At the age of 16 years, 11 months and 18 days, Arjun Vajpai had scaled not just his Everest but the Everest. Standing on top of the summit of the world’s highest mountain, at 6:18 am in May 2010, the mountaineer felt the warm glow of the sun, could see the curvature of the Earth and spotted some other Himalayan eight-thousanders, standing cold and aloof.
“I realised I was not done yet,” Vajpai says. The mountains had him under their spell. For over ten years now, Vajpai has been pursuing his quest of scaling the 14 highest mountains in the world—all 8,000m and above—each of which lie in the Himalaya and the Karakoram ranges. He has summited a total of six so far. Later this month, the 28-year-old will leave for an expedition to ascend Annapurna I and Dhaulagiri in the Nepal Himalaya.
This will be Vajpai’s second attempt on Annapurna I. He had tried to ascend the peak in the in 2019, without supplementary oxygen, and even shared the base camp with Nims dai Purja —the protagonist of the stirring Netflix documentary 14 Peaks. But Vajpai’s team had to turn back after climbing to nearly 7,400m, almost 600m from the summit, due to poor weather conditions. Of all the eight-thousanders, Annapurna I has a reputation for being one of the most treacherous, second just to K2. There is one death for every three summiters, putting its fatality rate at an alarming 32 per cent.
“If you look at the statistics, Annapurna’s mortality rate is higher than even K2,” says Vajpai, who is in the final leg of preparation. “That is a little frightening. But I never really pay a lot of attention to these stats.” After all, those like Vajpai go to the mountains to feel more alive, to breathe in the rarefied air. There’s a reason why these eight-thousanders are the Holy Grail for mountaineers. Science puts the human threshold at about 8,000m above sea level. Above that lies the ‘death zone.’ At this altitude, there just isn’t enough oxygen available to sustain human life for more than a few hours.
The first attempt on an 8,000m peak, Nanga Parbat, was made in 1895. The first successful attempt was only in 1950 during the French Annapurna I expedition, made famous by summiteer Maurice Herzog’s classic book, Annapurna. Less than 40 people have been to the top of all the 14 peaks. None of them are Indian.
Project 8k is Vajpai’s attempt of becoming not just the first Indian, but also the youngest ever, to achieve that feat. Born into an army family, Arjun was brought up in Noida, a few hours’ drive from the foothills of the Himalaya. And active child, Vajpai was drawn to mountaineering because it made him confront an adversary like no other. “In all the other sports, you take on a person. Here you are up against Mother Nature,” he says. “So you have to start by surrendering. Then gather the resources that you have.When you talk about the 8,000m mountains, they have some of the harshest conditions: temperatures vary from -60 degree Celsius at night to +50 degree Celsius inside a tent in the morning. Things change around you. People you are with start changing due to the lack of oxygen, altitude.”
Having been on more than 13 expeditions, Vajpai says there have not been more than two where everyone who started has returned. “That’s the cost of exploration. Being out there, when you are above 8,000m, the margin of error is so low,” he says. “The mountain does not know the difference between a big mistake and a small mistake. I have been on both sides of the line: I have been left behind and have left someone behind to save as many lives as possible.”
During his first attempt on Cho Oyu in Nepal in 2011, Vajpai was stuck in a snowstorm and suffered a paralytic attack. He was eventually air-lifted, but the left side of his body was paralysed for the next six months. Having started from scratch, he built himself up again to take on the challenge. Vajpai finally scaled Cho Oyu in 2016. “We have had several issues along the course of the 13 expeditions,” he says. “When I started climbing Makalu I was 19 years old. When I finally summited it, I was 23. It took us four long years. Each year I would prepare better and better. Each year the mountain would surprise us with new ways of telling us that we were not deserving enough.”
In India, adventure sports are on the rise. Vajpai believes there are developments on the administrative front. There are new climbing walls and adventure sports centres being set up. Corporates are showing a lot more interest. “Adventure was always sold in India with a foreigner tag to it, right from Steve Irwin to Bear Grylls,” he says. “Brands in India are now open to having someone of their own skin colour to represent India in adventure activities.”
But even an established climber like Vajpai, who also has a degree of celebrity, as well as resources, doesn’t have access to the best facilities to take big Himalayan climbing. Most Indian mountaineers get by with even less. “Unfortunately, high-altitude training and doing smaller expeditions is a luxury for a sport like mountaineering in India,” says Vajpai, whose expeditions to Annapurna I and Dhaulagiri are being crowd-funded.
“My generation of mountaineers has not had access to these luxuries, but I hope that it will not happen to the coming generation. There is a lot more awareness among climbers. I have never done any kind of extreme training. I cycle from Noida to Greater Noida, try and simulate the same kind of stress that the body goes through. It’s never the same but that’s the best we have got.”
A big asset, he believes, will be his experience. “After 11 years of climbing 8,000m mountains, I am ready almost any time of the year to climb. I am just in that mental zone,” he says. “The more time you spend on the mountains, the more exposure you have at such high altitudes, the stronger your body gets. You can train for it to a certain extent. The endurance and mental fitness for this only comes with time.”
Having waited for almost three years to return to Annapurna, Vajpai is excited about the next few months and shares the tentative schedule. “We are leaving around March 25, for Annapurna,” he says.“We’ll be at the base camp by March 29-30. It is an early mountain. What I mean is it has an early summit comparatively. Everest at Lhotse are usually summited during the end of May. But Annapurna has a crazy weather system. We did our research and realized that it has to be summited before the April 15-20. So hopefully we will be able to summit some time before April 15. From the base camp of Annapurna, we will be heading directly to base camp of Dhaulagiri. That, we will try to summit somewhere between 10-20 May.” That is the plan, he adds hopefully. After all, there are no guarantees on the mountain.
Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sportswriter based in Mumbai.