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The Last River: The Tragic Race for Shangri-la Paperback – June 26, 2001

44 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews Review

As the 20th century neared its close, few corners of the globe remained unexplored. One exception was a "monstrous and largely obscure river in southeastern Tibet" that had already resisted several British expeditions: the Yarlung Tsangpo. Raging through a nearly impenetrable gorge in one of the most remote places on the planet, it was a place variously reported as the source behind the Western myth of Shangri-La and the "Everest of rivers." In 1998 a team of middle-aged American men--all of them expert river runners--aimed to notch their paddles with this last great stretch of virgin whitewater that many knowledgeable river people considered "beyond the means of what humans could do in a boat." But after securing crucial funding from National Geographic and flying halfway around the world, the team of four paddlers (three in expedition kayaks, one in a whitewater canoe) arrived in-country to find the river at flood stage. Their leader, a man with a "stubborn allegiance for things that look hopeless," decided they would continue anyway. Those familiar with the story know what happened next.

Fans of the man-versus-nature genre popularized by Into Thin Air and The Perfect Storm will not be disappointed by Todd Balf's fast-flowing reconstruction of events. All the elements are on board: rugged individuals, intensive logistical planning, a strange, unforgiving landscape--and death. While Balf, a former editor at Outside magazine, delivers the expected adrenaline-fueled adventure, the nuanced emotional and psychological dimensions that allowed Krakauer and Junger to rise above the genre are less in evidence in The Last River. Portages through personal histories, for instance, bog down with character portraits that sometimes read more like screen treatments ("His face bears out the Baby Boomer ideal: seasoned but searching"). But once Balf plunges into the heart of his narrative--the river navigation itself--he finds the right stroke:

Paddling hard to get to the protected shore-side of a house-sized rock, he missed the move, then plunged over another small drop. Flipped again, Jamie got spit out and tried to roll but couldn't. Seconds later he felt the boat getting pushed beneath an undercut rock....

What happened on the Tsangpo is not so much a tragedy as another sad loss in the increasingly competitive realm of extreme sports. One wonders about the actual tragedies (i.e., cultural fallout, environmental degradation) ready to unfold as the world's last remote places become playgrounds for the burgeoning adventure-travel industry. The Last River avoids speculating. It's first and foremost an action-packed chronicle of an expedition gone bad that will appeal to landlubbers and water rats alike. --Langdon Cook --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

Boutsikaris does a fine job of matching Balf's (a former editor of Outside magazine) comfortable, plainspoken style, ringing true in all instances except the few where he is called upon to simulate foreign accents, an area that is clearly not his forte. Balf spends a considerable amount of time characterizing the trip's participants and describing the years of preparation that have gone into the journey, and he manages to give just enough insight and background to make the story more palpable instead of bogging it down. Listeners will have a real sense of loss when, nearly two weeks into the exploration of the Tibetan river Tsangpo, one of the members flips over an eight-foot waterfall and is never seen again. Perhaps, though, the fact that Balf was not actually a participant in the trip itself is what accounts for the lack of the immediate, cinematic narration that has made other books in this genre, particularly Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air, so successful. Balf reconstructs events through interviews with the members of the party and attempts to raise the excitement through a dated, sequential telling, but he still just doesn't manage to bring the drama home in a way that a story of this nature demands. Simultaneous release with the Crown hardcover (Forecasts, July 31). (Sept.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Audio Cassette edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Broadway Books (June 26, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 060980801X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0609808016
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.7 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (44 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #836,037 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

