During a recent descent of Tibet’s Tsangpo River by kayak, satellite images from Space Imaging’s IKONOS satellite proved to be a crucial planning and mapping tool for the 87-man Outside Tsangpo Expedition Team. Sponsored by Outside Magazine and Chevrolet’s Chevy Avalanche, a team of the world’s best expeditionary kayakers joined forces to attempt the historic first descent of the Tsangpo Gorge. The Tsangpo River is the highest river and the deepest gorge in the world. The river is thought by many professional adventurers to contain the most feared whitewater on the planet.
After a 1998 National Geographic Society-sponsored kayaking expedition of the Tsangpo River, Space Imaging took the world’s first commercial high-resolution satellite images of the remote Tibetan river. That expedition was called off before completion because of the tragic whitewater death of a kayaker.
Then, in the summer of 1999, Scott Lindgren, a 29-year old world-class kayaker and Emmy-award winning cameraman started planning to take a team to descend the Tsangpo. He turned to Space Imaging for the IKONOS satellite images that were taken in May 2000.
“The satellite images were an absolute key to the success of the expedition,” said team leader Lindgren. “The images were like being in a helicopter above the water. They gave us a bird’s-eye view of the entire river before we even left the U.S. Some areas of the Tsangpo Gorge have never been seen by man, that is until IKONOS took these amazing pictures.”
Showing rapids, steep canyon walls, trails and mountain passes, the set of 20 images, valued at more than $48,000, was loaded into the team’s laptop computers and viewed with ERDAS’ ViewFinder software. The very accurate, high-resolution images allowed the team, by using GPS coordinates, to navigate along specific sections of the river and know in advance what lay ahead. The team developed entry and exit waypoints that were then programmed into GPS receivers to keep the team on course. Large image-maps, overlaid with latitude and longitude grids, were also printed out and laminated, and were used daily by both on- and off-river teams.
The entire expedition, which started on Jan. 21, 2002, took more than a month to complete. Not only did they complete the first descent of the Tsangpo Gorge, but they were also only the third Western expedition ever to traverse the Gorge, the first two being done on foot – Frank Kingdon Ward in 1924 and Ken Storm, Jr.’s team in 1998.
Lindgren and other team members filmed the historic trek for Outside Television Productions. The expedition TV special, “Into the Tsangpo Gorge,” will air on NBC Sports this Sunday, May 26, at 2:30 p.m. ET. Outside Magazine’s coverage of the expedition will be its cover story in the July issue and is currently featured on Outside Magazine’s Web site at https://www.outsidemag.com/.