Arjun Vajpai was in the “death zone”.
It’s here, in the wastelands of rock and ice above 8,000m in the world’s highest mountains, that the human body stops adapting to the extremely low levels of atmospheric pressure and available oxygen, and begins, quickly and inevitably, the process of dying.
Vajpai was a little over 500m from the summit of Lhotse, at 8,516m the world’s fourth highest mountain, dragging himself up a vertical gully. With each step, he kicked the tip of his crampons (metal claws attached to boots) into the ice, and with increasing fatigue, drove his ice axe into the snow. His heels hung in thin air, his body weight entirely on his toes and his ice axe. Below him stretched a horrific 2km drop—“You don’t want to look,” Vajpai says. “I looked down once, and went no, no, no, no.” So Vajpai looked up, like he had done every day for more than a month now—up at the windswept, desolate summit, sucked on his oxygen tube, and climbed on.
After three-and-a-half hours, he was standing on the summit of Lhotse, the youngest climber ever to do so. It was 20 May 2011. From the top, a mesmeric view: some of the world’s highest peaks, all framed under an improbably blue sky, in a 360-degree sweep (there are only 14 peaks in the world, including Lhotse, that rise above 8,000m).
“There was Makalu behind me, Manaslu further behind,” Vajpai says. “Everest on one side and Cho Oyu on the other, K2 up ahead…and that’s when it occurred to me—I have to climb them all!”
Vajpai is 18, with a mop of tousled hair, an easy smile and the hint of a swagger. In 2010, he became the youngest Indian to summit Everest which, at 8,848m, is the world’s highest mountain. In 2011, just four months after summiting Lhotse, he climbed Manaslu, 8,156m, becoming the youngest person in the world to climb three peaks over 8,000m. Vajpai is moving mountains to become the first Indian to climb all 14 “8,000ers”, as they are popularly known. Only 27 climbers have done it. As you read this article, Vajpai is attempting something only a handful of climbers have ever tried: climbing two 8,000ers, Cho Oyu (8,188m) and Shishapangma (8,027m) in Tibet, back to back.
Beyond the gloss of Vajpai’s remarkable personal achievements, there is the hope of a deeper impact—of bringing mountaineering into the mainstream in India, something that generations of gifted climbers before him have failed to do. Companies want to sponsor his climbs, he is becoming a regular speaker at business and media conclaves, and his climbs are being widely covered by newspapers and television channels. Today, the general public can name five Indian mountaineers with as much ease as it can name five modern poets.
Tenzing Norgay, who first summited Everest along with Edmund Hillary in 1953, remains the most famous “Indian” mountaineer even though he was actually born and raised in Nepal before settling in India. As the precocious and glamorous young face of Indian climbing, Vajpai could change this.
Climber Arjun Vajpai. Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Where are the climbers?
Despite India being home to hundreds of Himalayan peaks, no Indian features on any list of great climbing feats. Mountaineering in India remains a fledgling affair, marked by the lack of pioneering ascents, and the pervasive belief that Indians are just not cut out for such a high-risk endeavour. But guts and grit are not in short supply here.
Take Basanta Singha Roy, 50, for example. Lean, intense and sporting a carefully groomed salt-and-pepper beard, the climber from West Bengal has been tackling some of the toughest technical climbs in India for over two decades. Roy, who works for Punjab National Bank, his climbing partner Debasish Biswas, 41, who works for the income-tax department, and sherpas Pasang Phutar and Pemba Chuti form the most formidable climbing team in India right now. Though they have climbed two 8,000ers, Everest in 2010 and Kanchenjunga (8,586m) in 2011, their most significant achievement to date has been the successful ascent of Thalay Sagar, a 6,904m peak near Gangotri in Uttarakhand.
“I had been eyeing Thalay Sagar since 1999,” Roy says. “That year we were climbing Bhrigupanth, which is right next to Thalay, when we saw a Russian team on a vertical bivouac (a makeshift sleeping/resting arrangement on a rock face) high up the mountain. I looked up at them and thought, ‘We Indians can’t do this, this is not for us.’”
