Extreme Sport | From Desk Till Dawn

Canyoning in Nepal

Charlie Norton hurtles through an extreme weekend of abseiling, canyoning, whitewater rafting and more…

April 13 2011
Charlie Norton

The more I think about the weekend ahead of me, the more I realise I’m embarking on a 48- hour exercise in how to be a human pinball. I’m travelling to Nepal, the kingdom in the clouds, to a location near the Tibetan border called The Last Resort – a place so precariously and exquisitely balanced amidst plunging faces of rock, soaring cliffs and gut-clenching ravines that one can only reach it via a 1.6m-wide suspension bridge across a 160m-deep ravine with a raging river in its depths.

The resort contains the world’s largest rope swing and the chance to raft some great rapids, but the highlight of the trip promises to be the canyoning, which involves climbing, abseiling, sliding and swimming through a series of waterfalls and gorges. For weeks I’ve been juggling waves of anticipation and mild fear about our itinerary that will comprise an array of aerial activities, which, on the difficulty-intimidation scale, fall only just short of being fired out of a cannon or parachuting into one’s destination. In truth, the whole weekend involves virtually no solid ground – even the ostensibly tranquil pre-tea Saturday afternoon hours will find me on the back of an elephant.

Friday 1900 I relax in the back of the cab en route to Heathrow, under a blur of highway lights, and stretch out my feet. As we slow to a stop for a snarly traffic jam, I allow myself a small interior smile, thinking that this might be one of the only stationary moments of the weekend.

Saturday 1400 Despite the red eye and a stop-off in Delhi, I’m rested, well fed and definitely better acquainted with the Bollywood oeuvre. I make the short transfer across the international airport to a private Tarmac and board the waiting helicopter. Before long we’re soaring over the Kathmandhu Valley, admiring a mix of the region’s fabled wooden and colonial stone architecture, spanning out across the sprawling suburbs to mountains of deep-green velvet riven with dark furrows. Tibet is visible in the distance.

Saturday 1430 After 20 minutes we’re in the heart of a prehistoric jungle within the Chitwan National Park, where I face nothing more strenuous than an elephant ride before supper. Normally I’d be nervous at the prospect of mounting and steering such a colossal beast – a history of being the one who always draws the crazy, mean-streak horse has left me wary – but with my mind steeling itself for all the climbing and the swinging, I quickly brush it aside. The ride feels like sitting in a gently mobile armchair with a treetop view. A relaxing evening and a barbecue feast follow at the Chitwan Jungle Lodge.

Sunday 0730 I wake, have a quick bath, grab an omelette and get back in the helicopter. It’s not long before my breath starts to shorten as I see, in dramatic aerial perspective, a series of sweeping gorges and canyons in the shadow of snow-clad Tibet. En route we make a brief stop-off on the Bhote Koshi to ride some whitewater that’s rated as one of the best short river trips in the world. To military-style shouts of “paddle!”, “stop!” and “hold on!” we make it through a series of whirlpools and rapids, and speed thrillingly past high green banks of exotic trees, waving villagers and dilapidated bridges half nestled in the glacially cold water.

Sunday 1230 Another half an hour and we land at The Last Resort. The daunting, infamous footbridge entry – a suspension model designed in Switzerland and a far longer walk than it seems – is not for those with vertigo or paper hearts, particularly as you’re entering the exclusive domain of gonzo adventure travellers on the other side. One bonus: it isn’t crammed with stubborn loaded-down yaks or porters carrying wardrobes on their backs, like so many other precarious crossings in Nepal.

Sunday 1300 The tented camp that will be home for the night is in a verdant glade with a stone-ringed covered plunge pool and a well-stocked bar nearby for reviving the senses. But all I have time for is a look, as I’m soon back out over the bridge with slightly gritted teeth to experience adventure number one: the world’s highest swing. No twee wood contraption this: you sit on the edge of the bridge while a harness is strapped firmly round your middle. (The waiting is by far the most uncomfortable aspect; dicing with your own life tends to be more excruciating if you’re sitting still contemplating it, rather than taking some – any – action.)

The swing’s configuration and the angle of the rope mean that your only exit is feet first, so you simply plop off the middle of the bridge like a suicidal lemming. Five full seconds later you are still in a total free-fall, 100m or so of more straight-down, before you start a 260m-wide arcing swing, sweeping through the bottom reaches of the canyon. The experience is so deeply hair-raising that it almost doesn’t feel real. It is akin to being in your own private Imax cinema casually hurtling towards jagged rocks at more than 150km an hour, somehow slightly detached, because surely no one actually lets you do this in real life? Perhaps the detachment’s preferable to the other, very present and real alternative view – that of being just a faulty-rope snap away from a messy death.

Sunday 1400 My plunge turns out to be merely an adrenaline amuse-bouche for what’s next. The descent is like a gate to another world, a quasi-subterranean one bristling with the intensity and sound of sheer rock and cascading water. I’m dressed in a wet suit, a burly harness and safety helmet, looking a little like a seal wearing a large nappy. I’m now ready to face the water of the Panglang Khola canyon, a pristine corner of the Himalayas, along with two guides and my two female companions in this adventure: a New Yorker and a Bristolian.

We spend several minutes getting a safety briefing, taking a few jumps into shallow-ish pools and a few slides down mini-couloirs, revelling in this glorious adult water park. Then we shuffle downward, the noise of water becoming a roar, so we have to crane our necks and hold our ears to hear the abseiling instructions. As I am a novice climber, my efforts are better described as ungainly scrambling. But this abseiling – which I can do – is as serious as it gets. I lean my entire body weight back and, with a wild nervous rolling in my gut, let the rope fall through my left hand beneath me. I edge down over a precipice and push off into the air, and suddenly I’m suspended in the middle of a waterfall. For 30m or so I skid and slink down, buffeted by the falling water, until I land in an exhilarated heap at the bottom. Thrilled by my own efforts, I confess my latent fear of heights to the Bristolian; the picture of the guides having to prise me off a rock face and take me away, weeping and curled into a foetal position, was lurking below my other, more immediate, fears. She congratulates me, and I ask her how she copes. Quite well, it turns out, as she is a professional trapeze artist.

The falls get taller and more massive the further we descend. Clenching my teeth, I clamber and slip over jutting rock formations covered in mossy velour. One plunge lasts a full 50m, under a cascade so powerful I feel as if I am being pummelled down the ravine. My hands burn wildly as the rope speeds between them; my arms and legs shake from exhaustion and the buffeting of the water. It’s like being in a gigantic washing machine with fantastic views. We’ve all reached the bottom when, just to show us how it’s really done, our guide shimmies down in a graceful flash, moving as sure-footedly as an ibex and giving me no time to film his picture-perfect abseil.

I keep looking back up at the dramatic rock faces and blue-green spilling water as we exit the canyon. It’s one of the most visually stunning, otherworldly places I’ve ever seen.

Sunday 1900 I’m basking in the afterglow of a delicious dal bhat (lentil soup and rice) and beef curry. Having happily acquiesced to the offer of an Everest beer, I can feel the slight, mellow buzz of the alcohol replacing the adrenaline in my veins like a potent sleeping draught. I stumble somewhat gracelessly to my jungle tent and am asleep in minutes.

Monday 0700 We wake early for breakfast and the first helicopter out to Kathmandu. In the business lounge in Delhi I get on top of my e-mails; by early afternoon GMT, I’m back on London’s terra firma. My mind, however, takes longer to adjust to the even, predictable pace and altitude – still convinced, in fits and starts, that my body is on a quest to be a rubber ball.