Fabled Waterfall Found Near Roof of the World – 17-day trek into Tibetan gorge

Fabled Waterfall Found Near Roof of the World – 17-day trek into Tibetan gorge – Brief Article

Ruth Larson

Four Americans recently undertook a journey reminiscent of the great expeditions of the last century, when adventurers mapped entire continents as they searched for natural wonders.

Shrouded in the mists of a remote Tibetan gorge is one of the last great natural wonders on Earth — a thundering, 100-foot-high waterfall that explorers have searched for in vain for more than a century. Four Americans found it in November.

“As I stood on the edge, gazing down into the mists and spray, I really felt I was right on the brink of another world” says Ian Baker, the scholar and writer who led the 17-day trek sponsored by the National Geographic Society.

Hidden Falls, as Baker and his colleagues named their discovery, is between 100 and 115 feet high. The Tsangpo River, normally about 300 feet across, narrows to just 60 feet as it roars over a precipice.

“The whole romance of exploration, the sublime spectacle of discovering new natural wonders, is a 19th-century phenomenon,” notes Ken Storm Jr., a book and game distributor from Minnesota who accompanied Baker. “It’s almost as if we had closed the book on this kind of exploration.” Hamid Sardar of Cambridge, Mass., and Bryan Harvey of National Geographic Television made up the rest of the team, along with two Tibetan hunters, two Sherpas from Nepal and several local porters.

Tibet, known as the “roof of the world[‘ long has captured the imagination of both Western explorers and armchair travelers. But until 1993, China barred foreigners from entering the upper Tsangpo region, where a mammoth gorge collects water from Himalayan peaks that soar to elevations of 26,000 feet.

Reports of a great waterfall in southern Tibet date back to sacred Tibetan Buddhist texts from the 15th century. But earlier British explorers had failed to find it. The last Western expedition to the area was in 1924, by British botanist Francis Kingdon-Ward.

Baker, a former Columbia University doctoral student in Buddhism, speaks fluent Tibetan and had researched Buddhist texts for years. “They described the region as a kind of Shangri-La, an earthly paradise,” he says. “These poetically evocative scripts describe waterfalls as portals or doorways to another world, to a paradise hidden in the gorge.”

Although the unexplored region was small, it has incredibly dense topography. Steep cliffs prevented earlier explorers from traversing the Tsangpo River where its waters disappear into a knot of mountains, lush jungles and cliffs. “It’s like having an unexplored Grand Canyon,” says Storm. The waters reappear about 100 miles away — about 8,000 feet lower in elevation — as the Brahmaputra Riven

Both Baker and Storm describe their adventure in almost spiritual terms. “The whole expedition was dreamlike” Baker says. “It was an otherworldly experience.” Once, when the team was uncertain which route to take, one of the Tibetans fingered his prayer beads and prayed for guidance. He pointed the way but curiously retreated to the back of the expedition. Storm asked why the hunter declined to lead the way. “Because his work is done,” he was told. “The gods and the spirits will lead the way.”

Indeed, the Tibetans’ deeply held beliefs have had a strong influence on the two men. They immersed themselves in local customs, participating in spiritual ceremonies at religious shrines along traditional Tibetan pilgrimage routes and accompanied Monpa hunters on pilgrimages in search of sacred game called the “takin” — Tibetan for “food of the gods.” The animals, which weigh up to 700 pounds, are related to goats and adept at scaling the gorge’s rugged terrain.

The explorers had some luck during their trek. The region is notorious for its ferocious weather, which often drenches the area for weeks with downpours, but they had 17 days of unusually clear weather in November. “That seemed auspicious,” recalls Storm. Still, the going was treacherous at times. Landslides are common on the steep slopes leading down to the gorge. “We were scrambling along, holding on to any vegetation we could” Storm says. “If you slip, you’re gone. You’d fall thousands of feet.”

On the afternoon of Nov. 8, the men rappelled the last 80 feet in the gorge, finally ending up before the supposedly nonexistent waterfall. “It was quite a dramatic moment,” Storm says. “There was a sense that this was much bigger than we had ever expected. It was an unfolding revelation, this sublime landscape that had remained hidden for so long.”

Ironically, the “hidden” waterfall is only a quarter-mile below Rainbow Falls, discovered in 1924 by Kingdon-Ward. “He was so close;’ Storm says. “But there’s a sharp, hairpin bend in the river below Rainbow Falls, plus there’s a ridge that hides the falls from view.”

As waterfalls go, Hidden Falls is far from being the world’s highest; Venezuela’s Angel Falls has a 3,212-foot drop. But it is comparable to Niagara Falls, which roars down 182 feet.

“It’s an exhilarating feeling, peering into a deep gorge with a wild river that very few people — and certainly no Westerners — have ever seen,” Storm says. “It was a strange sensation. Here we are, late in the 20th century, following in the steps of earlier explorers, but then you step beyond, into a world that’s yours for the discovering.”

COPYRIGHT 1999 News World Communications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group