Flying Off Everest: The Story Behind the Ultimate Descent

Mj 618_348_flying off everest a journey from the summit to the sea
Balkrishna Basel

In April 2011, two Nepalis named Sano Babu Sunuwar and Lakpa Tsheri Sherpa set out on an unprecedented expedition to climb Everest, paraglide from its peak, and kayak nearly 400 miles to the Indian Ocean. Dave Costello chronicled their expedition in the new book Flying Off Everest: A Journey from the Summit to the Sea, providing the first complete account of what’s become known as “the ultimate descent.”
Babu and Lakpa drive the book. The two characters independently get the idea to paraglide off Everest, and upon meeting, realize their complimentary skill sets. Babu is a paragliding pilot who has no technical climbing ability. Lakpa works as a guide on Everest but his attempts to teach himself to paraglide have been unsuccessful. Together, they take on Everest in a Huck Finn-style adventure, skirting danger with a combination of naivety and willpower.
In his reporting, Costello, a senior editor at Alaska magazine shows how Babu’s and Lakpa’s approach to their ambitious endeavor – without funding, cutting-edge gear, or a fully-rendered plan – vastly differs from the way corporate-sponsored expeditions are carried out by explorers in the western world, a parallel that is particularly poignant in light of the recent tragedy on Everest that claimed the lives of 16 Sherpa.
Costello, who hiked and boated the length of the Ganges three months before Babu and Lakpa paddled it, spent nearly two years working on the book. He lived in Nepal for a month, regularly driving by jeep six hours into the mountains to spend time with Babu at his new paragliding resort, and crossing the country three times to interview Babu’s and Lakpa’s friends, family, and co-workers. We caught up with Costello to talk about the April 18th avalanche, Sherpas, and early reactions to the book. 

How did you first hear about Babu and Lakpa?
A friend of mine, David Smith, sold all his things after college and moved to Pokhara, Nepal and became a tandem paragliding pilot. I got an out-of-the blue Facebook message from him, basically a paragraph that said something like, ‘I know this guy, he paraglided off Everest and then paddled to the ocean and you should write a story about it.’ I wrote back, ‘You’re right, I should.’ He put me in touch with Kimberly Phinney, an American woman who played an integral part in getting this story out there, and who connected me to Babu and Lakpa.

Babu left home at age 15 with 500 rupees (equivalent to $5). His village was a three-day walk from the nearest road. How typical are these living conditions in Nepal?
Surprisingly typical. Much of Nepal is still living a subsistence lifestyle. According to the UN – at least in the last study I used for the book – a good portion of the population is living on under $1 a day, which is the criterion for absolute poverty. There is essentially no road system in Nepal. Goods are transported by foot.

Something I’ve come to realize is that much of what we think about Sherpa life is romanticized. We imagine them as these people who love carrying our stuff up the mountain. And they don’t. It’s very hard work. It just so happens to pay better than anything else available to them. I think it’s better in Nepal than it was – there is more money in the economy – and Sherpas don’t want [the mountaineering industry] to go away. But in light of the Everest avalanche, the question is, how moral is this industry that we’ve set up?

Babu and Lakpa were essentially unsponsored, pulling off one of the greatest adventure feats of our time with nothing more than a little help from some friends. What do you make of this precedent?
I think there were things about what they did that were inspiring, and there were things about it that I’d never advocate anyone do. Their intention was to show that you can do whatever you want to do, if you have the courage to do it. I end the story with a quote from Lakpa along those lines, and I think that’s the ultimate takeaway.

The climbing and paragliding off Everest portion of the story got the most attention in the U.S., but those who’ve read advance copies of the book have had the strongest reaction to the second half of the story, the kayaking portion. Why is that?
For Babu and Lakpa, the paddling portion of the trip was way more scary and dangerous than what they did on the mountain. The feedback I’m getting from people who’ve read the book is, ‘Wow, I had no idea.’ It was downplayed so much in the media. Part of the reason is that they didn’t have much paddling footage. And part of the reason is that it was such an intense situation for them. Lakpa didn’t know how to paddle or swim, and they were going through one of the largest river drainages out of Nepal, and then paddiling through the Bihar, India’s lawless state. They were robbed at knifepoint and chased by bandits in a motorboat. I don’t want to give away the story, so I’ll leave it saying they escaped with the help of the darkness from a lunar eclipse.

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