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The mountains are calling and I must go, and I will work on while I can, studying incessantly.

- John Muir

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Adventurers & Explorers

Jun 04, 2018

Exclusive: Interview with Lakpa Tsheri Sherpa, of The Ultimate Descent

“People always asked me if I was scared.

WRITTEN BY

Marc Lambert

If I’m scared, maybe that means I don’t have confidence. And I need confidence for this adventure”. Lakpa Tsheri Sherpa certainly spoke these words like a man who knew what he was talking about. And he should, after all; this is a man who knew a thing or two about confidence.

In 2012, Lakpa and his companion Sano Babu Sunuwar cemented themselves in both Nepalese and expedition history. They stunned the adventure community when they did something no one had ever done before. They climbed Mount Everest, before paragliding from the summit, flying over the Himalayas, landing in Nepal and then kayaking 500km to the mouth of the mighty Ganges River, all the way to the Indian Ocean.

If this adventure wasn’t already epic enough, one of them wasn’t a climber, and the other couldn’t swim. Oh, and they did the whole thing without any sponsors or expedition support. Their exploits were documented in the movie The Ultimate Descent, and once their story caught the attention of the international community, they soon found themselves crowned the the National Geographic Adventurers of the year.

I remember seeing the movie at an adventure evening in London in 2012, and loving the story. Hard to believe that 6 years later, I’d be sitting having a coffee with Lakpa, both with our own Everest tales to tell.

We were sat in a small lakeside cafe in Lakpa’s now hometown of Pokhara, in Eastern Nepal. His status as perhaps the towns most famous name was clear, certainly amongst the locals, with every other person giving him a nod or a welcome embrace. The cafe owner was no different, a big backslap and a grin was served. For my part, a strong and meaningful handshake. It seemed I was in good company.

I had travelled to Pokhara after a chance meeting back in Kathmandu. I had just returned from Mount Everest a broken man, after an unsuccessful attempt to climb the famous peak, and during my recovery in Nepal’s bustling capital city, had met an old friend of Lakpa’s. I had mentioned my interest in the movie, and the adventure behind it. “Lakpa is my friend”, remarked Passang. “Travel to Pokhara, and he will meet you”. I booked my flight that day.

For me, The Ultimate Descent is the epitome of an adventure; doing something new, something a bit crazy; planning it – but not too much. Where did the idea of this ultimate adventure come from?

I’m a climber, my first Everest summit was in 2003. I was standing on the top, and started thinking that it would be amazing to fly from the summit of the mountain. It took me until 2009 to learn to paraglide, it was a British man who taught me actually. I bought a glider from Italy, and took 9 days of lessons, and ended up crashing into a tree! I didn’t have enough experience for high altitude flying, but i met Sunuwar here in Pokhara, and he had the same idea as me, to fly a paraglide from the summit! But he wasn’t a climber, he was a kayaker. We made a plan to use non motorised transport to travel Summit to sea.

By the time of the expedition, i had climbed Everest 3 times, but had actually been on the mountain 11 times, working as a Sherpa, a cameraman, sometimes as crew. But still, I am not a kayaker, Sunuwar is not a mountaineer.

In the movie and all of the international media attention that followed, much is made of the fact that you didn’t have permits to climb Everest; you had no commercial expedition, no equipment, and no support. You slept in other teams tents and used their logistical support. What was your reaction to this negativity?

Well, we are explorers, you know? We are doing something original. In 1953 Sir Edmund Hillary summited Everest, did he need a permit, permission? No. A long time ago the Wright brothers made an aeroplane, did they get put in jail? We wanted to show people we could do this. We were the first. Now people try and copy us, but we were the first.

So together, carrying all of your flying gear, you make a successful summit on Everest. How did you manage on the climb, and how the hell did you run off the summit?!

It was very difficult! I promised his wife that i would get him up Everest safely! He had no experience at high altitude, it was not easy. I gave him my oxygen on the summit. We flew off the summit with all of our mountaineering gear, including our crampons, we landed in our expedition suits.

There was no running space, we got lift in the glider and just stepped off! We had a lightweight glider, that would work at high altitude. We saw beneath us all the other climbers. We flew for around 45 minutes, and then we landed in Namche Bazzar.

You flew off Everest, landed, while still wearing your high altitude gear, and then entered the kayaking leg of the journey, which was the most dangerous part of the whole adventure right? You even got robbed along the way?

