Adventurers of the Year, The Ultimate Descent: Sano Babu Sunuwar and Lakpa Tsheri Sherpa
For seven years, National Geographic has combed the globe to find Adventurers of the Year, each selected for his or her extraordinary achievement in exploration, conservation, and adventure sports. This year, our Adventure editors, in partnership with Glenfiddich, selected men and women who are pioneering innovation in the world of adventure.
Here on Intelligent Travel we will be profiling the 2012 Adventurers of the Year. Check them out, then vote (through January 18) for your favorite to win the People’s Choice Award.
The Ultimate Descent: Meet Sano Babu Sunuwar and Lakpa Tsheri Sherpa
By Fitz Cahall
When Lakpa Tsheri Sherpa first saw paragliders arrive in the Himalaya, he dreamed of flying above the massive peaks of his home—the Khumbu region. After his third successful summit guiding trip on Everest, he viewed paragliding as a simpler, faster, and more graceful way of descending through the peak’s perilous slopes.In October of 2010, Lakpa borrowed a paraglider, got a few pointers, and launched from a hillside above his home. He promptly crashed into a tree. With his paraglider wing badly damaged, Lakpa set out for the town of Pokhara, considered to be the gathering spot for paragliders, to seek repairs and find a mentor. He ran into Sano Babu Sunuwar, whom Lakpa had met years earlier on Island Peak. Babu repaired the glider and the two men hatched the plan for the Ultimate Descent.
They would climb to the world’s highest point, launch a paraglider and fly for as long as possible, bicycle to a point where streams gathered into rivers, kayak across the Nepali border into India, and paddle the Ganges River all the way to the Indian Ocean. It would be an unprecedented first, but it was the overall combination of sports, audacity, and friendship that drew the duo to the idea. Babu, 28, had no climbing experience. Lakpa, 37, had never kayaked and didn’t even know how to swim.
In April of 2011, the duo had borrowed gear, slapped a basic plan together, and began their ascent of Everest. On May 21, they became the third party to launch a paraglider from the summit and set a new world record of 8,865 meters for free flight in the process. On the Kosi River’s Class V rapids, Babu got caught recirculating in a massive whirlpool in their two-man kayak, while Lakpa floated down river. Once they reached the Ganges, they paddled flatwater through unfamiliar country. They were robbed at knifepoint and had to live off fruit trees. After 850 kilometers, Lakpa and Babu reached the Bay of Bengal. On June 27, they became the first people to complete the descent from Everest’s summit to the Indian Ocean.
“When we arrived on the beach, we were frightened. We were surrounded by giant red scorpions,” says Babu. Later after showing pictures to friends, he would learn that these “scorpions” were in fact harmless crabs.
The Ultimate Descent team earned recognition from the international paragliding community, and the Nepali press hailed them as national heroes. Western adventurers admired their spunk, simplicity, and bare-bones budget. There were no social media campaigns, corporate sponsors, or expedition websites, just the essential ingredients for adventure—vision, creativity, and friendship.
- Nat Geo Expeditions