Wednesday, October 16, 2013

India Part II: Zanskar Gorge - The Grand Canyon of Asia

There is no easy way to get to the put-in of the Zanskar Gorge. We wanted to start at the remote town of Padum which lies in a high mountain valley walled-in between the Zanskar and Great Himalayan Ranges. There is currently an attempt to build a road up the canyon but the going is tough. While on the river we saw a crew slowly chipping away at the solid rock walls with a backhoe. We also saw places where the new road was already completely washed out. I have a feeling access to Padum won't get easier any time soon.

Travel through the Ladakhi landscape definitely seems easiest by way of the rivers. In the winter, the locals trek up and down the frozen Zanskar River to pass through the gorge. On our way down the river we saw cave huts built up with smoke blackened ceilings from the winter passage. Another possibility for kayakers is to access Padum by paddling a tributary called the Tsarap Chu, but I've read this section has a long mandatory portage and committing narrows section that can get dicey at high water. The option we chose was a scenic two-day drive around the Zanskar Range, up the Suru River Valley, over 14,435 ft. PensiLa pass, and down the Doda River.

photos: Monica Gokey

Two jeeps picked us up the morning of August 11th just as it started to get light. We made it a pretty good distance that day and it was the most beautiful drive I have seen in my life! We passed through green river valleys dotted with yaks and switchbacked up over stark mountain passes dotted with marmots. We made stops to check out ancient Buddhist monasteries, massive glaciers, and class VI rapids. It was the most unique geography and culture I've ever experienced. The going got really rough on the dirt road up the Suru River. As it started to get dark we called it a night and set up camp overlooking the Suru. It was so nice to be sleeping by a river again and I was itching to get on the water! 

Nearing PensiLa Pass


We finally reached the Zanskar late on the second day. Haggared but happy, we set up camp at the put-in and got ready for our three day paddle back down to the confluence with the Indus. When I crawled out of my bivy the next morning, Jacob was already out surfing a great wave he had found upstream. After a quick breakfast I packed up my gear and paddled out to join him. Launching on a new river in a foreign country where everything was unfamiliar, it felt good to climb into my kayak and feel at home again. One by one, everyone got packed up and joined us in the eddy. Then we all peeled out and drifted downstream, excited to live out of drybags for the next few days.

Jacob catching a morning surf

Meeting locals at the put-in

photo: Monica Gokey

The Zanskar is a classic Himalayan big water multi-day run. It is about 90 miles and every bit as spectacular as the Grand Canyon of the Colorado in it's own jagged way. Most of the rapids are large class III-IV wave trains with the crux at a narrow entrance to the gorge section. The vertical canyon walls make it challenging to find campsites in some areas, but we didn't see any other groups on the river and were able to find great camping for our two nights on the river. There were interesting side canyons around every corner and we stopped to hike a couple of them. It would be easy to spend a whole week exploring out there!

Nice beach camp on the first night

Side hike

Adam soaking it all in

By the second day the fairytale started to fade. We hit a flat section, the wind was brutal, and the water was frigid. It was a long morning and my sunburned skin and was chapped and painful. The local food, booze, and/or river water had caught up with a couple people and the group was making frequent emergency pit stops. Then we saw a group of trekkers trudging along a steep, rocky trail and suddenly things didn't seem so bad after all. Shortly after that, the trail left the river completely and we entered the gorge section of the Zanskar. The river narrowed and the whitewater was awesome as the walls closed in. Loud cheers came from our bright train of kayaks as we bobbed through the giant wave trains. It was an incredible place to be and I felt so small!

At this point we were a week into our India trip and I was really appreciating all that time to paddle with Susan and Monica. Of course I love kayaking with the guys too, but I always learn so much from having strong women boaters around who aren't afraid to plan and lead an international kayaking trip. It was encouraging to have them there to hold a rope or discuss lines while sitting at the top of a boily drop. I learned a lot from getting to know their paddling styles and it was inspiring to follow each other through some of the bigger rapids. 

Entrance to the gorge section

Me in the crux rapid

The heart of the gorge

The narrows

Just when I thought it couldn't get any better, we rolled up on an amazing waterfall pouring out of the canyon wall.  I recognized it from pictures I'd seen, but photos don't capture the power of this place. It was surreal being there in person, surrounded by fluttering prayer flags and dwarfed by the giant canyon walls. It was late in the day and we decided that instead of gambling on finding a camp downstream, we'd go ahead and stay in the most beautiful place on earth. 

Night two campsite in waterfall heaven

Ty and Monica

Photos: Monica Gokey

I wish I could wake up next to a waterfall every morning and paddle down an awesome river through a giant canyon. It was our last day on the Zanskar, but one of my all time favorite experiences. The day was packed with great read and run rapids. By early afternoon we had reached the continuous, rowdy day section of the Zanskar which made for a great grand finale. There were a few commercial rafting trips out and it was fun to meet some of the local guides and safety boaters. Gradually the canyon opened up and after a few last lazy river bends, we pushed through the afternoon headwinds and made it to the confluence just in time for hot curry and cold beer at Splash Rafting Base. For me, kayaking the Zanskar Gorge was a dream come true and I'm so grateful to everyone who helped make it happen!

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