Worn out tools

Written on 12 Oct 2012 by  / Published in Blog

I estimated that the distance to the bend was somewhere in the region of 800 metres. The distance to the opposite bank was roughly 70 metres. Rapids flanked both banks before giving way to a second bend the end of which I could not see. Burnsy had pulled his raft off the river onto a rocky outcrop just preceding the inside of the bend.

Holding a 25 metre rescue line in waist deep water he would be able to toss the line if i could not make it across the river before the bend. If i missed the line I would be swept into the first of the rapids. In the previous four weeks we had come within a stones throw of a bear, encountered numerous wolves, been thrown out of my raft twice in white-water and on three separate occasions I had found myself clutching a cliff-face knowing that a misstep would almost certainly be crippling if not fatal. Yet now, standing at the waters edge, my mind lost in the speed of the main flow, I was more physically scared than at anytime previously in my life.

8 days after beginning our post run rest period we left Xining for a second time and headed once more toward the Yangtse source. Chinese authorities had closed the wider Tibetan Autonomous zone to foreigners without group visas (all but impossible to get) and so reaching the source of the Yangtse would demand a border hop. The topography of the land at the border crossing creates a natural gateway through which travelers are funneled. 5000 metre peaks form a 300 km natural barrier to progress broken only by a narrow pass. A river which emerges from this pass cuts a steeply walled canyon bisecting the break in the ridge, further necessitating a route through the border checkpoint. To avoid this checkpoint we would have to cross the canyon, hike east into the desert and use the cover of nightfall to sneak past the police before re-crossing the river on the Tibetan side. This was further complicated by the fact that we would have to attempt the trek with a pack containing all our equipment and three weeks supply of food for the beginning of the river. I weighed approximately 70 kg and, fittingly, my pack weighed approximately 70 kg.

40 hours after leaving the road, headed east toward the canyon, we rejoined it a mere 15 km further along. Crucially, however, within those 15 km lay the border crossing, the only remaining obstacle to us reaching the source of the longest river in Asia. A day later we camped on frozen ground 5000 metres above sea level on the bank of the Yangtze River. As I climbed into my sleeping bag I clearly remember thinking; no matter what happens from now on, being here has made this past years work worthwhile. The truth or perhaps honesty of this single thought would be tested with a scrutiny I scarcely considered as I nodded off for the final time before we began our descent of the river.

Unlike any previous expedition for the next three to four weeks we would truly be on our own. The height and inaccessibility of the first 1000 km of the river precludes any significant human settlement. We would be out of contact with the outside world completely dependent on our ourselves. Excitement suppressed all but a smattering of anxiety. The tiredness that had set upon us in India and which was our constant companion on the run seemed to dissipate. Our enthusiasm returned with a force that I think surprised us both. on three consecutive days I wrote in my diary that each had been the best of the expedition to date. Massive birds of prey circled overhead as herds of wild horses galloped along the river banks. Burnsy paddled obliviously as a wolf scrutinized his every movement. A bear hardly flinched as we floated, rigid with fear, metres from his island perch. Landscape more breathtaking than seemed possible gave way to steeply banked cliffs as we paddled through snow covered mountain ranges even more demanding of breath. Through it all the singular constant was the absence of humanity in its various guises. What i know about nature could fit comfortably in a largely spaced childrens book but I am now convinced that all it takes for nature to flourish is for us to disappear.

The physicality of the run and cycle was replaced by a level of mental concentration that left us drained if not sore. Paddling for about seven hours a day, whilst tiring, lacks the intensity of running or cycling. In itʼs stead though is a requirement for constant vigilance. Our lack of experience in rafting requires that we approach every bend with caution. Every minor rapid must be examined and scouted. Constantly we reinforced this to each other, mindful to avoid even a semblance of over-confidence. If we were to get through this initial and arguably most difficult stage it would be through prudence, patience and self- awareness.

Rigidly sticking to this approach we found ourselves one difficult continuous rapid from reaching Yushu within four weeks and finishing the first stretch. Conscious of how close we were to success we scouted this final rapid carefully. Identifying two difficult sections in particular we made our way back to the rafts confident that we could get through it. Burnsy passed through the first section dropping into a stopper but forcing his way through. Unable to fully see his struggle I followed him into the stopper but similarly did just enough to come through it. The second section had appeared very imposing but Burnsy reckoned if we got our angle of entry right we could slip through a break in a wave. Glancing ahead I saw that he had indeed made it through and following a similar line I slipped through the same gap. A mixture of relief and adrenalin flooded through me as the main flow carried my raft through the remaining whitewater. My concentration lapsed as I turned to move out of the main flow to the calm waters near the bank. Turning too abruptly the front of my raft caught the static water of the eddy as the main flow continued to exert force on the rear.
The raft flipped in an instant and I was swimming. The water at this height is so cold that even in a dry suit it forces all air from your lungs. Struggling to swim out of the rapid with the rope attached to the raft in my mouth I swallowed water and the resulting cough saw the raft continue down river as I reached for a boulder and pulled myself from the water.

For the next three days we chased the raft. Burnsy on the river and me on the shore.Darkness fell soon-after my swim giving the raft a 10 hour start on us. It was a gap we would never bridge and a massive weir just before Yushu probably put paid to the raft, equipment and all. The reality of losing the raft and with it every piece of equipment and identification I needed for the expedition became ever more apparent with each passing hour. Chasing a raft on the shore of a river the size of the Yangtse meant committing to a side and the obstacles it would bring. Time and again I found I had scrambled to a point where I could go no further and with each new corner-formed cliff the risks I was taking grew. On the evening of the third day I found myself at yet another cliff formed by a bend. Burnsy pulled off the river and waited to see if i could climb across. Moving horizontally along the face about 40 metres from the ground I reached an impasse. A two metre gap separated me from the next foot hold. I climbed back down slowly realising that to continue I would have to swim to the opposite bank.

Thus I stood in frigid water trying to compose myself enough to throw myself into the main flow. I couldnʼt slow my heart but reasoned that the increased adrenalin might serve to keep me slightly warmer. I sank to my knees bringing the water to my neck so as to avoid being shocked. Ultimately it was a single thought that provided the push I needed to begin swimming; I had no other choice. I waded in and began a labored front crawl that took me to the other side some 100 metres upstream from Burnsy. I lay exhausted on a rock struggling to find oxygen in air that seemed reluctant to provide it. It was only then, shivering and spent, that it finally sank in; The raft and everything on it was gone. Although
dejected this realisation ended a period of constant hope and repeated deflation. Accepting that if we were continue it would only be by starting anew meant facing some harsh realities but at least I would not be throwing myself into a river merely hopeful of making it to the other side.

At times during previous expeditions and in the early stages of this one I have often killed some time during difficult periods trying to recite the words of Rudyard Kiplingʼs ʻIfʼ as I cycled or ran. A mistake would send me back to the start prolonging the length of time I could distract myself for. Such repetition of the early verses meant I had spoken this line more times than I could possibly count;

If you can bear to see the work you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build it up again with worn out tools.

If those words meant anything to me then here was an opportunity to give meaning to them personally. I write now stooping to see if we can put this expedition back together.

Read 2108 times Last modified on Thursday, 29 May 2014 13:32
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Since 2008 David Burns and Maghnus Collins have embarked upon man-powered adventures across the globe. The pair have cycled, run and kayaked for over 30,000 km in some of the most remote locations on earth.

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