Sometime last year I was lucky enough to meet and interview Sano Babu Sunuwar. Towards the end of last year, thanks probably to his friend Kimberly who was tireless in her efforts to share his story, Babu and his buddy Lakpa Chhiri Sherpa made the shortlist for National Geographic Adventure’s “People’s choice adventurer of the year.”
It’s a title they deserve I think. I had a conversation over email with the micro-adventurer Alastair Humphreys, another of the short-listed. He wanted to know who I though would win and why. After reading through all of the entries, I was a little confused about what ‘adventure’ meant to me and which of the entries embodied it. Ultimately, I was very impressed by the kayakers Jon Turk and Erik Boomer. Their adventure was a classic – long, dangerous, lonely and at utterly at the mercy of mother nature. And they were classic adventurers: patient, tough without bravado, and prone to terse and memorable statements – “Bears scare us. We scare bears. The wind scares us. We don’t scare the wind.”
Still, I just love the fresh attitude of Babu and sidekick – just a couple of guys who each had a dream and together simply went and did it.
Read the unedited article text below, or click the image below to download the Action Asia magazine (draft) version.
We’re sitting together on a table of the ‘Fire Wood Pizza’ restaurant as a monsoon storm threatens lakeside Pokhara, and we’re trying to figure out why Babu has an adventurous streak. “I always wanted to find new things to do, to find new opportunities,” is his response, which is particularly unsatisfying given his most recent expedition.
On the 21st of May 2011 he and his climbing partner ran and jumped from the summit of Everest and paraglided, between the jet stream raging just above and flashing electrical storms in the valleys below, to the small airstrip above Namche Bazar some 20km away.
They were neither the first to paraglide from Everest, nor to do it tandem. But in an elegant reverse of Australian Tim Macartney-Snape’s 1990 Sea to Summit expedition, Babu and Lakpa Chhiri Sherpa glided and kayaked their way to the Bay of Bengal – in just over a month from Summit to Sea.
With a little more probing, it is clear that this adventurous streak started early. Born an only child on the 30th May 1983 in the district Ramechhap, Sano (small) Babu Sunuwar’s childhood adventures in his village on the banks of the mighty Sun Kosi river were ample preparation for flying and kayaking.
“I learned to swim by myself in the Sun Kosi. I didn’t know about safety then. I drank a lot of water. I know now that when we were at school we used to swim grade-five rapids. We lost a friend this way – drank too much water and was gone.“ That was Babu at 12 years.
When he was just 8 years old, with a face that tells of the rotting stink, he recounts the time he found two vultures gorging on the carcass of a dead cow. He crawled up the steep hillside towards them before grabbing a leg of each. The startled birds extracted their heads from the innards and flew carrying him with them. When he finally let go, it was already a long drop. “Big problem!” he laughs, indicating a fall as high as the hotel across the road.
He was middling at school, and put his energies elsewhere, “wanting always to do something that no-one else had done before, exciting things.” At 15, after completing his SLC, the general school leavers’ certificate, and with rural Ramechhap devoid of opportunities, it was time to move on. He travelled to Kathmandu, where he knew no-one, with a small bag and Rs. 500 in his pocket “trying to find new opportunities.”
There he took what work he could find, firstly as a bus assistant, taking fares and washing vehicles, in garment factories, a furniture factory and a multitude of other desperate jobs that paid only just enough to eat, and with 18 hours work per day, that barely gave time enough to eat too.
His dream, like many Nepali youths was to work in tourism and after a year of toil, he headed to Pokhara with this time Rs 20 in his pocket where, “it would be easy to get a job working with foreigners.” After searching for work by day and sleeping in bus-stops by night, he struck lucky with a trekking porter job – if carrying loads of 45kg for wages of Rs 100 per day can be called lucky.
As he, unlike many Nepalis, knew how to swim (in the white-water sense at least) his target was to become a rafting guide.
Despite being told frequently that he was too small for that, he did find a job with a rafting company, but only delivering flyers to restaurants and other odd-jobs. The wished-for experience came when he was asked to work “cooking and chopping” as rafting kitchen crew. The company collapsed shortly afterwards, but this was the necessary foot in the door. The next job offered by Charlie of the famed Ganesh Kayak Shop, brought real opportunities: learning to kayak, a professional rescue qualification, the chance to paddle and guide rivers all across Nepal, a connection with a future equipment sponsor.
At 17 his family arranged his marriage to a girl of 14. It’s perhaps indicative of how taken Babu was by kayaking, that he helped his wife become the first female kayaker in Nepal and two times national champion, even travelling to compete in Switzerland. This is probably not what the parents had in mind at the ceremony.
Entering competitions however, and thus doing the same thing as everybody else, was not his interest and besides, he says, “my life is already a competition with myself.” He’s paddled 31 of Nepal’s rivers and describes himself as more of an “explore paddler”.
In 2005 Babu met David Arufat, a Swiss national, on a kayaking trip. They became friends realising they both were drawn to new and difficult things on the river that nobody else attempted. David later offered Babu a job at his company and taught him to paraglide and later to become a qualified (and naturally talented) pilot and teacher.
