Hell or High Water

Although few people will have the opportunity to visit the world’s most remote regions, accounts of those who do can be captivating and thought provoking. Peter Heller, himself a seasoned kayaker, was commissioned by Outside Magazine to follow seven world-class kayakers as they attempt to do what others died trying: shoot the waters of Tibet’s Tsangpo River as it rushes down a gorge three times deeper and eight times steeper than the Colorado River’s Grand Canyon. The Tsangpo River Gorge is the deepest dry-land rift, and very deadly.

In Hell or High Water: Surviving Tibet’s Tsangpo River not only does Heller paint exhilarating and very frightening accounts of the kayakers’ descents in rapids with waves sometimes taller than two-story buildings and deadly whirlpools and undercurrents, but he also takes his readers to a beautiful and troubled part of the world: Chinese-occupied Tibet. Interspersed in these rushing accounts of the kayakers on the water are stories of a real Shangri-La, the area made famous in James Hilton’s Lost Horizon (1933)--this is a place where mountain tigers and leopards terrorize villages, where villages exist as they have for centuries, and where Tibetan culture and heritage are rapidly being erased by the Chinese, who have occupied the country since the 1950’s.

Heller is expert at capturing the personalities of the various groups involved in the expedition: the kayakers, the support staff--which includes Heller, the Nepalese Sherpa guides, and Tibetan porters. Nothing about this journey is easy: Chinese officials make impossible demands, the porters steal supplies, threaten mutiny and make off with vital expedition funds; and the leader of the expedition, Scott Lindgren, never fully accepts Heller as a necessary or desirable member of the group, accusing him of being divisive, untrustworthy, and greedy.

For arm-chair adventurers, Hell or High Water will provide a window into a world few Westerners have had the privilege of visiting as well as insight into the personalities of men who risk their lives to be the first to conquer a river such as Tibet’s Tsangpo.