WHITEWATER RAFTING IN ZANSKAR RIVER
Surprise on the rocks
I was still feeling the altitude and simply packing the boat exhausted me. Getting into my two-piece drysuit was even worse. By late afternoon we arrived at the entrance of the first of the Tsarap’s three gorges, heralded by 15m-high black granite walls. The river seemed to disappear into the narrow crack, boring its way into the massive mountains to the north. The grade IV entrance rapid was our wakeup call. Beyond it, the walls then closed to just 2m, narrow enough to be spanned by a rickety stone bridge high above.
Around the corner was another rapid, steep enough to require getting out and scouting from the shore — but, to my relief, it wasn’t that hard. The long day, the altitude, and the sun had all taken their toll. I suggested that we camp at the next beach. But Andy and Jock voted to continue: Green Slime’s map showed that his expedition camped not more than 5-6km downstream, a section of river containing rapids no harder than grade IV-minus (the easier end of grade IV).
Just 600m downstream we saw a horizon line on the river, indicating a steep rapid. The gorge had narrowed again, to about 5m across. “This is no easy Class IV,” I muttered. Halfway down the narrow flume the current folded hard to the right, slamming against an undercut ledge. Perhaps because we had been lulled by Green Slime’s low rating of the rapid, or because we were tired, wedidn’t spend much time scouting or discussing it.
And that, of course, was our undoing, and why — a little later — I was shivering in wet clothes, alone under a cramped overhang, contemplating what would happen if Andy’s paddle was not retrieved.
Late next morning, when I was beginning to worry, Jock and Andy paddled into sight. Two paddles! The expedition could continue. After hugs, the two related their stories. Jock was stopped high up on the canyon wall by hail and impending darkness. Andy’s paddle miraculously remained circulating in the downstream rapid’s far eddy. “Aye, it was getting a mite dark, and I figured I’d better do the needful,” Andy said. He had dived into the current, swum like crazy across the rapid into the dark, and groped around in the eddy until he felt his paddle.
In the afternoon, the river slowed a bit and the canyon opened up, allowing in more sun. Marked on the map was a grade VI, unrunnable, “evil rapid” 8-10km downstream. We decided to camp at Satok, a little oasis of green barley fields and willow trees above the rapid, where prayer flags flutter and smoke swirls from hidden chimneys. Children played with our paddling gear and poked into our boats, while we struck a deal with villagers to porter our boats around the rapid.
Further downstream, a major tributary joined the Tsarap Chu on the right. The map showed that from here the river became easier for the next 30km. I was relieved. I was still feeling vulnerable after the swim on day two, but the truth is that I was uncomfortable seeing myself as a weaker member of a kayak group, walking rapids I knew I was capable of running. These feelings were pure macho nonsense — but it’s not easy letting go of an important self-image.
The next afternoon we debated how close we were to Phuktal. The map showed we should camp above the famous monastery, as below it begins a steep gorge containing grade IV plus white water. We camped at the next beach and decided to take rest day next day. In the morning I searched out a trail and within half an hour came upon the magnificent swallow’s next monstery of Phuktall, cut into the cliff face hundreds of meters above the swirling river.
Afterward, the craggy faced monk with a Chinese style goatee and that twinkle in his eyes that all lamas seem to have, approached me and said he knew me as one of the three “boatmen” camped above the monastery. He asked how the journey had been. I mentioned the rain and cold, a bit embarrassed to bring up such mundane matters. He nodded and, as he exited the gompa, muttered: “No rain.”
The next morning, as we slipped quickly by on an accelerating current, we saluted Phuktal. The sun was out — we shouted thanks to the Rimpoche, although it did rain again later that day. This was the best day so far — 25km of continuous grade IV with a long portage around another “evil” grade VI rapid. I paddled with greater confidence, as if a weight had been lifted off me. Andy and Jock had an equally good time; Jock waltzed down a grade V rapid. It felt like a day trip with friends on a favourite river.
Next morning we reached the road town of Padam, at the southern end of a vast, green valley bounded by snow-capped peaks. Here the river widens to become the Zanskar, tearing through the huge Zanskar Range and flowing north to join the Indus. We were now half way between the put-in and our take-out at Alchi Gompa on the Indus. We had planned to finish 2.5days later, to make a total of 11 days. Due to our commitments, this deadline could not be extended. But the large river promised a swift journey — rapids are frequent but straightforward, and this section has been kayaked and rafted numerous times. The area is accessible only by boat, except in mid-winter when the river freezes solid and locals brave temperatures lower than minus 20(‘C to make a gruelling six-day trek down the frozen river to market at Nyemo.
We mostly drifted and paddled separately from one another, lost in our own dream worlds. The next day in mid-afternoon we reached the confluence with the turbid Indus. As we paddled to Alchi Gompa and our return to everyday life, I thought about the two competing passions in my life. I realized now that I had to let go of the expert kayaker; that my work and marriage were more important. Maybe I’d take on an easier river next time — enjoy the sport for a change.
Alchi Gompa came upon us suddenly, and there was my driver, Raju, with a big smile on his face. “Happy his employer’s still alive!” I joked to the others. But they didn’t hear me. They were already pulling their kayaks up the bank.