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NEPAL'S FLYING SNOW LEOPARDS

It is something transcendental when your only option is to leap off the top of Everest. It was too windy even for that. Two Nepali swashbucklers hunkered down on the wind-battered rooftop of the world for twenty minutes. The world’s highest tower of iced granite soars high enough to pierce the jet-stream. Then, a precious glimmer of a chance opened as the summit quieted momentarily.

The daring lads gladly welcomed the opportunity and nimbly scrambled in tandem (in crampons!) towards the northern precipice. Roped together they hurtled over the edge and were airborne at 8848 m (29,029 ft). A diaphanous wing held their chilled, adrenaline-spiced bones aloft and drifting precariously in extremely thin air. There is no preparation that can simulate a lion-hearted feat. The afterlife beckoned in every direction except skyward as they sailed far above a would-be boneyard--the glacial detritus of the Tibetan Frontier. Rising even higher they incredibly approached 9,000 m (29,527 ft) and floated back over the zenith of Goddess Chomo-Miyo-Lang-Sangma (the Sherpa name for Everest) returning to Nepal airspace.

News travels fast when you do the impossible. A tandem paraglide wing over Everest is about as conspicuous as a pink elephant traversing the Khumbu Icefall. Back in their homeland, the army began searching for them at gunpoint. Foot soldiers were ordered to arrest Babu and Lhakpa on sight for breaking the law. Nepal’s aerial regulations might be arbitrary, but cancerous bureaucrats seek leverage and wield it ruthlessly there.

Dodging the army, they made their way to a Himalayan-fed river for a month in a tandem kayak eluding death by both humans and nature on a hard-bitten voyage to the Bay of Bengal. They called this mad odyssey Summit to Sea and Sano Babu Sunuwar was its brainchild. His robust curriculum vitae sketches a fire-eating life lived at the very edge of belief.

MIDDLE NAME OF DANGER BABU (BABE), THE FEATHERLESS BIRD

The name Babu translates to Babe, and his granddad endearingly added Sano (Small) after observing a gecko jump clear over the lad when he was five years old. Sano Babu (i.e., Small Babe) has the spirit of a goliath packed into a 160 cm (5’3”) frame. “He’s a bird without feathers,” testifies Belgian friend and fellow pilot Luc DeNies. “I’ve never seen anything like it. He has a gift to read conditions. Always in the right place at the right time.”

Sano Babu and his gutsy partner Lhakpa Sherpa relied wholly on wits and instincts on Summit to Sea. After enduring the suffering that went with stone-broke freedom on a staggering journey, they were elected National Geographic Adventurers of the Year, 2012.

Voters agreed that they out-adventured amateur weekend warriors and hardscrabble pros performing valiant deeds all over the feral globe. The award puts them at the top of the heap of daredevils and superstar feats, like courageous Austrian Felix who leapt from the stratosphere 39 km (24 mi) above earth. Freefalling, he attained a speed of 1,357 km/h (843.6 mph) and unbelievably broke the sound barrier with his own plummeting body (selected an Adventurer of the Year, 2013).

TRILLING BIRDSONG AND EMERALD TERRACED-FIELDS

Since Summit to Sea, Babu’s financial conditions have improved, and he and his family built a rural resort and adventure school designed and constructed by themselves. Surrounded by trilling birdsong and emerald paddy fields in Nepal’s middle hills, he shares a tough-won wisdom. “You don’t challenge Nature. If you respect Nature and try to understand it, then most of the time, you’ll find success”.

Paradoxically, he’s been challenging Nature ever since he can remember, often unsuccessfully. Raised in the exact epicenter of the middle of nowhere in remote Ramechhap District of eastern Nepal, Babu was relentless at finding adventures. His parents were particularly concerned by a leap from tree-top to tree-top that ended in injury. Babu did not find purchase on the target tree-top and plunged to the ground, breaking a leg on impact. In rural Nepal, medical posts are few and far between and qualified staff even more rare. Without health services, he limped around for a month while the leg healed on its own.

“I was trying to fly before I knew about planes. Since I can remember, I always wanted to do something that had never been done before. I’ve always felt a little mad, you know, not stupid, but just a little crazy,” he says with amusement through a charming grin.

