The Last River: The Tragic Race for Shangri-la

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9780609808016: The Last River: The Tragic Race for Shangri-la

The Last River: The Tragic Race for Shangri-la is a breathtaking account of the ill-fated October 1998 expedition of an American whitewater kayaking team who traveled deep into the Tsangpo Gorge in Tibet to run the Yarlung Tsangpo, known in paddling circles as the "Everest of rivers." For Wick Walker and Tom McEwan, extreme whitewater pioneers, best friends, and trip leaders, the Tsangpo adventure was the culmination of a twenty-five-year quest for glory. Yet the team's magnificent dreams crumbled when their ace paddler was swept over a thunderous eight-foot waterfall, never to be seen again.

Here is a fascinating exploration of both the seething big water and perilous terrain of the legendary Shangri-la, and the men who dared challenge the furious rapids that raced through this 140-mile-long canyon. The Last River invites us to view the Himalayas from a totally new perspective -- on a historic river so remote that only the most hardy and romantic souls attempt to unlock its mysteries.

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Review:

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

From the Inside Flap:

It is a challenge few top kayakers could resist.  The Tsangpo remains one of the world's few uncharted, unconquered whitewater rivers, epic in both scale and beauty.  Plunging 10,000 vertical feet, its waters run beneath snowcapped Himalayan peaks, past verdant jungle, and through the treacherous Tsangpo Gorge.  Ancient Buddhist monastic textx name the region Pemako and suggest a real-life Shangri-La within its unexplored depths, along with mist-shrouded waterfalls and other wonders witnessed by few, if any, human eyes.

In October 1998, a team of four expert kayakers, partially funded by the National Geographic Society, attempted the first end-to-end descent of the gorge.  The expedition ended in tragedy when the team's strongest paddler, Doug Gordon, executing a perilous but not impossible jump, was swept into the river's main current and never seen again.

The Last River is the story of that ill-fated adventure and a riveting evocationof one of our planet's wildest and most alluring places.  In the words of an eighth-century monk, "Even to take one single step toward Pemako is to be liberated from mundane existence."

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