28 May 2018 17:59 IST

The Kanchenjunga story: Arjun Vajpai climbs the third highest peak

As for now, he can’t wait to be back home and eat ‘kadhi-chawal’ made by his mother.

Barely 1200 metres away from summiting Mt Kachenjunga, Arjun Vajpai’s entire journey as a mountaineer flashed right in front of his eyes.

He looked beyond the clouds at Mt Everest, Mt Makalu and Mt Lhotse, and recalled how far he had come.

Vajpai became the youngest mountaineer at 24 to have scaled six peaks above 8,000 metres after successfully climbing Kanchenjunga on May 20.

“I had this flash of memories of the journey I had started with the Everest in 2010. I wondered how far we had come... how far we had survived...how far we had dreamt, and how much dreams could motivate,” Vajpai remembered.

Kanchenjunga, the third highest peak in the world, that lies partly in Nepal and partly in the Indian state of Sikkim, was one of the most difficult ones to scale, he added.

The subzero temperature, uncertain weather, lack of supplementary oxygen were only some of the hurdles Vajpai and his team faced on their way.

“Despite years of training, planning and learning from earlier climbers, Kanchenjunga was technically the toughest in all six of my expeditions,” the Noida-based mountaineer said.

His past records include summiting Mount Everest in 2010 as a boy of 16, becoming the youngest mountaineer to be on Mt Lhotse in 2011, and successfully climbing Mount Makalu in 2016 after three earlier attempts, among many others.

But, the insatiable desire to climb mountains one after another was not born overnight.

Retired colonel and Arjun’s father Sanjiv Vajpai narrated how the young climber always found an unusual way of getting from one point to another since he was a child.

“He was never too good with studies, but was very athletic. If he had to go from one room to another, he would rather hop over chairs and sofas instead of walking straight,” the colonel quipped.

Vajpai said, as a child, he might not have been sure what he desired, but he certainly knew what he did not want -- academics.

“My way of learning and seeking knowledge was not the academic way. I was always an outdoor person,” he told PTI.

And, on one such outing in the Sahyadris, a 10-year-old Vajpai had an epiphanic moment as he saw the sun going down from the top of Hanuman Tekri hill.

He wanted to lead a life trekking and climbing mountains.

“My journey started from there,” he said.

After Vajpai, whose expedition was supported by Mountain Dew, and his team left from the camp 4 at 7,400 metres for the final summit push, which lasted about 12-13 hours, they climbed an endless steep that he likened with mountains drawn by kids as straight triangles.

“Kanchenjunga was like that in the final stretch... without any place to stop, rest or even to take out our backpacks for water bottles,” he said.

As the supplies ran out at the final summit ridge, every moment felt like the last one when.

“Some 20 people were hanging on to a thin 8mm rope. It was one of the most difficult challenges that we had faced. If one of them fell, it was not going to hold.

“And if you fall from there you will go down till camp 4. A straight drop of almost 1000 metres.”

As if that was not enough trouble, they were left without any supplementary oxygen right after reaching the summit, thanks to oxygen cylinders that either ran out or refused to work.

“That was the first time I felt my body was under attack. We didn’t know how we would come down from there.”

Vajpai explained that in situations where a mountaineer doesn’t use oxygen right from the beginning, the body gets acclimatised, but a sudden cut in air supply makes the head go blank.

“You hear a whistling in your ears...and you don’t know where you are stepping, where your hands are moving, when you come down on all four, and when you start crawling,” he said.

On his next trip that will possibly be to Shishapangma in Tibet next year, he plans to train himself to the point where he would not need supplementary oxygen.

But, not all was bleak and laden with fatal uncertainties.

The climbers also managed to steal some light moments when they cooked and shared stories.

At times Dutch climbers from another team cooked waffles in the morning and once Vajpai cooked chicken curry that was “burning while going in, burning while coming out“.

Climbing Kanchenjunga was more a mental challenge than a physical one, he said, and during stressful moments they found camaraderie in fellow climbers.

“We talked about our families, and discussed things which we would probably never discuss with anyone else, but we can discuss it with this other person in the tent because, they might not be with you the very next moment,” he said.

There is still time before Vajpai puts on his trekking shoes again, ready to take on yet another peak and get a step closer to becoming the youngest climber to scale all 14 peaks above 8,000 metres.

As for now, he can’t wait to be back home and eat ‘ kadhi-chawal’ made by his mother.

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