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Athletes & Explorers

Dec 16, 2011

Arjun Vajpai, the kid who climbed Everest



Anil Nair

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


New Delhi

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Jul 04, 2018

How I Became a Runner

This article originally featured in a print issue or the Outdoor Journal.



Rachel Toor

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It’s hard to start running, but eventually the sound of your feet on the pavement, on the trail, on the earth – starts to sound like music. Rachel Toor recounts how she became a runner.

Let’s begin by admitting that when you start, it’s awful. After you lace up your new running shoes for the first time, step into your short shorts with the built-in panties, pull on a tee-shirt made of recycled plastic bottles or some other technical material that will, eventually, start to stink in the armpits no matter how often you wash it, when you head out the door for that debut run, you might feel good for the first few minutes. You might even feel great. You might hear Bruce Springsteen singing in your own head that tramps like us, baby we were born to run.

For those first few minutes.

And then everything will start to hurt. Each leg will feel like it weighs eight hundred pounds. You will appreciate oxygen in a way that you only appreciate things once they’re absent. Your heart will pound so hard you’ll think it’s as detectable as the organ in an Edgar Allen Poe story. It will tell the tale of your woe. And you will, make no mistake, feel filled with woe.

You may have been told to start out by walking fast to warm up and then running for a limited time, four or five minutes, maybe. Alternate walking and running, you may have been told. But you never knew minutes could last so long. You don’t think you can keep going. You never appreciated how nice it is to walk. You can breathe when you walk. Breathing is a good thing.

Your eyes may water. You may make wheezing noises. You may think you’ve coughed up a chunk of your lung.

All that money you spent on buying the right gear, the right clothes and shoes and maybe even a new big old ugly GPS plastic watch? Wasted. Halfway through your first run you decide you’re going to give it all away. That new tee-shirt won’t have a chance to get stinky, not from your pits.

Somehow, though, you make it through. You’re out there for however long you thought you should be. Maybe it’s ten minutes, maybe twenty, but you’ve done it. You feel a little good about yourself. You think maybe you could have gone a little longer.

Until the next morning when it hurts to get out of bed. You hobble around and nurse yourself with ice cream and think, What a silly idea that was. I’m not a runner. The next day is even worse. How can you be more sore the day after the day after you’ve run? Because that’s how it works.

But for whatever reason—stubborn pride, those few extra pounds around the middle, an upcoming reunion—you put on those sporty clothes again and venture out, once more into the breach.

Weirdly, it’s easier this time. You do the walking parts a little faster, run a little slower, and it feels almost good. Twenty minutes goes by and you think, Hey, this isn’t so bad.

Slowly, slowly, running becomes something you do.

Some days it’s good. Other days you can’t believe how hard it is. Some days, you have to trick yourself to get out the door. You don’t want to go. So you say, Maybe I’ll just put on my running clothes. You say, Maybe I’ll just go for ten minutes. You say, Maybe I’ll take it really easy and run extra slow. But once you get out there, you’re kind of happy. You like the way the air feels against your skin. You notice the call of birds you can’t identify. Your body begins to recognize the motion, the clip clip clip of your feet on the pavement, on the trail, on the earth. You settle into breathing.

Sometimes, you’re able to let your mind wander. You’ll find yourself thinking of people you’ve left behind. Or conversational topics you want to broach. You end up figuring out the solution to a problem you hadn’t quite realized you had.

Sometimes, you will put on headphones and run to the rhythm of a band you love, you’ll listen to a singer whose voice jabs you in the heart, and your mind will go effortlessly blank. You’ll be able escape from yourself.

Sometimes, you will meet a friend. You’ve been running enough now that it’s not impossible to talk. You would not have believed this could ever be the case, but in fact, you are able to carry on a discussion with someone whose company you enjoy. You might end up running farther than you thought you could. You might make a date to go again. It might become a weekly ritual.

Sometimes, you will want it to hurt. You want to make whatever emotional pain you’re feeling—the breakup of a relationship, a death, a failure—manifest. You will want to take it out on your body. You will enjoy the physical challenge of pushing yourself into agony. You will run so hard you think you might start bleeding from your eyeballs. You’re pretty sure you might collapse. You tell yourself that the German philosopher was right: that which doesn’t kill you does make you stronger. You pull out a bunch of other clichés about sports you’ve heard and realize that clichés are almost always true.

Sometimes, you will have a bad run. You will not be able to account for it. You will have gotten enough sleep, eaten well, be rested and healthy and nothing will have changed, but sometimes you just have a bad run. Even after you’ve been doing this for years and know to expect it, you are, nevertheless, always surprised when it happens.

Eventually, your body will change and harden and reconfigure itself. You will look down at your legs one day and not recognize them. When did they become so muscular? When did the jiggly bits stop jiggling? Where did those extra pounds around your middle go? You haven’t been dieting. In fact, you’ve been eating more than you used to. You’re hungry all the time. You start to see food as fuel.

Eventually, you will begin to recognize other runners. You will run past them on the street and raise a hand in greeting, which they will return. You’ll notice people wearing those big ugly GPS plastic watches with their civilian clothes. You’ll start to pay attention to race shirts.

Eventually, you might even start to enter races. You will be surprised that you get faster at each one. You’ll try different distances. You’ll wonder: Could I run a marathon? You’ll realize that you could. Of course you could. You might even want to go farther. You see the possibilities.

And eventually, running will stop being just something you do and instead it will have become a part of who you are. A runner.

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