Mountaineers do what they do for very different reasons. Italian legend Reinhold Messner, the first person to climb all fourteen of the world’s 8,000m mountains, points to something he calls `overview’ to explain the allure. “It is not the mountain but the view from the peak that suggests increased awareness,” he writes in the book Mountains from Space. Then there is late Indian climbing icon Malli Mastan Babu. The Nellore-born IIT and IIM alumnus-turned mountaineer created a world record at age 32 in 2006, when he climbed the highest peaks in all the seven continents of the world (called the Seven Summits). He achieved this feat in 172 days, the shortest span of time taken by anyone. He said he first climbed Mt Everest to fulfil the dream of his schoolmate, who passed away while serving in the army.
“Love (of the mountains) does not have to make sense,” is Noida-based mountaineer Arjun Vajpai’s take on his obsession with climbing the world’s tallest peaks. He made history back in 2010 when he climbed Everest at the age of 16. Now 24, he is hoping to be the youngest to summit all the fourteen 8000 metres-plus mountains in the world, by climbing each of them by the age of 30. In May this year, he conquered the sixth peak on his list, Kanchenjunga, on his second attempt. Located between Nepal and Sikkim, the third highest mountain in the world (8,586m) is always a difficult climb, and Vajpai admits it to be one of the toughest of his career.
Climbing all the 14 eight-thousanders, as they are known, is the holy grail of mountaineering in the world. Only 40 people are believed to have achieved the feat, but the number of verified ascents though is less than half that number, according to the authoritative Himalayan Database.
What does it take to climb the world’s tallest peaks? One way to gauge it is by recalling all of one’s most treacherous life experiences and multiply them by a thousand. The towering blocks of ice (seracs) on these mountains can crush climbers in a matter of seconds. Avalanches can obliterate entire expeditions. Then there are spider webs of ice crevasses that can envelop humans whole, and hurricane-force winds, which can blow groups away.
As Vajpai tells us, there is less than half as much oxygen as sea level at 5,000m. By 6,000m, the air is so thin that full acclimatisation is no longer possible. No matter how fit you are, survival chances plummet, and clear thought becomes difficult at 7,000m. What climbers refer to as the ‘death zone’ arrives by 8,000m, where even the experts can survive for a few days at best.
“The whole vision by being able to climb all fourteen peaks before turning 30 is to represent an idea,” he responds to the question ‘Why?’ “As an Indian, coming from Noida, I have grown up in what can be called an actual hood. You have guns being pulled out at the drop of a hat; you have to watch what you are speaking; you have to be careful while expressing an opinion even if you know something is wrong. However, with my vision, I want to tell people it does not matter where you are from, or how you look, or what you say, or what you have or what you do not. What matters is what you are doing with your time now. Anything is possible.”
Vajpai now has his eyes set on April 1, 2019, when he challenges the mighty Annapurna – the world’s 10th largest mountain at 8091m. This mountain in Nepal has the highest fatality rate of all the 14 eight-thousanders: as of March 2012, there have been 52 deaths during ascents, 191 successful ascents, and nine deaths upon descent. Its ratio of 34 deaths per 100 safe returns is followed by 29 for K2, which Vajpai hopes to take on after Annapurna. No Indian has been able to successfully climb K2, mainly because it is located in Pakistan.
Of course, Vajpai himself is no stranger to accidents on the mountain. He was paralysed for a short while during his 2012 attempt to climb Cho Oyu, the sixth highest mountain. So, how does he overcome this fear and endless plausibility of death? “What other people consider fear is not fear according to me,” he says. “Remember those nightmares about falling from a building? You wake up mid-sleep, palpitating and with your heart throbbing. Imagine this feeling constantly when you’re awake. When you start getting these moments in real life, they become your oxygen. It’s like something releases from within. I’m addicted to this feeling. Fear does not exist for me, it’s all just calmness.”
