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Tibet Kayak Expedition Turns Fatal

Local Paddlers End Trip After Group Member Dies in Tsangpo River

By Angus Phillips. Washington Post Staff Writer

Saturday, October 31, 1998

Three Washington area white-water paddlers hiked out of a remote gorge in Tibet yesterday and are on the way home, having abandoned a pioneering descent down the raging Tsangpo River after the fourth man in their party capsized and was lost in the icy rapids.

It took brothers Jamie and Tom McEwan and fellow paddler Roger Zbel a week to climb out to the Szechuan-Tibet road over avalanches and snowy rock cliffs after abandoning efforts to find the body of Douglas Gordon,  41, a doctoral candidate in chemistry at the University of Utah, father of two and a veteran white-water expeditionist.

The four were attempting the first run down a 140-mile stretch of the Tsangpo where it splits between 25,594-foot Mount Namjagbarwa Feng and 23,598-foot Mount Gyala Peri in eastern Tibet. Gordon was lost when his kayak capsized and he was pulled upside down into a series of powerful whirlpools.

"Witnesses observed him being swept into an almost certainly lethal set of rapids from which he was not seen to emerge," said the official statement of Wick Walker, a white-water expeditionist who ran the land-based support for the trip.

"They spent two solid days searching" for the body, said Sarah Park, a friend of Tom McEwan who is serving as local spokeswoman for the team until the paddlers get home next week. Park said the men hiked about 10 miles down-river but found absolutely nothing. The river, which is fed by runoff from melting glaciers, is extremely cold. "They deemed it impossible for him to survive," said Park.

Tom McEwan, 52, grew up in the Maryland suburbs and runs the Calleva School of Paddling in Germantown. He is credited as the first person ever to run Great Falls in a kayak when, in the 1970s, he took the 25-foot drop.

His brother Jamie, 46, is the first American to win an Olympic medal in white-water events. He took the bronze in slalom canoeing in 1972. He lives in Connecticut. Zbel, who also is in his forties, grew up in Northern Virginia and is founder of Precision Outfitters, a rafting company on the Youghiogheny River in western Maryland.

Gordon graduated from Harvard University and was a member of the U.S.  white-water slalom team from 1981 to '87. He was living in Salt Lake City with his wife, Connie, and their two children, aged 2 and 5, while studying for his doctorate.

The accident occurred Oct. 16. Walker was contacted by the kayakers on their satellite phone, hiked in from downstream to join the search and was led through the wilderness of the Chinese autonomous region by 11 Tibetans. The men searched three more days before abandoning the boats and setting out last weekend on the dispiriting trek back to civilization.

The Tsangpo is "one of the last, great uncharted rivers in the world,"  said Arlene Burns, a Seattle kayaker who researched it for a possible descent during nine years as a river guide in Katmandu, Nepal. "It's the Everest of white water, except unlike Everest, it's never been done.

"This is the big Never Been Run," she said. "You can find yourself in a place that's unrunnable in a boat and impossible to portage, too," she said. "Then you're hosed. In running a first descent like this, that's the looming fear."

"My husband has been boating for 25 years," Nancy Zbel said. "He's run the Cheat River [in West Virginia] in flood and many other big rivers,  but he said this was bigger than anything he'd seen before. The river was extremely high."

The Tsangpo has a volume of 10,000-100,000 cubic feet per second,  depending on rainfall, and drops steeply at a rate of 65 feet per mile over 140 miles. "You're talking about five times the steepness of the Potomac from Great Falls to Chain Bridge, plus two or three times as much water," said former world white-water canoe champion Davey Hearn of Bethesda. "Just on the stats, it doesn't seem like a good bet. But they had heavily researched it and I have to accept their judgment."

Walker and Tom McEwan scouted the river on foot a year ago, said Walker's wife, Laura. The $100,000 expedition was sponsored by National Geographic and Malden Mills, maker of Polartec fleece, among other sponsors.

The four men arrived in Katmandu on Sept. 24 and took 13 days to travel the 600-odd miles over primitive roads to a put-in at Pei, Tibet. They planned to take up to six weeks to run the 140 miles to Medog.

Park said that when the voyage started the men found the river level between two and three-and-a-half times higher than they had anticipated.  According to Park, "Tom said the team was intimidated at first but got less so as they carried on, and the level was coming down as they went."

The men kept in contact with Walker and relatives back home by satellite phone but used it sparingly since there was no way to recharge batteries. Sometimes the mountains were too steep to transmit. They paddled touring white-water boats capable of carrying enough food and gear to survive for several weeks. Walker was to meet them halfway with more supplies.

But they never got that far. One-fourth of the way, the Tsangpo cuts between the two mountains with sheer rock cliffs thousands of feet high.  "It's the deepest gorge in the world," Tom McEwan said in an interview yesterday with National Public Radio. He said after Gordon flipped he hit a succession of enormous whirlpools. "We sometimes call them vertical eddies," said McEwan. "If you're out in the middle, they're so enormous you just disappear."

All four men, as well as Walker, had extensive experience on wilderness water, said Park.

News of Gordon's death shocked the paddling community. "Doug and I guided at the Nantahala Outdoor Center together," said Burns, the former Katmandu guide. "He was a brilliant, kind guy and a great athlete -- a very skilled kayaker without any egotistical or macho side."

"Jamie McEwan and Doug Gordon are the best boaters in the world, no question," said Bruce Lessels, a former teammate on the U.S. team who was asked to join the Tsangpo expedition but declined. "They're the most rational, the most non-reckless. I know this was killer white water, but the plan was to go really slowly and hike wherever they had to. I thought the big risk was getting a third-world disease."

The three men expect to reach the Tibetan city of Lhasa by Jeep in two or three days, then fly home via Katmandu. They could be back Wednesday,  said Park. "They're all having a hard time with this," she said. "Jamie and Doug were very close friends. Tom and Jamie are both deeply saddened."

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