'I don't have a plan B. Climbing mountains is my life'

You climbed Mt Everest at 16! Were you born with an extra pair of lungs or something?
That’s funny! But I did play volleyball and football at the district level as a kid and I am a student of karate and taekwando. I think my stamina comes from being a sporty kid. But it was always about climbing, ever since I went on a trek at the age of 10. By the time I was 14, I had convinced my parents to enroll me at the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering in Darjeeling. I knew then that this was my true calling.

When did you graduate to climbing more than just hills?
I was 15 when I faced my first tough test in 2009. I went on an expedition and reached the summit of DKD2, an 18,000-feet high Himalayan peak. I was short of oxygen and struggled towards the end but somehow pulled through. I then followed it up by reaching the top of the Island Peaks (21,000 feet) a few months later. Since then, there has been no looking back.

But Mt Everest at 16? Isn’t that way too young an age?
There is a rule now that you have to be at least 16 to be eligible for high altitude mountaineering. So my record can still be broken. In 2010, my trainers were confident enough to allow me to be part of an Everest expedition. This is the ultimate dream for any mountaineer. Of course, convincing my parents was a tougher challenge. Finally, I managed to make them understand that crossing a street in Delhi was probably tougher than climbing Mount Everest.

And your thoughts when you reached the top of the world?
Standing atop the summit of the world’s highest peak is a feeling that I cannot describe. It was early morning in May 2010 when we reached the summit. I was 16 years, 11 months and 18 days old — by far the youngest Indian to have reached the top of the world. Since then I have created world records, becoming the youngest to summit Lhotse and
Mt Manaslu.

Not too many parents would dare to let a teenaged son face such dangers…
Yes, honestly, I have been extremely fortunate to have parents who supported me all through, even when they were obviously worried sick about my safety. I call my mother (Priya Vajpai) a tiger because of the courage she has shown. My father’s (Captain Sanjeev Vajpai) old army colleagues
too encouraged me. In fact, one of his friends, Col JS Dhillon, became
my mentor.

On a different note, even though we have the highest peaks in the region, India is not known for its mountaineers…
Worldwide mountaineering has undergone a sea change. Techniques and the general attitude towards the sport has changed. But not so in India. When you look at the list of the world’s tallest peaks, you notice that almost all the 14 peaks of over 8000 metres are in this region. Yet in the list of 28 people who have scaled all these peaks, there are no Indian names. How sad is that? The maximum an Indian climber has done is six of these peaks.

Why is this so?
Most people here don’t know a lot about mountaineering. Techniques have not been modified either. We do not even have a system of introducing mountaineering at the school level. Forget mountaineering as a serious sport, it is just such a great way to keep in shape.

Are things changing now?
Thankfully, the corporate sector is now much more aware and keen to fund mountaineering expeditions, and also to train and promote the sport. A lot more needs to come from governments though. The UP government has been superb in this regard and done a lot to promote mountaineering.

Accidents, even deaths, are not uncommon during expeditions. Does that worry you?
No, it doesn’t. I have gone on successful expeditions to the top of Lhotse (May 2011) and Mt Manaslu (October 2011). Both are over 8000-metres high. I am confident I will conquer all the 14 peaks one day. Of course I realise mountaineering is fraught with risks. So many people perish on the way and many others lose limbs. But such thoughts will never deter me. Life would be so boring if it were predictable.

What is the biggest challenge for a high-altitude climber?
There are so many challenges and dangers when you climb anything above 22,000 feet or 7,000 metres. It’s tougher if you are 16 or 17 as adults cope better at high altitude compared to teenagers. After 25,000 feet, for instance, the motor functions and the body in general start to deteriorate. Water starts seeping into the lungs. From this stage onwards, the faster one reaches the peak and then descends, the better. How to control your body from shutting down is every mountaineer’s biggest challenge.

What has mountaineering taught you about life?
Mountaineering teaches you about teamwork, about leadership and about being honest to yourself above all else. It has taught me to have the courage to take the next step, without fear.

Don’t you ever want to do ‘normal’ stuff?
I have a dream. I won’t rest till I have reached the summit of all the 14 peaks that lie above the 8000-metre mark. I have age on my side. Most climbers make their high altitude debut in the late 20s. And no, I don’t have a plan B. Climbing mountains is my life. I am doing a BSC in marketing from Delhi University. But that’s because I want to use my knowledge to market the sport better to the 700-million strong Indian youth brigade. But my life is dedicated to climbing mountains. I will pause only once I have reached the summit of all 14 peaks.

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