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The Last River: The Tragic Race for Shangri-la

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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 leade 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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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 leade 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.

30 review for The Last River: The Tragic Race for Shangri-la

  1. 5 out of 5

    Megan Baxter

    These kind of wilderness/extreme sport survival tales of death and striving slightly baffle me. I dip my toe into the genre every once in a while, as one pops up on one of my lists, but I have to confess that I don't get the urge throw yourself into harm's way again and again. I'm not one to advocate for comfort and no challenge in life, but I'm pretty sure I don't need that kind of challenge. Isn't life hard enough already? Note: The rest of this review has been withheld due to the recent change These kind of wilderness/extreme sport survival tales of death and striving slightly baffle me. I dip my toe into the genre every once in a while, as one pops up on one of my lists, but I have to confess that I don't get the urge throw yourself into harm's way again and again. I'm not one to advocate for comfort and no challenge in life, but I'm pretty sure I don't need that kind of challenge. Isn't life hard enough already? Note: The rest of this review has been withheld due to the recent changes in Goodreads policy and enforcement. You can read why I came to this decision here. In the meantime, you can read the entire review at Smorgasbook

  2. 5 out of 5

    Becca

    I generally love books about exploratory expeditions, but this book didn't speak to me. I'm not sure how Balf did it, but he took a riveting story and made it dry and boring. It wasn't particularly long, but it felt interminable at times. (view spoiler)[The only riveting part of the book was, unfortunately, the scene accounting the death of Doug Gordon. Other than that, it felt devoid of all emotions. (hide spoiler)] It seemed to me that this book was written for white water paddlers, and not for I generally love books about exploratory expeditions, but this book didn't speak to me. I'm not sure how Balf did it, but he took a riveting story and made it dry and boring. It wasn't particularly long, but it felt interminable at times. (view spoiler)[The only riveting part of the book was, unfortunately, the scene accounting the death of Doug Gordon. Other than that, it felt devoid of all emotions. (hide spoiler)] It seemed to me that this book was written for white water paddlers, and not for the general public. I got lost in the minutia of the sport, unfamiliar with the gear, tactics, etc. It was interesting to read, though I don't feel I connected with any of the characters or learned anything in particular.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Jeff Jellets

    Tragedy and death on the ‘Everest of Rivers.’ Before the turn of the millennium, Tibet’s Yarlung Tsangpo river was one of planet Earth’s last great unexplored places. The river, some 1,800 miles long, snakes through the deepest canyon in the world – a chasm three times deeper than that of the American Grand Canyon – it’s roaring ribbon of white water unnavigated by modern explorers. Todd Balf’s The Last River traces a 1988 American kayaking expedition that sought to be the first to traverse the T Tragedy and death on the ‘Everest of Rivers.’ Before the turn of the millennium, Tibet’s Yarlung Tsangpo river was one of planet Earth’s last great unexplored places. The river, some 1,800 miles long, snakes through the deepest canyon in the world – a chasm three times deeper than that of the American Grand Canyon – it’s roaring ribbon of white water unnavigated by modern explorers. Todd Balf’s The Last River traces a 1988 American kayaking expedition that sought to be the first to traverse the Tsangpo’s unexplored regions – an expedition that ultimately ended in tragedy. I’m generally a fan of the ‘outdoor-adventure’ genre and Balf offers a thorough account of the preparation and deployment of the Walker-McEwan expedition to the river. The strongest point of the book comes, obviously, as the four kayakers began their descent of the river – which is running remarkably higher than expected – and Balf paints a vivid picture of the challenges and dangerous conditions among the mountains, deep gorges, rocks, and rapids. Balf also has an unprecedented amount of access to those connected to the expedition and there’s plenty of first-hand observations to back-up the overall narrative. Balf’s connection to the surviving participants may also be a bit of the book’s undoing. The perspective is clearly sympathetic to kayakers and the narrative is heavy on the life stories of the key personalities, almost to the point of verging on an outright memorialization. Not to disparage the dead, but the heaviness of the expedition members’ personal backgrounds tended to pull the main thrust of the story – the exploration of the canyon – a bit off-track for me. There’s also the subtext of the somewhat sleazy commercialism of outdoor adventurism that slides toward a rant by the last chapters, and I’d lean more toward Michael Kodas’s High Crimes: The Fate of Everest in an Age of Greed as a more compelling exploration the dark side of ‘exploration’ sponsorship. Verdict: Good, but not top-of-the-genre. The subject matter is there, but this one was a bit too heavy on the personal lives of the participants, diluting the core material on the exploration of the river. P.S. The upper gorge of the Yarlung Tsangpo river resisted exploration for another 14 years. It wasn’t until 2002 that a group of seven people -- led by filmmaker Scott Lindgren and assisted by a 93-person support team – became the first party to successfully kayak the upper gorge of the Yarlung Tsangpo.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Patricia Mclelland

