The Last River

Todd Balf, The Last River: The Tragic Race for Shangri-la (New York: Three Rivers Press) 2000.

Tod Balf The Last River
Balf's book is an account of the 1998 American team's attempt to paddle the Yarlung Tsangpo through the Tsangpo Gorge in Tibet. The team had four highly experienced white water kayakers and a support crew of mountaineers, logistics people and indigenous guides. Their challenge was formidable and their arrival in October occurred at a time when stream flows were beyond anything that could be conquered. The team, however, was disciplined and professional and made choices to portage as necessary. On the 12th day of the trip however, one of the team members launched off of an eight-foot waterfall, flipped and missed his roll. Neither he nor his kayak were recovered.

The book was, for me a bit reminiscent of the 1986 expedition to the upper Yangtze in which photographer David Shippee, from my then hometown of Boise, Idaho died of pulmonary edema, which might have been treated save the extreme remoteness of the expedition's location.

The tragedy, however, is handled well by Balf's book. He examines the ways in which river runners and extreme sports enthusiasts understand the risks that they are taking and accept those risks. Although there is a bit of second guessing in the book, for the most part the expedition is explored in a straight forward manner.

The book is a riveting read that carries the reader through a wide range of emotions.