The mountains are calling and I must go, and I will work on while I can, studying incessantly.

- John Muir


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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Oct 01, 2018

The Forbidden Zone: Mongols, to Your Horses

The rolling green hills, rocky passes, flower-laden meadows and clear streams of Gorkhi Terelj National Park in northern Mongolia is the birthplace of the Mongols. The Outdoor Journal spent a week on horseback with Stone Horse Expeditions in the heart of this country’s vast wilderness.



Apoorva Prasad

Tdrihe Khan Khentii mountains stretched before us, from one end of the azure sky to the other. Tegri, the Great Sky God, watched us with his infinite panorama. From here, I could see miles and miles into the distance. This was the “Forbidden Zone”, that unknown wilderness where Genghis Khan was born. As a child and then again much later on, he hunted here, his true home, on a horse, sheltered in a ger or under the blue sky. When he was a boy, exiled with his family into the cold and harsh wilderness of the northern Mongolian hills, his only friends were what these lands contained. After he built an empire and died, it became a sacred and taboo zone, left to the deer and wolves. For decades the area had been closed off. The Soviets enforced it as a Highly Restricted Area to allow them to do what they wished with it – from logging and military exercises, to also countering any potential rise of Mongolian nationalism around the great Khan. Despite those years, the Area remained wild.

No wonder the Mongols worshipped it.

A day before, we had crossed fresh bear tracks. There were no signs of human presence apart from our train of horses and riders. And now, this vista lay in front of us, green and yellow grassy hills, long valleys, meadows of flowers stretching to higher mountains all the way to Siberia, some still snow-dusted despite the summer sun. Burkhan Khaldun stood further behind higher peaks. And that incredible sky. No wonder the Mongols worshipped it. We all lived once under this blue infinity. As we’d ridden northwards away from Ulan Bator, the city’s pollution had faded away long ago, the gray curse had lifted and my eyes had once again accustomed themselves to what they had evolved to do – see long distances, look for hares, deer, bears, navigate passes and ford streams, climb rocks, and watch falcons circle on thermals above. And over the last few days, we had done all these things.

The weary horseriders arrive in the ger to refresh themselves.

We had left our last camp around mid-morning, some hours ago. One half of the party broke away to ride into another valley out west, while Keith and I wanted to ride up and to the pass in the range of hills that separated the Gorkhi Terelj from the Khan Khentii. We skirted the granite mounds which punctuated the ends of this valley, forded a marshy grassland below the campsite, fought off the bloodsucking horseflies that made our horses’ lives miserable for a little while, eventually entering a tall forest of larch and birch. The ground began to rise as we entered a narrow rocky trail that started to wind uphill. Jerry, my sturdy, stubborn little Mongolian horse plodded on. This easy gait was infinitely more comfortable than the long trots of our previous days in the saddle. Keith Swenson, a taciturn, the 64 year-old owner of Stone Horse Expeditions along with his wife Sabine Schmidt, showed none of the wear I felt – my skin of my thighs were quite literally raw after 50 kilometers of riding and trotting in the wilderness. After a few days Keith opened up with wisecracks. “People ask what do you do, and I say I’m a rider”, says Keith, punning on his American accent. “They think I mean ‘writer’, “and they ask, what have you written?” “So I say, Blackie, Brownie, Ol Dirty Face…”, naming his horses.

These lands, however remote, are important.

Halfway up the trail was a shaman’s totem, poles placed on the ground to make a conical structure, wrapped with bits of fabric and ribbons. But at the base, and near a tree, we also found broken shards of glass, vodka bottles drunk and thrown by unknown travelers who no longer respected their old ways. We’d been riding for an hour or so and we stopped for a short break in the little opening in the forest. It was quite warm in the strong sun, perhaps 30C like every day of the summer, but cold at nights, often dipping below freezing.

These Mongolian horses play a huge role in making a trip across the steppe easy and fun for riders. Each horse has a unique personality. Big Dirty Face pictured here loves coffee and will drink it straight from your cup if you let him.

The Mongols invented the modern world*

The old ways are important. These lands, however remote, are important. The Mongols invented the modern world*. When, at the age of 55, Genghis Khan rode out into Asia and Europe, he created the largest empire known to humanity, as well as its first international postal system, and the largest free-flowing network of ideas, trade and culture. But today, Mongolia feels relatively isolated and far away, landlocked in the Eurasian continent. And getting there turned out to be a greater adventure than we’d expected. Instead of flying, we took the famous Trans-Mongolian from Beijing to Ulan Bator. At 11pm, the train pulled into the last station on the China-Mongolia border to change the undercarriage (the railway gauge is different in Mongolia). Three hours later we got back on the train and waited patiently for the Chinese guards to hand us all our passports back. Our intern’s passport was returned ripped from its cover. Before anyone could make a move, the train entered Mongolia… where the Mongolian border guard insisted that the 18-year old girl get off the train because she wasn’t allowed to enter on an invalid passport. Twenty minutes of arguing later, at nearly three am, we got off and watched the train leave without us.

Mongolian cuisine is typically meat and dairy products. Vegans beware.

Fifteen hours later, after many phone calls and emails to various embassies and important officials, she was finally allowed to enter the country. The Trans-Mongolian having long gone, we finagled an eight-hour taxi ride across the great steppes (on a second-hand car coming off a goods train) for $45. Welcome to Mongolia.


