The Armchair Paddler [59]

The Second in an Occasional Series of Reviews of Kayak-related Books

Hell or High Water

Peter Heller

Published 2005 by Allen & Unwin, ISBN 1 74114 598 8, 278 pages, paperback, $29.95.

Reviewed by Robert Hollow

Hell or High Water recounts the attempt in 2002 by a white water expedition to run the upper and lower gorges of the Tsangpo River in Tibet. This mighty torrent drains the Tibetan plateau and cuts through the eastern Himalayan chain along the deepest gorge in the world. Previously attempted by a group in 1998 with the death of one paddler, the new expedition comprised seven of the world’s top whitewater paddlers. To support these paddlers the expedition had a team of porters and other support staff making a total of about 80. In this respect the expedition sometimes takes on aspects of Himalayan mountaineering expeditions of an earlier era.

The expedition was sponsored by Outside magazine which sent along one of their writers, an experienced paddler, Peter Heller to write the book on the expedition. His vivid account describes the problems faced by the paddlers as they descended possibly the steepest high volume river in the world. The book not only tackles the technicalities and risks of the running of the river, perhaps even more engrossing are descriptions of the turmoils within the expedition. The tensions that developed between the leaders, porters and support personnel often seemed more threatening to the success of the expedition than the challenges of the river. The mental and physical challenges took their toil on all the participants as they journeyed through the remote, rugged and seldom visited land. Lugging plastic kayaks up over a high mountain pass through thick snow is certainly remote from the average sea kayak trip but certainly adds new meaning to the term portage!

Heller’s book discusses the history, geography and life of this intriguing region in an engaging manner. His style will be familiar to Outside readers as he recounts the personal histories of the paddlers through anecdotes. It provides an enthralling account of what must rank as one of the most audacious river expeditions. As to whether they succeeded, you will have to read the book yourself. The descriptions make you want to visit this isolated region and see the wonders yourself. My chief complaint is that the book is unillustrated other than the awesome cover photo. I would have appreciated a map of the region so as to help place the events described. However those craving visual imagery can buy the separate DVD of the expedition which I spotted for sale in Sydney outdoor stores for $60. The book does contain a useful bibliography for further reading. This is a useful addition to kayak literature.