How Arjun Vajpai went from making a summer hike with his grandfather in school to climbing Mount Everest at 16
Popular Indian mountaineer Arjun Vajpai tells us how his obsession with mountaineering began, how he prepares for these challenges and what lies in the future.
“I was an athletics kid throughout my school years. You name the sport - volleyball, football, hockey, bastketball, shot put, long jump, karate - and I have played it. Very early on in my life I realised that if I wanted to do something in life, it would be with these set of hands and legs,” says Arjun Vajpai as we begin the interview.
While being a sports-obsessed kid in India is a common sight, what’s rare is that drive transitioning into an extreme adventure sport like mountaineering.
At 16, kids in the country are too young and naive to realise what they actually want to do in their lives and what is the line of profession that appeals to them the most.
However, Arjun Vajpai, the son of a retired Army Colonel in Noida, conquered the world’s highest mountain when he was just 16 years, 11 months and 18 days, becoming the then-youngest person to stand on the roof of the world.
So how did he find his way to Mount Everest as a teenager?
“In my sixth grade, I was visiting my grandfather’s house in Pune for summer vacations. We went for a short hike to the Sahyadri Hills. Since it was my first climb, I reached the top and when I saw the sun set, I just asked myself, “If it looks so beautiful here, how beautiful must it look from the highest point on this planet?”
“So even before I knew what mountaineering was, what the journey would entail, I wanted to go there [Mount Everest] one day.”
But to get from that faint idea of a dream to practically make his way to Everest was a completely different proposition. On the recommendation of a family friend, young Arjun completed a basic mountaineering course at the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering in Uttarkarshi before his 10th grade.
Even though he was broken down physically and found the course extremely arduous, he came back for more and completed the advanced mountaineering course.
Completion of the course requires the students to climb Draupadi Ka Danda II or DKDII and it was after the successful summit of that mountain that his instructor came over and told him: ‘I think you should climb Everest one day.’
“I don’t think he was very serious about it but somewhere, the Arjun from Noida was so pumped up that it fuelled me even more. I ended up being on top of Mount Everest just seven months later,” he recalls.
But how do you prepare for Everest or any eight-thousander for that matter? The human body was not designed to survive at those altitudes and everything out there tries to either kill you or force you into submission. The lesser oxygen content in the air makes it difficult to breathe and think, the pressure difference forces the blood into the head which causes hallucinations and forces the fluids in the body to escape at every opportunity, and the chill and cold can cause frostbite.
“If you give up in the high mountains, you die. The mountains don’t discriminate between a man and a woman, a child or an old person, a rich or poor man, it does not know how to discriminate.
“No matter how much you train you can never win it physically alone. It is a culmination of both physical fitness and mental stiffness where you need to learn how to be in a meditative state in your mind.
“In order to get into the physical shape, we do a lot of endurance based training. The focus is on lesser weights but more reps in order to enhance the body’s endurance limits. Training and mentality go hand in hand in mountaineering.
“For mental preparation, you need to learn how to focus and I started doing a lot of pranayaams like anulom-bilom, kapaal-bhaati, basic Suryanamaskar every single day in order to cultivate that focused approach,” Arjun explained.
While climbing Everest and preparing for it both physically and mentally is no easy feat, getting there in the first place is also challenging monetarily. Arjun recounts all the help and financial assistance he had gotten along the way which helped his dream take shape even more.
“There was this electrician from Pune whose mother was a widowed pensioner and his wife was a government school teacher. They all sent Rs. 500 individually from their own savings. There are too many stories like that.”
Of course, Arjun’s dream did not just stop at Everest. The young kid from Noida who once resorted to climbing and hiking in order to avoid studies also became the youngest Indian to summit Manaslu and Lhotse.
On one of his attempts at climbing Cho Oyu in 2012, his body became paralysed and he required help to make it down the mountain. He came face to face with his mortality once again on Kanchenjunga and thanks to the help of the brave Sherpas, he is alive today. It took the 29-year-old four attempts to summit Mount Makalu in 2016.
There is another side to moutaineering where failure can often result in death.
“I’m very grateful to the mountains. I’ve been on 14 expeditions over the last 13 years and my biggest achievement is still having all my 10 fingers and 10 toes regardless of all the successful summits. The mountains have their own way of humbling you down. The experience has been kind and it’s left me alive enough to come back again,” said Arjun.
So what keeps him going through it all? Far more than money, fame, validation, and success, there’s a much more simple answer to it: the view from the top of the world.
“From the top, you can actually see that the Earth is round and see its curvature for the first time in your life. Whatever the best idea of a sunset is for you, nothing beats the one that you witness when you are up on mountain. There’s a saying in mountaineering: ‘It’s not even worth a billion dollars. It’s far more, you cannot put a price tag on the view.””
So what does the future hold for Arjun Vajpai?
“The dream is to become the first Indian to climb all the 14 eight-thousanders! I don’t know how long it will take to represent India on that Grand Slam of mountaineering, but I want to make it.”