But the thought rankled. It was exactly what Roy was used to hearing from both climbers and non-climbers in India. In 2005, he found the courage to climb Thalay while negotiating a deadly 200ft-long ice wall prone to avalanches, on his way to becoming the first Indian civilian climber to summit Shivling (6,543m). From the top of the mountain, Thalay looked enticingly close. “Can we do that?” Roy asked Pasang. “Yes,” he replied. “People thought I was too ambitious,” Roy says. “They would say, ‘Of course, they will go to Thalay, but let’s see how many of them come back.’”
Thalay Sagar, which rises like an icy, jagged knife near Gaumukh, was first climbed as late as 1979 by an American team. Since then, the peak has continued to be a proving ground for elite climbers, and till 2007, had seen 75 foreign expeditions, only 15 of which were successful. No Indian team had attempted the mountain before Roy’s 2008 expedition. Outside the Mountaineers’ Association of Krishnanagar (MAK), the club that backs Roy’s climbs, the successful summiting didn’t create any ripples. “It’s partly our own fault,” Roy says. “We are incapable of promoting ourselves properly. If a foreign expedition climbs Thalay, there will be a flood of articles, books and documentaries.”
Right now, Roy, who has spent his single annual holiday on climbing expeditions every year since 1990, is attempting Annapurna I, 8,091m, in Nepal, with his team. If they are successful, they will be the first civilian expedition from India to climb the mountain that has the highest fatality rates among all the 8,000ers.
The Garhwal Himalayas. Courtesy Indian Mountaineering Foundation
The army’s playground
In 2002, Chhering Norbu Bodh, 42, a subedar major in the Indian Army, became the first Indian to summit Annapurna I. In 2003, he was the first Indian to climb Lhotse. He followed this in 2009 by summiting Dhaulagiri (8,167m), his sixth 8,000er. He had earlier climbed Everest, Kanchenjunga and Cho Oyu.
“When I first saw the list of people who have climbed 8,000ers, and there were no Indians in it, I was disheartened,” Vajpai says. “Later, I found out that someone called Bodh has done six of them, and I said, ‘Who’s this man?’”
Bodh is an instructor at the army’s High Altitude Warfare School in Srinagar. When he was conscripted in 1988, he had no idea that he would spend more time with crampons and ice axes than with guns and combat boots. He comes from a village called Chobran, with a population of around 30 (and not a single phone), high in the mountainous Spiti region in Himachal Pradesh and—like many local people living in India’s mountains—he is a natural on the slopes.
Like Vajpai, Bodh too wants to be the first Indian to summit all the 8,000ers.
“I can’t decide when I’ll go on my next climb, because that’s up to the army,” Bodh says. “But I want to finish at least one more peak before I retire next year.”
The Armed Forces are intimately linked with the story of Indian mountaineering. Ever since they made the first successful Indian ascent of Everest in 1965, the Armed Forces have launched at least two major expeditions a year. They don’t lack funding for their expeditions, which often involve a large number of climbers. The Annapurna expedition, where Bodh and three others of his party reached the top, had 65 members, plus sherpas—12,000kg of supplies were used during the climb. In comparison, Vajpai and Roy both climb with small teams of four-five members.
The army’s climbing ethos, though, is far removed from the free-spirited adventure mountaineering is supposed to be. “We do it as part of our duty,” says retired Colonel H.S. Chauhan, a veteran of multiple army climbing expeditions, and now the president of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF). “You are called to volunteer for the climb, and you respond because it’s part of your job.” This approach to mountaineering is best exemplified by the story of the late Colonel Auteur Singh Cheema, who in 1965 became the first summiteer of the army’s Everest expedition. Cheema was not a mountaineer before he climbed Everest, nor did he continue climbing after it.
Vajpai unfurls the Indian flag atop Lhotse. Courtesy Arjun Vajpai
It’s no surprise then, that despite his feats, Bodh remains unknown.
Summits and headlines
This is where Vajpai scores over most mountaineers in India. He has the perfect public relations machinery behind him—his parents.
As a 16-year-old in 2010, when Vajpai first came up with the plan for climbing Everest, he needed Rs. 22 lakh for the expedition.
