Sunday, October 27, 2019

Review: Hell or High Water: Surviving Tibet's Tsangpo River

Any good representative of an outdoor adventure sport, if given the opportunity, would sit you down and explain why *their* sport is the most dangerous, extreme and ultimately rewarding. In Hell or High Water: Surviving Tibet's Tsangpo River Peter Heller makes the case that expedition kayaking is the pinnacle of adventure insanity. After hearing his description of the January 2002 attempt to kayak Tibet's Tsangpo river gorge, I'm inclined to agree with him.

Heller gives us a front row seat to the 2002 expedition, and what a nail-biter it is. His description of the river conditions and the razor thin margin of error each of the kayakers has to work with made me appreciate just how massive this challenge was. The slightest miscalculation was almost certainly a death sentence. In some respects, the endeavor is reminiscent of free solo climbing. However, with climbing the mountain is essentially a static variable. Not so with the arch nemesis of Heller's tale, the Tsangpo. Here the river is a fluid beast, not just complex, but constantly changing.

The remote nature of the Tsangpo ratchets up the difficulty level even further. Again, in free solo climbing one trains under safe conditions until every move is mastered. On the river, the kayakers had to read the river in near real time and execute without a safety net.

Along with the challenge of running an unrunnable river, Heller also gives the reader a fascinating insight into the challenges of conducting a large scale expedition into essentially uncharted territory. The task of supporting the kayakers and capturing their story was an exceptionally dangerous and exhausting affair on its own.

A typical adventure I follow often involves an individual or small group tackling relatively well documented terrain. That's not to say that adventures like these aren't packed with challenges to overcome. But Heller's 70+ person expedition, involving Sherpas and porters takes this to a new level. The crew had only one choice: move forward. If an impassible obstacle was encountered, like say a sheer cliff, the group had to work the problem and find a way forward. Heller's writing is so good that I found myself physically tense when he described climbing over one massive mountain pass.

Heller also brings to life the elegance and pitfalls of working with locals. The description of how one of the lead Sherpas effortlessly makes a pack-basket, cooking whisk and even ladder show just skilled and in tune the locals are with their environment. On the flip side, the local politicians and porters caused endless logistical headaches, at times bordering on mutiny.

In many respects, Heller gives us a view into what the classic era of exploration must have been like. When massive caravans trudged into the great unknown and explorers risked it all to fill in blank spaces on maps.

If you want to follow along with an epic undertaking whose outcome depends on the slimmest of margins, then Heller's book is for you.

Here's a number of YouTube videos about the expedition: Hell or Highwater! Kayaking the World's Largest Gorge in Tibet, A First Descent of Tibet's Yarlung TsangPo River "Kebe Jehre Lehre" - (2002), Yigong Tsangpo - First descent.

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