THE ‘MAD SCIENCE’ OF UTTERLY UNORTHODOX TRAINING

The Sun Koshi (Gold River) is named for its shimmering hue when sunlight reflects off of it. Seen from the hillsides above, the river unfurls like an immense, golden carpet flowing through a sun-drenched realm. Babu and Lhakpa followed this liquid Yellow Brick Road on Summit to Sea. Long before then, Babu and a schoolmate dove into the Sun Koshi to ride a stretch of roaring rapids for kicks. He uprooted a small banana tree for flotation, and friend Tirtha used a stalk of bamboo. Tirtha did not survive the churning waters. The river swallowed up the life of the thirteen year old and Babu barely survived, too. He estimates the rapids were class four and above.

Babu now claims to have thirty-two first descents of Himalayan-fed rivers under his paddle. Looking back, his boyhood was utterly unorthodox training for what was to come. He delights in the improbable tall tale of sneaking up on a Himalayan Griffon gorging on a carcass. These monstrous beasts of prey have a wingspan up to 3 m (10 ft) and Babu was less than 25 kg (55 lbs). Audaciously, he clutched at its thick legs and was dragged along paddy fields as the panicked creature beat massive wings for lift-off. They bounced down two terraces before Babu finally let go, and the bird flapped over a bluff. His first ever tandem flight nearly ended in the demise of both pilot and hijacker. 

FROM SWEATSHOP TO THE MAJESTIC OUTDOORS

Babu eventually looked around his rustic birthplace and desperately said to himself, ‘I’ve got to get out of here, I don’t want to be a farmer all my life.’ Having drained his village dry of adventure, he set his sights for Kathmandu. The gangly teenager of fifteen found the capital city of the Himalaya overflowing with people just like him -- people from the far-flung hills hungry for a bigger life. Laboring at a garment factory kept him overworked and underfed for more than a month.

He then escaped the sweat shop for a position with a leading trek outfitter. Despite Nepal’s anemic economy, tourism provides a torrent of employment during the high seasons of spring and autumn. Entry level work as a porter and kitchen assistant means toiling with superhuman loads up and down some of the steepest, highest and most extreme terrain on the planet. At least he was outdoors with wind and sunshine lapping at his face. Still, he found himself at the mercy of stronger forces. After a rugged trek in the Annapurna region, his salary was poached by a supervisor. Penniless, Babu then had to hitch a ride to Pokhara.

Pokhara is a lakeside destination and quasi-Shangri-la for tourists, and the venue where fortune finally flashed an inviting smile at Babu. He landed a dream job at a local rafting company. Free time and a kind boss allowed him the liberty to kayak as much as he liked on nearby Phewa Lake. He took full advantage of the opportunity, and less than five years after leaving his village behind, his skills and talents won him the title of Nepal Kayaking Champion. During that competition he had a fateful meeting with David Arrufat, kayaking enthusiast and ace, freestyle-paragliding pilot.

Paragliding was far beyond Babu’s modest wages, and David offered a complimentary tandem flight. Babu made a personal oath after the exhilarating ride, “I must learn this by any means possible.” He accepted an offer to work at David’s company Blue Sky in early 2006. The job began with a fifteen-day introductory parasailing course. Babu’s experience on the rivers served him well, and he found that air and water have a lot in common. “Their flows are similar and often mirror images of each other. Wind currents lift riders up and water currents take a rider lower by way of least resistance,” he explains.

TAKING IT HIGHER

Along with kayaking and river running, Babu rapidly excelled in the air. With a bird’s eye view of the Himalayan splendor of his motherland, his thirst to let the world know of Nepal’s attractions became unquenchable. He fantasized of combining Nepal’s natural highlights of whitewater rivers (rafting and kayaking), snow-dressed mountains (climbing) and rarefied Himalayan skies (paragliding) into a multi-adventure journey. Summit to Sea was spawned by this daydreaming.

In 2010 he had no suitable partner to join the expedition. Instead, Babu embarked on a record-breaking, tandem parasailing journey across Nepal. During the month-long tour, the idea of Summit to Sea kept fuelling his thoughts. He only needed a capable partner to lead the climb.

