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The Entire World is a Family

- Maha Upanishad

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Adventure Travel

Jan 06, 2017

The Flying Prince of the Himalaya

This is the story of how an adventurer is made.

WRITTEN BY

Alonzo Lyons

Sano Babu’s life has been anything but ordinary. In the words of Khalil Gibran, his experiences have taken him “through the secret route between the shores of the oceans and the summit of the highest mountain.”

Two young Nepali men stood atop the wind-battered, frosty pinnacle of Everest. Then they jumped off it. Held aloft in thin air, icy drafts swept up the gossamer wings of their canopy to 9,000ms. They circled back over the summit of summits, taking in a breathtaking aerial view enjoyed by only a few aviators.

Arriving on solid earth five thousand meters below, the duo went on to an transcendent odyssey: outwitting homeland security forces, they hopped into a wild, Himalayan-fed river, passing jungle swamps on a tandem kayak, and nearly drowned before arriving at scorching floodplains in India. Robbed of cash and supplies, living off the land, they still survived without gear and slogged by kayak the Bay of Bengal.

The mind behind this odyssey, the Summit to Sea, was Sano Babu.

Stone-broke, Babu and his partner Lhakpa relied solely on their wits and instincts for this staggering journey. They found themselves well-rewarded when National Geographic selected them as Adventurers of the Year 2012. Voters agree the duo out-adventured weekend-warriors to pros alike because of their valiant feats. For comparison’s sake: remember Felix who leapt out of an atmospheric capsule, breaking the speed of sound with his own plummeting body? He was awarded Nat Geo Adventurer of the Year 2013.

Babu’s financial conditions have since improved. Surrounded by trilling birdsong and emerald paddy fields of Nepal’s mid-hills, he tells us he is building a rural resort with an adventure school.

Taken with a GoPro, Sano Babu Sunuwar and Lakpa Tsheri Sherpa soar away from Mt. Everest, seen in the background. PHOTO: SANO BABU SUNUWAR
Taken with a GoPro, Sano Babu Sunuwar and Lakpa Tsheri Sherpa soar away from Mt. Everest, seen in the background. PHOTO: SANO BABU SUNUWAR

I’VE GOT TO GET OUT OF HERE

Named “Gold River” for its shimmering hue when sunlight reflects off it, the Sun Koshi unfurls like a golden carpet seen when from the hillsides above. It was over this liquid yellow brick road that Babu and Lhakpa embarked on Summit to Sea.

Babu recalls when he had dived into the river with a schoolmate to ride a stretch of roaring rapids. He had a small banana tree for flotation, while his friend Tirtha used a stalk of bamboo. Thirteen-year old Tirtha did not survive the churning waters; Babu himself narrowly escaped. The rapids, he estimates, were class four and above.

His childhood was unorthodox training for Babu, who now has 32 first descents of Himalaya-fed rivers under his America’s cup paddle.

“Babu” means baby, to which his granddad added “Sano” (small), reasoning he would not grow up to be tall, after a gecko jumped clear over the lad when he was five. Packed into his 160 cm (5’3”) frame, this “small baby” now has the spirit of Goliath. “He’s a bird without feathers,” says friend Luc DeNies. “He has the gift to read aerial conditions, to be in the right place at the right time.”

He may have had an early start. As a child Babu snuck up on a Himalayan Griffon gorging on a carcass, clutching the thick legs of the bird. Griffons have a wingspan up to 3m (10ft) and Babu was less than 25kg (55lbs). He was dragged along on the ground as the panicked griffon beat its massive wings, lifting off. He bounced over a few terraced paddy fields before letting go, his first ever tandem flight nearly killing both pilot and hijacker.

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

Babu created adventures where none existed. He shocked his parents when he attempted a leap from one tree-top to another. He fell to the ground, breaking a leg.

“You don’t challenge Nature,” says an older Babu. “If you respect Nature and try to understand it, then most of the time, you find success”.

Sano Babu tests the wind ow as admirers look on and take photos. PHOTO: ALONZO LYONS
Sano Babu tests the wind ow as admirers look on and take photos. PHOTO: ALONZO LYONS

KATHMANDU

Thirst for adventure propelled Babu, who remembers thinking, ‘I’ve got to get out of here, I don’t want to be a farmer all my life.’

