Words and Photos by Tristan Kennedy | Video by Ruskin Kyle
2014 was not a good year for Nepalese tourism. On the 18th of April, exactly one year ago this week, teams of Sherpas were carrying supplies up from Everest Base camp ahead of the commercial climbing season when disaster struck.
Dawa Tashi, one of the group, was near the top of the dangerous stretch of crevasse-ridden glacier known as the Khumbu Icefall when he heard a loud bang. Above his head, a chunk of ice 130 feet wide weighing 64,000 tons broke off the western shoulder of the mountain and came crashing down into the glacier obliterating everything in its path.
“I remembered my wife in Kathmandu," Dawa Tashi told Outside Magazine. “I remembered my parents. Then I was knocked out.
There were about ten of us, but when I regained consciousness I was the only one there...
When he woke again, it was to a scene of utter devastation. “There were about ten of us, but when I regained consciousness I was the only one there - with half my body in the snow," he said. “No one was crying. Everyone was buried."
Despite suffering four broken ribs and a smashed shoulder blade, Dawa Tashi was one of the lucky ones. When the bodies were finally counted it emerged that 16 people had died on the mountain that morning, making it the deadliest day in Everest’s history. The mountain subsequently closed for the whole season.
A mere six months later, the small Himalayan nation hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons again. On 14th October, a series of violent snowstorms and avalanches battered the Annapurna massif.
The timing and location couldn’t have been worse.
The Annapurna Loop is one of the country’s most popular trekking routes, one so well-trodden that tourists have been known to attempt it without hiring guides. October is the height of the Autumn trekking season and so hundreds of hikers of all nationalities found themselves trapped, stranded or lost as the blizzards struck.
Despite the efforts of the Nepalese army, who rescued more than 300 trekkers, 43 people still lost their lives - including hikers from Canada, India, Slovakia, Japan, Poland and Vietnam.
Bigger, Scarier, Gnarlier
Barely a month later, I board a plane bound for Kathmandu. Coincidentally, the copy of National Geographic I pick up for the journey features a lengthy exposé of the Khumbu Icefall disaster. But even without that, it would be impossible to stop the two tragic incidents playing on my mind.
It’s not that I’m worried for my own safety. Our party, which includes Mpora’s filmer Ruskin Kyle, several other journalists and the four lucky Nissan X Trail competition winners, isn’t about to attempt anything as extreme as climbing Everest. Instead we’ll be exploring the options for other adventure sports in Nepal.
But headlines like these, combined with a childhood spent reading reading tales of epic ascents (Edmund Hillary’s High Adventure) and tragic failures (Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air), help reinforce the impression I have of Nepal as the ultimate extreme destination - a place where everything is bigger, scarier and gnarlier than anywhere else on the planet. I can’t help but feel a thrill of nervous excitement as we touch down in Kathmandu.
The visa queue is full of the usual backpacker types (American girls in hareem pants, German dudes with blonde dreadlocks piled on their heads) but at least half of the foreigners are older - serious-looking women with wrap-around shades or bearded mountaineering types wearing North Face and Patagonia gear.
“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore."
The feeling that this is somehow a slightly more ‘out-there’ destination persists as I venture out of the hotel later with Ruskin and Richard, the Telegraph’s correspondent.
A cacophony of car and scooter horns fills the narrow streets, mingling with the shouts of passing cycle rickshaw drivers.
We turn a corner to meet a religious parade coming rapidly the other way and have to dive into a shop doorway to let it pass.
A float balanced on the shoulders of about eight sweaty-looking young men makes three rapid runs around a small Hindu shrine before disappearing off down another alley, followed by half a brass band and a couple of enthusiastic drummers.
“Toto," I say to Ruskin, “I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore."
It’s an early start the following morning, piling into a bus and a couple of the brand new X Trails. It takes a while to work our way through the sprawling suburbs of Kathmandu. The city has exploded in recent years, doubling in size from a little over 500,000 people in 2001 to around 1 million today.
Growth on this scale has brought jobs and increased prosperity, but the geography of the Kathmandu valley means that the pollution is terrible.
Nepal’s air quality was ranked 177th out of 178 countries in the world according to a recent Yale University study - a statistic that starts to mean something when you see the thickness of the haze hovering over the capital.
“When I was last here, you could see a stunning backdrop of mountains from this road," says Richard as we drive out. “That was 25 years ago though," he chuckles. There will be no stunning vistas of the high Himalayas for us today, or indeed for most of the trip.
