Friday, February 15


Taking only a minimum of gear, we started down the cliff at the far end of our camp, lowering ourselves down broken ledges by holding on to small saplings and to the roots of larger trees that projected from the mountainside. Below the cliff, we coursed through slanting thickets of bamboo and bracken and eventually emerged onto open rock...The falls thundered below us, still hidden from our view. We followed their sound and the column of mist that swirled against the dark walls of the gorge to the edge of a precipice and, from there, gazed down at last into the turbulent heart of the hidden waterfall.

The jade green flood of the Tsangpo funneled into a breach approximately fifty feet across and transformed into a sleek wave of what looked like polished air. Surging over the precipice and intersected by rays of sunlight, the river freed itself of all semblance of form and dissolved into incandescent foam as it crashed against an intermediary rock ledge seventy feet below and leapt forth again in arcs of light-filled spray. Filling the air with light and water, it resumed its descent until dissolving into a maelstrom of seething waves, fountaining up against the polished walls of the gorge.

"The falls!" Ken shouted in genuine rapture...Our voices drowned in the tempest at our feet. The air buzzed with ions. The falls were colossal, a massive curtain of foam and light hurtling between sheer granite walls. To gaze into the waters was to stare into the face of impermanence, waves and particles blurring by one after the other, beyond what the mind or eye could register. In ancient Greece, Heraclitus had proclaimed, "You can't step into the same river twice," and the prospect of measuring this mass of jetting water suddenly seemed absurd to me...

I rappelled another twenty feet down, buffeted by the spray of the falls, and entered a realm where there was little distinction between air and water. The wall was wet and smooth, flecked with glistening feldspar, but where the rope ended I reached a foot-wide shelf where I tied off the descending device and turned around into the face of the waterfall. The view was astounding: the mass of the Tsangpo transformed in the narrow breach into a great glittering curtain, dissolving into fractal jets and crashing into the cauldron below. Translucent spray exploded over my head and streamed down my spine. To immerse oneself in the "power, velocity, vastness, and madness [of water] affords one of the noblest lessons of nature," wrote Ruskin, the great eighteenth-century observer of natural processes. And I watched, mesmerized, breathing in the oxygen-rich waters and lost in the vast display...

-- Ian Baker The Heart of the World

Ian Baker: From Search and Rescue to Shangri-La