Book Review – The Last River

January 25th, 2013


I find it hard to blog about summer things when I’m caught in winter’s icy grip, however, I thought I might do a couple of book reviews. I recently read Todd Balf’s book The Last River — the Tragic Race for Shangri-La.

The book tells the tale of four men (plus their support team) bent on paddling, or at least seeing and portaging, the most remote parts of the Yarlung Tsangpo river in the remotest parts of Tibetan China. It is among the Himalayas, in that part of the world where the borders of India, Bhutan, Nepal and Tibet all meet. Like Everest, which is in the neighbourhood, the physical challenges the Tsangpo presents are beyond what one will find in other parts of the world: the steepest gorges in the world, the wildest rapids. The Tsangpo is a big volume river in one of the most difficult-to-access places on the planet.

Balf starts out giving a great historical overview of British explorers who began their attempts to chart the river in the 1860’s – 1920’s, when India was a long, unwieldy arm of the British empire where men campaigned for money to go on African safaris and it was normal to bring exotic species back to your sponsors or country as samples. One explorer, Francis Kingdon-Ward was even moderately successful in the Tsangpo gorge, but a gap of at least five miles of river remained completely unknown to the western world, and it was that section in particular that this modern group of intrepid explorers wanted to see, and if possible, paddle. There were early rumours of a 150-foot waterfall in the area — not hard to imagine on a river that drops 10,000 feet in a hundred-plus miles, although the rumour turned out to be caused by an error in translation. The area is mountainous, to say the least, and those early explorers believed that Shangri-La — a paradise of indescribable beauty — was hidden among its valleys and lush vegetation.

Jump forward to 1998. Months of planning and fundraising go by and the team’s logistical expert even gets his hands on satellite pictures of the area. A massive hydraulic (waterfall) is visible, perhaps a 100-foot fall after all, and at least two other significant drops are crammed into a paperclip-shaped bend. The guys will definitely be portaging at times, but the team hopes to paddle as much water as they can. Portaging in this gorge isn’t just picking up your canoe and walking; it is intense hiking and even full-blown rope-assisted rock climbing. When the team finally gets to the river, they see a writhing beast, well overflowing its banks in high flood stage. Their first dip in nearly ends in tragedy, as one paddler gets dislodged from his kayak and almost can’t perform the essential and, for these guys, easy, roll manoeuvre. Ultimately, the group’s intense risk-taking on the turbulent river take one man’s life, and the remainder of the book is about decisions, big-signature-funded expeditions and a discussion of the legacy of that man. (I’ll keep the man’s identity a secret, in accordance with the back cover write-up of the book.)

On the whole, the book is a comprehensive look at the expedition, covering every angle and many details, including a significant look at the sport and culture of whitewater kayaking. Why do people take risks? Is it acceptable to take such risks when you have a wife to widow and children to orphan? On the other hand, should one have to give up one’s passions for safety and security? Must you climb “the Everest” before you? What affects a paddler’s decisions, as he or she scouts and paddles the water, or chooses to portage? Is there undue pressure put on paddlers by their funders to “make it happen?” Todd Balf’s treatment and discussion of these issues is sensitive and multi-faceted — making for an enjoyable and thought-provoking read.

You can find The Last River on Amazon here: |