For an expedition crew that has seen some of the most remote places on the planet, picking the next great river to run is always an exercise that balances creativity, vision and, well, a little insanity. So when Chris Korbulic, Ben Stookesberry and Pedro Oliva decided to link up with the “Nepal Kayak Club” to run two second descents, of the Seti and the Madi, deep in the Annapurna Range—and the first on the Seti since an avalanche outburst flood ripped the river apart—we figured the story would be epic. It is. It’s a tale of avalanche-ravaged high-altitude rivers, hydroelectric projects and a few committed Nepali kayakers who have resolved to run some of the biggest mountain rivers on earth. And it revolves around a legend of one serious Nepali legend named Babu. —LYA Editor
Words by Ben Stookesberry; Photos by Ben Stookesberry, Chris Korbulic, Pedro Oliva, and Airpix Mumbai
From another time and another place, this story could have easily started with “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” But it’s not another time or another place. It’s wintertime in Nepal and our team of Nepalis, Americans, and one Brazilian is struggling… no, let me rephrase that… clinging to the side of this cliff face that is the trail up the Seti River in the Annapurna Range. And so this story begins differently.
“No s#!t,” explains our porter, guide, and kayaking partner Surjan Tamang immediately following a particularly hair-raising ascent on this god-awful trail as if to try to tell us “this is nothing.”
“I was carrying gear for Babu with this professional group of porters up 10,000 vertical feet to where he wanted to be the first to fly off this peak,” he says, pointing to a particularly angular summit that still seemed small compared to the tallest mountains on earth directly behind. “After 8 hours, the porters gave up and refused to go any further,” Surjan continues. “Ten hours in, I was messed up with altitude sickness and I just had to put down all the cooking stuff I was carrying. When I finally made it up there, it was so cold at 13,000 feet and Babu was just sitting there in a T-shirt! He jogged back downhill and grabbed the pots and stuff.”
Sano “Babu” Sunuwar is a legend. I know that for sure, because his 20-year-old pupil Surjan was now kicking our asses, and Chris Korbulic, Pedro Oliva, and I considered ourselves to be pretty fit. Chris and I proudly hold the speed record for fastest ascent and descent of North America’s most notorious kayak trekking mission in the Middle Fork of the Kings River. But still, Surjan was quite literally lapping us all.
If you’ve never heard of this 20-year-old Nepali kid named Surjan Tamang, I don’t blame you; I hadn’t either. But if you still haven’t heard of Babu, you should have. To be sure, if he were American or European, he would be a household name. In a small flash of publicity, National Geographic named him an adventurer of the year for the time he climbed Everest, paraglided off the top, and then picked up his kayak where the ice turns to water and paddled the river from Everest (the Dudh Kosi) all the way to the Bay of Bengal… Legend. “What did he do next?,” Pedro wondered aloud. “Swim a few laps around Indonesia, then free dive to the bottom of the Mariana Trench?”
For Pedro, Chris, and me, sketching our way off that gorge wall into the headwaters of the Seti River represented our first proper kayaking expedition in Nepal. But to Surjan, this river meant more than kayaking. Babu had set this up as yet another challenge–or learning experience–for this young Jedi in training of Himalayan rivers. The Seti is the river that flows through the kayaking rafting mecca of Pokhara, yet it had only been descended once by a tour de force of international kayaking elite (a fellow by the name of Anton Immler among them). But like I said, it was more than just the kayaking when you consider this river had been ripped apart by an avalanche outburst flood that killed hundreds of people. The river would be different, the lives of the people there had been changed forever, and Babu wanted Surjan to see that firsthand.
But if Surjan is our Skywalker and Babu plays Obi-Wan in this story, then Anup Gurung could easily be Yoda or even the Force itself. Anup is trying to bring order to the kayaking universe in Nepal, including promoting and employing Babu, Surjan, and the other members of the Nepal Kayak Club that he founded. According to Surjan, he is a mentor. He is also director of the Nepal Kayak Festival, owns two rafting companies (one in Iceland), and also dabbles in multimedia. “The guy never stops, and is opening up a new exciting option in life for Nepali kayakers: he wants there to be professional Nepali kayakers!”
In fact, Surjan was the first Nepali to attend the World Class Kayak Academy, thanks to Anup. This is the kayaking high school that has produced some of our sport’s finest paddlers. And after four days on the upper Seti, Surjan showcased his world-class skills on the sister river of the Seti, the Madi River. And to be sure, this river is steep enough to test any paddler, with a drop of nearly 4,000 vertical feet in just 3.5 miles. What that means, in a river that drains the Annapurna Range, is a parade of truly massive boulders crowded into the bottom of a canyon that seems impossibly steep for the jungle that clings to its walls.
But just at the very moment I forgot about those massive peaks behind us, Chris yells out in pure disbelief: “Holy s#!t, look at that.” At first I can’t comprehend what’s happening. For days now, we have been in this canyon living in the shadow of a peak that is at least 10,000 feet taller than anything in my home state of California. And now, before my eyes, there is a giant avalanche ripping down the mountain heading straight for us. Pedro starts to panic, and Chris and I aren’t far behind him. The river that we were just on had been completely ravaged by a flood caused by one of these mega-avalanches. Surjan and the other Nepali kayaker Michael don’t exactly laugh at us, but they are obviously amused by the somewhat frantic scene. I guess growing up in the shadow of these giants, they understand better than us the insignificance of what just happened.
But the avalanche is many miles away, and in this place there is nothing else to do but continue to chase Surjan downstream, and hope that he catches a few eddies. After four more days of combined trekking and kayaking, we emerge as the second group to descend the Madi River from the base of those giant mountains. It probably won’t surprise you that the first descent was made by Babu. Of course, he trekked twice as far as we did and ran the whole river in just two days. I know Surjan is a bit disappointed it took us so long, especially since we ran out of food on the last night. Unfortunately, Surjan may never get another chance to match Babu’s record time through the Madi, as a large hydroelectric project frighteningly close to completion greets us at our takeout. Surjan stands and stares bleakly for a moment at the hideous gashes in the once virgin landscape and then turns his back. If Babu, Surjan, Anup, and the budding Nepali Kayak Club have anything to say about it, the rivers of Nepal might just be protected in the future.
For more info on The Nepal Kayak Club find them at https://www.facebook.com/nepalkayakclub
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