Arjun Vajpai, the kid who climbed Everest

Arjun Vajpai, the kid who climbed Everest

India's youngest Everest summiteer climbed the world's highest peak at 16 years of age and had to sing to save his life while going down "I got my first real six-string/Bought it at the five-and-dime/Played it 'til my fingers bled/It was the summer of '69..."

Arjun Vajpai softly hummed the song to himself between sobs as he hung at the end of a rope above a crevasse. Most music fans familiar with Bryan Adams' chart buster "Summer of '69" know it's about being young and discovering sex. But singing the track at an altitude of 7,620 metres [25,000 feet] atop the tallest point on earth—Mount Everest—can hardly be akin to discovering sex. Vajpai, 16 at the time, had hours before become the youngest person to summit Mt. Everest, and here he was dangling for life by a rope, staring into the abyss of the crevasse, waiting for a helping hand.

Vajpai exuded pluck during a candid interview to The Outdoor Journal about his record-setting exploit in May 2010. "During the way down to camp 2, I did something stupid. At camp 3, I was really tired. My Sherpa was carrying a heavy load because he had wound up his part of the camp. I told him to go ahead because I was walking really slow. I could see camp 2 and told him I would find my way. We had a small fight and he went ahead. But it was a really stupid decision because halfway down, there’s this big crevasse where the ice keeps moving.", he recalls with a laugh.

"There are a lot of ropes on that phase and I think I got a little disorientated"So, with no mountain climbers in his family to set a precedent, how did a 16-year-old overcome the odds and unfurl his country's flag on the peak of the planet?

There’s no shortage of criticism of Vajpai's Everest exploit, with some questioning his age and ability to handle the most extreme weather conditions in the world. The appeal of climbing Mt. Everest can quickly diminish when confronted with the fact that cold temperatures and strong breeze create a wind chill factor worse than on Mars. While breathing at sea level requires only five percent of the climber's energy, taking that one precious breath on the summit requires about 70 percent.

Vajpai attributes his Everest climb to his own dream, the drive of his Army father and encouragement of an experienced mountaineer and family friend.

"I went on a mountain climbing trip when I was 10 during a vacation to the hilly outback of Pune in Western India to meet my grandmother,” says Vajpai. An hour-long trek up a small mountain and the sight of the sunset from the top was all it took for him to wonder how it would be to gaze at the setting sun from the summit of Mt. Everest, a photo of which he had often seen in his geography textbook.

But textbook knowledge has often turned to tatters on top of the death zone when well-geared climbers have met their match in the form of avalanches, frostbite, hypothermia, snow blindness, and acute mountain sickness (AMS), high altitude cerebral edema (HACE) and high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE).

Vajpai describes the decision to take a basic course at the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM), located at the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand in North India, as life altering. While his classmates were jostling between home and school with a bag weighing 15.3 kg [33.75 lbs.], at 15, he was carrying a backpack weighing 30 kg [66 lbs.], learning the basic techniques of movement on rock, snow and ice, as well as bookish and ground-level aspects of mountaineering and its related subjects, such as map reading, navigation, weather, medical and mountain hygiene.

During their stay in the mountains, students are trained in the basic techniques of snow craft, ice craft and rock climbing at high altitudes. On completion of training, basic course students are taken for a height gain, up to altitudes ranging between 3657.6 metres [12,000 ft.] and 4572 metres [15,000 ft.].

Precisely, the reason why Vajpai praises his NIM training for having made it from the summit to camp 2 in one day—the day he made Indian history. One basic course and no previous experience of mountain climbing expeditions is hardly the credential required for an Everest attempt.

However, these were not the foes he was battling when charting through towers of ice and blankets of snow that day. The absence of his Sherpa guide and expedition members—including acclaimed Canadian climber Megan McGrath, the first Canadian to complete the seven summits—fatigue-ridden legs and the constraints of being able to breathe by taking five-minute breaks every 20 seconds were his challenges. He had to make his way down the mountain.

An Everest expedition is impossible without the experienced aid of either a Sherpa guide from Nepal or a westerner. The teenager's sherpa applied some scare tactics to ensure that the young climber made his way past the numerous climbers bee-lining their way up the mountain.