Despite knocking on many doors—relatives, corporate houses, the sports ministry—no help was forthcoming. Vajpai’s family finally used their own savings to fund his climb and turned their attention to creating a media buzz around him. “At first, no one was interested,” says Priya Vajpai, Arjun’s mother. “All the reporters said, ‘Let him summit first, and then we’ll cover him.’”
After his successful attempt, the media swamped the Vajpai family. Priya Vajpai used this experience as a stepping stone, made an exhaustive list of contacts of reporters, and for Vajpai’s subsequent climbs, she began sending out press releases, photographs and climbing information to everyone on the list.
Priya Vajpai’s zeal, though, is tempered by a fear she keeps quietly hidden from journalists. “Before Everest, since there is no climbing history in our family, we really had no idea about the dangers of mountaineering,” she says. “Then we realized that when he is climbing, if he takes one wrong step, it could be the end of his life.”
Vajpai’s leap into serious mountaineering happened quite suddenly. He enjoyed trekking as a teenager, and decided to try out the basic training course at the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering in Uttarkashi. He did well, and that spurred him to do the advanced course. Again, he was one of the best in his class. That’s when the idea of Everest struck him. Summiting the world’s highest peak to kick-start a career in mountaineering may surprise non-climbers, but it was an astute move.
Basanta Singha Roy (left) and Debasish Biswas on the summit of Kanchenjunga. Courtesy Basanta Singha Roy
Till the 1970s, Everest was the forte of elite mountaineers. Now it’s a “tourist” peak—and adventure companies take hundreds of people, both climbers and non-climbers, up on guided expeditions to the summit. Such is the traffic on Everest that on one single day in May 2010, a record 169 people summited the mountain. Compare that to the total of 302 people who summited K2 (at 8,611m, the world’s second highest mountain) from 1954 till 2010. Yet, summiting Everest immediately brings you to public attention and for Vajpai, it opened the door for sponsorships. All his subsequent climbs were funded by business houses like Essar Group, Aditya Birla Group, and his alma mater, Ryan International School.
How climbing lost its way
There was a brief period in the 1950s when there was a zest and zeal in Indian climbing that is only now beginning to seep back in. Gurdial Singh, 88, was part of that beginning. He led India’s first mountaineering expedition—summiting Trisul (7,120m), a peak at the edge of the Nanda Devi National Park, in 1951. Age seems to have had little effect on his sharpness—he holds himself ramrod straight, recites the heights of mountains and their first-ascent dates with ease. He speaks in a clipped, stentorian growl and blames “overprotective Indian parents” for the lack of ambitious climbs by Indians.
“I was introduced to the mountains when I joined Doon School (staff) in 1945,” says Singh, who now lives in Nagpur, Maharashtra. “There were three teachers in the school, John Martyn, Jack Gibson and R.L. Holdsworth, who were Alpinists. Every chance they got, they would take students out for a climb or a trek to nearby mountains.” Holdsworth was already a pioneering mountaineer, having climbed Kamet (7,756m) in Uttarakhand in 1931 with the legendary British climbers and explorers Frank Smythe and Eric Shipton—at that time the highest peak ever summited. In close contact with the Alpinist-masters trio, Singh was sold on the mountains.
By 1946, Nandu Jayal, a student, also hooked on the mountains through the Alpine masters and Singh, had become an integral part of the “Doon School climbing team”, along with a young sherpa who was quickly making his reputation as a wizard on the mountains—Tenzing Norgay. Till the early 1950s, Singh and Jayal were obsessively heading up peaks in Garhwal, making heroic first Indian ascents of various peaks, including Kamet in 1955.
“But the real impetus came when Tenzing climbed Everest in 1953,” Singh says. “It is hard for me to describe just how visceral the impact of that climb was.” Jawaharlal Nehru, then prime minister, ordered that a climbing institute be set up, and by the next year, the Himalayan Institute of Mountaineering was up and running in Darjeeling with Jayal as principal, and Norgay as chief instructor. In 1958, at the age of 32, Jayal died of altitude sickness at 6,340m while climbing Cho Oyu, on the first Indian expedition to an 8,000er.