He eventually drained his village dry of adventure and set out for Kathmandu. As a teenager of fifteen, he found the city overflowing with people just like him: people from isolated hills seeking a different life. A garment factory kept him overworked but fed for a month.

Despite Nepal’s anemic economy, tourism provides jobs in the high season. Babu soon escaped the sweat-shop for a position with a leading trekking company. Starting as a porter and kitchen assistant meant hoisting loads up the highest hills and down the steepest terrain on the planet; but he was happier to be outdoors facing the wind and the sun. Despite a hard trek in the Annapurna region, a greedy supervisor denied Babu his pay, and he found himself hitching a ride to Pokhara.

A quasi-Shangrila for tourists, the lakeside city of Pokhara is where fortune finally smiled: Babu landed his dream job with a local rafting company. In his free time, he was at liberty to kayak on the nearby Phewa Lake. Less than five years after leaving his village home behind, he was titled Nepal Kayaking Champion. In the competition he had a fateful meeting with another kayaking enthusiast David Arrufat, also an ace freestyle paragliding pilot.

Paragliding was far beyond Babu’s budget, but David offered him a free tandem flight. After the exhilarating ride Babu knew he had found his calling. In early 2006, Babu accepted a job at David’s paragliding company Blue Sky. The job began with a fifteen-day introductory, paragliding course. Babu’s experience on the rivers served him well; air and water have a lot in common, he says, “their flows are often mirror images of each other.”

As with water sports, Babu excelled in the air rapidly.

His wanted to let the world know of Nepal’s natural attractions, and often fantasized of a multi-adventure journey through water (rafting and kayaking), land (climbing) and air (paragliding). And so Summit to Sea was born.

In 2010, Babu put his brainchild aside, embarking on a record-breaking, tandem paragliding journey across Nepal! During the month-long trip, his thoughts returned again and again to Summit to Sea: he needed a capable partner to lead the climb.

Far away in the Khumbu highlands, Lhakpa Tshering Sherpa was musing, too. A seasoned mountaineer, Lhakpa wanted an easier way down from the frost-bitten peaks. Flying was a whole lot better than trudging down the same way with danger at nearly every footfall.

Lhakpa turned to the idea of paragliding, and made a few botched attempts at self-schooling with a borrowed wing. He then went to Pokhara and wandered into Blue Sky to ask about flying off summits. Lhakpa had already been on ten Everest expeditions, summiting three times: Babu’s search was over.

Convincing Lhakpa was easy. Yet two major complications loomed as large as the towering peaks of their homeland. Lhakpa had no paragliding skills: it would take years for him to learn to fly at elevation. Also, Babu had never worn crampons.

An aerial view of Sano Babu's Resort and Adventure School that offers paragliding courses for people at all levels. PHOTO: SANO BABU SUNUWAR
An aerial view of Sano Babu’s Resort and Adventure School that offers paragliding courses for people at all levels. PHOTO: SANO BABU SUNUWAR

A GENTLEMEN’S AGREEMENT

An ad hoc agreement was made: Lhakpa would get Babu on top of Everest, and Babu would take over from there. This crucial partnership was made a mere two months before setting off to climb earth’s highest peak. Mountain Blackstone donated warm apparel and Niviuk donated a high-performance glider. They managed everything else on their own.

Babu’s first task was monumental: a freezing tandem flight off the top of the world.

Everest was to be Babu’s starter peak. He experienced altitude sickness at Base Camp and took morning jogs between Base Camp (5357m/17,575ft), and Gorak Shep (5184m/17,008 ft) to acclimatize. Although Babu was propelled by his excitement, the difficulties became harrowing. Around 7600m (25,000 ft) near the famed Yellow Band, a portion of their oxygen supply was stolen. Without extra oxygen, there would be no margin for miscalculation.

Lhakpa pulled out a cigarette and began smoking. Their climbing companion, the famous Swiss Alpinist Ueli Steck, was incredulous. “Hey Lhakpa, you smoking?!” said the Swiss man.

“I’m supplementing my oxygen,” Lhakpa said cheekily.

“Wanna try?”

They all laughed.