Far away in the Khumbu highlands, Lhakpa Tshering Sherpa was doing his own musing. A seasoned mountaineer, Lhakpa wanted an easier way down from the soaring heights. Flying seemed a whole lot better than trudging back down through ice and rock with danger at every footfall. He wanted a way around the mountaineering truism that ‘the summit is only halfway’ (attributed to Ed Viesturs, U.S. climbing legend).

Lhakpa turned to the idea of paragliding and even made a few botched attempts at self-schooling with a borrowed wing. He gave up learning on his own and went to Pokhara to seek qualified instruction. When Lhakpa wandered into Blue Sky to ask about flying off peaks, he had already been on ten Everest expeditions, summiting three times. He is of the famed Sherpa ethnicity, referred to as Tigers of the Snow for exploits at high elevations where they prevail as climbers and guides. When Babu met Lhakpa he knew that his search for a partner was over. Convincing Lhakpa to join was easy although two major complications loomed as large as the dazzling, sky-scraping peaks of their native land. 

A GENTLEMEN’S AGREEMENT TO STAND ON TOP OF THE WORLD

Foremost, Lhakpa had no parasailing skills, and learning to fly at high elevation would take years. Secondly, Babu had worn crampons but only once previously. An ad hoc gentleman’s agreement was established. Lhakpa would get Babu to the top of Everest, and Babu would take over from there. Babu’s first task would be herculean -- a tandem launch off the ice-covered crest of Everest.

This crucial partnership was formed a mere two months before setting off to climb earth’s highest mountain. A Kathmandu based clothing company Mountain Blackstone contributed some items of warm apparel and Niviuk provided a high-performance glider. Other gear and expenses were to be managed entirely out of their own bohemian budget. Independent-spirited adventurers are a refreshing rarity in an era when Mammon reigns as deity, lording over feverish devotees in a wild Age of (Extreme) Materialism. 

In this piaster-charged era, sponsorship bankrolls typically shape and define missions. The underwriters and publicity largely determine an event’s overall “success” or “failure”— Red Bull’s logo was plastered on Felix’s equipment. North Face and leading gear manufacturers’ basting is on the apparel of mountaineers and front-line adventurers. Nike and Adidas emblems adorn sports idols’ kit from head to toe. Nowadays, Kickstarter and GoFundMe lifelines provide a grubstake and sustenance. The funding sources are ample for shrewd seekers of them. The self-reliance of Babu and Lhakpa puts them into a nearly extinguished breed of adventurers motivated by the pure love of it all without a sniff of the ‘green (i.e., money) energy’ malaise that infests humanity. They are truly adventurers’ adventurers.

“Only a dummy would give this up for something as common as money.” – Grandpa George, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory

Like the rugged, independent snow leopard, these free-spirited lads were born to excel in a highland home -- adventure seems to be in their Himalayan genetic coding. ‘On a Wing and a Prayer’ was a catchphrase for The Flying Tigers, ace pilots with a signature shark portrait on aircraft nose cones.  The slogan described Allied pilots in general, some of whom flew over ‘The Hump’ (i.e., the Himalaya) to supply troops in China. The motto and a minor zoological adjustment is fitting for Babu and Lhakpa, too --Nepal’s Flying Snow Leopards -- On a Wing and a Prayer. 

Everest was to be Babu’s training peak, a summit others build up to after years of preparation on lesser peaks! He had no previous mountaineering experience other than a brief excursion on Imje Tse (Island Peak) 6,173 m (20,253 ft), the busiest peak in Nepal that is scaled yearly by thousands of climbers from complete beginners to accomplished veterans.

Babu experienced altitude sickness at Everest Base Camp -- a bad sign with roughly 3,500 m (11,500 ft) left to climb. He made morning jogs between Base Camp (5,357 m / 17,575 ft) and Gorak Shep (5184 m /17,008 ft) to acclimatize. “I overlooked the difficulties [of Everest] because climbing was all new and exciting to me.” Even when the difficulties became harrowing they maintained a poker-faced easiness. Around 7,600m (25,000 ft) near the famed Yellow Band, a portion of their oxygen stash was pilfered. Without spare oxygen, the margin for miscalculation edged ever closer towards nil. In response, Lhakpa lit up a cigarette and outrageously began smoking in the exceptionally thin air. Ueli Steck, a renowned Swiss climber, was nearby and called out to his friend, “Hey Lhakpa, you smoking?!” “I’m supplementing my oxygen” was his quick-witted reply, and with a mischievous smile asked, “Wanna try?” 