I did not have much riding experience, but I usually don’t let a little thing like that deter me from a trip. Keith, once also a climber, agreed that anyone up for adventure would be perfectly fine on a Mongolian horse. They were sturdy and forgiving. We all gathered at their staging camp an hour’s drive from Ulan Bator – a Singaporean couple on their second trip with Stone Horse, their friend from Hong Kong, a French diplomat from Swaziland, our team of three, Keith, Sabine and their crew – Nyamaa, Buyana and Jackson, the American intern. Soon, our team of 16 horses and Stinky the Mongolian Dog, a most genuine companion if there ever was one, were off towards the north. Day one went reasonably well, with a short four hour ride to our first campsite inside the Gorkhi Terelj National Park. The other experienced riders asked me various questions about how I felt and whether my horse had cantered or galloped, and I said I didn’t know, but the horse seemed to know what it was doing. Apparently, they have many gaits.

Nomads Yadmaa and Tavaasurn inside their summer ger, just outside Gorkhi Terelj.

I learned what that meant the next day.

The morning begins easily and we move along a gentle valley. At a stream, the horses bend to drink. They’re herd animals, comfortable only in their own numbers. Suddenly, there’s a commotion as one of the pack horses spooks and bolts. We’re unprepared, and good old Jerry decides to follow the bolting horse too, suddenly turning 180 degrees and galloping wildly. I have to pull firmly on the reins to stop him, while the teamsters have to get the other fella back. He’s bucking around wildly, his unshod feet stamping, his grass-eating brain telling him that that bee sting he felt on his hind was a wolf’s nip. Stinky ignores the commotion, running ahead happily back in his favorite hunting grounds, chasing ground squirrels to their holes. We continue, entering a forest and then riding uphill to a pass. On the other side, a wide open valley, and our first real gallop. Now I feel the sensation, riding with the animal as one, gently cycling my feet in the stirrups and gripping with my knees, all of it coming naturally to me and I urge Jerry on, on, on. Chhoo, Jerry, Chhoo! We stop at a babbling brook in the valley below where we wash our faces. Are we in paradise?

And then the long trot begins. For a horse, it’s the most comfortable way to move. But it’s bouncy. I try to “post” like all the real riders. Watching me grimace in agony, Keith smiled and said, “real men trot,” as he rode along comfortably with that rolling ankle movement to compensate for the horse’s bumpy ride. “Trotting is how the Mongols moved such vast distances. If you make him gallop, you won’t get very far, you’ll kill the horse”.

a melting pot of humanity and ethnicities

But Mongolia changed the course of human history since long before the great Khan and his riders, the ultimate, self-sufficient soldiers. Apart from the Mongols, it is also the original homeland of the Huns and the Turks. It is a melting pot of humanity and ethnicities, where thousands of years ago two language families met and separated – the Indo-Europeans and the Altaics – and possibly where the wild horse was first tamed, thereby changing the course of history. When men on horses first raced out of Central Asia, first ancient Mesopotamia, then Egypt fell. Europe’s original ‘mother culture’ and India’s Harappan civilization disappeared. Humans, moving incredible distances on horses, spread across Asia, from the western end of Europe to Korea, all the way down to Arabia and India, creating nearly all the cultures we know today. Some of the languages they spoke evolved today into English, and others evolved into Japanese, but some of their words have become so intermingled that it’s hard to distinguish which came from which. Hindi is an Indo-European language, but today the common Hindi word for “home” is “ghar” (from the Sanskrit “grhá”) which is nearly identical to the Altaic Mongolian’s word for home, ger.

When the Hunnu (“Huns”) fought the Chinese Hans, the clans that lost fled towards Europe, creating Hungary, as well as leading to the downfall of the Western Roman Empire. Centuries later, the Turkics originally from the Mongolian steppes came hurtling into Constantinople, wiping out the Eastern Roman Empire.

We ride through rocky hills and rock formations, up and down defiles, over passes and across shallow streams, through meadows of flowers and knee-high grass. We ride all day, and every evening set up our traveling camp like the Mongols of old. We sleep in modern-day lightweight tents, under trees or under the stars, breathing cold clear air, drinking from fresh rain-fed streams, eating atop rocks while falcons circle above and the horses graze.

The Stone Horse team from left to right – Jackson, Keith, Buyana, Nyamaa and Sabine.

The world has continued to change, but horses and men will forever ride together.

One day we stretched out the ride to reach a farther campsite, a Hunnu gravesite. We set up our tents atop 2000-year old graves, low mounds of stones marking the places where men, women, children and horses were laid to rest. “I believe that these people would have loved us to be here, living like they did,” said Keith. When they hear our horses, they’ll feel alive”. The next morning, I pulled my horse off to a side and to a vantage point to shoot the group riding further down the valley. Jerry stomped and neighed angrily as the herd passed him by, but I held him back. When the group disappeared into the distance, I quickly packed my camera gear back into the saddlebags. Then jumping back on, I let the horse fly as he wished, back to his herd. Jerry, the funny but tough little horse, galloped madly a mile north over the gently rising slope. Our hooves rang out in the valley, as two large round mounds, Hun graves, emerged in front on the mountainside. Neither Jerry nor I needed to veer, and we galloped directly over the centre of the mounds, the sound of our hoofbeats gladdening passed Hunnu souls. Their ancestors, our ancestors, had once tamed wild horses, and together changed the world. The world has continued to change, but horses and men will forever ride together.

Images by Madhuri chowdhury.


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