We crossed Grade 5 rapids, big drops, I had no training. And I couldn’t swim! I trusted Sunuwar like he trusted me on Everest. We kayaked non stop for 28 days. We took a little bit of food and supplies with us, but we would take it in turns to find more food, one of us would stay with the kayaks while one went into local villages in secret, so we didn’t draw any attention.

Many people were watching us from the side of the river, always asking us to stop, but we never stopped, we were so tired. One day we had to stop in daylight, we decided to make camp and some men came and told us to leave, so immediately we got back on the water and paddled another 5km down river. We stopped again, and slept for a bit. Suddenly, 10 men arrived, and took everything. They were shouting “where is camera, give us money’. Luckily we had hidden the cameras in the kayak. But they took all of our money and told us they would be coming back again. We quickly got back on the river, but they followed us in a motor boat, but we were faster than them on the shallow sections of the river.

We paddled on until it was dark, and made camp using the moonlight to see. We managed to hide until 5am, they found us again. So we left. They followed us for many days, they were hunting us. We had to pick fruit from the trees to survive.

So you kayak for 28 days, and you end up in the middle of the one of the biggest rivers in the world, The Ganges. Two small kayaks on this huge expanse of water, how intimidating was that?

There were huge ships were on the Ganges, sailing from Calcutta, giant boats. But the locals were only interested in us, always asking us where we got the kayaks from. “You sell us your boats” everyone was asking to buy them from us!

We have a GPS, but we know which way to go, we just follow the river to the Indian Ocean. But for me, it was strange, it was very difficult for me to breath. Just like you at altitude, with breathing problems, i had low altitude sickness. I couldn’t sleep, I was very sick. It was very uncomfortable for me, right until we reached the ocean. We were looking at our altimeters, telling us zero meters, but we still had a long way to paddle!

We reached the ocean, but we had to start thinking about how we got ourselves, and our kayaks, back to Nepal. We are two Nepali guys, and the border guards are asking many questions. It’s hard to explain how we have come all the way from Everest!

This expedition was the first time that a truly Nepalese team had done something so ground breaking; it didn’t involve Western climbers or an international team. Do you think this fact has helped to inspire other Nepalese to seek out adventure, to push boundaries?

Many people have now wanted to do something like this, many people have been inspired, we see people bicycling, rock climbing, mountaineering, without the need for international support. It is very positive.

But i’m not finished, I would like to climb another high altitude peak and fly from the summit, a commercial flight. Maybe in the future, I would like to introduce future climbers to the idea also, maybe take some clients with me, give them the opportunity to fly.

The conversation then turns back to Everest; this year there have been a record number of summits, the mountain is more accessible than ever, many of his friends are Everest Sherpas, and Lakpa is happy to see the high level of training, the good quality of gear that ultimately prevent deaths on Everest. He is keen to give me advice, to let me know that my recent attempt on the mountain shouldn’t be seen as success vs failure. 

The number of people climbing is not a problem, if things are safe. I would like to climb the mountain again, and you should too. You need to be prepared, mentally and physically. People will always tell you it is impossible, but wait and see, one day these things can happen. One year, you did not make it, next year, you might do. But always think positively.

You don’t have the story of the summit, but you have to make the stories happen. I didn’t have the story of the expedition, but finally i made it happen. You only need time, and a positive mind, to have an adventure.

We finished our lakeside lunch, and it was Lakpa’s turn to ask the questions; “What is your plan for the rest of the day”, “nothing” I replied. “Great”, he said, “then let’s go fly!”

Marc and Lakpa Tsheri Sherpa

Make sure you read more about Lakpa Tsheri Sherpa’s companion in a previous article, The Flying Prince of the Himalaya, Sano Babu.

You can find your own adventure at outdoorvoyage.com

Marc Lambert is a UK based mountaineer, skydiver and aspiring adventurer with a passion for expeditions and challenges, the more remote the better. Keen photographer and story teller through a lens. Instagram: atlas_diaries

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Expeditions

Jul 29, 2019

Trans Himalaya 2019: Breathless in the Himalaya

In an unprecedented Himalayan snowfall, ultra-runner Peter Van Geit breaks out his ice axe to access undocumented passes in the High Himalayas.