    The reason why I gave it a 1 star is because it should have been an article. All the background, all the commentary ruined the telling of the story. The commentary and the background info was forced into the story to make it book length but all that took away from the power of the story. I used to white water kayak, it is a dangerous sport, even the best of the best can die in a totally fluke situation. Bottom line - if you have a story to tell, tell it, if it is a good story, people will read i The reason why I gave it a 1 star is because it should have been an article. All the background, all the commentary ruined the telling of the story. The commentary and the background info was forced into the story to make it book length but all that took away from the power of the story. I used to white water kayak, it is a dangerous sport, even the best of the best can die in a totally fluke situation. Bottom line - if you have a story to tell, tell it, if it is a good story, people will read it. If you have to embellish or add lots of commentary to increase the length then it probably isn’t worth telling or you aren’t the one that should tell it.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Doug

    This is a riveting and tragic story of an expedition into the Tsango Gorge in Tibet. The Tsango is a monster of a river that is isolated and unforgiving - hard to imagine what it is like without actually being there but the author gives a very compelling description. The books also goes into great detail as to how/why this perhaps ill-advised expedition was undertaken in the first place. If you like reading about Everest climbing expeditions and the like, you'll like this river version of such a This is a riveting and tragic story of an expedition into the Tsango Gorge in Tibet. The Tsango is a monster of a river that is isolated and unforgiving - hard to imagine what it is like without actually being there but the author gives a very compelling description. The books also goes into great detail as to how/why this perhaps ill-advised expedition was undertaken in the first place. If you like reading about Everest climbing expeditions and the like, you'll like this river version of such accounts.

  6. 5 out of 5

    James Christensen

    Very interesting insight to the mindset and skill level of leading edge athletes. In this case, kayakers down the "Everest" of rivers, the Yarlung Tsangpo through the Tsangpo Gorge in Tibet. Wick Walker, Tom and Jamie McEwan, Doug Gordon (dies) & Roger Zobel. Trip in 1998. Much maligned as being too extreme, the book makes a solid argument for these guys taking calculated risks and knowing what they were doing. Very interesting insight to the mindset and skill level of leading edge athletes. In this case, kayakers down the "Everest" of rivers, the Yarlung Tsangpo through the Tsangpo Gorge in Tibet. Wick Walker, Tom and Jamie McEwan, Doug Gordon (dies) & Roger Zobel. Trip in 1998. Much maligned as being too extreme, the book makes a solid argument for these guys taking calculated risks and knowing what they were doing.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Amanda

    Great book involving whitewater kayaking - which is why I read it. It does a decent job of using correct terminology that kayakers actually do use. Running rivers like this has become even more prevalent in recent years with the advances in technology and transportation. There's more I want to say but I'll avoid spoilers! A good adventure story that's definitely worth a read, even if you're not a kayaker! Great book involving whitewater kayaking - which is why I read it. It does a decent job of using correct terminology that kayakers actually do use. Running rivers like this has become even more prevalent in recent years with the advances in technology and transportation. There's more I want to say but I'll avoid spoilers! A good adventure story that's definitely worth a read, even if you're not a kayaker!

  8. 4 out of 5

    Pegeen

    Even handed account, not too technical for a non whitewater paddler reader. Technical enough for those familiar with the sport. I would have like more detailed maps. I think some of the drama I expected was missing, but then I thought that meant the author was being more honest and authentic. Unlike the Nat Geo video “re enactment “ using some actual video and some re created, which I found in poor taste and exploitive.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Kevin

    A must read for any paddler or outdoor adventurer. There's a bias that comes through that I'm told has been characterized as unfair by at least one of the subjects, but the uniqueness of the trip, tragedy, and fluidity of the writing make this well worth the read. A must read for any paddler or outdoor adventurer. There's a bias that comes through that I'm told has been characterized as unfair by at least one of the subjects, but the uniqueness of the trip, tragedy, and fluidity of the writing make this well worth the read.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Stevejs298