In February 2010 came Babu’s first expedition the Cross Nepal Paragliding Expedition. Eighteen pilots were attempting to fly from West to East across Nepal and his company joined in this highly demanding challenge.
The group started in Baitadi on Nepal’s western border with India, and after the first day his Blue-Sky team members had become separated. With no way of regrouping, they all had to make their own choices.
After 1½ weeks Babu and his cameraman reached in Pokhara, almost half way across Nepal. Learning that he was several days ahead of the next pilot, and that most others had given up or crashed landed (with one even stuck hanging tangled in a tree for 24 hours), “I thought ‘You have to go Babu!’” and pressed on eastwards.
After 35 days, 18 of which were flying, Babu and cameraman arrived on the eastern border with Nepal. It was a great achievement attempted by a number of renowned pilots in the past, and made all the more noteworthy by the fact they were using an old tandem paraglider with a total payload of 180kg. They faced many difficulties including the canopy collapsing twice, hard landings and strong winds, which resulted once in landing backwards.
“It answered the question, ‘what’s my country like?’” says Babu, “There are so many things that have to be done, roads, education, political system and so on. It’s the only way to see Nepal, and it’s many different cultures and castes.” Seeing Nepal’s impossibly hilly landscape from the aeroplane is one thing, he explains “but paragliding is something else, it’s much more hugging the landscape.”
His best memory was traversing 125km crossing eight districts of Nepal in one day. That in addition to the daily meeting of villagers astounded at seeing two of their own descending out of the sky. “The only other human form we know of that flies is [the god] Hanuman,” exclaimed one older man.
The dream to fly from Everest was born in 2006 on an exploratory trip with a kayaking team to the Dudh Kosi, the famously churning river flowing from Everest. While he loosely planned to try in 2010, no company wanted to sponsor it due to the risks involved. “Sponsorships give tension,” he laughs, “then my brain doesn’t work!”
In February of 2011, he met with Lakpa Chhiri Sherpa who was looking to learn to paraglide because, “I am a climber but I want to be able to fly from any peak I climb.”
Not long later Babu suggested to him, “You take me to summit and I’ll take you to sea. We made a deal and started to do it.”
Four and a half months later, on June 28th, their toes were in salt water.
There were many difficulties, but leaping from the summit was the least of them. “There were no options on the summit, so no need to worry!” he concludes with a smile, referring to the lack of take-off space, and the fact that their spare oxygen bottles had been stolen so that walking back down would be extremely difficult. That and the fact that one unpacked he’d have to either use his wing or leave it behind.
The bureaucrats in government were unable to give permits as there were no rules yet made governing what they were doing. “We told them, ‘first we’ll go and explore and give you information, then we can make the rules later,’ and we went.” He says, “Adventurers are sometimes operating outside the rules.”
While the physical and technical challenges were in Nepal, not least one man in a two-man kayak who could neither paddle nor swim on a river with notorious white water, it was planned and in control. India was the tough part. “We had 45° heat, bad food and water, our hands got infected, dead bodies of people and cows floated past, thieves stole all our money, it rained and our tent was broken.”
But none of that would overshadow the moment that, “I will never forget before I die! It was my dream since 2006. Wow! This is really Mount Everest!”
As you might imagine there are quite some plans for the future, beyond earning a living. He’s been selected for the 2013 Red Bull X-Alps challenge for which he asks, “can you teach me mountain running?” and there is more than a passing interest in paraskiing which will require learning to ski, perhaps in Kashmir.
His dream is to mix up many adventure sports together in an adventure race event in Nepal.
“First I wanted to do multi-sports and combine trekking, climbing, paragliding, rafting and so on. I noticed climbers don’t talk to other adventurer people, and that rafting guides don’t really do other sports. All of these activities should have a friendship, share experiences and respect each other’s professions.”
It would be his way of doing something for Nepal, he feels, and for others in general as “social work”. Of his work at the paragliding centre, he says, “I see lots of people with ‘new generation’ lifestyles,” referring to their appearance, globe-trotting and endless electronic gadgets, “but they don’t seem happy. They want too many things. I hope helping people do these kind of action adrenaline activities can help people forget everything and feel the real life.”
As we wrap up I reflect that there’s hardly any sense of ego about him and none of the macho posturing typical of many rafting guides. He’s always on the verge of a smile, quick to laugh, bright eyed, respectful – a boyish grownup. Despite the evident natural talent and dogged determination that brought his achievements to pass, I sense he feels that he is nothing without the people around him, and those in his past who helped him along the way, and that his achievements are just experiences to be shared with others much like a birthday is shared with a party.
The monsoon rain is now pouring down and a jacketless Babu generously offers me a lift. We ride on his motorbike travelling at a snail’s pace because, he says, “we must be careful as it could be slippery!” and the caution shown by a man who jumped from Everest makes me smile.
After decades of foreign adventurers coming to Nepal to explore and ‘conquer’ its natural landscape, it’s pleasing to see that Nepal has developed its own adventurous talents, but talents very much in the same humble Nepali style that has famously served the ‘conquerors’ for so long.