Taking On White Water
The visibility improves as we climb steadily out of the valley, passing luminously green paddy fields, enormous brick baking kilns and a giant statue of the Hindu god Shiva on the way.
There are some hairy moments on the winding mountain roads - it’s as if the Nepalese Highway Code actively encourages overtaking on blind corners with a 100 foot drop down one side - but by the time we reach our first stop, Sukute Beach, everyone is in good spirits.
It’s as if the Nepalese Highway Code actively encourages overtaking on blind corners with a 100 foot drop down one side...
We’re here to go kayaking, the first of a whole series of adventure activities that we’ll be having a crack at over the course of the week.
My previous experience of canoeing having been limited to a cold, unpleasant afternoon spent swimming in the river Wye at the age of 12, I’m slightly concerned about tackling a Nepalese torrent.
I’m not the only one. Our group of journalists is one of decidedly mixed abilities when it comes to adventure sports. At one end we have Spanish mountaineer and blogger Ferran LaTorre, who’s aiming to become the first Catalan man to climb all 14 of the world’s 8,000 metre peaks.
He's a humble guy, so it's not until the second-last day that we learn he casually knocked off K2 - widely regarded as one of the most challenging summits in the world - earlier in the year.
At the other end of the experience scale there’s Thomas Majchrzak, Germany’s answer to Jeremy Clarkson.
Though he's younger, funnier and not at all racist, by his own admission he’s more used to cruising down the Autobahn in the latest Porsche than he is running rapids in a kayak.
Thankfully, the section of the Bhote Koshi river that we’ll be tackling isn’t particularly gnarly, and our instructors are the best in the business. Darren ‘Daz’ Clarkson-King has been “kayaking for about 25 years, guiding since 1998 and guiding in Nepal since 2000."
"He literally wrote the book on kayaking in the country," his young assistant Doug Clifton says. "Yeah I co-authored White Water Nepal," admits Daz.
Despite Daz and Dougie assuring us that the river we’re running is a “mellow" Class II I still manage to overcook it on the first rapid and flip upside down. My boat takes on water and drifts off as I swim bedraggled towards the shore. I’m not just spluttering though, but giggling too. It’s exhilarating rather than scary, and the afternoon passes quickly as we cruise on downstream.
Over dinner that evening (which involves a whole pig spit-roasted over a fire, its severed head served up on a platter next to the chickpea curry) Daz and Dougie tell me that while what we did was pretty easy, the country has a whole lot more to offer for serious kayakers.
“There are a lot of parts of Nepal that are absolutely world-class, including the upper part of this very river, the Bhote Koshi," says Daz. “Obviously where you get high mountains you get high drops. And so when you’ve got the rivers that come off Everest... they are rowdy!"
Not only that, but the country offers kayakers the chance to get off the beaten track in a way they wouldn’t elsewhere. “In India for example the rivers are much more crowded with people," says Daz. “Whereas this river is a good example - after you paddle down here for an hour and a half the road disappears, and it’s gone for 11 days."
We won’t get a chance on this visit, but it’s a trip that given a bit more time and a lot more training I’d love to take.
On Your Bike
Later in the week we get to go mountain biking. Again because of the mixed abilities of our group we won’t be trying anything particularly gnarly, but as our local guide Razan explains, the potential in Nepal is absolutely huge.
He’s part of a fast-growing local scene (“there are maybe 10,000 people who ride bikes in Nepal now," he says) but he admits they’re still only really scratching the surface of what the Himalayas have to offer.
“There are a lot of trails that people haven’t ridden yet." Razan explains.
The highest Mountain Bike trail you can ride is over 5,400 metres high. That's a kilometre higher than the top of Mont Blanc.
“Every year though there are more and more tourists coming to go mountain biking here. There’s a lot of scope for mountain biking to grow.
"Round Annapurna there is incredible high altitude terrain - the highest trail you can ride is 5,400 and something metres high." That's a kilometre higher than the top of Mont Blanc.
As with the kayaking, you can really get out amongst it on a bike in a way that just wouldn’t be possible elsewhere.
“You can take maybe 14 days to do the Annapurna circuit," says Razan. “And Upper Mustang, that’s one of the forbidden kingdoms of Nepal, it’s very remote."
Even if we’re not getting properly out there or trying anything hugely challenging, there is still plenty to love about riding around the Himalayan foothills in the Kathmandu valley.
