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[I]f you're exposed to your own adrenaline for too
long, it seems inevitable that it does you in.
The last river of the title is the Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibet, known as the "Everest of rivers." Descending from high in the Himalayas down to sea level in India, it runs through gorges whose walls rise to 25,000 feet and includes (or included) vast stretches which have never been explored, among them a twenty mile swath with a reputed 75 waterfalls and a fabled 100-foot waterfall. Because of it's relative inaccessibility, it's rapid descent, the sheer volume of water it moves and lack of knowledge about it's hidden dangers, no one has ever boated down it. In October 1998, a National Geographic sponsored team of American kayakers, led by Wick Walker and Tom McEwan, set out to become the first to do so. The "Riddle of the Tsangpo Gorges Expedition" was made up of very experienced paddlers who prepared thoroughly, scouting out the river the year before and using the latest in satellite imagery to map out the river, utilized high tech equipment like GPS systems and satellite telephones, and ended in predictable disaster.
When the team arrived in Tibet they found a river, dangerous even in the best of circumstances, which was swollen to three times it's normal size by unusually heavy rains and snow runoff. Lukas Blucher, a renowned German paddler who was planning a similar expedition, decided not to make the attempt at that time, concerned about the conditions. But the Walker-McEwan team decided to go ahead. The first time they put a boat in the water (October 5) Doug Gordon was nearly killed and the next day Jamie McEwan (Tom's younger brother) was swamped, losing his boat. The team realized just how treacherous the river was and, after some debate, proceeded down river with appropriate caution, portaging most of the way. But on October 16, with the "runnable" whitewater sections dwindling, Doug Gordon determined to try running an eight-foot waterfall and was unable to right himself after flipping. He was washed away by the rampaging river and never seen again. The remaining team members decided against continuing and trekked out of the deep canyon in their river shoes with the help of their native guides. They returned home to a raging debate--carried on in chatrooms, newsgroups and editorial pages--over the wisdom of the trip itself, of their decision making, even of the overall responsibility or irresponsibility of whitewater sports.
Balf is a fine writer and the adventure story is exciting enough. He generally avoids the temptation to slip into paddlespeak, though unfortunately he is most likely to do so at the moments where he's describing the various catastrophes, moments which are already difficult enough for a layman to follow. One authorial decision does seem particularly questionable : the use of present tense to tell the tale, despite the fact that he was not on the trip. Though it does add immediacy to the story-telling, it seems somehow dishonest. Similarly the book features a cover photo (see above) with what looks like a human skull (it may just be a helmet) in the foreground and a grounded kayak in the background, strewn across the rocky banks of a river. The implication being that it is a photo of the wreckage of the trip, however, according to the credits, it is not even the same river and was taken in 1995. These quibbles aside, the core issue that confronts the author and the reader is the same as that which faced the survivors of the expedition on their return : was it worth it ?
Todd Balf, like Jon Krakauer before him, obviously feels that these kind of wilderness adventures are worthwhile, even heroic. But significantly, when they speak of these types of experiences their focus is on the individual and his relationship with the wild. These endeavors are fundamentally personal and ultimately selfish. Doug Gordon left behind a wife and two children. What personal thrill or satisfaction can possibly justify this irresponsibility?
For one chapter, Balf chooses as his epigraph the famous quote by Theodore Roosevelt :
The credit belongs to the man who is actually in
the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat
Now, I could be wrong, but I believe that this statement came in the context of the political arena, not the wilderness adventure arena : it's hard to know since TR entered both, frequently. The difference is important. The man in the political arena, though he too is motivated by a quest for personal glory, is engaged in a fight for something bigger than himself. Others will benefit from his daring. Similarly, when explorers set off to face the unknown, though they too sought glory, there were greater purposes to their quests. Christopher Columbus was certainly concerned with winning fame, but he also sought to bring Christianity to the lands he expected to find and to create an economic opportunity which would benefit his patrons. What larger purpose is serve by modern wilderness adventurers? There is no likelihood of the Tsangpo becoming a transportation system for the natives of Tibet. The ethos of these expeditions requires them to respect the natives and the wilderness areas that they find, so they are not seeking to import the benefits of Western culture. The only real purpose of these trips is to provide expedition members with thrills and to win them some fame in the insular communities of like-minded enthusiasts in which they travel (after all, even if they'd succeeded, who, outside of the paddling community, would know their names). It is difficult to discern much that is noble in all of this. Their courage is undeniable ; but what is the point of a courage which serves no greater purpose?
