In 1983, Guy Baker led an expedition to descend one of the two major tributaries of the Zanskar River from where it exited the glacier. Strapping their kayaks to mules to reach the 16,580-foot pass to the Indian Himalaya. The Kurgiak Chu merges colourfully with the Tsarap River at the ancient Phuktal Gompa (dating from the tenth century) to form the Zanskar. The team was made up of kayakers under eighteen from some of the deprived inner London boroughs. They trained for a year to be as ready as possible to face an unknown river in the Himalayas, and managed to secure funding through the Mike Jones Award from the Royal Geographic Society – which honours late kayaker Mike Jones who had led the first descent of the Dhudh Kosi, the mighty river of Everest.

Health and safety was then not what it is today. The first major problem for the team forty years ago was the altitude of the pass and the risks of acute mountain sickness and altitude sickness. While the raft team from Nepal had to retreat, perhaps unfamiliar with rafting at altitude, the English crew kept together. At one point one of the young kayakers, Andy, fell unconscious. Guy made the decisive call to save Andy from his altitude sickness, by continuing up and over the pass with Andy strapped to a donkey! They managed to keep going and make good time to lower altitude. By the evening, Andy had recovered enough to be up and eating eggs and chips. It had been a tough decision to press onwards.

Flash forward to 2023. This time around, the roads have improved and allowed Guy and his latest paddling crew to switch out mules for motorbikes to traverse over the Shingo La pass and cross numerous rivers. The journey’s midpoint was a most spectacular visit to the Phuktal Gompa, set into the cliffs, up high on the bank of the second Zanskar tributary – the Tsarap River.

A day further down the journey, the motorbike team arrived at Padum, the regional capital.
They were joined by two more team members who walked in over two high passes over 16,500 feet. Padum, once cut off from the rest of the world, has now been joined by new roads both from Manali, where the team started, and Leh, where there is an airport and military base and would be the final destination for the expedition.

After Padum, there was a change of gear. The river beckoned. The Zanskar River flows through one of the world’s most spectacular canyons. ‘I’ve run the Grand Canyon and been to Yosemite, and this knock spots off both’, in the words of the trip photographer Sam Smith. Also amongst the team was Johnathan Khan. Guy had met Johnathan thirty-eight years previously when he was a youth attending Westminster boating base on the Thames in London. Guy taught Johnathan to kayak right outside the Houses of Parliament. He must have done a great job as halfway through the motorbike ride, Johnathan announced to Chotak, the river guide, that he would love a crack at the Zanskar in a kayak. Much to the entire team’s amazement, he completed the river with aplomb, adding a couple of swims and a hectic rescue – but his grin at the end said it all. Risk versus reward was well balanced.

Richard Ambros attempted the river in a pack raft. On this occasion, a relatively new craft weighing in at less than four kilos, the one-person vessel had a slow leak. As the craft deflated, Richard, an ex-AFL football player at six-foot-four, was more weight than the craft could handle and steering became a problem. With the raft buckling, forward speed was compromised so much that Richard threw in the towel at the end of day three to not put too much pressure on the safety kayakers.

Two safety kayakers supported the group, the youngest was Devi, a girl from Arunachal Pradesh in NE, India. The team were delighted to have all age groups covered. Guy, the older man of the river, Chotak at thirty-eight the river leader and business owner and Devi, the new kid on the block full of youthful enthusiasm with a lifetime of paddling ahead. It was great to witness this mantle for river running passed on to a younger generation. Guy’s energy, enthusiasm, sense of curiosity and enquiry would lead him all over the planet, and he could see that Devi was at the start of her journey.

With a life of adventure, Guy said his approach to risk was metered with good preparation and being a grateful part of wonderful teams. What stands out are the friendships he made along the way and the shared memories. From kayaking to paragliding to kite surfing and mountaineering to mountain biking, he reflects that deferred gratification and meeting struggles are important to achieving long-lasting happiness and satisfaction. Quick-fix pleasures are not the panacea, better a challenge with a sense of effort. Unfortunately, as the decades have unfolded, he witnessed the consumption and need for more material goods occupying so many people’s time.

Guy reflected while on the Zanskar: the outdoors offers many opportunities for an individual to enter a state of flow, where merging with the elements puts us all in the now and where challenges focus our mind so there is nothing else to worry about. Sometimes, adrenaline can be in the mix, but more often, it is a sense of peace and oneness with the elements. Being in this flow does not have to be found only at the high end of adventure. It can be experienced during a micro-adventure or simply seeing the details of any experience.

Recognise that the elements of novelty will increase memories, leading to happiness, and look for something new each day to punctuate the mundane. Take control of your environment, and take your time with the uncomfortable if there are options.

Fill life with excitement and discovery, avoiding the escapism of drugs and alcohol, creating clear memories and real friendships. Remember, while we may all experience fear, courage is a choice. You can start on a rapid with courage or even walk around it so long as the purpose of your journey is clear to you. Either option works. What is the intention of your voyage?

We can help others overcome their fears, and as Guy showed forty years ago, there is never an age that is too young for a real adventure. Since then, there have been many great examples of young people pushing the boundaries. Who can always remember Jessica Watson leaving Australia at sixteen to sail around the world, overcoming a wave of obstacles, including intense media scrutiny.

It’s not often that an explorer gets the opportunity to repeat an adventure and reflect on all that has happened in a lifetime. A successful career with his own team building company, Catalyst Global celebrated its thirty-fifth birthday this year with over fifty partners across the globe. Guy grasped the importance of brand and not selling the self if you want to make money while you sleep. Do yourself out of a job, were the most important words Guy heard in his twenties. Choosing a good team, be it in the world of adventure or commerce, is a skill with as much relevance today as forty years ago. Leadership skills will, in part, be innate but can be learned. Success requires preparation, which may include becoming competent at a sport or an artistic endeavour, but try to avoid being just a kayaker, as there are so many other options that may fill in some other aspects of your personality.

As Guy witnessed on this trip with Johnathan, teaching others can be so rewarding. Being part of a team adventure adds a bonus beyond individual effort; comrades in arms opens up emotions and allows sharing. Importantly, adventure teams, above all, build Trust in our teammates.

River running while an individual in-the-moment’s effort requires the team to ensure the success and safety of all members. Just as Guy’s story started with a death, so too the Zanskar for Guy closed with a death. Just two weeks before Guy arrived on the river, Chotak, the river leader, lost his best friend and kayaking partner, Stazin Tanfan, on the same river. Just like Mike Jones, Stazin went to the aid of a fellow river runner only to meet with his death. A devout Buddhist, Stanzin leaves behind a young wife and three-year-old son. There is a GoFundMe campaign

Our final words go to the memory of Stanzin Tanfan …

Risk remains a fine balance between a skill and the elements. Where ambition so often overtakes ability, part of life’s journey is getting this right. It may not be you who suffers. It could be a friend. While mistakes in life are to be encouraged as we push outside of our limits, sometimes we need to know when there is no space for error. So, if it’s just excitement you are chasing, it’s time to reign it back. A full re-think of why you do what you do may be in order. At the very least, you owe it to those around you to make sure you are up to the challenge at hand. If in doubt, take another course.