Circumstances were grim, they knew. They plodded on to the freezing summit where Lhakpa gave Babu’s near-empty cylinder a final blast. He unpacked the high-performance wing. Without backup oxygen, there was only one way down to safety. Paradoxically, it was also one of the most dangerous jumps.

Three thousand meters of free-fall to the glaciers of Tibet awaited them if it went wrong. Launching off the roof of the world, Babu called to mind the hundreds of take-offs he had near Pokhara while working at Blue Sky. “Be calm,” he thought, “This place is just like Sarangkot.”

“Everything starts with the mind,” says Babu now, “If you can’t control your mind then you can’t control anything else.”

Once airborne, bearing north above Tibet, an updraft allowed them to rise and pass back over the top of Everest. They headed south toward Namche Bazaar, 30 aerial km south. The flight lasted 45 minutes before they touched down at Syangboche (3720m) an abandoned airfield above Namche. Despite the remote location, news traveled fast. The army was soon asking for duo by their names, checking Nepalis at gunpoint in Jorsale, a small hamlet along the Dudh Kosi (Milk River). With no official sanction for their flight, the duo left their wing in Namche and slipped through without discovery.

OUTLAWS

Babu had previously approached both the Civil Aviation Authority and Nepal Tourism Board for permission. Authorities deemed it technologically impossible to fly tandem off Everest (although a Dutch husband and wife team had done in 2001). The laws of the land also did not allow such a flight. After a short hike beyond Jorsale, they identified themselves to the in-charge at Sagarmatha National.

Park Office in Monjo, asking why the army was pursuing them. The park manager trumped up a violation: ‘disturbing wildlife in a national park’.

Babu had to think quickly. He asked if paragliding disturbed wildlife any more than tourist helicopters in Sagarmatha National Park, or jeeps on jungle safaris in Chitwan National Park. The park officer let Babu and Lhakpa go, but the army maintained their arrest warrant. (Later, when National Geographic fêted the duo as Adventurers of the Year, Babu contacted Nepal Army headquarters in Kathmandu, “Arrest me now or tear up the warrant.” The army promptly dismissed the warrant.)

Babu and Lhakpa trekked on to Sun Koshi, paddling its waters to Jharkhand in India and eventually drifted through the Gangetic plains to the Bay of Bengal. The duo faced both the highest peaks and oppressive sea level climates with ease; people proved most treacherous. Besides oxygen cylinders on Everest, they were also robbed at a riverside camp of their cash and gear.

There was no money to burn, though Lhakpa may have tried. I first met Lhakpa in Pokhara over dal bhat and locally-brewed firewater. He was still chasing his dream of learning to fly down lofty peaks. Babu, also with us, said, “Kilimanjaro was more difficult than Everest!”

In February 2013, Babu flew tandem off the highest peak in Africa. Nearly hundred ace pilots had set out to raise money for charity, all of them except for Babu turned back due to extreme winds and food shortages.

With two summits literally under his wing, Babu hopes to someday sail off all Seven Summits. Mission impossible? Mission adventure, perhaps.


This article was part of the Feature section in Issue 6 of our print magazine.

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Adventurers & Explorers

Jun 06, 2018

Breaking Stereotypes: Meet India’s Action Heroes

The origins of Rushes dates back to two years ago when the format was conceptualised to throw light on the adventure lifestyle community within India.

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WRITTEN BY

The Outdoor Journal

TheVibe Originals presented the opportunity to articulate this lifestyle. Since then, a very compelling series has come about which explores the backstories of a few handpicked extreme sports athletes who pursue their respective rushes.

Produced in association with Mercedes-Benz India, Rushes breaks stereotypes by bringing India’s action heroes in all their authenticity via a branded content series as opposed to having it celebrity-endorsed.

The Outdoor Journal is introducing the following Indian extreme sports athletes as a sampling of exciting talent that will soon arise from the high-potential region in the future.

Kiteboarding in Tuticorin with Arjun Motha and Jehan Driver

What makes Tuticorin an important place of interest with regards to kiteboarding?

