Tor­rents and tears

Kayak ad­ven­ture on Yangtze re­unites US, Chi­nese team­mates

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FRONT PAGE - By XU XIAOMIN in Shang­hai xux­i­aomin@chi­

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.

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