    All in all I'm glad I got to go on this adventure through this story. The book certainly made me want to go out (on a much safer) adventure of my own. I would've liked more detail on how the portages actually worked. It remains very difficult for me to picture. All in all I'm glad I got to go on this adventure through this story. The book certainly made me want to go out (on a much safer) adventure of my own. I would've liked more detail on how the portages actually worked. It remains very difficult for me to picture.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Mike Bingley

    I’ve spent a lot of time in canoes on expeditions. This book made me cringe at just about every page as the characters paddles toward their eventual fate. Well written, but made me deeply uncomfortable.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Bonnie

    the title has the word "tragic" in it, so not sure why the ending caught me so off guard. the title has the word "tragic" in it, so not sure why the ending caught me so off guard.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Steve Bera

    I liked the authors later books. This was his first, and not very riveting. Possibly a hard book to write given the limitations the author had to work with. Cannot recommend.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Andrew Shirshac

    Interesting story. So-so writing.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Foy

    Todd Balf chronicles a team of kayakers as they embark on an incredible journey to paddle the dangerous whitewater of the remote Yarlung Tsangpo River as it carves out one of the deepest gorges through Tibet while flowing away from the Himalayas. Despite record high level waters which made running the river exponentially more difficult and dangerous, the team decides to boat what they can and portage the rest. Early on, team member Doug Gordon inexplicably takes a dangerous line over a waterfall Todd Balf chronicles a team of kayakers as they embark on an incredible journey to paddle the dangerous whitewater of the remote Yarlung Tsangpo River as it carves out one of the deepest gorges through Tibet while flowing away from the Himalayas. Despite record high level waters which made running the river exponentially more difficult and dangerous, the team decides to boat what they can and portage the rest. Early on, team member Doug Gordon inexplicably takes a dangerous line over a waterfall, fails to right his kayak, and is swept down the river to his death. The team is devastated, ending the water portion of their exploration and they begin the arduous trek out of the region. They are greeted by waves of criticism and accusation, ultimately drawing few lessons from the tragedy and coming to the simple conclusion that they practice a sport with inherent risks clearly known to all involved - any day on a river could be their last. Balf has written an engaging and comprehensive account of the ill-fated Walker-McEwan expedition. However, the story itself is rather short and more than half of the book takes place before anyone has set foot near the river. For the non-boating reader, the lengthy intro may make for less than engaging reading. In addition, the book suffers from its incessant comparison with Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air and Everest mountaineering in general. The designation the "Everest of Rivers" and the constant comparison with Into Thin Air distracts the reader from the story at hand. Unfortunately for adventure writers everywhere, the coincidental circumstances which occurred on Everest in 1996, and the fact that a reporter with mountaineering skills just happened to be there to cover them, may never be duplicated and volumes such as Todd Balf's The Last River would benefit by leaving the comparisons out.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Alyson

    I honestly thought this book would completely grip me and keep me reading until all hours of the night, but it was a little dry or sterile. The author's "voice" never really surfaced, but I can only assume he was trying to avoid judgment of the controversial attempt at a first descent on the Tsangpo. In turn, a really gripping story was kinda muted. I have read whitewater stories that made me feel like I was right out there on the water...holding my breath during swims, struggling to make my mov I honestly thought this book would completely grip me and keep me reading until all hours of the night, but it was a little dry or sterile. The author's "voice" never really surfaced, but I can only assume he was trying to avoid judgment of the controversial attempt at a first descent on the Tsangpo. In turn, a really gripping story was kinda muted. I have read whitewater stories that made me feel like I was right out there on the water...holding my breath during swims, struggling to make my move, and enjoying the sunshine on my soggy soul. But this one didn't quite get me there. Another jab...the book's chronological format meant that the author described each party member and then discussed the exploration. I found myself wanting to go back to the early chapters so I could keep the characters straight in my mind. I was surprised the author didn't choose to weave personality portraits within the accounts of the river trip. I did enjoy learning about the region of the Tsangpo and the huge task of exploring these uncharted territories in modern times. From product sponsors to National Geographic, it's a big business...sometimes scarier than the water and rocks. It's always good to read about boaters and the universal joys and sorrows they face. Balancing the call of the water with a rational mind was a huge focus for some of these kayakers, but it ultimately didn't save a life. The book brings up some great topics, but fails to completely deliver.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Santanu Dutta

