Meet Sano Babu Sunuwar, left, and Lakpa Tsheri Sherpa, the National Geographic Society’s 2012 Adventurers of the Year.
In a world of stupendous feats undertaken by crazy, daring people, how do you win an accolade like Adventurers of the Year?
Well, you start with a first tiny step — at the base of Mount Everest.
Reaching the summit of the world’s highest mountain last May was a little ho-hum for Lakpa Tsheri Sherpa — the Nepali climbing guide had been there three times previously.
It was a bigger deal for his pal and climbing companion, Sano Babu Sunuwar, a paragliding instructor who was making the Everest ascent for the first time.
But the unbelievable thing is that the two men’s extraordinary adventure had only begun when they reached the highest point on earth about 8:15 a.m. on May 21, 2011.
How high is the highest point on earth?
That’s a good question — and there are at least half a dozen answers.
When British surveyor George Everest did the first trigonometric survey of the mountain named after him in 1856, he came up with a height of 8,840 metres (29,002 feet) above sea level.
The most recent survey, done by China in 2005, put Everest’s elevation at exactly 8,844.43 metres (29,017 feet) with another 3.55 metres of ice cap on top of that.
A survey done by India in 1955 figured the mountain was 7 cm higher than the later Chinese calculation.
Wikipedia lists Everest’s height as 8,848 metres (29,029 feet) — which is the 2005 Chinese height including the ice cap.
The measurement I prefer (mainly because it’s the highest and techiest) was done by a U.S. team using GPS technology in 1999, coming up with a rockhead elevation of 8,850 metres (29,035 feet) plus another metre of ice on top of that.
Nepal, which shares ownership of the mountain with China, is currently in the middle of a two-year geodesic survey using GPS instruments to determine once and for all exactly how high Everest is. The Nepali team should have a new number for us before Christmas 2013.
But no number is ever accurate for long because Everest is growing all the time. Continual upward pressure from the Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates grinding together pushes the mountain upward about half a centimetre each year.
For that reason, if for no other, I say we go with the nice round 1999 American figure: 8,850 metres (29,035 feet).
Meanwhile, back on Everest, Lakpa and Babu savoured the view from the top of the world for a few minutes (with his oxygen tank stolen at Camp 4 just before their final push for the summit, Lakpa had been climbing without an oxygen supply for almost an hour at that point) — and then stepped into space.
And thus began their record-breaking descent 8,850 metres (29,035 feet) to sea level.
Don’t forget, Sano Babu Sunuwar may have been a novice on Everest but he is a professional paragliding instructor.
After taking a few photos on top of Everest, the two strapped themselves into a tandem paraglider they had lugged up the world’s highest mountain and launched themselves off Everest.
It was the third time Everest climbers had jumped off the mountain with a paraglider, but probably the first time anyone sang all the way to their landing 45 minutes later. As they swooped through the frigid Himalayan air over glaciers and sheer rock faces, the two joyous men waved at and serenaded other teams of climbers still making the hard, dangerous ascent.
Their landing site was the Sherpa village of Namche Bazar about 5,000 metres (16,400 feet) below the summit of Everest. But in their descent, the pair had flown 8,865 metres (29,084 feet), setting a world record for free flight with a paraglider.
So half of their descent from the highest point on earth to sea level took them 45 minutes. The other half would take more than a month.
Most of the photos in this blog post were taken by Sano Babu Sunuwar and come from the National Geographic Society’s announcement of Babu and Lapka as winners of NatGeo’s 2012 People’s Choice Adventurers of the Year award a few days ago.
I’ve used a few shots for illustrative purposes, but here is a link to National Geographic’s full gallery of photos from the May-June 2011 adventure, now known as The Ultimate Descent.
And here is a link to a video showing their paraglide descent from the top of the world. And also showing what wonderful, real human beings these two guys are.
Once on the ground again, the plan was to bicycle to the headwaters of a mountain stream which flowed into Nepal’s Kosi River which in turn flowed into India’s sacred Ganges River which in turn emptied into the Bay of Bengal, part of the Indian Ocean — sea level, in other words. The river route would be a journey of more than 850 km.
This plan was hatched only a few months earlier. Lakpa and Babu had no corporate sponsorship (apart from a little logistical and supply help from the paragliding company that employed Babu) and very little money of their own, but they had guts and expertise in different areas and an incredible spirit.
Lapka’s main expertise was in getting the pair to the top of Everest and Babu’s was getting them down to the ground again.
Back on the ground, a second area of Babu’s expertise came into play. As well as being a paragliding instructor, Babu is also an expert extreme kayaker. Lakpa, on the other hand, had only been in a kayak a few times under Babu’s tutelage before the Everest ascent and to this day cannot swim.
After being feted for a night as heroes by the locals in Namche Bazar, Lakpa and Babu cycled to where their borrowed double kayak was waiting and began a river journey which would end 37 days later, at the Bay of Bengal.
The first part of their river ride was down sometimes torrential mountain watercourses with among the most difficult sections of navigable rapids in the world. So for the river part of the journey Babu and Lakpa were accompanied in a second kayak by Babu’s brother, Krishna Sunuwar, who acted as a spotter in rough water.
On more than one occasion Krishna pulled Lakpa — who can’t swim, remember — from the raging river while Babu fought the capsized double kayak out of whirlpools and Class V rapids.
You’d think that would be the hard part, but in many ways the high-mountain Nepalis found their trip on the relatively placid Ganges more dangerous and disturbing than the Himalayan section of their trek.
Here’s what Lapka had to say when asked by National Geographic what he found the most intimidating part of the journey to be:
“The bugs. The ants. All animals—so active. Insects—so active. They are all so busy. People so active. In the mountains, all creatures move slowly. In India, all the animals and the people move so fast. They are not still. I did not like the bugs. When we reached the ocean and took the kayaks to shore, the beach was covered in giant red scorpions. I was scared then, but we learned later that they were crabs and harmless. I also had a hard time breathing in the low elevation.”
And then there were the dead bodies and knifepoint robbery.
Lapka: “We were not used to seeing dead bodies. In Nepal, we burn our dead. In India, they are put in the river. We would see two or three bodies a day.”
Sabu: “Sometimes whole villages would come down. We were robbed. They came with knives. We protected the camera, but gave them money. They left, but we paddled very fast. We could hear them coming with a motorboat. We found an island with tall grasses and hid. We slept in the kayaks the whole night.”
But finally on June 27, 2011, Sano Babu Sunuwar and Lakpa Tsheri Sherpa reached the Bay of Bengal. They had become the first people to descend under their own power from the highest point on earth to sea level.
They’re such amazing guys — and nice, too — as I think you’ll attest when you watch the video of them talking about their adventure.
Congrats, Babu and Lakpa, and good on ya, National Geographic, for sharing their incredible story with us.