Photographs: Arun Vajpai
It took two months, scores of treacherous treks and umpteen anxious moments for 16-year-old Arjun Vajpai to scale the highest peak in the World.
Yet the youngest Indian ever to scale Mount Everest is not satisfied. His dreams after the summit have become as high as the summit itself.
In On Top of the World: My Everest Adventure, a book he authored with Anu Kumar, Arjun offers "an unforgettable story of inspiration, fortitude and courage; of having a seemingly impossible dream and daring to chase it."
Here, we produce excerpts from Arjun's book in which he talks about the 'right' age to scale the Everest, the challenges he encountered on the way to the summit and the thrill and exhilaration of standing atop a peak, 8,848 metre above the sea level.
The 'Right' Age
Both Ang Sherpa and Dawa Steven Sherpa were very encouraging but they were cautious about my age. They valued the experience I had gathered, the skills I had picked and the good recommendations I had. Due to the immense risks involved, expedition leaders usually refuse to take chances with a novice. They will only organize Everest expeditions for people who have already scaled an 8,000 metre peak elsewhere.
I was then sixteen years and some months old. Dawa Steven warned my parents he would be cautious and would take one step at a time.
There are many opinions on the right age to undertake such an expedition. Depending on your age, people will insist there are some things you can do, other things you can't. At sixteen one is too young, at sixty too old.
I was sixteen, and I felt just right. Nepal does not allow climbers who are less than sixteen years old to climb Everest. As for me, my age was never a constraint.
The ideal age to climb, according to most experts, is thirty or thirty-five. But then it is really never too late or too early to do anything. You can accomplish everything you want as long as you put some work into it.
Climbing the Everest needs almost two years of physical preparation before you are ready to take it on, so it's more a matter of how fit a climber is than his age.
Min Bahadur Sherchan was seventy-six when in 2008 he became the oldest person to climb Mount Everest.
For him, it was the realization of a half-century-old dream. At the age of seventy two he began his fitness preparation in earnest, traversing Nepal north to south and east to west on foot. At a medical check up doctors told him he would have health problems if he went above 3,000 metre.
To prove the doctors wrong he climbed the little-known 5,844 metre (19,173 feet) Nayakhanga peak in central Nepal at the age of seventy-four.
Excerpted with permission from Penguin Books India from On Top of the World: My Everest Adventure by Arjun Vajpai with Anu Kumar.
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My Everest Adventure: I was 16 and I felt just right
On the Way to the Summit
In the distance not too far away, we could see a ladder of light also moving upwards. It was the flickering light from the head torches of other climbers. Otherwise it was completely silent. Nobody was talking. We kept climbing, awaiting the first ray of dawn.
It was desperately cold, and the ground at parts very icy. The ice axe and the crampons cut deep into the ice.
A cold, white moon rose from below, but we hardly glanced at it or even at the bright twinkle of the universe above. The adrenaline keeps your body moving. Apa's knowledge and experience against helped our team avoid the traffic jam and the big line of climbers as we made our way up. We were ahead of every other team that night.
Daju and me were among the first fifteen climbers. After some time I looked back and saw the big trail of head lamps behind us.
I never thought I could go so slow. I stopped to rest after every two steps. I had to pace my body so that I didn't tire easily and at the same time not let my body cool down. The winds were also terrible! It seemed someone was pulling me form behind all the time and left me aching all over.
We kicked our feet and wriggled our toes repeatedly to beat the frostbite. Soon we were at the Balcony, at 8,443 metre (27,700 feet), to have a short rest and change to a new oxygen bottle. This is the only place where you can actually sit and rest comfortably.
Daju and I drank some hot water, rested a bit before we resumed the climb again. It was a very steep climb from now on. At many places we had to move over small rock patches, which was tiring at this altitude. I don't know how my body responded or moved. I saw the big line of climbers following us and didn't want to get stuck in the traffic with so many climbers on the same line.
Then I realized I was becoming weaker and weaker with every step I took. The same thing had happened as before -- my mask had frozen up again! At least I had learnt from seeing Daju clear my mask the last time, and despite my growing exhaustion I took out my mask and blew through it, and then moved on.
In these difficult conditions, you have to start playing games with your mind. The Everest not only tests your physical fitness but also how tough you are mentally. After walking for more than five hours, the pain and the exhaustion can be unbearable. Taking the next step seems nearly impossible. So you carry on by giving your mind short-term goals; such as will I be able to take the next three steps? Or, okay here we go, 1...2..3 steps more, yes I did it.
You egg yourself on constantly. Every word I spoke to myself fuelled me to take one more step, and in this way, I advanced one step at a time.
My Everest Adventure: I was 16 and I felt just right
22 May: On Top of the World
I finally reached the summit at 6.18 am on 22 May, a day I shall never forget. My dream had come true. I was crying like a baby and also laughing. Daju was just behind me and as soon as he saw me on the summit he lowered his mask and cheered for me, still about 20 feet away from the summit. The shout must have resounded in the distance. Then he too joined me there.
I still remember every second I spent there. I was finally on the top of the world!
There was a Buddha statue there and I headed straight towards it and bowed low. As I raised my head, I saw the most wondrous sight ever: the sunrise! Even the sun was below me, and as it slowly rose, every mountain peak covered by the darkness slowly began glowing like gold.
Nothing obstructed my view across miles and miles. I could see the curvature of the earth's surface.
We briefly enjoyed the view from 8,848 metre (29,028 feet), as we knew we couldn't stay too long. From here, we could see across the Tibetan Plateau, towards the other Himalayan peaks of Cho Oyu, Makalu and Kanchenjunga. It's a wonderful 360 degree view.
I remembered everyone, every person who had helped me achieve this dream.
It was so cold I couldn't even get goose pimples; besides my skin was also stiff. I was hoping there was some way I could call up home. I was among the first fifteen climbers to the summit that day, the only Indian flag on the summit.
I had my oxygen mask on so I started to sing the national anthem in my mind! Daju too sang some Tibetan prayers, where he thanked the mountain goddess for a safe climb. I quickly emptied my water bottle and filled it with the snow on the summit and picked up a small piece of rock as a memory to last me a lifetime!
But when the time came to take pictures, another tragedy happened. I switched on my camera and all I read was the message, 'battery exhausted'. It was too ironic a situation.
Because of the low temperature and the pressure, the battery had frozen. I quickly took off my gloves and took out the battery from my camera and rubbed it for a few moments with my hands.
Fortunately, it worked for a few seconds and I was lucky enough to get some summit pictures.