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WRITTEN BY

Davey Braun

Last month, The Outdoor Journal received the first contact from Peter Van Geit on his 2,500 km self-supported journey across 100+ Himalayan high passes in Himachal, Ladakh, and Uttarakhand, accompanied by filmmaker Neil D’Souza. In his latest update, Peter navigates unpassable verticle cliffs and holy glacial lakes along his spellbinding adventure.

After completing the entire length of Uttarakhand in 17 passes, I entered the neighbouring state of Himachal Pradesh. I had been doing 600-700 km ultra runs through this beautiful state in previous years on lesser-traveled roads in remote valleys. This time I was targetting several passes across the high mountains in three major sections: the Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP) a wildlife sanctuary and protected biosphere, the Dhauladhar range separating the Kangra plains and Chamba valley, and the Pir Panjal range separating Chamba from Lahaul. As of mid-July, I completed 45 high altitude passes touching 4,600 meters and heavy snow due to unprecedented snowfall this winter.

Shepherds from Barmour descending from the snow-covered Chaurasi pass at 4700m in Chamba valley on their way to graze their herds in the high altitude meadows around the Chaurasi Ka Dal lake.
Panoramic view from the Gaj pass at 4100m from the Dhauladhar high range onto the snow-covered Lam Dal Lake in the upper range of the Chamba valley. Late summer after the snow melts tens of thousands of pilgrims visit this holy lake.

Climbing above 4,000 meters in early summer meant cutting through steep, frozen snow gullies with my ice axe, opening several passes not yet traversed by anyone or following the fresh trail of the shepherds who had just migrated across some passes. With the Northeast monsoon setting in soon, I’ll be moving next to the high altitude deserts of Lahaul and Zanskar to complete several 5,000-meter plus passes and come back down to Garhwal in Uttarakhand in September once the rains in the lower Himalayas subside.

Read next on TOJ: Alpine-Style, Ultra-Challenge in the Himalayan High Passes

GHNP is cornered between the high ranges of the Parvati National Park and Kinnaur. Three major rivers flow through this national reserve: the Tirthan, Sainj and Jiwa Nala separated by sharp, steep rising ridges. With no accurate trail info available on the Internet (no blog references meant few people or none have hiked here) I explored all three valleys using a very rough PDF sketch map made available by the tourism office and crossed over through three steep passes. The park has some of the steepest and most inaccessible rock cliffs I have encountered. Losing the trail here meant getting stuck inside near-vertical cliffs.

Sharing a cup of tea beneath the onset of the monsoon clouds with these shepherds while climbing up to the Waru pass at 3870m while crossing over the Dhauladhar range from Chamba valley to the Kangra plains.
Hospitality in the mountains. Night stay and dinner with these two shepherds on a ridge above the Jalsu pass in the Dhauladhar range of Himachal. Beautiful views on the snow-covered Mani Mahesh in the background, one of the seven Holi shrines of lord Shiva.

Once the snow melts on the higher ranges, many young men in Uttarakhand and Himachal go out in search for the “Jungli Nalla”, a high altitude medicinal root which is smuggled across the border from Tibet into China. One kilogram fetches 20 thousand rupees ($300 USD). Spending one and a half months in the mountains provides sufficient income for the rest of the year. While hiking deep inside the GHNP, I came across several villagers digging for both roots as well as large, beautiful rock quartz crystals.

Dhauladhar is a 4,000-meter plus mountain range which rises up steeply from the Kangra plains between Dharamsala and Palampur. Several passes cross over to the beautiful Chamba valley fed by the Ravi river which flows down from the high ranges separating Kullu-Chamba-Lahaul districts. There are several high altitude glacial lakes in the Dhauladhar which are considered holy and visited during an annual late summer pilgrimage by the local people. Most of the lakes were still covered under a thick sheet of frozen snow when I passed by.

Woman carrying home firewood from the forest in Lug valley in Himachal Pradesh for cooking purposes. With no road access or electricity in many remote hamlets, people rely on natural resources for home building and cooking.
Two Gurjar (mountain tribe) from Mumbardar in Chamba valley of Himachal were grazing their buffaloes in the alpine meadows above the clouds and upon seeing me passing by immediately invited me over for dinner and a night stay in their mud home.

