The story below may just be scariest thing that has ever happened to me while traveling. I have been robbed at gun point twice, was almost thrown in jail in Syria, spent several crazy days in Iraq during the height of the conflict there, slept on the street most nights while hitchhiking through Europe and the Middle East, amongst other things and this was by far the closest I felt I have come to dying.
“A tale of near death in Tibet”
The mountainous area of western Tibet is a rarely explored mix of dizzying heights, culture, religion and often tragedy for those who choose to explore its upper reaches. For a landscape photographer it is heaven. Peaks reaching to over 24,000ft ascend from the grassy plains into clear blue sky, or red and orange sunrises.
The first four mornings I was in the area I was up at 4 am ready for the tough 2 hour hike from the town of Kangding to around 10,000ft to shoot the surrounding peaks. By the fifth morning I was tired of the hiking and ready for the car that would take me to within a 30 minute walk of the location I would be shooting. It would be safe and easy. A small group from the hostel where my girlfriend and I were staying hired a car and driver and headed for about 13,000ft at 4:45am. The road was paved and in good shape save the rocks that littered it ranging from the size of a golf ball to a mini coop. I grew up in Colorado, and the sight of rocks on the road or hearing about a giant rock slide was not that uncommon. The huge rocks that came shooting out of the blackness of night into the light of our headlights before crashing onto the road in front of us was new however. We stopped and watched in amazement as the rocks piled up in our path. We had three options….We could A) Wait for the slide to stop, B) Go back down, or C) Try and move the rocks and drive through without dying. Going back down was out. We were a group of two photographers (my girlfriend and I) and two videographers (two American brothers shooting their travels) along with our American driver, and the conditions for stills and film were just too perfect. Waiting for the rocks to stop falling completely was not good either. The road was already almost impassable and waiting would only make it worse. Not to mention we would miss sunrise from the top.
I drew one of the short straws along with one of videographers to move the rocks from the road. It was a dangerous game trying to move the heaviest of the rocks out of the way while trying to watch the dark for another rock to come shooting off the 12ft ledge towards us. We had to run for cover several times, but finally we got the road clear enough for Chris our driver to haul ass through. If we had known the rock slide would be the least of our worries that morning we may have headed back.
The road was better after the big slide and we were taking the corners tight trying to make up time after the 30 minute delay with the rocks. The road was 100% dry and the 4-wheel drive was handling it with no trouble. I was not worried; however, the fact that there were sheer drops on the side of the road must have made an appearance in the window of my subconscious. When we hit the ice and started to slide, and my mind made the realization that we WERE going over the edge, I knew what was waiting. I think everyone of us has had the dream. The one where the car you’re in goes over the cliff and you wake up scared to death with the feeling of pure relief that you’re actually safe in bed. I can tell you now that in real life it is much, much worse. It seemed like we slid forever, although it must have only been a few seconds. I remember clearly seeing the road end. Seeing the dirt shoulder end. Seeing the edge disappear under the front of the car……and feeling the sudden stop just as I was preparing for the weightless feeling of flight I knew would come. A large flat rock about 5 feet wide and 12 inches high met the bottom side of our bumper and stopped us from going over. Had we left the road only a few feet from where we did we would not have stopped.
The rock was just the right size to stop our motion yet not do any damage to the car. It moved about a foot forward with the impact and cushioned the hit. We made it to the top of the pass and had excellent conditions for shooting. This shot was not actually from that morning, but from a few days later near the town of Tagong. I did get three keepers from that morning that I may post at a later date.