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Nothing Compares…

Ever wondered what it would be like to fly down a snow-covered slope in the Himalayas? Read on to hear from someone who has.

Richard Ragan is a well-known name in Nepal. He headed up the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) in the country, but was nearly as famous for his love for adventure sports as for his philanthropic activities. Originally from Mississippi, his travels with the UN has taken him around the world over the last 17 years. He has now resettled in the U.S. on Bainbridge Island, just off the coast of Seattle. I recently had the opportunity to interview him online. It was a fascinating conversation, with some great insight into Nepal’s adventure sports, past and potential. 

Q: I’ve heard you had quite some adventurous experiences during your tenure here in Nepal…when were you here exactly? 
A:
I arrived just towards the tail-end the civil war, so from about 2005 to 2010. And yes, I did have a lot of adventures—I tried to climb Manaslu twice; once got pulled off because of a cholera crisis in the far west, and the other time just didn’t make it. 

Q: What was the most memorable of your travel adventures while here?
A:
I was up on Annapurna South with a French film crew and two French skiers shooting a segment for Nike for their “Sweet Spots” campaign—it was introducing their ACG active sports gear line by going to beautiful spots in the world—Fiji for heavy surf, the Himalaya for skiing, and so on.
The crew had decided to shoot a bit later in the day to get the light right, but clearly not the best time to be on Annapurna’s slopes, because this is when the sun has had time to soften the snow. So we had done a couple of takes, and could tell the snow was unstable, because every time the skiers jumped, there were mini avalanches. We were at an altitude of about 5,600 or 5,700 meters.
As we were descending “in a single file line”—moving across the face: the first skier, then the second, and then me on a snowboard, and that’s when the whole slope cut loose. My life just flashed in front of me as I looked up at the south face of Annapurna I (we were on Annapurna South), and as the snow channeled down like a funnel towards a couloir, I got spit out. 

Q: But you were okay?
A:
Yes, amazingly so. I did a quick check to see if anything was broken, but I was all right. We did have a hard time getting out, though, and had to have a helicopter rescue us because everything was so unstable. 

Q: How did you come to get involved with skiing and snowboarding in the Himalaya?
A:
I started off with Craig Calonica of Himalayan Heliski, he was a competition speed skier, who back in the early 90s, had tried to ski down the north side of Everest, and he was one of the ones to start it in Nepal. Some good places are in the Annapurna area, and the far west—near Simikot in Humla.

Q: I’m surprised that winter sports like skiing haven’t taken off more here in Nepal. Do you think they can?
A:
Well, it’s super dangerous, with repeated flying at that altitude and risky conditions, plus it’s also really expensive—running helicopter operations in Nepal is much more costly than other places, and then the commercial mountaineering crowd also sucks up all the available assets.
You really need to have MI 17 helicopters to make it economically viable; you have to be able to move a lot of skiers to make it cost effective. You can use a B12, which is the common one in Nepal, but then you end doing a lot of ferrying of people back and forth. 
You also need to setup a logistics system, bringing in engineers and jet A1 fuel, as there’s no place to refuel—just basic logistical stuff that is hard to access in the Himalayas.

Q: So, what do you think is the potential for future sports like skiing and snowboarding here?
A:
Skiing on the Khumbu hasn’t proven to be as easy, because the slopes get a lot more windblown. But the front side of Annapurna I, II, and III, as well as the Fishtail valley and the back side of the Annapurna trekking route towards the Fishtail/Annapurna Base Camp, that whole area is a natural bowl, it catches snow and is ideal for skiing.
You don’t start hitting a proper snowline till about 4,000 meters, so it takes about five days for a group to build up to the higher altitudes, you’d have to run them up and down with the same climb high, sleep low preparation to ensure acclimatization as if you were mountaineering. We always carried a collapsible hyperbolic chamber, but never needed to use it, fortunately.
Permits was a big challenge, too, because people don’t understand it as they do mountaineering.

Q: You’ve moved on from Nepal now, but how do you see your time here—and will you come back?
A:
Well, I did—I came back and ran the logistics operations for the UN during the earthquake; we pulled mountaineers off the mountains and put them to work, along with porters and guides, bringing supplies and working on trail restoration.
As far as Nepal, when it comes to climbing, snowboarding, and all of this, it’s not just adventure, but also understanding the rhythm of the country. When you get into the high mountains, it’s not just all about climbing, it’s about being at one with the place and people.  If a smart business person could figure out a way to exploit the idea, and is willing to take on the risk, it could really open up—I live now in Washington State and snowboard every weekend, but there’s nothing that compares to looking out at an 8,000 meter peak. You feel like you can almost touch God, the snow is light fluffy and untracked, you’ve got all this space to yourself…it’s pretty majestic.