    In the first east south east of Tibet the mighty river Tsangpo-Brahamaputra enters the treacherous gorges as it enters the Indian tropical jungle. The mighty river cuts one of the deepest and longest canyons in the world, separated from the outer world by high snow clad mountain ranges of Easter Himalaya and tropical to alpine forests. The place always attracted travelers and adventurers and considered as the last romance of geography. The book puts a gripping narrative of the 1996 ill fated Nati In the first east south east of Tibet the mighty river Tsangpo-Brahamaputra enters the treacherous gorges as it enters the Indian tropical jungle. The mighty river cuts one of the deepest and longest canyons in the world, separated from the outer world by high snow clad mountain ranges of Easter Himalaya and tropical to alpine forests. The place always attracted travelers and adventurers and considered as the last romance of geography. The book puts a gripping narrative of the 1996 ill fated National Geographic expedition of Kayaking the Tsangpo Gorge. It tells about the racers, the people of the Tsangpo gorges, their rituals, the flora and fauna of the region. The flavor of Tibetan beliefs of the river and effect on the racers is gripping. In the end its tragedy. Its an unfinished race and lost to the high forces of nature. Todd Balf has narrated the account of the expedition, the beauty of the nature, the people's faith, their belief, and of course the disaster scenario is very good. In fact the sequence that have been narrated in the disaster when one of the best Kayakars got lost in the forces of the river to be lost for ever is seemingly gripping.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Kelley

    Fantastic book about people rather than just tragedy. I felt their desire for the fulfillment of a dream and truly identified. Interesting book structure, describing each of the team members in turn and at appropriate moments in the timeline. I don't know these men, will never meet them, and as I am not a kayaker, will never experience the same desire for conquering or even momentarily co-exiting with river water. But as a climber, I feel a similar desire for the Earth. This book tugged at my so Fantastic book about people rather than just tragedy. I felt their desire for the fulfillment of a dream and truly identified. Interesting book structure, describing each of the team members in turn and at appropriate moments in the timeline. I don't know these men, will never meet them, and as I am not a kayaker, will never experience the same desire for conquering or even momentarily co-exiting with river water. But as a climber, I feel a similar desire for the Earth. This book tugged at my soul and emphasized my own climging hopes and dreams. As a real adventurer, it's often a good practice to remember your own mortality- this book can help you do that.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Chris

    A good, but not great read. The book describes a trip to the "last river"--Tsangpo River Gorge in Tibet. Four begin the trip, but one does not come back. And you know this from the first page--so--the book is mostly just waiting to see who dies and how. The parallels to Into Thin Air are obvious (made worse by the author continually referring to Everest), but it's not nearly as well written or as gripping. Still--it's an interesting read and gives good insight into the world of big river bad-ass A good, but not great read. The book describes a trip to the "last river"--Tsangpo River Gorge in Tibet. Four begin the trip, but one does not come back. And you know this from the first page--so--the book is mostly just waiting to see who dies and how. The parallels to Into Thin Air are obvious (made worse by the author continually referring to Everest), but it's not nearly as well written or as gripping. Still--it's an interesting read and gives good insight into the world of big river bad-ass paddlers.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Ted Haussman

    I love man vs. nature yarns and stories of attempts at great feats. This was a fascinating one in the genre of Perfect Storm, or Fire, or Isaaac's Storm, or Into the Great Unknown, or Into Thin Air. Balf does a great job of expanding upon what is a pretty simple core story. Where I thought the book really shone was in the descriptions of the personalities, their histories, and thought processes. Would highly recommend this not-as-well-known book for anyone who loves these types of stories. I love man vs. nature yarns and stories of attempts at great feats. This was a fascinating one in the genre of Perfect Storm, or Fire, or Isaaac's Storm, or Into the Great Unknown, or Into Thin Air. Balf does a great job of expanding upon what is a pretty simple core story. Where I thought the book really shone was in the descriptions of the personalities, their histories, and thought processes. Would highly recommend this not-as-well-known book for anyone who loves these types of stories.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Celia

    It took me forever to read this book. It was very factual, and utterly boring. I believe the author was trying to give the real story, not the one touted by the media. Sadly, athlete's deaths are often exaggerated to make it sound like they were doing something too risky, when once in a while everything just goes wrong. So I give the author kudos for that. The writing was not engaging or colorful in the least. However, the subject matter was interesting. It took me forever to read this book. It was very factual, and utterly boring. I believe the author was trying to give the real story, not the one touted by the media. Sadly, athlete's deaths are often exaggerated to make it sound like they were doing something too risky, when once in a while everything just goes wrong. So I give the author kudos for that. The writing was not engaging or colorful in the least. However, the subject matter was interesting.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Emily

