A hearty report on the running of Tibet’s Tsangpo River, modestly diminished by the author’s observer status.
Heller (Set Free in China, 1992, etc.), an accomplished kayaker in his own right, was not asked to join the team of seven men assembled to make the first run down the Upper Gorge of the Tsangpo River, unknown but understood to be hellacious due to the elevation drop. Instead, Outside magazine, which sponsored the expedition, asked him to serve as the project’s writer. Immediately he was at loggerheads with team leader Scott Lindgren, who had his own designs on selling the story—if he came back alive (the Tsangpo has a bad habit of killing people). Heller does a smooth job of introducing the participants and, at first, a rip-roaring job of evoking the river’s conditions. But there are only so many ways you can describe “colliding sheets of water, whirlpools, and chaotic waves” before the modifiers simple run out. “A trough in which you could comfortably park Greyhound’s express bus to Endsville” is good, but more phrases run along the lines of “10,000 cfs of steep, technical, bronco-busting mayhem,” which is not so good. Wisely, Heller turns to the history of the area’s exploration, to its natural history (man-sized ferns, rhododendron forests, and alarming wildlife), to the kayakers’ river stories (endless and boggling), and to fine accounts of the villages: “The air smelled of blossoms and tilled earth and rushed with the sound of the two rivers. We could hear chopping and distant singing.” Despite the secondhand material from the kayakers, who were not the best communicators, readers fail to gain any sense of what it was like to be seated in one of the boats, getting beat like a gong and loving it.
Considering the irascibility of the team leader and his distance from the action, Heller works a difficult story gamely, getting enough color into the narrative to keep readers involved, if not exhilarated.