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All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.

- JRR Tolkien

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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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Features

Feb 20, 2019

The Death Zone

World champion free-diver Pierre Frolla sinks without air to depths unreachable by most scuba divers. One day he nearly didn't make it back to the surface.

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WRITTEN BY

Pierre Frolla

This story originally featured in print, in the fall 2015 issue of The Outdoor Journal

Deep down under the sea, so far away from where you live, I have been through the last seconds of my life.

In 2005 or 2006 (oddly I don’t remember), I had the worst accident of my freediving career. After being world champion in variable weight apnea with a dive at 123 metres, where I used a weighted sled for descent and returned to the surface by pulling myself along a line and using my fins, I was training to go deeper.

“No matter what happens to you, you’re stuck underwater. There’s nowhere else to go.”

In my sport, risks are quite important. Imagine you’re running a 400-m race. You start way too fast, and after a few hundred meters you’re out of breath and you just can’t go anymore. What do you do? You just stop, walk a bit and slowly catch your breath again. When you’re free diving, no matter what happens to you, you’re stuck underwater. There’s nowhere else to go.

The basis of my sport is quite simple. Going beyond 100 meters is mythic. Only a few hardcore specialists, including the “no limit” guys can go beyond that. Athletes use a weighted sled to dive down and an inflatable bag to return to the surface. This means that the free diver reduces his energy loss to the max, and that’s exactly why he is able to go so deep. The world record is held by Austrian Herbert Nitsch: 249.5 metres on June 6, 2012, in Santorini, Greece. The problem is that at those depths, water pressure is unbelievable! At 100 m, for example, the pressure is about 11 kg per square centimeter of your skin. Consequently, the volume of air inside the human body is pressured and reduced too. Take an empty but sealed plastic bottle: If you get to this kind of depth, it’ll greatly deform. That plastic bottle is a metaphor for your body. This also means that if water manages to seep somewhere inside you through your mouth or nose, it will do so with such force that it’ll destroy everything in its path. Drowning is inevitable, and no Apneist can be saved in such case, even if experienced help quickly intervenes.

At great depths, nitrogen becomes narcotic and leads to what is called nitrogen narcosis. This kind of intoxication from staying in great depths for too long is the same as when you drink too much. In other words, you lose total control of your body and mind, and you become unaware of potential dangers. Acting like that underwater can kill you, as the slightest mistake will have incredible consequences. In my personal training, I mix apnea in variable weight and other constant weight dives, where I dive only with the force of my arms and legs.

Today, my team and I decide to put the weight to 118 m. I know I can go down 115 m, but we want to push a little, as it’s part of training. Once down, I’ll have no choice but to go back on my own. I also know there will be a small parachute and an oxygen tank hooked to the sled, but neither will be for me. The bottle empties very slowly and inflates the balloon. Both serve only to return equipment back to the surface. It’s easier for us to work like that rather than starting a counterweight system.

If I want to live, I have only four seconds to start my ascent. But I am stunned and unable to move. I think about my team: What will they do when they go down to find me, lifeless and filled with water?

I feel my legs sinking knee-deep in a soft, thick and viscous material.

I begin my descent. I pass my midterm diver. Very soon, it gets dark. I do not have glasses because they would serve me for nothing in this environment. So I stand, with my eyes closed. I’m relaxed and sinking slowly in the water like I’m used to. I feel the pressure now, but I also suddenly feel the sledge slowing. Then it stops, softly. Usually it stops dead. When I realize that something is wrong, I feel my legs sinking knee-deep in a soft, thick and viscous material. It is almost as if moving sands are closing in on me at 112 meters below the surface. It is actually a mixture of clay and silt, a mound a few meters higher than the sonar onboard the boat. It wasn’t identified even though it stood in the stack axis of the descent of my sledge. It’s nobody’s fault; sonar is not so precise.

In no time, I understand what’s happening to me. I’m stuck. I cannot get my feet outside the box, and I know there’s no exit door. I simply do not have enough oxygen to both work my way out of this with strength and go up as I have expected, swimming, with my hands and fins. If I want to live, I have only four seconds to start my ascent. But I am stopped, stunned and unable to move. I think about my team: What will they do when they go down to find me, lifeless and filled with water? I’m dying; that’s it. Today is the day. In 15 seconds, I will have consumed all the remaining air I was keeping for my ascent. I am also a few seconds away from being caught by nitrogen narcosis. I will go crazy right before dying.

“Did I become a vegetable?”

Suddenly, I have an idea. The parachute. Yes! I trigger the opening of the small air valve, which then rushes into the parachute. It’s working but it’s slow and long. So I wait, very still, with my eyes closed. I have no other choice. I try to relax. Everything at 112 m is multiplied by 10. One consumed oxygen molecule at the surface is equal to 10 or 12 molecules consumed at that kind of depth. One second is equivalent to 10 seconds. Time and life are both very cruel at the bottom of an ocean. I am now barely conscious. Finally, I remember feeling the chute tearing me away from my trap like a champagne cork. The ascent back to the surface, back to life, is way too long. When I reach the surface, I have strangely not entirely lost consciousness, but my body no longer responds to my brain. Did I become a vegetable? My team, frightened, retrieves and saves me. If I had not been so well-trained, I would not have survived this scary adventure. Instead of the planned 2 minutes and 40 seconds that I went down under water for, I stayed 3 minutes and 50 seconds. In the boat, I gradually recover and quickly regain all my abilities.

Pierre Frolla reascending to the surface, following the guideline with the sled and parachute attached to it.

A few years later, I’m on a movie set doing 60-m free diving over and over all day long, and an air bubble is created in my brain on one of these repetitive dives. But instead of being redirected into my lungs, it remains stuck in my head. When ascending, inevitably, this tiny compressed air bubble suddenly decompresses and its size gets multiplied by six. I immediately lose consciousness. Later, I wake up in a hyperbaric chamber. I stay there for eight and a half hours. But when I wake up in that box, I cannot feel my body. I’m unable to move. For hours, I do not know if I will stay quadriplegic or not. This awakening in the box is one of my worst-ever memories of free diving. I do not understand what is happening to me. It takes me 30 minutes to remember that I was free diving and to deduce that I certainly had a bad accident.

Apnea is an extreme sport. I’ll remember it always. Yesterday I dived to 113 meters. I’ll do it again tomorrow.

Photos by Franck Seguin

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