AM: The wind has brought people to Tuticorin for centuries in search of spices and pearls. The wind blows here for 300 days. The town is located in between India and Sri Lanka. Tuticorin is in the heart of Gulf of Mannar and had served as a natural port and a safe haven with its bays and safe seas. It has flat lagoons, waves, coral reefs, marine life and most importantly amazing wind for kite surfers and sailors. Making it an ideal spot for wind worshippers. Tuticorin is one of the spots in south-east Asia to have wind throughout the year drawing the attention of many kiters here.

What do you think of the current state of adventure sports here in India?

AM: India is only scratching the surface of the global adventure scene. There is so much raw potential and talent here. There’s so much natural diversity geographically in our country and when coupled with human skills and raw talent, the growth could be explosive. This is only the beginning stages in the birth of adventure sports in India. Nevertheless, it is guaranteed to be growing rapidly and being recognised globally for its potential. India has many undiscovered athletes and raw talent pushing limits and finding their rushes. India will soon be one of the top destinations for adventure and water sports churning out top athletes.

What makes Rameswaram an important place of interest with regards to kiteboarding?

JD: After touring the entire coastline of India we found this piece of paradise! One of the only places where we receive both the North East & South West trade winds where the peninsula allows for ideal conditions for Kiteboarding. With around 300 days of wind to play with we decided to live here & call it home. Flat water lagoons, reef breaks and isolated beaches make the region an awesome learning ground for beginners as well as experienced riders.

What do you think of the current state of adventure sports here in India?

JD: It’s like a bunch of clouds floating around that never met, any guesses to what happens when they do? The scene of adventure sports has always been well developed in India and it is still growing. Thanks to social media the awareness is spreading and acceptance is also growing at a rapid pace.There was a time we had to import physical maps to navigate our own backyard but now with Google earth the world is a different place. We never knew if there were more slackliners in the country but through social media the community connects. Similarly there are more kiteboarders/mountain bikers/surfers, etc in India than we know of.

Follow Arjun Motha on Instagram

Follow Jehan Driver on Instagram and Twitter

Extreme Kayaking in Rishikesh with Bhupendra Singh Rana

“Extreme kayaking doesn’t show any mercy and has next to no room for an error.”

What makes Rishikesh an important place of interest with regards to extreme kayaking?

Rishikesh is my hometown and the river Ganges is my playground. This is where I started my kayaking career which to me is a good enough reason for me to call Rishikesh a very special place! Rishikesh is also the hub of extreme sports (known as the yoga and adventure capital of India) and kayaking was born on the river Ganges back in the early 80’s. Rishikesh is the place where the river Ganges comes out of the Himalayas (higher ground to the plain ground). Rishikesh has the best river sections where you can get into kayaking while providing a platform to step up your game to extreme kayaking. Heading upstream to the river Ganges valley there are endless rivers from high volume to steep creeks and even waterfalls. The overall experience in Rishikesh is very fulfilling. Enjoying a cup of chai while watching the sunset over the Ganges is unreal. Also, interacting with the very friendly local river community makes Rishikesh a very special place for me!

What do you think of the current state of adventure sports here in India?

As I said Rishikesh is the adventure capital of India so I can not think of any other state other than my home state Uttarakhand. Uttarakhand is the best mix of a calm lifestyle – you can practice yoga to extreme sports such as mountain climbing or downhill extreme kayaking. Uttarakhand is one of those states where you can do adventure activities year around while other states might be available for few months out of a year.

I love extreme kayaking but I’m also well aware of what it takes to be a pro. I keep fit, educate myself on the areas, rivers, advanced rescue training, advance medical training etc.

  1. I’m a certified Yoga instructor who has taught yoga classes in India, Norway and Africa.
  2. I’m a nationally certified Emergency Medical Technician (EMT).
  3. I’m a Trained Wilderness First Responder

Education is the key. The majority of our local kayakers are getting into the sports at an early age but compromising their academic education. Not many people know that I’ve earned my degree in English literature, Indian and world history and political science.

My main goal is to pass a positive message to the community to know what it takes to be a pro at any sport especially rivers. Water is nature’s most dynamic and powerful element. Extreme kayaking doesn’t show any mercy and has next to no room for an error.

Wingsuit flying in Jaisalmer with Udit Thapar

What makes Jaisalmer an important place of interest with regards to Wingsuit diving?