Empty fire roads and occasional stretches of single track wind down between the bright green paddy fields. Kids shout and wave as we cruise through villages, asking for a go on our bikes when we stop.
Ruskin even gets involved in a game of cricket in a cornfield, bowling a couple of balls to the young batsman.
This friendliness from the locals and the beauty of the countryside two constants everywhere you go in Nepal.
The setting of The Last Resort, so-called because of its proximity to the Tibetan border, is nothing short of breathtaking. It perches precariously on the edge of a deep lush gorge, the opposite side from the road. Access is by a cable and steel rope bridge only.
However much your head tells you that it can’t possibly be sketchy, there is no way you can stop your stomach doing a flip when you look down through the slats to the river, fully 500 feet below.
Making it across once feels like enough of a challenge. Stepping back onto it and throwing yourself off is something else...
If you’ve never done a bungee jump (or, as in our case, a canyon swing) the incredible rush of emotions it triggers is almost impossible to imagine.
The initial exhilaration is followed swiftly by the knowledge, the certain knowledge, that you are about to die.
There’s the nail-biting tension or the build-up; the horrifying feeling of standing on the edge of the platform with every instinct screaming at you to back away.
“You may well try to grab something without knowing it - maybe the edge of the platform or the bungee master..." we were told in our briefing. “Please don’t, it won’t help you. And it just makes our job harder."
There’s the jump itself, the falling sensation, the seven long seconds of freefall. The initial exhilaration, followed swiftly by the knowledge, the certain knowledge, that you are about to die.
Then there’s the relief, the sheer, laugh-out-loud relief as the rope catches you and you realise that you’re not, in fact dead.
“It’s like the feeling of committing suicide without the inconvenience of actually dying," says Richard later. He laughs but I’m shaking, physically shaking, as I catch the rescue rope and pull myself towards the side of the gorge. I’m glad I’ve done it, but I’m not sure it’s an experience I’ll want to repeat any time soon.
I’m not the only one - while Richard attacks the jump with typical gusto, shouting “geranimo" as he goes, several members of our party decide to opt out, including Ferran the mountaineer. “That’s not my idea of fun," he says looking over the edge of the bridge. “You’re crazy."
The Most Extreme Place on Earth
But it’s not this experience, nor the afternoon we spend rappelling down the nearby waterfalls to the bottom of the gorge, that really make the scale and sheer gnarliness of Nepal hit home. Rather it’s what we encounter on the way to and from The Last Resort.
Our bus is forced to stop both ways, and we all pile out to hike for about a kilometre to catch another. The reason? An enormous landslide that obliterated not only the road, but also the river and the village of Jure below it.
The slide struck at 3am as most of the villagers were sleeping. 156 people lost their lives.
Looking up as we cross the debris we can see the gaping wound in the hillside - half the mountain has gone. Looking down we can the roofs of what was once Jure - now all but submerged under a newly formed lake.
Walking across the desolate wasteland that's left certainly serves as a sobering reminder of the power of the mountains, and of nature in Nepal.
There is no doubt in my mind that this is a country that deserves its reputation as one of the most extreme on earth.
There is no doubt in my mind that Nepal deserves its reputation as one of the most extreme places on earth.
It’s not just those scaling 8,000 metre peaks or trekking who get to experience it either. These same crazy mountains also offer insane potential for a whole host of other activities.
Whether it’s kayaking, mountain biking, canyoning, white water rafting, bungee jumping or rock climbing, chances are it’s bigger, scarier and just plain gnarlier in Nepal.
At the same time, it’s one of the friendliest countries I’ve ever visited. The locals are gentle, un-hassly and always willing to help. And as we’ve discovered, there are places where beginners can feel at home. As Dougie the kayak instructor put it: “What really sets Nepal apart is it has everything for everyone."
So while the trekking and mountaineering disasters might have made last year a bad one for Nepalese tourism as a whole, there’s no doubt in my mind that the country will bounce back. There’s just so much more to it than that.
In the week we’ve been here we’ve not even begun to scratch the surface of what this incredible country has to offer. Which is why, whatever the headlines say, I’ll definitely be coming back.
Tristan and Ruskin's trip was paid for by Nissan X Trail
The Nissan X Trail Film of The Trip, The Five Elements of Adventure, is Available on Vimeo on Demand Now
Watch the trailer below: