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Kayaking down the Himalaya’s fierce-flowing Tsarap Chu was both exhilarating and physically demanding, but for one paddler the waters ran much deeper

I’ve badly misjuedged the line of the rapid, and I’m paying for it. The diagonal current throws my kayak hard against the undercut gorge wall, and my shoulder hits the overhang, knowcking me over and underwater. Upside down and pinned against the wall by the force of the current, my brain whirls with the possibility of drowning. I spot a last chance eddy on the right side. The split second decision I have to make is a stark one: hang onto my boat and get swept down through the next rapid or jettison the baot and risk losing all my expedition gear to the river, resulting in an epic walk out in flimsy wetsuit booties.

I go for immediate bodily safety and swim furiously to the eddy, snagging a rock outcrop just seconds before being swept downstream. My boat is sucked out of sight into the swift vortex of the next rapid, disappearing into the harsh wilderness of the Zanskar Himalaya, in northern India.

Until this moment I’ve had no time to think of my two companions. Andy, a Scottish doctor, was to run the rapid iust behind me. As I turn to look for him, his red helmet and contorte’d face careen past me. He’s out of the boat, one arm gripping the bow loop. I reach out and grab his other arm, swinging him and his waterlogged boat into the relative calm of the eddy. We hold each other for 30 seconds, gasping for air, unable to speak.

There’s not really a lot to say. We both fully realize the predicament we’re in. Andy was unable to hang on to his paddle, which we assume has joined my paddle and boat (along with the expedition’s spare paddle) hurtling through a gorge of reportedly very difficult white water. Our only hope of recovering the gear lies with Jock, the third member of the party, who was on shore taking photographs as we ran the rapid. Andy and I are struggling out of the water when he arrives.

“What the hell?” he asks rhetorically, surveying the two of us. “What a screw-up! Paddle, boat —downstream. Better go fast,” I gasp. Jock heads back upstream to his boat. I head downriver. There’s a chance we’ll vet lucky and one or more of the paddles or the boat will be hung up in a side eddy. As I scramble up the rock slope, I get a view of the next rapid. It doesn’t look that hard. Jock probably won’t have to take the time to scout the rapid; he can proceed quickly downstream. But there is no sign of the boat or paddles. Downstream are sheer cliffs and, in anticipation, I continue to move upwards on the loose scree. My route takes me as much as 300m above the river. I continue to climb higher, my heart and lungs on the verge of exploding out of my chest.

Two hours later, I spot my boat way below, pulled up on rocks on the other side of the river. Jock’s done it! By good forturle, there seems to be a gully ahead which leads down to the river, the first such opportunity in this section of gorge. I roll down the last 20m, dive into the fast current and swim hard to an eddy where Jock helps me out of the frigid water. We embrace, Jock telling me: “I was really worried about you, man.” It’s some time before I’m able to reply: “I was worried about me, too,”

My paddle was not recovered and can be assumed lost; Jock saw Andy’s paddle spinning in an eddy halfway down the second rapid. Soon it will be dark. If we don’t recover his paddle quickly, it will probably flush out and be lost. That would leave us with two paddles for the three of us. Out of guilt, I offer to retrace my scrambling route back up to Andy. But Jock won’t have it, citing my exhausted state. I help him drag his boat to the bottom of the next eddy. From there he paddles up the slack water against the gorge walls until he reaches my gully on the other side.

Jock gone, I turn to my gear. The waterproof bags are not up to the job. Almost everything is damp, including my down sleeping bag and parka. It begins to hail as darkness falls. I find a dry place under a cliff overhang to sit. As I chew handfuls of crackers, disappointment in myself begins to seep in. This is only the second day and, because of my screw-up, we may have to abandon the expedition. “What did you expect?” I berate myself. “You’re a desk-jockey, with the occasional tennisgame for exercise, who hasn’t been on a hard trip in more than five years.”

That last hard trip was with Jock, when we paddled the difficult Tamba Kosi river in Nepal. I was paddling fairly regularly then and we’d made a strong team. Jock exudes the lean, tough confidence of someone totally at ease in the outdoors. A wilderness guide/photographer in his late thirties, he hasn’t slipped a bit. For me, Jock represents a road not taken, abilities and confidence I used to have. I’ve chosen a demanding academic career, but lost the tautness required of an expedition kayaker

As a health expert stationed in New Delhi, the last two years had been particularly confining. I badly needed a break, and a long expedition into a remote area seemed just the ticket. I’d first heard about the Tsarap and Zanskar rivers from a British kayaker, Peter Knowles (aka Green Slime), who sent me his notes on the first descent of the Tsarap Chu, a 325km run through the Indian Himalaya. On the cover he’d written “this trip is destined to become a classic — continuous whitewater, committing gorges, spectacular scenery and few portages”. The “few portages” surprised me, given the 4600m start. Elsewhere in the Himalaya, kayaking above 3000m usually entails more walking than paddling.

I had soon rounded up a group of paddling buddies and began counting the days to departure. I had been sobered, however, by Green Slime’s comment: “a very committing area and little margin between a successful trip and a major disasterl” Later, crouched under the overhang after my capsize, listening to the hail against the rocks, I wondered if we’d already used up our margin.

There were just three of us on the river. Jock and Andy had flown in from the USA and Britain respectivcly, and, with my driver Raju made the 16-hour road trip to Manali. I flew up to meet them a couple of days later. Manali is a hill resort situated on the rainy, south side of the Himalaya, in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. Monsoon rains make the valley a lush temperate rainforest gushing with waterfalls. After buying last-minute essentials —such as garlic chutney and Tibetan bread — we drove north over the 3400m Rohtang Pass to enter the drier, harsher landscape of the inner Himalaya. Surrounded by tattered Buddhist prayer flags and thick, poled up clouds, we felt as though we were on the edge of civilization.

Half an hour later we came upon a shallow stream, bordered by a line of worn canvas tents. This was our put-in, the headwaters of the Tsarap Chu, at nearly 4600m.

We estimated that the boats, when fully loaded, weighed about 40kg — easily double their unloaded weight. We’d packed enough food and stove fuel for eight days. Enough to get us to the town of Padam, 155km downstream.

There was just enough dark turquoise melt-water in the river to float a kayak. Initially the river Criss-crossed the barren valley floor in shallow, braided channels. Our heavy boats steered like logs, and the occasional blast of upstream winds required strenuous bursts of paddling. Downstream, the river course constricted as it entered a sandstone canyon, where surreal tangerine-coloured walls stood out against a sky of intense blue, with billowy white clouds like the ones you see around the borders of Tibetan thanka paintings.

That night, at our first camp, it drizzled cold rain. Expecting cold dry nights, we had brought down-filled jackets and sleeping bags — highly compressible and lightweight, but useless when wet. We had no tents (another weight consideration), so we could only hope that the monsoon rains would soon run their course.

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