THE SOURCE OF THE SALWEEN: A NEAR DISASTER (32°43'07"N 92°13'46.2"E)

The Salween River is not the largest of the four great rivers that arise in the small region of the northeastern Tibetan Plateau, but for CERS it proved to be the most dangerous by far.

32°43'07"N 92°13'46.2"E , 15:05, 14 June 2014

Our 2009 expedition to the source of the Salween began uneventfully, following the newly paved Golmud-Lhasa Highway south from the deserts of northwest Qinghai to the Tangula Pass and into the Tibetan Autonomous Region. Soon after we left the main road, however, the harsh and unpredictable environment of the world’s “Third Pole” began to take its toll. Dirt roads that looked safe soon proved to be quagmires of mud. Many of the team were already suffering from the rapid ascent into the high Tangula Mountains. A day spent digging the cars out of the sucking mud at nearly 5,000 meters above sea level left those who were still hardy gasping for breath and crippled the next day. Even Tashi Dorje Haxi, the famous Tibetan environmentalist, was reduced to breathing concentrated oxygen to recover, even though he grew up on the high plateau and had spent most of his life above 3,500 meters elevation.

After a day of rest and recovery, the team was eager to start. At the appointed time, however, only ten horses materialized for our eleven riders. Geographer Will Ruzek and wildlife biologist Dr. Paul Buzzard, both young and in excellent shape, set out separately from the rest of the team, on foot and leading one horse for both. The rest of us set off into clear weather with high spirits.

The approach to the source, a wall of glacial ice at 5,374 meters above sea level, proved to be tiring for both horses and people, and we only arrived at 3 PM. It went smoothly, and the weather had been fine all day, but as the champagne was opened and the group photos were snapped, ominous dark clouds were assembling in the northwest. They soon arrived, and we found ourselves trapped in a blizzard from which there was no shelter. As the snow and sleet increased, the ground and air both became a uniform white. Footprints disappeared as soon as they were planted. High winds began blowing the falling ice at us sideways, caking horse and rider. Visibility was reduced to a few feet ahead. Each of us could do nothing but prod on our tired horses to keep up with the horse immediately in front – nothing else could be seen.

Our local guide continued to pick up the pace. Realizing that we could not possibly return to our camp and our waiting tents and sleeping bags, he chose a different direction to find a herders’ camp that he knew about. Videographer Chris Dickinson’s horse chose this moment to give up and sit down on the trail, leaving him stranded behind the retreating team. He and Wang Chih Hung were soon separated from the rest of the team – lost in a ‘white-out’.

As the remnants of the tattered team straggled into the nomads’ two room house, wet, shivering and desperate, the looks on each face told of the fear and exhaustion each had endured. Huddling around the small pot-belly stove and sipping hot tea, we were in no shape to mount a rescue mission to find the four lost team members. Luckily, the guide and local nomads were more hardy. Riders soon found Paul and Will. Later, they discovered Chris and Wang Chih Hung, safe but frozen to the brink of frost bite, at another nomads’ encampment.

The expedition to the Salween Source, while a success for geography, was also a reminder of the unpredictable nature of the Plateau’s weather, and how success can turn to tragedy in an instant.