Torrents and tears
Kayak adventure on Yangtze reunites US, Chinese teammates
They had been united in a common goal 30 years earlier, and in trying to achieve it 11 of their friends, peers and rivals had lost their lives. Now, as they met for a reunion, drink and tears flowed.
“During the party in Beijing all of us drank late into the night, and we laughed and wept,” says Chu Siming, 59, a member of the China-US Upper Yangtze River expedition of 1986.
That mission had called for a journey of about 2,500 kilometers lasting 10 weeks on rafts and kayaks through virtually uncharted waters that would entail negotiating swirling torrents, dozens of waterfalls and drops totaling more than 5,000 meters.
This was no scatterbrained attempt by a group of individuals to get themselves into Guinness World Records but an effort that had the approval of the top sports authorities in China. Yet two strong undercurrents propelled the expedition from the start: national hubris and money.
In 1985, Ken Warren, an adventurer from Oregon, had declared that he and a team would attempt to be the first to raft the perilous upper reaches of the Yangtze, China’s longest river. This had raised hackles from the public, who questioned why foreigners had been handed the right to be the first conquerors of a body of water that by dint of its history and culture enjoys almost mystical national status.
Earlier the China Sports Service Company, an affiliate of the national sports authority, had signed a $800,000 deal with Warren allowing him to raft on the upper reaches of the Yangtze and later to develop commercial rafting.
“In the 1980s, China had just opened its economy to the outside world and many government departments were seeking projects to earn profits,” says Chu, who was an employee at the China Sports Service Company, affiliated to the sports authority.
In an apparent attempt to assuage public criticism, it was later announced that several Chinese rafters had been selected to join the US team. That recruitment drive had encountered difficulties of its own, many of those who were approached rejecting the opportunity, believing the mission to be too dangerous.
Chu was among those who were not deterred.
“I signed up anyway,” he says. “I was young and willing to do anything new and exciting.”
Apart from Chu, the company managed to find another two Chinese members for the 11-man joint team. One was a mountaineer from Sichuan and the other was from a
sports school in Wuhan, Hubei province. With the team would also be photographer, camera crew and a doctor, as well as a support group that would be traveling by road that included Warren’s wife Jan.
However, it became clear that the US-China expedition would not be alone in its attempt, with Chinese teams being formed, their aim being to beat it. News of the joint expedition garnered much interest in both countries, and in China many young people prepared to organize their own expeditions.
The most notable of these was Yao Maoshu, 32, a rafting enthusiast from Sichuan province. He started his venture by himself, which some regarded as foolhardy, in June 1985. It has been reported that before he set out he told his wife to get an abortion because he feared that should he not return she would become a widow burdened with a child.
After 1,300 kilometers he drowned when his raft overturned in the Jinshajiang section of the Yangtze, and some would hail him as a national hero.
Apparently emboldened by this tale of heroism, the next year many young Chinese men joined in competition to raft the Yangtze, and like Yao nine perished in the waters of the Jinshajiang stretch of the river.
After months of planning, it was decided that the joint team would set off in late July 1986 from the river’s source in Tuotuo River on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau, at an elevation of about 5,000 meters.
However, even before kayaks and rafts had been put on the water, the overland trek to the river’s source proved to be a stiff challenge for the team, and within a short time one of the team members, David Shippee, a National Geographic photographer, was suffering badly from altitude sickness.
Another team member, Ancil Nance, in his account of the expedition, Yangtze River Expedition, 1986: An Adventure, says another team member urged Shippee to drink and think of his wife.
“It’s not worth it,” Nance quotes Shippee as saying. “Then he slumped in our arms. We carried him to his tent. By midnight he was dead.”
Chu says he vividly recalls the power of the river and says that some sections of the Yangtze may never be conquered because of the power of the rapids. One of those sections is Tiger Leaping Gorge, in northwestern Yunnan, he says.
When the team was about 320 kilometers from there, on Aug 28, 1986, Warren wrote in his diary: “We were mauled by the river, bounced around like on the inside of a pinball machine or maybe a washing machine … In a dreamlike sequence our boat was crushed by a mountain of water. It felt like we had hit a brick wall at 20 miles an hour (32 km/h).”