The success of Krakauer's Into Thin Air pretty much guarantees a flood of books like this and, in a warped way, probably encourages these kinds of semi-suicidal trips. Todd Balf has gotten to the head of the line and his book is bound to do well, but one hopes the reading public will quickly tire of these tales; I know I have.
-BOOK SITE : The Last River (FSB Associates)
-Fast Company Magazine (email@example.com )
-ESSAY : Let's Go Round Up the Best People : On his Tall Pony Ranch outside Kansas City, Missouri, headhunter guru Peter Leffkowitz teaches sales and hiring managers how to lasso the best people in a tight market. Are you ready to get your hands dirty? (Todd Balf, Fast Company)
-ESSAY : Mind, Set, and Match : If you want to learn what it takes to win - and you've got what it takes to compete - come to Nick Bollettieri's Tennis Academy. If you just want to 'play tennis,' go someplace else. (Todd Balf, Fast Company)
-ESSAY : That Which Does Not Kill Me Makes Me Stranger : John Stamstad is his own weird science project, a 135-pound, mountain-bike-based experiment in the limits of human endurance (Todd Balf, Airborne)
-ESSAY : Extreme Off-Site : Take 10 talented businesspeople, put them on a rapids-choked Idaho River, watch the temperature rise to more than 100 degrees, and what do you get? A radical experiment in warp-speed team building. Was the experiment a success? You be the judge. (Todd Balf, Fast Company)
-ESSAY : Are You Burned Out? : There's stress, and then there's STRESS. (Todd Balf, Fast Company)
-ESSAY : Spring Range : It's prime season in the Presidentials. (But pack for winter anyway.) (Todd Balf, Men's Journal)
-ESSAY : Summer in The Rockies : The Altitude Trail - Hut-to-hut biking in Colorado high country (Todd Balf, Men's Jornal)
-ESSAY : Fabulously Fit : CHERYL TIEGS (Todd Balf, Modern Maturity)
-EXPEDITION SITE : RIDDLE OF THE TSANGPO GORGES EXPEDITION (Explorers Club)
-MAP : of Tsangpo Gorges
-ARTICLE : Tibet Kayak Expedition Turns Fatal - Local Paddlers End Trip After Group Member Dies in Tsangpo River (Angus Phillips, Saturday, October 31, 1998, Washington Post)
-ARTICLE : Expeditionists Look to Tsangpo River for Answers (Angus Phillips, Washington Post, Tuesday, November 3, 1998)
-ARTICLE : Doug Gordon, former US slalom team member from Salt Lake City, Utah drowns in Tibet while attempting the first decent of one of the hardest rivers in the world. : Trip Report of the Yarlung Tsangpo Expedition (Mountainbuzz.com)
-ESSAY : Unlocking the Secrets of the Tsangpo : Earth Imagery Reveals Topographic Features Hidden for Centuries (Harry Wetherbee, Tsangpo River Expedition team member, McLean, Va)
-PRESS RELEASE : LOST WATERFALL DISCOVERED IN REMOTE TIBETAN GORGE (Thursday, January 7, 1999, National Geographic)
-ARTICLE : `Shangri-la' found deep in Tibetan gorge (Michael Kilian, January 8, 1999, Chicago Tribune)
-ARTICLE : RARE POT OF GOLD BEYOND THE RAINBOW : The discovery of a 33-m waterfall long considered folklore in deepest Tibet has humbled one explorer, for whom the area has become a pilgrimage. (Tee Hun Ching, The Straits Times, 27 Oct 1999)
-INTERVIEW : with Ian Baker : In Quest of Shangri-La (Newsweek International, May 31, 1999)
-ESSAY : Paddlers of the Century : Tom McEwan (Paddler Magazine)
-REVIEW : of The Last River (Elizabeth Grossman, Washington Post)
-REVIEW : of The Last River (Jerry Ackerman, Houston Chronicle)
-REVIEW : of The Last River (CAROLINE FRASER, Outside Magazine)
-REVIEW : of The Last River (Michael Burgin, Pif Magazine)
-REVIEW : of The Last River (Finbarr O'Reilly, National Post)