Major HPS Ahluwalia on top of Everest in 1965. Courtesy Indian Mountaineering Foundation
Cho Oyu was summited, however, and the attention naturally turned to Everest. In 1960, the first Indian Everest expedition was beaten back by awful weather, and the pattern was repeated in 1962. Three years later, in 1965, Captain Mohan Singh Kohli, who was part of both the earlier expeditions to Everest, led India’s first successful summit of the world’s tallest peak (though he did not summit himself).
It was the beginning of the end.
“We used to climb for the fun of it,” 81-year-old Kohli says, “but Everest became a matter of national pride.” Harish Kapadia, 66, India’s most celebrated explorer and mountaineer, and an avid chronicler of mountaineering in the country, says this nationalistic attitude meant that climbing quickly became an institutionalized pursuit, monopolized by the Armed Forces. “The spirit of Gurdial Singh—just four or five friends going out looking for adventure—that did not go forward,” Kapadia says.
What’s stopping us?
Mountaineering in India faces a wide range of impediments. The biggest one, according to Sir Chris Bonington, a British climber and one of the world’s most eminent mountaineers, is the way climbing is regulated in the country. To attempt a peak in India, you require permits from the IMF. If the peak you want to climb falls within the “inner line”, or the border areas, then the permit application has to go through a long-drawn bureaucratic process involving the IMF, the Armed Forces, the home and defence ministries, and the state government under which the peak falls. Since most of the Himalayan range is in the border areas, this puts hundreds of mountains mostly off-limits to civilian climbers.
“I’ve always been able to climb the mountain I’ve wanted in India, but often with a lot of hassles,” says Bonington, 77, who has made numerous first ascents in India. “Climbing is an individualistic thing, it comes from the heart, it involves people who enjoy taking risks and love stretching the limits. Regulatory bodies tend not to like any of that. In the Alpine countries, there is no regulation whatsoever.”
Throughout the 1990s, Bonington and Kapadia explored unknown and uncharted valleys and peaks in the Indian Himalayas. They did it all without GPS systems or satellite phones, which government regulations ban you from carrying into the Indian mountains. “These are ridiculous and outdated rules,” Kapadia says. “If you have an accident or an emergency in the mountains, there is no way to ask for help. You can’t get proper maps of the mountain areas because they too are restricted by the government, which makes no sense. Who will go and climb without maps and a sat-phone? It’s almost suicidal!”
“That’s why foreign climbers also don’t want to climb in India,” Chauhan says. “But the IMF has been trying to convince the government to change these policies.”
Members of the failed 1962 Indian Everest expedition. Courtesy Indian Mountaineering Foundation
The next peak
Can the precocious and record-chasing climbs of Vajpai and the hard-edged, boundary-defying ascents of Roy inject new life into mountaineering in India? Can Bodh shake off obscurity and become the first Indian to summit all the 8,000ers?
“The base is already there,” Kohli says. “There are thousands of men and women in India who are climbers, much more than we’ve ever had. Vajpai is bringing climbing to the public eye, Roy is a fearless climber who is already moulding the next generation. So, like cricket, I feel a critical point will be reached, and out of that, strong climbers will inevitably come out.”
Roy believes it is crucial that good Indian mountaineers shift their focus from commonly climbed peaks and routes to “virgin” peaks. “There is a lot of love for the mountains—for example, West Bengal has over a hundred mountaineering clubs, but there is no real drive to climb challenging peaks,” Roy says. “After my Thalay expedition, at least three-four teams have tried it. Why didn’t anyone do it before?”
Despite his disappointment, the fact that Thalay and Shivling have been attempted by civilians after Roy’s success points to the fact that he is breaking down barriers for climbers in India.
For Vajpai too, the next logical step is to target unexplored peaks. “In a couple of years, once I have enough experience, I’ve got to go to the virgin mountains,” he says. “There are more than 400 such peaks in India. If you have to be a climber in its absolute sense, then you have to open new routes.”
In many ways, he is already leading the way.