Everyone chuckled despite the grim circumstances, and the tension of continuing without oxygen reserves was momentarily relieved. Plodding upward, they reached the freezing apex of Everest. At the summit, Lhakpa gave Babu’s near-empty cylinder a final surge of oxygen as they unpacked the high-performance wing and waited for the right moment. Without backup oxygen at this point, there was one and only one way to a safe altitude, absurdly launching off the world’s highest patch of weatherworn wind-battered ice. 

Three thousand meters of free-fall to the unforgiving glacial wasteland of Tibet awaited if it went wrong—giving a whole new meaning to Tibetan Sky-Burial (a death ritual in which birds of prey feed on remains of the deceased chopped up by Vajrayana monks). As they waited for the wind to die down, Babu repeated to himself, “Be calm. Everything is fine. This place is like Sarangkot” (Sarangkot is the popular take-off point near Pokhara where he had launched hundreds of times while working for Blue Sky). He later emphasized, “Everything starts with the mind. If you can’t control your mind then you can’t control anything else.”

“If in normal conditions it is skill, which counts, in extreme situations, it is the spirit which saves.” – Walter Bonatti, Italian Alpinist

Then, they were airborne and bearing north above a glacier wilderness as an updraft allowed them to rise and pass back over the top of Everest. They headed toward Namche Bazaar, 30 aerial km (19 mi) south while enjoying perhaps the best, open-air vantage in the history of aviation. The flight lasted 45 minutes before touching down at Syangboche (3,720 m / 12,205 ft) an abandoned airfield above Namche Bazaar. Despite the remote location, news traveled fast. Not having official sanction for their flight, the army began checking all Nepalis at gunpoint in Jorsale. This small hamlet lies along the Dudh Kosi (Milk River) where the trail narrows and passage is easily controlled. Armed soldiers asked for Babu and Lhakpa by name, but the duo had been tipped off and left their wing in Namche to slip through without discovery.

A MATTER OF HOMELAND SECURITY?

Diligently, Sano Babu had asked for permission in Kathmandu and was gruffly dismissed by officials. He was told that launching tandem off of Everest was technically impossible (unbeknownst to all, a Dutch couple had flown tandem from the summit in 2001 for a brief flight to a lower camp). Babu was also told that gliding off peaks was not allowed in Nepal (‘not allowed’ is a typical gambit by unscrupulous government functionaries for a backhander to gain consent).

The team decided to ignore an avalanche of red tape and deal with whatever came (including much worthier natural obstacles than negotiating with desk-jockeys for kickbacks). They forged ahead without authorization and with a heroic dose of resourcefulness.  The triumph on Everest without official approval was coming to a head. A short hike beyond the army checkpoint at Jorsale, at the Sagarmatha National Park Office in Monjo, they identified themselves to the official in-charge and asked why they were being pursued by the army. The park manager trumped up a violation that they had ‘disturbed wildlife in a national park’.

To avoid getting bogged down in a hopeless dispute Babu had to think quickly. He asked how non-motorized paragliding disturbs nature and wildlife any more than a tourist helicopter buzzing around Sagarmatha National Park and a motorized jeep rumbling on a jungle safari in Chitwan National Park. Outpointed, the park officer let Babu and Lhakpa continue on their way, but the army maintained a warrant for their arrest. (When they were feted as National Geographic Adventurers of the Year, savvy Babu contacted the Nepal Army national headquarters and told them, “Look, either arrest me now or tear up the warrant.” To escape negative publicity, the army honchos promptly dismissed the warrant.)

FOLLOW THE LIQUID YELLOW BRICK ROAD

Babu and Lhakpa trekked to the radiant Sun Koshi and paddled its golden waters of snowmelt in tandem to Jharkhand, India, and eventually drifted through the Gangetic plains to the Bay of Bengal. Facing everything from the extremes of the highest point on earth to the oppressive climate at sea level, Mother Nature mostly shined upon her daring sons. Notwithstanding a few whirlpools that nearly drowned them, humans proved the most treacherous of the difficulties. Along with the missing oxygen cylinders high on Everest, at a riverside camp along the Mother Ganga (Ganges River), a mob of nearly a hundred people relieved them of their meager cash and supplies. The most challenging task then became finding fresh drinking water on a river that carries away daily sewage and debris from hundreds of thousands of people.