17 of 18 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on November 15, 2000
Format: Hardcover
I couldn't agree more with Michael Craig Johnson's review. Structurally, this book is a mess, as well as being a completely uninspiring story of guys with bad judgement. I have never seen a real-life adventure story without any, repeat any, maps of the area or pictures of the participants. Balf could surely have found one picture, or showed us one of the maps mentioned on page 13, and never referenced again. It takes the group 105 pages of disjointed biographical info to get to Lhasa. There we meet more people we have no reason to care about. The group gets on the river on page 143. After some history and more bios, the group is off the river by page 227. After less than two weeks, the action is over. Even the river scenes fail to give any sense of place to help the reader along.
Mr. Balf obviously said what had to be said about the expedition in his magazine article. It was no service to the buyers to produce a whale of a book from the original minnow. As Mr. Johnson says, don't buy this book. I wouldn't even borrow it, or lend it to a friend. Instead, check out Alfred Lansing's classic, "Endurance". With maps nd pictures.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Tommie Lee on September 17, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Anyone who enjoys stories about the Himalayas, Tibet, or people pushing themselves to peak performance, needs to read this. It's not quite the five-star material of Krakauer's "Into Thin Air", but it's very close. Mr. Balf uses the accounts passed to him by the members of the doomed October 1998 Tsangpo expedition so well that you forget he wasn't there. The History is well used and interesting. The descriptions of the mammoth arena in which the story takes place are highly vibrant. And, the relationships of the men on the team are portrayed with realism, as well as a careful depth that could rival the Gorge itself. These are not people out for glory alone. These are people with a passion. Read this book, and see how they fare against one of the last untamed patches of earth we have left.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on December 3, 2000
Format: Hardcover
The essence of this book is its characters. If you want the typical second-by-second action, the literary equivalent of "slow-motion" - tense faces, surging muscles, tall waves bearing down, and all that - then this isn't your book. I mean, the river scenes are there, but they aren't the essence. If you want a cheap thrill, read something else.
For Balf, this expedition wasn't like that. It wasn't about cheap, take-home, made-for-tv summiting. Sure, they called it "The Everest of Whitewater," but these were no twenty-something testosterone freaks selling an image. These were middle age guys, Harvard and Yale grads, writers, chemists, intellectuals. They all had wives and kids. Yet, at the same time, they were unmatched paddlers - pioneers and legends. Roger Zbel is famous for running the big Eastern rivers in flood when all the young dudes were scared off, and he has dominated extreme kayak racing for 15 years, ever since he and his buddies pretty much invented it, along with the whole new discipline and culture of squirt boating. Tom McEwan was the first big waterfall runner, and he has first descents in many countries. He's considered untouchable in a boat, and he runs his own kayak school nowadays. Jamie McEwan was an two-time Olympian paddler, and a Bronze medalist, the only American male to win a medal in whitewater solo craft. And on the river Doug Gordon was the best of them all . . .
Balf knows that. He knows that Tom McEwan could drop off a thirty-foot falls without much thought, that Roger Zbel could run class V in his sleep, that all these guys had been near death on the river.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful By T.W Trotter on August 20, 2001
Format: Paperback
"Extreme", "lantern jawed", "boulders the size of buildings". Mix these three cliches, stir in an almost incomprehensible mix of first names and some [partial] biographies and you have the essence of Todd Balf's The Last River - The Tragic Race of Shangri-La. Ostensibly the tale of a river exploration by kayak gone awry it's focus is continuously blurred by disorganized snippets of arcana and personal information about the participants and (too many) peripheral players in this tale of a grand scheme gone bad. The real tragedy of this story seems to be the fact that Balf is the self- appointed chronicler of it. Balf continuously mires the reader in minutiae that is scattered seemingly hodge-podge throughout the story. The timeline of the book wavers between serpentine and non-existent and further clouds an already confusing tale. The story itself, the story of a group of experienced paddlers seeking the ultimate challenge on one of the mightiest rivers in the far east, has unlimited potential to be engaging. Instead, Balf scrawls such a circuitous, hackneyed missive, that the weakly developed principal characters rush down a river of unpredictable, choppy and confusing prose long before they reach the river that shares those qualities. In the Author's Note Balf writes of his struggle to give shape to an original article about the topic of his book. The reader is predisposed to think that Balf underwent the same struggle with the book..and lost. Balf seems overwhelmed by the topic at hand: too much information, too much forced drama and too many characters have resulted in an unruly pastiche of a story. In the end it is the story that suffers: the clarity of the participant's vision has been lost, the essence of the experience that beckoned them left unexplored. For [the money] CAN there are more entrancing journeys for the reader to take.
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