Chu says: “Rocks lay hidden under the rapids, and there was turbulence beyond the rocks. The river was totally unpredictable, and you realized that the normal principles of buoyancy did not apply. You could be pulled into a hole by the power of the rapids, and sometimes it was like being in a runaway car with no brakes. It’s difficult to put the fear into words.”
However, as the team battled with nature, other problems were simmering in Yushu, Qinghai province, Nance says, several team members whom he calls dissidents voiced their disgruntlement about how things were being run. Eventually four Americans quit the expedition.
The rest of the team pressed on for another 650 km but it and all the other teams failed to clear the Jinshajiang section of the course, where the river drops more than 3,000 meters, and where the rapids are especially vicious. Ken Warren said in an entry in his diary that his 10.8-meter long boat, the most advanced rafting vessel at the time, was tossed around like a toy. Even for a veteran like him the power of the Yangtze was indescribable, he said.
In summer this year two young reporters, Du Xiuqi and Chen Chuhan, spent four months interviewing members of the Chinese teams and retraced the route from Xining in Qinghai province to Batang near Chengdu, Sichuan province, where Warren’s team ended its adventure.
“I chanced upon a memorial of the expedition in Tiger Leaping Gorge when I traveled there earlier this year,” Chen says. “It was a shocking and tragic story, and I realized that young people like me knew nothing about it.”
Chu says that instead of comparing the expedition to an adventure gone wrong, people should see it as a test of human resolve.
“I found rafting to be more about what it means to be human than an adventure. In an extremely dangerous and unfamiliar situation, even a little problem can be amplified into a big one.”
The problem the joint team faced was not only the difficulty of the route, but also shortages of food, he says.
However, after Ken Warren and others finally acknowledged nature as the winner in their intrepid tussle, more battles lay in store when they returned to the US. The Warrens faced no less than six lawsuits from some of the American team members, including one for wrongful death.
In June 1990 the couple were vindicated in all the lawsuits, but Jan Warren says they were left more than $180,000 out of pocket because of legal fees. Ken Warren died early the next year.
“I simply couldn’t handle all the loss,” Jan Warren says. “I was angry and I had to spend a lot of effort to heal the mind and support my then 13-year-old son.”
At one stage she refused to even talk about the expedition but says she eventually felt compelled to write about it on behalf of her late husband, who was posthumously recognized with a lifetime achievement award in Beijing, she says.
“I just cried when I saw the trophy. It is beautiful.”
That is why she decided to tell the story of the Sino-US expedition in a book she self-published in the US, 1986 Sino-USA Upper Yangtze River Expedition, for which she has sought a publisher for a Chinese version. Chu was among the attendees at the party in Beijing on Oct 29, with Zhang Jiyue, another member of the expedition, two Chinese reporters who were attached to the joint teams, and Jan Warren.
There was “lots of laughter, talking and reliving”, Jan says. “I spent the day with Chu and we had a wonderful talk about the expedition.”
Chu, who is now in the real estate investment and art business, gave up rafting many years ago, but Jan Warren is as keen on it as ever and holds onto the dream of promoting rafting as a sport in China.
“One of the things I still want to do even if I am too old is to organize Chinese tourists to river raft in the US. Lots of Chinese tourists come to the US these days, and we want to show them the excitement but in a careful way.”
Chu reckons that as a result of the ill-fated expedition young people may have been deterred from the sport, because to this day the feat that those intrepid rafters attempted 30 years ago is a mission that remains unaccomplished.
We were mauled by the river, bounced around like on the inside of a pinball machine or maybe a washing machine.”
Ken Warren, China-US Upper Yangtze River expedition of 1986 member
Above: The Sino-US joint team on the upper reaches of the Yangtze in 1986. Below: The group before leaving for the river.
Jan Warren (left) and Chu Siming, a key member of the bilateral rafting team in 1986 met again in Beijing.