The Tragic Race for Shangri-la
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A knowledgeable account of a grueling white-water adventure on the Yarlung Tsangpo, a virtually unexplored river in the Himalayas.

Journalist Balf (Outside, Men’s Journal, etc.) takes armchair paddlers on a harrowing journey into the deep Tsangpo Gorge in southern Tibet, where in 1998 a team of American paddlers tested their skills against the “Everest of rivers.” The expedition, sponsored by the National Geographic Society, was led by Wick Walker and Tom McEwan, and included Tom’s brother Jamie, Roger Zbel, and Doug Gordon—all experienced white-water kayakers. The author delves into the background and personality of each of the men, all of them with a devotion to kayaking that verges on an addiction (or so it may seem to non-kayakers), and he takes pains to describe the characteristics of the boats, the particular challenges of the rivers, and the maneuvers that the paddlers execute on their runs. (A back-of-the-book glossary is a big help here, too.) When the kayakers reached the Tsangpo they realized at once that the rain-swollen river was largely unrunnable and that their trip would have to be one of “boat-assisted hiking.” The expedition was first seriously threatened by the loss of Jamie McEwan’s boat, but its unexpected recovery downstream restored the team’s hopes. However, when Gordon, their strongest paddler, was suddenly swept away in a stretch of wild water, the adventure abruptly ended and the shaken team quickly returned home. Balf explores the team members’ attempts to come to terms with Gordon’s death, the factors that might or might not have contributed to it, and the range of reactions voiced by both experts and non-kayakers.

For enthusiasts of extreme kayaking, this will provide the vicarious excitement of a hazardous journey along a remote and awesome river; for others, it will be a disturbing trip into the hearts and minds of intrepid thrill-seekers.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 2000
ISBN: 0-609-60625-5
Page count: 272pp
Publisher: Crown
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15th, 2000