Illustration by MARTIN SIMPSON, appearing originally in the June 2014 issue of Canoe & Kayak (on newsstands now) with the exclusive book excerpt from Dave Costello’s new book Flying Off Everest from Lyons Press.
By Conor Mihell
In 2011, then-Canoe & Kayak associate editor Dave Costello reported on an outrageous mission to paraglide and kayak from the summit of Mount Everest to the Indian Ocean by two unsponsored and unknown Nepalis. Sanu Babu Sunuwar and Lakpa Tsheri Sherpa climbed to the rooftop of the world on May 21, 2011. Then they jumped off by tandem paraglider, flying to the Sun Kosi River, where they switched to whitewater kayaks and paddled to the Ganges River and eventually the Bay of Bengal. The 400-mile journey (with 5.5 miles of elevation drop) was the first ever to link the highest point on Earth to the ocean in one continuous, non-motorized trip, and garnered Babu and Lakpa the title of National Geographic Adventurers of the Year.
Costello was absorbed by the unlikely story of the adventurers, who succeeded despite the fact that Babu had no mountaineering experience and Lakpa had never been kayaking and couldn't swim. He left C&K to work on a book about the expedition. After nearly two years of reporting, including a month-long stint in the Himalayas, Flying Off Everest is now available from Lyons Press.
Besides spinning a grand tale of adventure—Babu and Lakpa discovered by happenstance that they both shared the same goal of traveling from summit to sea—Costello foremost paints a compelling picture of life in Nepal. His writing is at once sparse yet glowing in detail, capturing the Himalayan landscape and the hardscrabble existence of its human population. With $5 to his name, Babu ventures from his tiny alpine village by foot and bus to Kathmandu and eventually the tourist town of Pokhara, where he becomes smitten by whitewater kayaking and learns how to pilot a paraglider. Costello sets the scene like a local, but doesn't let his own experiences interfere with establishing a well-paced narrative and bringing the characters to life.
While most media outlets focused on the pair's climb and paragliding descent, Costello maintains the paddling section was by far the most adventurous. Lakpa had barely learned how to put on a sprayskirt before navigating Jaws and Dead Man's Eddy—an auspicious Class IV-V start to the whitewater section on the Sun Kosi. The downriver journey involved close calls, long swims and rescues. Later on, they were robbed by armed bandits on the Ganges in Bihar, India's lawless state. By sheer luck, they escaped in the darkness of a lunar eclipse.
It's obvious that Babu and Lakpa were pure in their quest for adventure. They were oblivious to the fact that they were nominated for the National Geographic award. Yet in early 2012, just as the first stories of their exploits trickled into popular media, they won the people's choice title in a landslide, beating out a bevy of professional Western athletes with sponsors and powerful social media campaigns. "I am not special," says Lakpa in the epilogue of Flying Off Everest. "I set a challenge for myself and that's the important thing. I don't want to tell my children what to do with their lives…I want to show them that whatever they want to do—they must do it."
Read an excerpt from Flying Off Everest in the June issue of Canoe & Kayak magazine, on newsstands now.