I crossed five passes in the Dhauladhar: Baleni, Minkiani, Indrahar, Waru and Gaj pass between 3,800 to 4,300 meters coming across heavy snow at the North facing (less exposure to the sun) Chamba side. The most adventurous was Waru at 3,870 meters, a lesser-known pass used only by shepherds (which means undocumented) where I lost the trail several times. Trying to get back on track, I had to scramble through dense forest and climb down through several side gullies which had cut deeply into the valley slope resulting in several “free solo” moments while climbing down 100-meter plus vertical drops. I survived several breathless and adrenaline rushing moments here until I set a foothold on firm ground again.

One of the near-vertical rock descents into a snow-covered gully which deeply cut inside the main valley while navigating my way “off-trail” to the Waru pass across the Pir Panjal in Himachal.

The Pir Panjal is a high range of 5,000meter peaks separating the Chenab river valley (geopolitically split across Pangi and Lahaul districts) and Chamba valley. Shepherds from Chamba annually migrate with large herds of 300 to 1,000 sheep and goats across several very steep 4,500 meter passes to graze the high altitude meadows of Pangi and Lahaul which produces better quality milk and meat. They return home only five months later at the end of the summer before the passes close again.

Camping below the stardust of the milky way while camping at Trakdi along the Manji Khad stream inside the beautiful Dhauladhar mountains near Dharamsala in Himachal.

I crossed the Marhu, Darati and Chaurasi passes touching 4,200 to 4,600 meters, all undocumented, following the footsteps of the Gaddis or shepherds who had just crossed over. The most adventurous and scary one is Darati, which is a sheer vertical 1,000-meter rockface that seems impossible to climb at first sight. From steep snow-covered ridges on top of the pass to a labyrinth of narrow passages through steep rock faces, one can only imagine how shepherds traverse these with 500 sheep. About 5% of the sheep do not make it alive to the other side.

Shepherds from Chamba Valley, Himachal at the base of the Darati pass waiting to cross over the steep snow-covered pass in early July across the Pir Panjal range into the high altitude meadows of Lahaul.
Women at Kalprai village in Chamba valley harvesting wheat on the rooftops of the mud separating the grains from the stem by hitting with large sticks while rhythmically rotating in a circle.

I experienced one of the most spellbinding moments in my entire journey so far while I was about to climb up the Chaurasi pass. At exactly the same moment, a massive herd of more than a thousand sheep and goats descended down the snow-covered pass displaying their natural skill to traverse these very steep slopes. They were guided by ten shepherds from Barmour district in Chamba on their way to the fairytale Chaurasi ki dal glacial lake surrounded by lush green meadows dotted with alpine flowers of all colors of the rainbow.

One thousand sheep descending from the snow-covered Chaurasi pass (4700m) in the Chamba valley in Himachal on their way from the plains to graze the high altitude meadows. They will only return home 5 months later at the onset of winter.

The most memorable moments in these remote valleys of the Himalayas have been my encounters and night stays with the Gujjars, or mountain tribes. Small, remote hamlets far beyond the last villages deep inside the forest, completely disconnected from civilization. These tribals live with their cattle in large beautiful rock and mud shelters built with huge pine tree trunks. They graze their buffaloes, horses, and sheep in the meadows which stay together with them under the same roof. Each and every encounter along my way with these native people has been one of heartwarming hospitality. After a full energy-draining pass crossing, ending up around a warm fire in a mud home eating freshly cooked food with these families who consider you as one of their own is beyond words.

Unseen hospitality with the Gujjars or mountain tribes in Chamba, Himachal who live disconnected from society deep inside the forests in mud homes grazing their cattle in high altitude meadows.
Overnight stay and dinner with the mountain tribes at Rali Dhar in Chamba, Himachal. The lady of the home is preparing yummy rottis (flat breads) on the fire with buffalo milk. They stay under one roof with their cattle.

Peter will continue to share his field notes with the hope of inspiring others to explore these beautiful locations. You can read more about Peter’s experiences and motivations in his interview here – Alpine-Style, Ultra-Challenge in the Himalayan High Passes. Stay tuned on The Outdoor Journal for Peter’s next update along his 2,500 km journey.

To follow Peter’s expedition, visit his blog.
Facebook: @PeterVanGeit
Instagram: @petervangeit
Chennai Trekking Club

For more Neil Productions, visit: http://neil.dj/
Facebook: @neilb4me

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