Trekking Nepal? Don't be a wimp, snowboard the Himalayas
Trekking Nepal is common. Snowboarding the Himalayas, not so much. Carving Himalayan slopes is a rare opportunity, but so is living in North Korea. World Food Programme Representative, Richard Ragan, boasts about doing both. CNNGo asked Ragan about surviving close calls with avalanches, favorite tricks, and how much it costs to ride the Himalayas.
CNNGo: What's the closest call with death you've had on the slopes?
Richard Ragan: We were out shooting a short film called "sweetspots" which was for Nike ACG and I got swept up in an avalanche on Annapurna South. I thought for sure I was a goner and my life flashed. I thought about my wife, kids and luckily got spit out just short of being pitched into couloir (a passage or corridor.)
Because the entire slope was unstable, we had to call in the helicopter to pick up the team (6 of us.) The rescue was difficult because the weather was bad and the pilot had to fly in and do a one-wheel touch-landing on a ridge. As he hovered the helicopter, we all dove in through the side door. Once the last of us was safely inside he peeled off down the mountain.
Coincidentally, the same helicopter crashed about 4 days ago (late November) killing the flight engineer and critically injuring the pilot and co-pilot, demonstrating how dangerous flying is in Nepal. Honestly, only a handful of pilots in the world have the skill to fly here. The air is thinner, the weather changes fast, and the terrain is as hard as it gets anywhere in the world.
CNNGo: Anything you can do on the Himalayas that you can't do elsewhere?
Ragan: The Himalayas offers the highest altitude riding in the world. One is surrounded by the largest and steepest mountains on earth and the views are unparalleled. Because the mountains are so high, the runs are long.
I was just climbing Manaslu with several Swiss guides who were climbing up and skiing down everyday. What took me hours to descend took them only 20 to 40 minutes. In Nepal, because the mountains are some of the wildest on earth, you can pretty much try just about anything. When I first visited Nepal in 1989 I ran into a French team that was trying to parachute onto the top of Everest and snowboard down -- they failed.
CNNGo: Where are the best places to snowboard in Asia in your opinion?
Ragan: Nepal for sure, followed by Japan and New Zealand. The most interesting place I've ridden was in North Korea and aside from being part of the only American family to ever live there (with my wife and daughter,) I'm sure I'm the only person to ever snowboard there. China is also embracing skiing and snowboarding. Although most of the Chinese skiiers remind me of those funny clips from Warren Miller's films -- total chaos.
CNNGo: How much does it cost to do a weekend trip in the Himalayas? Is it necessary to hire a guide? If so, which company is best to go with?
Ragan: There is only 1 commercial company in the world that offers the opportunity and the costs vary if the trip is private or group, but it's roughly US$10,000 for 5 days. The company is Himalayan Heliski Guides and is run by Craig Calonica. He has lots of experience in the Himalayas (climbing and skiing) -- among other things having twice tried to do a ski descent of Everest. The other option is to climb up, which requires mountaineering skills, and to ride down. More and more ski/snowboard mountaineers are coming to the Himalayas these days.
CNNGo: What are some dangerous slopes you dream of boarding down?
Ragan: Cho Oyu -- the sixth highest mountain in the world -- and to ride in Valdez, Alaska.
CNNGo: Favorite snowboarding tricks?
Ragan: On big mountains, or in the back country, my favorite snowboarding trick is getting down alive.
CNNGo: Other advice for people who want to follow in your footsteps?
Ragan: Riding big mountains is not a place for beginners or intermediate skiers/snowboarders. You should have some mountaineering experience and be trained in avalanche safety. While it isn't a place for everyone, for those that do have the experience, this is the greatest place on earth to carve some turns.
Not interested in trekking Nepal? Try snowboarding it instead. Have some snowboarding experience in Asia? Tell us where you like to carve it up.