    The back of the book compared this to "Into Thin Air." I only half agree. It was good read, semi-interesting, and definitely informative (especially if you don't know a lot about whitewater rafting). But I had a hard time wanting to finish it. Maybe that's because the back of the book contained a spoiler that affected the momentum of the book. It's an alright read, if you can't find anything else to read. The back of the book compared this to "Into Thin Air." I only half agree. It was good read, semi-interesting, and definitely informative (especially if you don't know a lot about whitewater rafting). But I had a hard time wanting to finish it. Maybe that's because the back of the book contained a spoiler that affected the momentum of the book. It's an alright read, if you can't find anything else to read.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Meredith

    This is a tragic, fascinating account of one team's experience exploring a remote and savage river. A really interesting story that makes you think about the dangers and drawbacks of financing adventures. When the National Geographic Society became a for-profit foundation, some say it sacrificed some of the integrity that it accumulated after years as a venerable non-profit institution. This is a tragic, fascinating account of one team's experience exploring a remote and savage river. A really interesting story that makes you think about the dangers and drawbacks of financing adventures. When the National Geographic Society became a for-profit foundation, some say it sacrificed some of the integrity that it accumulated after years as a venerable non-profit institution.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Savannah

    Perfectly acceptable specimen of the adventure/disaster genre. As with most, it's heavily based on background of all of the participants with the actual events and disaster taking only a few pages to relate. Still, it's well-researched and competently written. It's not just for whitewater fans; it's about exploration of remote places and extreme endurance athletics than the river work itself. Perfectly acceptable specimen of the adventure/disaster genre. As with most, it's heavily based on background of all of the participants with the actual events and disaster taking only a few pages to relate. Still, it's well-researched and competently written. It's not just for whitewater fans; it's about exploration of remote places and extreme endurance athletics than the river work itself.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Sarah

    Reads like an overly long feature article for Outside magazine. Prose is florid and overwrought, like the writing of a talented high school boy. But the stry is good. Drags in places (hence the "overly long" designation) and could definitely have benefited from more maps and some photos. So in short, I say again, should have just stuck with the magazine article version. But a compelling tale. Reads like an overly long feature article for Outside magazine. Prose is florid and overwrought, like the writing of a talented high school boy. But the stry is good. Drags in places (hence the "overly long" designation) and could definitely have benefited from more maps and some photos. So in short, I say again, should have just stuck with the magazine article version. But a compelling tale.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Bridget

    Good book on an interesting event. Lots of background information on the location and the participants. It was easy for me to guess who eventually ended up dying even though I hadn't known ahead of time. The actual adventure itself took up a small amount of the book. In the end I felt really disappointed with National Geographic Good book on an interesting event. Lots of background information on the location and the participants. It was easy for me to guess who eventually ended up dying even though I hadn't known ahead of time. The actual adventure itself took up a small amount of the book. In the end I felt really disappointed with National Geographic

  27. 4 out of 5

    Kate

    A great story, but a slower read. Some parts are excellent, others drag a bit - the end brings up some very interesting points, though, about life and the decisions we all make(in this case by extreme sport atheletes).

  28. 4 out of 5

    John

    Read it a while back. Don't remember much about it ... it was OK as far as I remember. A group of kayakers wanted to kayak the upper reaches of an unexplored river that originates in the Himalayas. Tragedy strikes on I believe the first day of kayaking. Read it a while back. Don't remember much about it ... it was OK as far as I remember. A group of kayakers wanted to kayak the upper reaches of an unexplored river that originates in the Himalayas. Tragedy strikes on I believe the first day of kayaking.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Larry

    A good read on how difficult an expedition kayak trip can be. This trip in what was to be a first descent the Tsangpo River in Tibet turned deadly for one paddler. It does remind me that safety issues are not to be overlooked in any outdoor adventure.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Katie Thorson

    This is not a compelling read unless you like paddling sports, it's more of a documentary. The technical and cultural aspects of their trip was very interesting. When you're paddling remember, we're just inbetween swims. :) This is not a compelling read unless you like paddling sports, it's more of a documentary. The technical and cultural aspects of their trip was very interesting. When you're paddling remember, we're just inbetween swims. :)

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