Making Skis in China and Mentoring on the Whitewater Rivers of Tibet

Ganden Monastery outside Lhasa

Time to refuel

In July of 2011, having spent exactly a year traveling the world to fly, paddle, and climb, my meager reserve was completely spent.  No choice but to get to work and fuel back up.  It took a long time to re-organize my thoughts after complete travel immersion, but eventually I re-assimilated and was ready to get to work.  I jumped at the offer by previous employer Black Diamond Equipment to spend a month in Asia working on ski production.  So just as my feet were planted again, I was back in orbit traveling to the facility of a vendor-partner who was executing BD ski production at the time.

Mixing up some kool-aide at BD’s ski factory

Working in Asian factories is challenging on many levels: long days, cultural and communication difficulties, deadline and costing pressures, and of course the vast distance from home.  However the most significant personal challenge is the existential complication of working offshore in the contemporary global and economic landscape.  I am just a ski bum from the Atomic City – talented enough as a thinker and engineer – who through a series of events driven by my passion as a skier found myself on the floors of an Asian factory.  Again.  This was my 10th trip to Asia, 8th trip as engineering representative for BD.  Same as always I was careful to use the opportunity to expand my awareness and understanding of the world, while working hard to create something with purpose.  In this case skis.

The Urban Wilderness of Hong Kong

The Hong Kong skyline and Victoria Harbor

On the weekends, I took a train back to Hong Kong to re-set in the transitional HK culture that is the result of so many years of British Colonialism.  Hong Kong is easily navigated by a Westerner, has a spectacular subway and bus system, and is literally surrounded by spectacular expanses of urban wilderness.  BD has a small apartment on Hong Kong Island, from which one can quickly access hundreds of miles of beautiful jungle trails with springs, streams, pools, and side-country wilderness.  Yet from deep in the urban wilderness you can often look out and see the tops of some of the richest buildings in the world poking above the trees in the distance.

Thermal flying on Lantou Island

HK is also known for having interesting paragliding in the steep, jungled, coastal terrain, so of course I brought my travel kit.  I had a couple good flights throughout the month, including a thermal session and several drop-out laps at Lantou Island.  Being a ‘point-rat’ from SLC my flying techniques were unfamiliar to the local crew – I spend as much time as possible with my feet above my wing – and it took a while for them to warm up to me.  But eventually we found our common ground, and I was even invited on the HK club’s annual winter trip to Taiwan.

Feet over Wing, Pat Sin Leng, Hong Kong

Inland and Up

At the end of the month, with traction gained at the ski factory, I boarded a plane heading inland and up.  Unbeknownst to my supervisor I had flown to Hong Kong on a two-month ticket, and arranged to spend the month of August volunteering as a whitewater mentor in Lhasa with the guiding company Tibet Wind Horse Adventure.  Tibet’s only whitewater guiding operation, Wind Horse Adventure is a highly esteemed guiding operation for all variety of Tibetan adventure and culture trips.  Additionally, they have ties to profound figures in the western world such as my personal inspiration Robert Thurman, the renowned western scholar of Tibetan Buddhism.  I had established the contact with Wind Horse the previous year while traveling through Tibet with my girlfriend on a budget tour.  Access to Lhasa is challenging – even as a paying tourist – so the prospect of spending a month exploring the Tibetan vibration with a decent level of autonomy was too good to be true.

Sky burial sight at Ganden Monastery outside of Lhasa

To start I would be safety boating for a guided raft trip on the Reting Tsangpo with a group of international expat executives.  Jed Weingarten was to guide the trip, and I was eager to make the acquaintance of such a profound figure from the kayaking world.  We all met up at the Lhasa airport, and together spent a couple days adjusting to the altitude in Lhasa while checking out the classic sights.  Then we loaded a heap of gear into the trucks and rambled off in to the hills.

Reting Tsangpo

Navigating the road along the flooded banks of the Reting Tsangpo

The forces of nature were resisting our efforts, and as we left the streets of Lhasa behind we entered a storm that did not abate for the entire trip.  The remote roads along the approach became hopelessly muddy and wet, so that our trucks were repeatedly stuck.  Brutal winds tore at our tents and shelters.  All the while the flow of the river slowly increased from the rain, to reach an eventual torrent that was breaking out of the banks of the Reting Tsangpo.

The whitewater on the river packed a surprising punch at such volumes, and was fast enough to flush all the way through to the Reting Monastery in a single day.  Despite (and because of) some tribulations, it was not an experience that will soon be forgotten by anyone involved.

Rolling toward the madness, with yak herders watching from the shore

Practicing rescue scenarios

Back in Lhasa, I spent the next three weeks working on river safety and kayak skills with the local river guides of Tibet Wind Horse Adventures.  We practiced a quiver of knots, simulated pin and rescue scenarios, swam in a pool, swam rapids on the local river, and worked on kayak techniques and paddle strokes.  Together with the guides, we also explored some of the surrounding valleys and soaked in the local hot springs.  In the evenings, I pounded out ski training laps with the young athletic standout Norbu, hiking from town to surrounding temples and local summits – often over 15,000ft!

Ski training in the Lhasa alpine

Walking Kora laps around the pillars that once staked down the Ogress

However, what remains most clearly fixed in my mind are the Kora laps around the Jokung Temple, often late into the dark rainy nights.  Kora is the meditative walk practiced by the Tibetans – always clockwise and often accompanied with prayer beads and wheels – around any spiritual monument or temple.  The Jokung Temple is a non-descript yet pivotally important monument in Tibetan Buddhism.  The ancient temple is built on the sight of the slaying of a giant Ogress, who had restricted the spread of Dharma throughout Tibet.  While I generally avoid attachment to the specifics of lore and scripture, my mind is sufficiently tuned to subtle energies to pick up the reverberating wavelengths broadcast by countless generations of meditation that have encircled this barycenter.

Hole punching and river theory

At the end of the month, we loaded up the Green Machine and took a trip out to the Drigung Chu for a final weekend of whitewater and hot springs on a little gem located up a remote Tibetan valley.  The Drigung River offered us a perfect opportunity to practice our new skills in a wild and beautiful setting.

We spent the night at the Drigung Hot springs, which are set in a magnificent alpine valley surrounded by a Tibetan Nunnery.

Drigung Nunnery and Hotsprings

While the waters are reputed to have healing properties, the squalor of our discount room surely diminished the effects..

Dirty accommodation at the Drigung Hotsprings

The next day we finished with a final lap on the river, then loaded up the green machine to head back to Lhasa.

Tibet’s Kayakers at the takeout of the Drigung Chu

I spun a few final laps of Kora around the Jokung, trying to solidify my feeble mind against the candy-coated mayhem that awaited me on the other end of a trans-pacific flight.  With the duality of excitement and remorse that is the traveler’s plight, I boarded a plane and set off on the radical trans-Himalayan flight to begin the journey towards my home, my girl, and my dog once again.

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