21-27 July 2017 #868

Shooting the rapids

The pioneers of the early days of river running in Nepal
Lisa Choegyal
EARLY RAFTERS: (l-r) Lisa Van Gruisen, Jennifer Read, Angku Gurung, Vikram Onta, Lobsang Gyalpo, Manita Gurung and Jhak Pun in 1981 at the Himalayan River Exploration boathouse.

One of the more turbulent rapids on the Trisuli River trip is named Snell’s Nose (or used to be). Col John Blashford Snell was on an early rafting recce helping Himalayan River Exploration to check out the viability of introducing river running to Nepal. He banged his face on an oar in the milky glacial torrent, resulting in a bloodied nose.

Known as JBS, John was a valued friend of Jim Edwards since their school days in the Channel Islands, a British army colonel convinced of the benefits of outdoor education.

Col John Blashford Snell who was on an early rafting recce to help Himalayan River Exploration check out the viability of introducing river running to Nepal.

“Splendid trip,” he wheezed on return to Kathmandu, adjusting his pith helmet and dabbing his tender nose. “I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. Perfect for general punters as well as adventure training.”

With loyal, long-suffering Judith and their two daughters, JBS became a frequent Nepal visitor, bringing scientists, celebrities and fundraising groups on trips that ranged from research on mammoth elephants in Bardia, dolphins in Karnali and snakes throughout the Tarai.

Mike Yager rowing with Lisa on the Trisuli

John’s Boy Scout lust for adventure took him on Indiana Jones-inspired youth schemes and scientific expeditions all over the world. His Operations Drake and Raleigh programs transformed the lives of troubled inner city kids throughout Britain.

JBS’s War Office rooms in the heart of Whitehall brimmed with mysterious bulging kitbags, marked maps bristling with pins, and the busy comings and goings of hearty chaps and eager, decorative girls. The challenge began with a selection weekend of endurance and initiative tests, such as how to weigh a python using only bathroom scales (by holding it and weighing yourself with and without the snake, for those of you who haven’t worked it out).

Elephants retrieve raft in Chitwan with Mike Yager in late 1970s

Expeditions to the rainforests of Borneo, islands of Papua New Guinea, down the Nile and up the Sepik, rang with John’s distinctive British bark and infectious enthusiasm. He cultivated an avid media following. “The swamps are rising!” he yelled down the phone to one journalist, winking at me as he jiggled his gin and tonic by the receiver for added effect.

JBS helped put Nepal rivers on the adventure map. Himalayan River Exploration was the first company to run commercial white water and float trips, using imported rubber boats with inflatable chambers and locally forged rowing frames instead of paddles. Guests had only to buckle up their lifejackets, follow the oarsman’s instructions, hang on for dear life, and hope the boat didn’t flip in the stronger waves. ‘Upset’ was the most daunting cascade on the Trisuli, fluctuating with rain, snow-melt and glacial runoff. Sunbathing, swimming and rubber tubing punctuated the quiet, flat stretches between rapids. Tiger Mountain itineraries started to feature river trips, connecting treks and Tarai wildlife.

Bebe and Adrian Zecha, founder of Aman Resorts, on the Trisuli in 1979

Lobsang Gyalpo was HRE’s first Nepali manager, then Mash Thapa with legends Basant, Chitra, Indra, Krishna, Kul, Megh, Mohit, Nima, PB, Stan and Yogi. These pioneers forged a culture of super-cool rafting guides with their long hair, colourful bandanas and daring bravado. Their fitness and punishing work schedule nurtured HRE’s rigorous operating standards, imported from America’s Colorado River and Grand Canyon. Safety and emergency first aid were crucial as most of the multi-day trips were several days away from any road. There was precious little communication, no helicopters, nor other chance of rescue. On one of the first Bheri and Karnali river trips I joined in the Far West, we had to check out the bigger rapids on foot, and passed through villages that had clearly never seen a white face before.

In the 1970s, few roads followed Nepal’s great rivers, their currents, whirlpools and rocks were unfamiliar, and the beaches pristine. The idea had grown out of Al and Jennifer Read’s carefree weekend jaunts with other thrill-seeking expats living in Kathmandu. Our boss Jim Edwards, scenting a business opportunity, suggested they bring Mike Yager from Wyoming to assess the commercial realities, test the market with the likes of JBS, and begin training the first Nepali ‘river-rats’. Daredevil kayakers and canoeists arrived and started bagging first descents on the Marsyangdi, Seti, Kali Gandaki and other remote rivers. Government regulations had to be changed to cover this new adventure activity. The idea stuck, and today river running has become a major component of Nepal tourism — with over 60 registered rafting agencies.

Read Also:

Rivers of Nepal’s Wild West, Yu Wei Liew

The world's best whitewaters, Samriddhi Rai

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