"At one point during the ascend, my Sherpa scared me. He showed me that big black line behind me with headlamps coming up and said, ‘You won’t be able to reach the summit. You’ll get stuck in a traffic jam.’ I was like, ‘Nooooo!’ and I started rushing up. There were only two sherpas who were opening the route that day, me and two more, so we were the five people who were on the summit," he says, gesturing to show the hurry he was in.

"I got to see the sunrise on the summit ridge, amazing"On his way down, after bickering with his guide (at an unbelievable altitude), he remembers pressing on and scanning the icy surface through his glacier goggles for cracks. "I changed the anchors, kept walking and went down the wrong phase and slipped toward the crevasse mouth. There’s a small rope hanging and I found myself clinging to it on a 300-metre [984-ft.] drop. I didn’t know what to do and I thought I was done. I felt so stupid because I had my jumar, I had everything on me, but I was so tired I just couldn’t think. After almost 19 hours of continuous walking, I was now tired of holding onto the rope," says Vajpai.

No mountaineering course worth its salt would skip imparting practical use of the jumar and also cramming the history behind its manufacture in the late 1950s. Vajpai can chronologically narrate the journey of the jumar and its importance in mountaineering. But when found at the tightest spot in his life, the high-altitude climbers' buddy—the ascender—was a forgotten piece of metal.

"I did some stupid things and I don’t shy away from telling people because I was just a 16 year-old guy climbing Everest. The jumar was right there in my harness. At NIM training they teach you arm rappelling. I just twisted the rope in my arms and held on. I couldn’t see anything down the crevasse. It was a big black hole down there. After 15 minutes my arms started paining. I’m tired and crying now and thinking, ‘I’m done, my Sherpa isn’t with me, it’s almost 1:30 in the afternoon and no one is going to be climbing now,’” Vajpai says.

Now, facing ominous clouds, the young mountaineer knew things could go wrong. "The clouds started to come in, everything was going wrong, and I was like, ‘OK, I’m going to die today,’” he said. “Half my mind was saying, ‘Just let go of the rope,’ and the other half prodded me to just hold on to the rope. Someone might come from somewhere. I just didn’t know how. I just began was singing ‘Summer of 69.’ I always wanted to perform the song before an audience and I had the mountains as my audience.  I was singing and crying at the same time and I saw this big guy coming down the ice, and I look up at him and he’s shouting at me, but I can’t hear him because I’m still singing.

“Then this Nepali guy asks me what I was doing there! And I say, ‘I got my first real six string,’ still sobbing. He just came up to me, pulled me up and hit me on the head,” Vajpai adds with a chuckle.

While many would cite the usual requisites—strength, energy and determination—to be an Everest conqueror, Vajpai has a flippant side, claiming, "Fundamentally, anyone with money can climb Everest. And that’s what happened this year [2010]. They pay a ton and it’s a great story to tell everyone. But that’s what they thought. Sadly, a lot of them died.” Three people died attempting the Everest that year.

Like others, smitten by the mountains despite being in tight spots during expeditions, Vajpai has no intention of resting his limbs and is all set to upgrade his resume. He continues his stringent workout regimen when he’s not studying for his bachelor’s degree in marketing, shaping his celebrity status among climbing aficionados, giving motivational lectures on mountaineering and flagging off runs and rallies across India.

"Technically, it is a lot tougher, but Everest is Everest!""I plan on climbing K2 soon. I need to get a good team to go from the Chinese side. I also climbed Lhotse because I could see it while climbing Everest and it really appealed to me,” says Vajpaj. “It was one hell of a climb because the routes weren’t fixed. Technically, it is a lot tougher. But I would still say, Everest is Everest!”

Vajpai reached Mt. Everest’s summit in 8 hours. He was 16 years, 11 months and 18 days. However, 13-year-old Jordan Romero, a California boy broke the record a few hours later. Apart from that, the only lemon in Vajpai's trip was a failed video camera battery due to which he missed out on taking a shot of “the bend of the world.”

In an attempt to be the youngest person to summit Makalu (8481m), Arjun has currently set off for Nepal. Makalu is the fifth highest mountain in the world.

Cover Image by Przemek Bucharowski | The Outdoor Journal

PlaceNew Delhi