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The Last River: The Tragic Race for Shangri-la
by Todd Balf
Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0609606255, Hardcover)As the 20th century neared its close, few corners of the globe remained unexplored. One exception was a "monstrous and largely obscure river in southeastern Tibet" that had already resisted several British expeditions: the Yarlung Tsangpo. Raging through a nearly impenetrable gorge in one of the most remote places on the planet, it was a place variously reported as the source behind the Western myth of Shangri-La and the "Everest of rivers." In 1998 a team of middle-aged American men--all of them expert river runners--aimed to notch their paddles with this last great stretch of virgin whitewater that many knowledgeable river people considered "beyond the means of what humans could do in a boat." But after securing crucial funding from National Geographic and flying halfway around the world, the team of four paddlers (three in expedition kayaks, one in a whitewater canoe) arrived in-country to find the river at flood stage. Their leader, a man with a "stubborn allegiance for things that look hopeless," decided they would continue anyway. Those familiar with the story know what happened next.
Fans of the man-versus-nature genre popularized by Into Thin Air and The Perfect Storm will not be disappointed by Todd Balf's fast-flowing reconstruction of events. All the elements are on board: rugged individuals, intensive logistical planning, a strange, unforgiving landscape--and death. While Balf, a former editor at Outside magazine, delivers the expected adrenaline-fueled adventure, the nuanced emotional and psychological dimensions that allowed Krakauer and Junger to rise above the genre are less in evidence in The Last River. Portages through personal histories, for instance, bog down with character portraits that sometimes read more like screen treatments ("His face bears out the Baby Boomer ideal: seasoned but searching"). But once Balf plunges into the heart of his narrative--the river navigation itself--he finds the right stroke:
Paddling hard to get to the protected shore-side of a house-sized rock, he missed the move, then plunged over another small drop. Flipped again, Jamie got spit out and tried to roll but couldn't. Seconds later he felt the boat getting pushed beneath an undercut rock....
What happened on the Tsangpo is not so much a tragedy as another sad loss in the increasingly competitive realm of extreme sports. One wonders about the actual tragedies (i.e., cultural fallout, environmental degradation) ready to unfold as the world's last remote places become playgrounds for the burgeoning adventure-travel industry. The Last River avoids speculating. It's first and foremost an action-packed chronicle of an expedition gone bad that will appeal to landlubbers and water rats alike. --Langdon Cook
(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:24:14 -0400)
A team of extreme whitewater paddlers takes on the remote and fearsome Himalayan rivers in 1998.
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