While flying over the desert in Jaisalmer, there is a unique view. The desert seamlessly merged into the sky at the horizon. The light during sunsets is amazing. It’s a feeling you can’t get anywhere else.

What do you think of the current state of adventure sports here in India?

Adventure sports are on the rise as a whole. People are travelling for adventure. The Indian people have an appetite for adventure that is only going to grow. We are not just opening doors in the field of adventure but also slowly conquering the scene.

Follow Udit on Instagram and Twitter

Downhill Biking in Valparai with Vinay Menon

“Coming up-close with wild elephants and bison on the ride was the masala in my tea!”

What makes Valparai a place of interest with regards to downhill biking?

I like to drink tea and to ride dirt. Valparai has both! Perfect to get Dirt-tea down the hill! Good trails everywhere with tea plantations touching the horizon, Valparai will wake you right up for your ride! Coming up-close with wild elephants and bison on the ride was the masala in my tea!

The vast number of trails streaming down the hillsides of Valparai will give you unlimited descending options.

What do you think of the current state of adventure sports here in India?

Current state of adventure sports in India? It’s spreading like wild fire! With its growing number of athletes, equipment availability and a more accepting population, adventure sports is gaining popularity in India, I feel.  With exposure to the international scene through various mediums such as social media, an enthusiast can follow and practice adventure sports easier than before.

Follow Vinay on Instagram and Twitter

Underwater Photography in the Andamans with Sumer Verma

What makes the Andamans an important place of interest with regards to Underwater Photography?

The two best destinations in India for underwater photography and scuba diving are the Andaman Islands and the Lakshwadeep Islands. Lakshwadeep have natural coral reef islands, and the Andamans volcanic ones. Both are at a large distance from the mainland country, are relatively unpolluted and have clear waters. The unique geological conditions, clarity of water and relative remoteness make it a perfect destination for scuba diving and underwater photography.

What do you think of the current state of adventure sports here in India?

India is a growing market and the potential is encouraging. Thanks to social media and emerging communication, there is far greater exposure to sports. Skydiving, MTB, whitewater rafting, kayaking, slacklining and fly fishing are all finding an audience. These also offer an opportunity to the youth to pursue them with greater earnestness, and they are interested. A decade strong platform has now been established and thanks to our diverse topographies — a lot can be done. We need further administrative support and inclusion of these sports for a bigger impetus.

Follow Sumer on Instagram and Twitter

Slacklining in Bhedaghat with Samar Farooqui

What makes Bhedaghat an important place of interest with regards to slacklining?

The geographical features make the place unique. The Jabalpur marble rocks are iconic and epic. The features, the landscape and the water allow the huge potential for some really fun and epic lines.

What do you think of the current state of adventure sports here in India?

India, with regards to Adventure sports, is at a potential turning point. So far we’ve been really behind in Adventure sports here in India. With regards to skills, safety measures and equipment. It is not easy to find high-quality gear in India, so that usually has to be imported. Our import duties are ridiculously high. This high import duty is making it hard to practice safe adventure sport in India.

Most of the adventurers are using outdated gear in India. Stuff that was being used a decade ago in the west is our current standard. Very few actually bother to go out and stay current with the new equipment that comes to the market. I think we’re at a good point, to begin with, but plenty of work still needs to be done. We need more support from the laws and the lawmakers, we need more support from corporations and philanthropists.

Follow Samar on Instagram and Twitter.

On the project as a whole, Asad Abid, Executive Producer, The Vibe Originals said “We hope more progressive mainstream brands take a lead from a brand such as Mercedes-Benz, to reach out to TheVibe community and makes our formats and community stronger. We hope to make further seasons in the future.”

Follow Asad on Instagram and Twitter

Speaking of the initiative Michael Jopp, VP, Sales and Marketing, Mercedes-Benz said, “India is a country of diversity not only in the form of different landscapes that you can visit across the country but also from the varied pool of talent that it houses. Our association with TheVibe and creating Rushes was with the idea of celebrating these beautiful people and places of India. The content features a very emotional story wherein passion and dedication of these local heroes are showcased with their abundant talent and vigour towards one dedicated adventure sport. The same passion and dedication is what we strive to put in our cars and give our best to the customers.”

Footage Courtesy is provided to TheVibe.

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