SALWEEN – SURVIVING, THE SOURCE

Chris Dickinson
Singapore, 15 August 2011

Filming an interview Expeditions tend to be journeys of extremes – from hot to cold, from flat open planes to craggy mountain peaks, from comfortable hotels to wet and windy campsites. The Salween expedition would turn out to be no different, but in one detail it would stand out from the rest of the expeditions I’ve been a part of, because unbeknownst to me the Fates hadn’t quite determined whether or not I’d survive the trip.

Our journey from the Silk Road Dunhuang Hotel was largely uneventful until we got to the last few kilometers before base camp where we got stuck in mud! Thick, unforgiving mud that stubbornly wouldn’t give up the Land Rovers without a 6 hour fight! Once the vehicles were freed and camp was set up, we had another problem - altitude sickness. A number of our team was hit bad. It’s a lesson to us all, that despite the beauty of our surroundings – the blues skies, snow-capped mountains and beautiful river coursing past our campsite, one has to keep in mind that this landscape can kill – at 5000+ meters, if you are severely hit by altitude sickness, you can die. Such is the harsh, unforgiving beauty of Mother Nature.

After a couple of day’s rest, it was time for the final push to the source, which was to be on horseback. Not being an expert rider, I always feel a sense of foreboding when faced with the prospect of riding a horse, and for good reason.

Off-road travelIt all started off well, but it soon became obvious that my horse wasn’t happy – I assume I was too heavy – she tried bucking me off four or five times. Luckily I kept hold, but I decided that I’d give her a rest once in a while by walking her. Whilst this was more tiring on the legs, it was less wearing on the buttocks, so I was OK. After 6 or 7 hours we reached the source, filmed, took photos, and samples of the water. Mission accomplished!

But it was the journey back that was to become the most memorable part of the trip.

The weather was getting worse, and with over 6 hours horse riding to go we knew it was going to be tough. The sense of foreboding returned. I knew I would have problems with my horse and it was not long before I had to dismount, to give her a break. Snow whipped our faces and clung to our clothes. The landscape had completely changed – everything was white. Luckily our Tibetan guides knew the way back, but unfortunately my horse didn’t share their sense of urgency, and we started to lag behind. After about an hour of dragging my horse behind me I had completely lost sight of the team. I could only see Wang Chih Hong some 2-300 meters ahead - nothing more than a grey silhouette in the snow, and hoped that he still had them in his sights. Behind me somewhere was Will Ruzek, without a horse, but with a GPS. I tried to spot him but the blizzard was too thick. So I kept my eyes on Chih Hong.

As we climbed a ridge, I noticed Chih Hong moving off to my right but my sense of direction told me that we should keep going straight. He was too far away for me to call him so I had to keep following him. Soon after, to my left, I saw another figure - a single horseman. The thought occurred to me that this was one of our party. I looked back to Chih Hong – I was losing sight of him. Should I try to reach this stranger and risk losing Chih Hong completely, or should I just keep following Chih Hong? If this was a member of our party, he had definitely seen me – in which case, surely he’d follow after me? I continued following Chih Hong, and soon after the stranger on the ridge disappeared.

Storm approachingIt was about this time – as exhaustion was setting in, and as Chih Hong disappeared over the far end of the ridge, that I began to feel something I’d never felt before – I began to fear for my life. I had a horse that didn’t want to carry me, I was lost, I was getting cold, I was exhausted, I’d lost sight of Chih Hong, and I felt that I had been left behind by my team. Of course no-one had purposefully left us behind, but at the time, when one’s emotions are running high, it felt like I’d been abandoned.

I started cursing the world. I screamed out for Chih Hong, but he was gone. I looked back in the hope that Will was behind me with his GPS, but I saw no-one.

I HAD to catch Chih Hong, but the only way to do it was to get back on my horse. I was more than a little concerned about the consequences if she tried to throw me off in this blizzard – at best I might be disoriented and lose my sense of direction, at worst my head could hit a rock and I’d be knocked unconscious… “Surely that’s not how I’m going to die?”

Still, I had to take a chance. I prepared myself, spoke gently to the horse, put my left foot in the stirrup, and… before I could lift myself up she started to move away from me! Panic flashed across my mind – was my worst-case scenario about to come true? I HAD to gain control. I struggled to keep my balance whilst pulling the reins. Thankfully she was too tired to give much of a fight – I managed to convince her to stop, and we headed off in the direction that I last saw Chih Hong.

After what seemed like an age I reached the edge of the ridge and started down, desperately straining to see Chih Hong – “Where WAS he?!?!”

Nomad family with horseFortunately his horse was slow, and within a few minutes I saw him. I was exhausted and emotional. I screamed out for him to stop. He didn’t hear me. For half an hour I battled with my horse to catch up with him. I got within ten meters and called out again – he heard! “Do you know where you’re going?” I screamed. “No…” was the reply… or something like that. The wind, coupled with the exhaustion in Chih Hong’s voice made it hard to work out exactly what he was saying.

We were lost. But at least we were lost together!

My sense of direction was telling me we should turn left, which was also the direction from which I though the mystery rider had come from. If he wasn’t part of our team, he may be a nomad living nearby and thus be able to give us shelter. Furthermore, my horse seemed to want to head off in that direction, and I remembered How Man saying – the horses will know their way home. For once, my horse and I seemed in agreement, so we headed off.

However, the blizzard refused to abate and after about an hour despair started to set in again. WHY can’t we see the team? Are we heading in the wrong direction? Should we turn back? I screamed more profanities at the world and continued on. My hopes rose when I saw a group of horses, but it soon became clear that these horses didn’t belong to our team. Nonetheless it was a clear sign that nomads were close. Soon after I saw some suspect silhouettes in the distance. Yaks! And then tents! I have never seen such a welcome sight.

A family emerged from the tents as I rode up, but when dismounting I got my boot stuck in the stirrup, at which point my horse decided she’d had enough, tried to kick me and then ran off. After being dragged through snow for about twenty feet, my boot popped out and I lay panting on the ground. My screams of ‘help’ hadn’t motivated the family to assist – instead they looked on casually like this happened all the time. I got to my knees and waited for Chih Hong. Luckily the father of the family spoke a little Mandarin, so we were able to negotiate a safe place to stay for the night.

Amazingly friendly encounterOnce I got into their tent I realized how cold I was. Chih Hong and I took off our wet clothes and hung them to dry. I couldn’t stop shaking and my fingers were frozen – I had mild frostbite and it took over three weeks for my fingers to recover from nerve damaged.

Still, we were safe, and subsequently our Tibetan guides managed to find us, and the following day we were able to return to the team.

It was not until a day later that I discovered the twist in this tale. How Man had informed me that he had sent one of our guides back to look after the stragglers. It became clear that the mystery rider I’d seen on the ridge was the very same person. But the real twist in the tale was that this Tibetan guide was ALSO the father of the nomad family that provided us with shelter. I didn’t recognize him at the time, but it was true! So, why didn’t he come to our aid on the ridge?! We’ll never know, but I am sure there was no harm meant as I imagine that his familiarity with the terrain and the weather had caused him to underestimate how badly we needed help. He must have seen we were heading in the right direction and simply went home.

Funny how things happen… Just glad to be alive!