created by the river’s pulses broke as on a North Atlantic shore. We shouted to each other to be heard over the sound of the water. We threaded our way along the boulder-choked bank. Sometimes, surfeited with the complexity of my immediate surroundings, I would fail to look far enough ahead, and would be forced to backtrack from a mistaken course. Or, in an instant of inattention, I would place a foot carelessly, and fall. And so it was, I think—I cannot be sure, for it came of itself —a third phrase surfaced in my mind: “See clearly.”

Do Nothing. Be No One. See Clearly.

That was how I made my way into the Tsangpo Gorge, with this mantra repeating itself in my head. Do Nothing. Be No One. See Clearly.

Tom McEwan and the river ahead. Photo by Jamie McEwan

~4~

And then a day came, a day like another. We paddled down along the left bank. We scouted a steep rapid. Doug decided to try it. An unexpectedly tenacious hole. Doug flipped. Inexplicably he failed to right himself. He was swept out into the main current. He was so tiny out there, so very small…and then he was gone, swallowed by the ponderous, mighty, tumbling water. Gone, never to return.

In our disbelief, we searched. I with my boat, carrying it, then paddling on alone; Tom and Roger on shore. In that enormous, noise-filled canyon we searched. Out of the constant river-sound the mind constructed voices and scraps of song. The mountains win again, sang the river, in the voice of John Popper.

Sometime that day, searching, we crossed the theoretical deepest point in the canyon, the line between the peaks of Namche Barwa and Gyala Pelri.

At day’s end I left my boat and made my way upstream to look for the others. Night fell as I picked my way up the shoreline. The sound of the river went on and on. Nothing I could do would stop it.

I was beyond tired. Had I missed Tom and Roger? Could I find them in the dark? Did it matter?

Do Nothing. It came to me, once more. There was nothing I had to do. I was completely free to stop where I was, to lie down on the rock on which I stood. And once more, from this I drew energy.

Be No One. And saying this, I felt the living self that was beyond all characteristics. I was a wraith floating effortlessly from shadow to shadow. I was motion.

See Clearly. There came a flickering yellow light, high on a bluff above the river. I shouted, but they did not hear. I turned, climbed.

Around their fire we wept.

Do nothing. Be no one. See clearly.

I cannot defend these phrases, nor recommend them to you, nor fit them into an explanation of the universe. They came to me, they meant something to me, they helped me. They help me still. I offer them to you for what they are worth: what I salvaged from an expedition on a river in Tibet.

James Patrick “Jamie” McEwan, recipient of C&K’s 2014 Lifetime Achievement Award, attempted the first descent of Tibet’s Yarlung Tsangpo River in 1998 with his brother Tom McEwan, Rogel Zbel and Doug Gordon. McEwan, who won the 1972 Olympic bronze medal in C-1 whitewater slalom, was a passionate river explorer, and a friend and mentor to many in the paddling community. He died in June at the age of 61.

READ MORE from Jamie McEwan.