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.
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.
Our small group from the hostel hired a car and driver and headed for about 13,000 ft 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. But I grew up in Colorado, and the sight of rocks on the road or hearing about a giant rock slide was not that uncommon.
However, 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 definitely new. We stopped and watched the rock slide in amazement as more and more rocks piled up in our path. It became clear that we had only a few options. 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. The conditions for stills and film were just too perfect. Waiting for the rocks to stop falling completely wasn’t 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.
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. Had we known the rock slide would be the least of our worries that morning, we may have headed back.
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
After finding ourselves safe on the road after the rock slide, the situation took a turn for the worst. We hit a patch of ice and started to slide straight towards a sheer drop off at the edge of the road.
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. It moved about a foot forward with the impact and cushioned the hit.
Nothing like having life flash before your eyes before heading out to shoot the morning sunrise. We did finally made it to the top and even had excellent conditions for shooting, including the adrenaline of a near death experience.