David Hochman
September 08, 2000 AT 04:00 AM EDT

The Last River

Current Status
In Season
Todd Balf
Nature, Nonfiction

We gave it an A-

A hundred thousand years of human exploration hasn’t exactly made things easy for the turn-of-the-millennium adventurer. After all, with Everest conquered, the oceans fathomed, and earth already crisscrossed by foot, rowboat, and hot-air balloon, what’s left to conquer?

That quest is the driving force behind The Last River: The Tragic Race for Shangri-la, Todd Balf’s heart-pounding account of the ill-fated 1998 kayak attempt on Tibet’s fabled Tsangpo River, a raging, never-before-ridden torrent in the dark shadow of the Himalayas. Like Jon Krakauer’s 1997 best-seller, Into Thin Air, The Last River is a page-flipping odyssey fueled by the adrenaline and near-madness of a team of well-heeled world-class thrill-seekers hot on the trail of an unspeakably dangerous (and ultimately deadly) challenge. And like Mount Everest, the Tsangpo, which roars through a razor-thin gorge three miles deep in places, is among the planet’s most inhospitable and untested environments — impossibly remote, endlessly mysterious, and complete with its own Death Zone.

Unlike Krakauer, Balf wasn’t there when his subjects — elite American white-water kayakers Wick Walker, Doug Gordon, Roger Zbel, and brothers Tom and Jamie McEwan — set off for the Himalayan highlands. Yet he brilliantly re-creates their adventure, splash by thunderous splash, with careful after-the-fact reporting and contemplative commentary that bring readers straight to the surge-battered banks of the river. ”On the water,” Balf writes, ”it felt like you were on the leading edge of some ghostly avalanche. The depth of the river had to be phenomenal … The speed morphed known river features into unknown ones. The holes, the waves, the eddies would each be an experiment of one. The river wasn’t just impossibly wide … it was a tabula rasa.”

Although the profiles of each of the daredevil kayakers are compelling, the Tsangpo itself is the book’s central character — and certainly its strongest. This isn’t just any river, but the Great River, beginning as a near-frozen trickle on the 22,028-foot summit of Mount Kailas (the universe’s cosmic center, according to Tibetan Buddhists) and diving 10,000 feet at speeds upwards of 50 miles an hour through a chasm three times deeper than the Grand Canyon. With its sheer mossy walls, 50-degree water temperatures, and torrential falls, the river had never been fully explored, let alone kayaked; and Balf neatly chronicles the colorful history of attempted conquests. ”As obscure as the Tsangpo is for the majority of Westerners today, it wasn’t always that way,” he writes. ”At the turn of the century — the tail end of Britain’s Golden Age of exploration — the Tsangpo was as buzzed about in fashionable Victorian adventuring circles as Everest.” What drew the current group of adventurers, aside from 25 years of dreaming and some sizable funding from the National Geographic Society, was the hope of finding the river’s so-called ”lost falls,” a Niagara-size hydraulic event rumored to be exploding somewhere on the river’s remaining unexplored five-mile section.

That they never did find the falls is beside the point. The Last River concerns itself more with the journey, both on water and on foot. A pleasure it was not. Bypassing the unrunnable sections of the Tsangpo required ”full-on bushwhacks of several thousand vertical feet out of the densely vegetated, rain-sodden, and leech-infested gorge, onto a steep ridge, through high-alpine passes, then back down the river via cliff rappel.” Moreover, Balf digs into what drove these men — with their Harvard educations, Olympic medals, and families back home — to fool with devil waters that would eventually claim the life of one of the team’s strongest paddlers.

Although the book’s lingo can feel a bit inside-kayaking at times (there’s a five-page glossary at the end), The Last River succeeds in helping unlock the question posed most often to hell-bent adventurers: Why? Explaining the draw risk-takers feel for getting as near as possible to something that might kill them, Balf writes: ”About the only notion that makes sense to anyone is that there is something highly redemptive in being the David, not the Goliath. Something deeply energizing in a place where you so freely swing between powerlessness and possibility.” In other words, the ”last” river isn’t likely to be the last one after all. A-

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