Despite adverse events and hardships, Babu proclaims, “Adventure can help you to understand better the value of everything including water, a simple bottle of clean water and shelter, too. If you don’t have an adventure, you can miss out on the value of a lot of things.”

Throughout it all, they maintained their adventurer’s moxie, and after nearly a month on the river, arrived at the Bay of Bengal in the sweltering heat of late June.

‘TO ETERNITY…AND BEYOND!’

In February, 2013 Babu flew tandem off of Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa. “Actually, Kilimanjaro was more difficult than Everest!” he beams. Nearly a hundred ace pilots set out with the end-goal of raising money for charity, all of them except Babu turned back due to unsavory conditions on the mountain including poor weather with extreme wind and delays that led to food shortages. He attributes his success in Africa to his kayaking roots (underplaying Summit to Sea which eclipses all else on his bedazzling résumé). “Air we can’t see, we can imagine. Air has powerful movements. We can learn to ‘see’ air movement by understanding the flow of water.”

With two of the famed Seven Summits (the highest peaks on each of the continents) literally under his wing, he hopes for the chance to sail off all of them. In the meantime, Babu has invented another madcap mission impossible.

He aims to return to earth’s highest pinnacle, Everest, this time by landing on top, that is, paragliding up from below. The launch point of this flight might be from a helicopter within a few kilometers of the summit. Jumping from a chopper (or perhaps launching from Kala Pattar at 5,550 m / 18,209 ft), he would then read prevailing air currents to rise and fall and precisely touch down on a tiny patch of ice jutting out into a sea of thin-aired nothingness. He plans to do this to highlight the need for water resource management in rural Nepal starting with his home village that he left behind so long ago. Donations will go to waterworks infrastructure, and again, his first hurdle will be bureaucratic. Now, as the owner of a resort and successful businesses, he has a lot more to lose to cannibalistic officials if he does not follow rules that can be arbitrary and unknown.

The last time I caught up with Babu we enjoyed a meal of dal-bhat (Nepal’s national dish – a heaping platter of rice with curried vegetables and lentil soup, all refilled to satisfaction) along with locally brewed raksi (firewater) in Pokhara. Lhakpa is still chasing his dream of learning to fly himself down from lofty peaks. A buccaneer’s beard dangles from his chin. It suits his looks, and I told him so. He gave the typical Nepali response to a compliment, repeat it in the form of a question, “My beard is okay?” he asked, grinning ear to ear.

After the meal, Babu slipped away quietly to pay the bill and returned in a mild state of confusion. A wad of cash bound with a rubber band that was in the pocket of his cotton jacket had vanished. He looked too serene for having lost a large cache of banknotes. I asked if he was not upset. In a mild-manner he replied, “Nothing I can do about it. It’s gone and it does me no good to suffer for it now,” then added sheepishly, “don’t tell my wife!”

His easygoing demeanor conceals a simmering intellectual and physical vitality. Babu’s mind is continuously infused with ideas for would-be adventures and promoting Nepal’s endless treasures while his outward appearance is akin to a laid-back surfer at the ocean side – he prefers a t-shirt, long shorts and flip-flop sandals. He has an unlimited well of grins for every person who recognizes him and comes up to greet him, inspiring one and all with jaw-dropping deeds and homegrown, Nepali friendliness.

“By pushing the limits we sharpen our skills. Push the limits and improve your skills. Improve yourself and improve the world,” he says with a gallant smile. “Life is for having fun and trying things you have never done before and sharing the experiences with others. Nature is the teacher. The Universe is the University.” 

“Between the shores of the oceans and the summit of the highest mountain is a secret route that you must absolutely take before being one with the sons of the Earth” -- Khalil Gibran, (1883-1931), Lebanese poet who seems to have prophesied the Flying Snow Leopards of Nepal, Sano Babu Sunuwar and
Lhakpa Sherpa.