From battling asthma to getting paralysed and watching his friends die on expeditions, Vajpai doesn’t want to stress on the tough times he’s gone through physically. He thinks enough people have been through worse. The darkest memories in his head are about three failed attempts to summit Makalu, the fifth highest mountain in the world.“After the third time, I had absolutely nothing to go back to as a non-college going kid. Somewhere in the hustle of resuming a normal life though, I realised the love I have for mountains, and also that there was no reason for me to continue doing anything else. From that moment I decided that this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.” His never-give-up attitude finally bore results in 2016 when he conquered both his bugbear mountains, Makalu and Cho Oyu.
Vajpai’s reaching the top of two of the world’s highest mountains within the space of six months attests to his physical and mental stamina.“Training for mountaineering involves almost anything and everything,” he says, “You have to prepare yourself for extensive physical exertion by working out 12-13 hours a day, spending enough time underwater to gain breathing control, and preparing for temperatures of around -60 to -70 degrees, to name a few.”
His daily physical regime is a highly disciplined one: “I go to bed early and the day starts for me at 3 in the morning,” he says. A two-hour-long spell of cycling begins at 3:30 am. Post breakfast, at around 6:30 am, he heads into the swimming pool to let the lid off the steam. “I have a few injuries, like my ankle, which I need to take care of. So I do some physio exercises in water,” he says. At 7:30 am, he takes off for a run, the duration of which depends on the severity of the weather. It lasts a minimum of three hours nonetheless. “On the way back, I hit the gym for a CrossFit session with my trainer. For the circuit training, we come back home to a mini climbing gym that I’ve constructed for myself. The high-intensity training involves wall climbing, and one-behind-the-other circuits,” he says.
Then there’s another round of CrossFit (1.5-2 hours) later in the evening at 6:30 pm. “By the time I’m home, all I see is my bed. I usually even have dinner in bed,” he says. The training is aimed at maximising the pain to the point “where giving up is not an option, just like up in the mountains.”
Climbing is as much about the mind as it is about the body. So how does he keep mentally fit? “Meditation,” he said when we spoke to him before his Kangchenjunga expedition earlier this year. “And when I say meditation, it doesn’t mean sitting for hours cross-legged. It simply means being able to connect with yourself the best by spending as much time on yourself. For me, it is through training.” “(For instance) when I am on a long distance run, I am able to cut everything off around me and connect with myself or when I am cycling for a long time, I get in to a zone and my mind gets completely blank and there is no useless thought running through my mind and in times like these, self-exploration happens.”
Because of his relentless climbing schedule, the recovery period after a climb is as essential as his otherwise vigorous training calendar. “Up there, we’re operating at one-third of the normal oxygen levels. Our daily calorie intake is somewhere around 2,000-3,000 calories a day, in exchange of which we are burning 10,000-12,000 of them,” he says. It results in an average weight loss of 10 kg; in fact, he lost up to 18 kg on a climb to Mount Cho Oyu.
“The days after the climb require the most amounts of care for the body. I like to call it my cheat time of the year,” he says. “I eat anything which is available to me and can give me nutrition. I don’t eat out much, more at home, but it’s still a lot of crap sometimes. One day I’ll eat an entire box of laddoos. My favourite meal would be butter chicken and mutton roghan josh. I’m a big foodie, so I also eat kebabs or even vegetarian meals that contain paneer.”
A few weeks of recovery and he’s back on his exacting diet regime as he prepares for the next climb. “I don’t cut down on sugar – I’m working out enough in the day. I do not like salads, I do not like boiled vegetables, but I have them as a form of meditation,” he says. Breakfast comprises eight boiled eggs with a quarter portion (250g) of boiled chicken or grilled mutton. There’s also some milk, bananas and veggies on the side. A wholesome meal of daal and roti makes for lunch, but not without another quarter portion of some fish or grilled chicken with lemon.
The evening snack is mostly a juice of some kind and additional fibre intake for curing climbing-related deficiencies. “There’s a farm nearby my house, so I love getting fresh fruits from there,” he says. He ends the day with the last quarter serving of chicken or mutton, alternating from what was served for breakfast.
Do not try this at home.