When 16-year-old Arjun Vajpayi met the rest of his 12-member Everest climbing team at the Everest base camp in Nepal, the reaction was unequivocal—“Are you sure you want to climb?” they asked him. “Why did your parents even send you here?”
After the team’s first practice climb from the base camp to Camp 1 through the treacherous Khumbhu Icefall, the tone had changed. “You are a tough man—you’ll surely make it,” they told Vajpayi, and his towering dream was on track.
On 22 May, at 6.33am, Nepal time, Vajpayi stood at the top of the south summit of the world’s highest peak—the youngest person to summit Everest (a few hours later, a 13-year-old boy from the US, Jordan Romero, usurped that title from Vajpayi).
Into thin air: Arjun Vajpayi on top of Everest.
Vajpayi discovered his love for mountains when he started trekking as part of a school group at 10, and by 13, he had completed the advanced mountaineering course at the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM), Uttarkashi. Vajpayi climbed just two peaks after that—DKD2 in the Garhwal Himalayas and Island Peak in Nepal—before following his quest for the Everest.
“I never really felt scared,” says Vajpayi. “The first time I had to go through the Khumbhu Icefall (a glacial stretch full of crevasses and seracs), I was a little anxious. But slowly I felt my worries going away and I started really enjoying myself.”
After almost 40 days spent acclimatizing by climbing from the base camp to higher camps and back in a graded fashion, Vajpayi and his team were ready for the summit push.
The final camp was set up at 8,000m, well into the “death zone”, where human bodies stop acclimatizing.
“No one can sleep at Camp 4 because of the altitude,” says Vajpayi, “but I was surprised that I got no headaches, and my appetite was fine. Even the Sherpas can’t eat at that height, and they were shocked to see me hogging.” Another surprise was in store: Vajpayi’s team set up a sat-phone call to his family in Noida. “I called my mom and told her that this is the highest call you’ll ever receive!”
During his summit attempt, Vajpayi was in stellar company. Apa Sherpa, who led the expedition, broke his own incredible record of summiting Everest 19 times on the climb, and was Vajpayi’s constant mentor.
“At about 10pm, Apa told us it was time for the summit push,” says Vajpayi.
Back at Vajpayi’s Noida home, a large number of relatives and friends had gathered for the momentous event. Priya Vajpayi, Arjun’s mother, had just received his call from 8,000m, and was trying hard not to worry. “Base camp kept us updated every few minutes about the summit team’s progress through Twitter,” she says.
Vajpayi, meanwhile, was about to experience the most thrilling climb of his life. “It was pitch dark, and the only thing you could see was a narrow space lit up by our head lamps,” he recalls. “There was ice everywhere, and snowfall. All you could do in that situation is hold on to the ‘fixed line’ and take one step at a time.”
Soon after trudging off for the summit, Vajpayi had his first major scare. He suddenly couldn’t breathe through his oxygen mask, and failed to identify the source of the problem. As the oxygen supply to his brain began depleting, he felt very tired, and he just sat down where he was. “I thought I was going to die,” says Vajpayi, “and then I saw Apa Sherpa walking towards me. He saw that my oxygen pipe had frozen, and poured some hot water from his thermos to get the supply going again. I could breathe again.”
When Vajpayi finally reached the south summit, he went straight to a small Buddha statue that is kept there. “I touched my head to the statue and felt relieved. This was it. But immediately afterwards I started feeling nervous about the descent, because most accidents happen while going down.”
But Vajpayi came down all the way to Camp 2 that day itself. Next day, he was calling home from the base camp.
The young climber’s next dream? To get to both the South Pole and the North Pole.