Babu Sunuwar, the Nepalese adventurer

He may face an early exit from the Red Bull X-Alps but Babu Sunuwar has captured the heart of fans.
Babu Sunuwar (NPL) hikes during the preshooting at the Red Bull X-Alps 2013 on Postalm in Strobl, Austria on July 4th, 2013
Babu Sunuwar (NPL) - Action © Olivier Laugero/Red Bull Content Pool
By Andy Pag

The call came in on the afternoon of day two: “The Red Bull X-Alps is a great race but I'm completely lost and don't know where to go.”
His first time flying in the Alps, Nepalese athete Babu Sunuwar has struggled to keep up with the relentless pace and the unfamiliar surroundings of the race.

But he's proven himself a real character. From the moment the start gun fired, he revealed his race strategy — and that was not to take anything too seriously. He sprinted off, grinning from ear to ear, waving to the crowds. But Babu should not be written off as a joker — he's a bold adventurer and talented pilot.

The plucky Nepali paraglider pilot has calmly flown his way into the affections of the paragliding and adventure community by achieving some of the most audacious flights on earth with almost no resources.

Babu Sunuwar flying from the summit of Kilimanjaro
Mad or genius? Babu's flight off Kilimanjaro © Babu Sunuwar

He first came to mainstream attention in 2011 after flying a tandem paraglider from the summit of Everest with veteran summiteer Lapka Tshering Sherpa. That same year two other pilots attempted to fly from the top with solo wings but conditions prevented them.

Unable to resist a thermal, Babu didn't just fly them down from the top, the pair circled up above the summit, and flew 20km before landing.

The flight was the start of the duo's “Summit to Sea” expedition that saw them using Babu's other great skills, as an experienced rafting guide, to follow the Ganges from the Himalayas to the Indian Ocean.

Without any hope of raising the climbing fees needed to summit Everest, Babu had sneaked into Base Camp under the pretext of being a cook for another expedition.

After his adventure he had to evade attempts by the Nepali police to arrest him until he was awarded the National Geographic Adventurer of the Year award in 2012, and the international acclaim led the authorities to discretely back down.

Before Everest, Babu had already flown a tandem unsupported, about 1,000km across the length of Nepali Himalaya from East to West, using savings he'd earned by giving flights to holidaying hikers.

He made headlines again at the start of this year as part of a group of over 100 pilots attempting to fly off Kilimanjaro. High winds sent everyone back down the hill, but Babu, doubtful that he'd ever get another chance to fly the site waited on the mountain for three days and eventually took off in lee-side rotor on the back slope after nine failed attempts.

The flight immediately became paragliding folklore. The high winds should have sent him and his passenger in to the deadly building storm cloud behind the mountain, but Babu used a trick from his rafting days to escape eddies, and rode the invisible V-wave of air which had formed around the mountain in the 150km/h winds, taking them out to the side and away from danger.

A move unheard of in the paragliding world, it's reminiscent of the pioneering big wave surfers from the 1950s, but his gamble drew a mixed reactions from the flying community and accusations of publicity seeking.

But when it comes to cashing in on his success, Babu has been singularly unsuccessful, some might say naïve, preferring to seek out unique experiences in life over the financial rewards of a high profile sportsman.

To the Western eye Babu's attitude to risk might look like foolish fatalism but his flying style is a product of his Eastern thinking, and has the power to make others reflect on their own ambitions in the air and on the ground.

Redbull-xalps-athlete babu sunuwar rests
Babu takes a rest © Babu Sunuwar

The trip to Africa left him with a pulmonary infection and unable to train for the X-Alps for several months. Sponsors withdrew and frustration amongst his supporters lead them to quit. With no team, no time and no funds, Babu announced that he would do everything he could to make the start.

Offers of help and donations started to flood in, including from rival athletes. The result? Team NEP don't have a shiny support van emblazoned with sponsor stickers, and his assistants are just a couple of buddies pitching in to help their friend.

Babu will most likely be knocked out in the next mandatory elimination on Friday. But he not only made the start line but captured the hearts of adventurers around the world. Babu, we salute you!

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