An account of the 1986 Sino-USA Upper Yangtze River Expedition, the first descent of the Yangtze, led by Ken and Jan Warren, from the source in Tibet to take-out near Batang in western China.

By Ancil Nance

Story and Photographs ©2001 Ancil Nance, unless credited otherwise.

Text Only Version

Expedition poster

First Descent
Death on the Yangtze
To Dege
Three Boat Rapid
Cold Night
River of Doom
Bigger Better
5 Day Camp
Adventure's End


Rebuttal to Todd Balf and others who were not there.



The water crashed over our four rafts with such force that two of the oarsmen, Chu and Zhang, were blasted into the river, a raging torrent thrashing about like a giant brown dragon trying to rid itself of pests. Our four 18-foot long rafts, lashed together in a 36-foot by 24-foot diamond, were headed for a gigantic wave curling above us. Chu and Zhang had to get back in before we hit it. The rafts seemed to pause on the up side of the next wave, Chu and Zhang scrambled aboard as the wave tilted our craft to a nearly vertical position and then dropped it over the downstream side of a deep hole of brown and white, churning wild water.

"HANG ON," Ken roared, as the river smashed against the canyon wall and twisted into angry reversing curls and boils. Again we were hurled about like corks. I was tossed into an opening between the lashed rafts. I paused in this watery cradle long enough to see another wall of water slam over us, and then I scrambled back to my place next to Ken at the left oar, only to see him get flipped off the seat, like a rag on a stick, toward the front of the raft, almost going over the bow. He hung on and I grabbed him as he pulled the oar back. Another wave hit, and Ken was ready, feet braced. The oar caught a powerful current, but the other end was held in an unbreakable grasp. With a loud crack the oar became Tibetan firewood. I unlashed the spare and Ken fitted it to the oarlock, ready for yet another crash of furious water. Would it ever end?

We didn't know. We didn't know if a giant waterfall was just around the corner, nor did we know if we would be able to stop before going over. That is what makes first descents different from any other type of river running.

The sequence described above was just one of the many unforgettable moments on the first descent of the Upper Yangtze River, the third longest river in the world and China's greatest. We will return to this part of the river, but first some background.

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