Some might argue that the last frontier of human exploration lies not in mountains or jungles but in the tumultuous uncharted rivers that run through them. And one of the mightiest, hairiest, most remote prizes still left to kayak in full is undoubtedly the Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibet.
“It’s a massive river,” says expedition paddler Ben Stookesberry. “It essentially drains half of the Tibetan Plateau. It's headwaters lie in Western Tibet near Mount Kailas, which, to Tibetan and Hindu cultures, is the center of the universe." It flows due east past Mount Everest before dropping 9,000 feet through the Tsangpo Gorge to India.
Sky-high permit fees, the river’s remoteness, and the sheer terror of its unknown Class V+ whitewater has kept this river sacred and relatively unexplored. The entire river, which has views of Everest and runs through a 16,000-foot gorge—the deepest on Earth—has yet to be kayaked top to bottom in one expedition. Doug Gordon died trying in 1998 shortly into the trip. In 2002, a team led by Scott Lindgren successfully completed the first descent of the Upper Tsangpo Gorge, one of the last prizes in big water kayaking, but opted to leave the Lower Gorge for another time. Just kayaking and negotiating the Upper Gorge took them 30 days. “It’s the Everest of rivers,” says Stookesberry. “But unlike Everest, it has never been completely accomplished.”
On more than two dozen expeditions to 13 countries, kayaker Ben Stookesberry has logged more than 70 first descents, hurled himself off waterfalls, run from crocodiles, and produced seven kayaking films, including Kadoma, about the life of Hendri Coetzee.