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The Boy Who Dreams of K2

The youngest Indian to climb Everest has scaled another height. Arjun Vajpai on the highs of a mountaineer’s life

Written by Jonathan Selvaraj | New Delhi |
June 12, 2011 4:07:50 am

The youngest Indian to climb Everest has scaled another height. Arjun Vajpai on the highs of a mountaineer’s life

A few days ago,Arjun Vajpai was at Delhi University undertaking what is a rite of passage for most 17-year-olds. He seemed indistinguishable from other youngsters around him,with Bieber hair cuts,mummy-papa in tow,mobile phone in hand,trying to get an application form. “I was running around from one college to another,along with a thousand other kids,trying to sort things out. Just a week back,I was holding on to a near-vertical ice face with a pick,weighed down by 25 kilos of supplies,with two other guys tied to me with a rope,completely dependent on me. And I think that was easier.”

While other class 12 students were relaxing after their board exams,Vajpai,already the youngest Indian to climb Mt Everest,was crawling on his elbows eight and a half kilometres above sea level,in an attempt to conquer Mt Lhotse,the fourth highest point on earth.

On May 20,a few hours before reaching the top of Lhotse,Vajpai saw a sight few get to see in their lifetime. “I saw the sun rise from underneath me. I saw the black of the Himalayas turn to gold. I saw the curve of the earth,” he says. It was the same vista he saw when he was atop Mt Everest last year. It was also a scene he had imagined seven years ago when,as an eager-eyed 10-year-old,he had made his way to the top of a nondescript peak in the Sahyadiris,on the outskirts of Mumbai. “It wasn’t a climb,more of a trek. Along the way,there were birds singing,and below us,you could see for miles around. It was at that point I knew that I would be climbing mountains.”

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For the son of a former para commando,perhaps a career in adventure was expected. At 14,he completed a basic course in mountaineering from the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering in Uttarkashi. He completed the advanced course six months later. “I was almost half the age of other students,30-something special forces’ commandos with years of experience. After we had climbed a 17,000-foot-high peak,my instructors told me I was going to climb Everest,” he recalls. While he struggled to fund his Everest climb,he got sponsors easily for Lhotse.

But climbing Everest was simpler than climbing its neighbouring peak at 8,516 metres — Lhotse,which Vajpai reached after braving unpredictable winds and deep gullies,obstacles he didn’t encounter much on his climb to Everest. The test of patience began even before the climb,as he spent 45 days at the Everest base camp “acclimatising to the altitude and waiting for clear weather”. “It’s not all about exhilaration,or just about standing at the top of a mountain. There is a lot of boredom that comes with the thrill of a climb,” says Vajpai. So,in order to keep going at 7,000 metres above sea level,he shared experiences with fellow mountaineers,getting a tip or two from a National Geographic photographer among them,playing “the highest poker tournament in the world”,playing challenges like “who can stand on ice for the longest”,doing laundry,and watching movies on his laptop. Vajpai had seen Gladiator enough times to mouth the dialogues,he tells us. There is also a fair bit of activities for the slightly mature,but Vajpai isn’t telling. “There’s a saying we have— what happens at base camp,stays at base camp,” he says.

The real reward is reaching the top,for which Vajpai trained for a year before climbing Everest,and for four months in order to climb Lhotse. He’d do strength-training and endurance-building workouts at the gym twice a day,and follow a 5,000-calorie-a-day diet. The latter gave him enough fuel to go on,as he lost eight kilos in the course of climbing Lhotse. “You know you are going to a place your body isn’t built to go to. The body is expending so much energy that once its fat reserves have been stripped,it begins eating into muscle. Blood starts to thicken,and nausea creeps in. Your body has started to shut down but you learn to ­control it by thinking of the reward at the top,” he says.

The human body isn’t the only thing that malfunctions at high altitude. The digicam does too. “I had charged my camera before starting the climb to Everest,and hardly used it through the climb. On the top of Everest,however,the battery was dead,and I was almost crying with disappointment. So I took out the battery,and rubbed it against my trousers to charge it enough to take three shots.”

For Lhotse,he bought a high-end,sturdy DSLR camera,which could brave the heights. But before a much-cherished memento could be clicked at the summit,a harsh climb had to be endured. Lhotse shares three camps with Everest,after which it branches out on its own,on a 500-metre-long,70-degree ice slope. “It was like crawling up a chimney. The surface is so steep that I was pushing myself up with my elbows. After every two steps up,I would have to rest for a minute,” says Vajpai. The climb,he says,helped him sharpen his focus and think clearly. “You are at one with the earth. Those were moments of extreme clarity of thought and focus. I cherish them the most,” he recalls.

For all of Vajpai’s tall feats,he is also a teenager who has just got out of school. For someone who thrives 28,000 feet above the ground,last-minute cramming at his ground-floor home is a harder task. “I got 55 per cent in my boards. As I was training for Lhotse through my exams,I guess the score isn’t that bad,” he says,even as he balances his grand plans of mountaineering with everyday life. “I represented my school in basketball and soccer. I have my group of friends,listen to music,and watch movies. But while others are obsessed about movies or music,I am obsessed about climbing,” he says.

Vajpai has marked out his plans for the future. He wants to climb the top 14 peaks in the world,all above 8,000 metres. The biggest challenge in those attempts isn’t going to be the climbing,but the fact that many of them are in Pakistan. So a journey to the North Pole is Vajpai’s next challenge. “For now,I’ll get into college,take my lectures and give my exams,but I will be dreaming of climbing K2. I am already dreaming of it.”

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