Nel mondo esistono ancora luoghi che hanno resistito all'avanzare della civiltà e sono rimasti per gran parte inesplorati: uno di questi è la gola dello Yarlung Tsangpo un fiume maestoso della regione tibetana, che in India diventa il Brahmaputra e sfocia nel golfo del Bengala. Attraversando la catena dell'Himalaya, lo Tsangpo scorre impetuoso in un profondo canyon di duecentoventi chilometri, in cui si troverebbero la leggendaria Shangri-la e le gigantesche "cascate del Brahmaputra", che numerose spedizioni hanno cercato inutilmente. Per queste sue caratteristiche lo Tsangpo è stato definito, nel mondo della canoa, "l'Everest dei fiumi": una meta ambiziosa e virtualmente irraggiungibile, dato che il governo cinese ha negato per anni agli occidentali l'accesso alla gola.
Questo fino all'ottobre 1998, quando una spedizione statunitense finanziata dalla National Geographic Society ha il permesso di accedere alla zona. La squadra è formata da Wick Walker, Doug Gordon, Jamie McEwan, vincitore di una medaglia olimpica, suo fratello Tom McEwan e Roger Zbel. Tutti questi uomini, esperti canoisti, sono consapevoli dei rischi che possono correre, e anche quando si rendono conto che il fiume, già normalmente molto pericoloso per le sue rapide, è cresciuto a dismisura a causa delle piogge, decidono di proseguire. Tra mille difficoltà e rischi riescono a seguire il corso dello Tsangpo, finché, il dodicesimo giorno di viaggio, un evento drammatico interrompe la loro avventura.
Il fiume estremo è l'unico libro che segue i preparativi e lo svolgersi della spedizione, narrando, come in un romanzo, la lotta quotidiano contro le rapide; ma anche i dubbi, le paure e le decisioni dei protagonisti. Todd Balf si interroga anche sui pericoli insiti negli sport estremi, cercando di spiegare quali sono i motivi e le emozioni che spingono molti sportivi a rischiare la vita.
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
From Publishers Weekly
In 1998 a team of world-class whitewater kayakers arrived in Tibet to confront a Himalayan river so remote and unexplored that they relied on satellite imagery to map out their planned descent. Somewhere along its uncharted stretch were magnificent waterfallsDthe source, according to Balf, of the legend of Shangri-la, a utopian land of incredible beauty. This was a river whose width matched the Mississippi in some spots and that ran through the deepest gorge on the planet. The inherent challenges of the Tsangpo's wild and bouldered rapids were compounded by a record monsoon season that had morphed the river into an unnavigable menace, forcing the team to do most of their exploring via intense overland portaging. Balf's account of this journey surges with superlatives, often defying the reader's imagination: river rocks the size of buildings, cliffs rising 25,000 feet, 30-foot standing waves, and a group of highly trained, intelligent men attempting to kayak the monster, weighed down with $6,000 worth of gear. Balf, who writes for Outside and Men's Journal, is to be congratulated on his sensitive fusion of adventure and sports writing. In his telling, the Tsangpo is alternately "a huge hydraulic event," "a brawling river that drops out of the sky," and, tragically, for one of the bolder paddlers, a place to meet "God and... be with him for all eternity." His account is a well-balanced tale in which the technicalities of exploring and paddling share space with ruminations on man's spiritual quest and mortality. It may be the only book to offer both a glossary of kayaking terms and a short history of the legend of Shangri-la.