This story was originally featured in the December 2011 issue of Canoe & Kayak. Check out C&K Contributing Editor Dave Costello’s full account of the expedition, Flying off Everest, and C&K‘s exclusive excerpt from from our June 2014 issue.
By Dave Costello
It’s not easy to set a record on the roof of the world—especially one that involves paddling. Everest has been climbed more than 3,000 times since the first ascent 58 years ago, so you’re going to have to do something very, very different if you want a record on the world’s tallest peak. It’s been skied down, climbed by a blind man, an amputee, a 13-year-old and a 76-year-old. People have gotten married up there. So when Nepal’s Sanu Babu Sunuwar, 28, and Lakpa Tsheri Sherpa, 35, reached the summit after a moonlit night of climbing on the morning of May 21, 2011, having ascended without a tent, staying in their Sherpa friends’ camps and borrowing food, they knew they needed something drastic to be the first all-Nepalese team to claim a record on their country’s holiest mountain.
So they launched their tandem paraglider off the summit’s northwest face in high crosswinds—likely the highest free flight ever, at 29,085 feet, which Lakpa did without supplemental oxygen—and then flew southeast, through the Arun Gorges to Chatara, hopping from mountain to mountain with their paraglider. That wasn’t enough. Next, they put on the Sun Kosi River, where they paddled to its confluence with the Ganges, and finally out to the Bay of Bengal—more than 500 miles west to east, and 5.5 miles from top to bottom. That makes them the first ever to travel from the highest point on Earth (50 feet above that, actually) to the ocean in one continuous, non-motorized trip.
“Some people call us crazy,” Babu admits in energetic, heavily accented English. “But we just have different kinds of limits and expectations of life.”
Touché, Babu. Prior to his Everest adventure, the paragliding instructor and whitewater paddler had notched 23 first descents in Nepal and India—including eight solos—and in 2010 became the first person to paraglide across Nepal. The only thing lacking in his resume was mountaineering experience: Only one peak of less than 21,000 feet, with no technical climbing.
Mountaineering was Lakpa’s department. He grew up in the shadow of Everest, and had already summited the world’s tallest peak three times in his 15-year career as a high-altitude Sherpa. But he had never been kayaking. Or swimming, for that matter.
The two adventurers met six months before the expedition. Lakpa had just discovered paragliding. Instead of taking lessons though, he obtained a used paraglider and attempted to teach himself by launching from a nearby Himalayan peak. He crashed into a tree, destroying the glider. Babu was the person who pulled him out of that tree. Within six months, they would hatch and successfully execute a plan to form the first all-Nepalese expedition not only to climb Everest, but to fly from the summit and paddle to the sea.
Lakpa helped his friend up the mountain, and Babu got them down, piloting the tandem paraglider and a two-seat Jackson Dynamic Duo they used. On June 27, only 38 days after they began their expedition in Kathmandu, they reached the Indian Ocean. But not easily.
“First big rapid we capsized,” Lakpa says, recalling how Babu was recirculated in a hole while he flushed downriver. Lakpa was plucked out of the torrent by their friend and safety boater, Krishna Sunuwar of Paddle Nepal, who accompanied them on the river portion of their trip. The trio spent an hour extracting the kayak, then continued downstream to more close calls.
At the last major rapid on the Sun Kosi, Babu and Lakpa swam out of a massive hole, losing both their paddles. They searched downstream for them, without luck. Finally, they hired a motorboat from a nearby village to take them back to the rapid where, Lakpa says, they found the paddles still recirculating in the hole that had flipped them four hours earlier.
On the Ganges, they encountered nearly stagnant current, wending slowly through a labyrinth of false channels. “We saw dead bodies everywhere in the water,” Babu says. (In keeping with Hindu tradition, partially cremated bodies are regularly set adrift in the holy river.) Near Farakka, the three men were robbed at knifepoint. They tell of drastic portages to avoid paying bribes at police checkpoints, and of torrential rain, meager rations and infectious blisters. When they finally reached the Sunderbans—the largest river delta in the world—they were reportedly out of money and subsisting on fruit foraged along the riverbanks. Lakpa, who has summited Everest without oxygen and claims he smokes cigarettes up to 28,000 feet, began to have trouble breathing in the heavily polluted and muggy air of lowland India.
The biggest surprise, though, came when the Ganges finally emptied into the sea. The three men from the high Himalaya had never seen the ocean.
“That was crazy,” Babu says.
— Visit theultimatedescent.com to see the award-winning film of Lakpa and Babu’s unprecedented journey, Hanuman Airlines.