Born to Climb

For Arjun Vajpai, mountains are a spiritual retreat. He’s just back 
from scaling Mount Kanchenjunga, the third highest peak in the world

Arjun Vajpai Arjun Vajpai

Arjun Vajpai holds the rare distinction of being the youngest in the world to have scaled six of the fourteen 8,000-plus peaks in the world. Next up is K2, the world’s most dangerous mountain.

Many of us dream of spending some time in the mountains, watching the snowfall and climbing the rough peaks. We are happy when, in the breaks of our mundane lives, we get an opportunity to escape to the cosy hill station, or go mountaineering. But for 24-year-old Arjun Vajpai, climbing Mount Everest was a dream he’d nursed ever since he went with his granddad to Hanuman Tekdi in Pune at the age of 10. The setting sun bathed the mountain in a soft orange glow. The view was breathtaking. That was to be the start of a life-changing love affair with mountains.

I am happy when I am at physical unrest. But I definitely need the mental peace. And it comes only when I am in the mountains. That’s when I feel alive.

Six years later, in 2010, Vajpai became the third-youngest Indian to climb Mount Everest. This feat is as unusual as it is impressive. But he didn’t stop at that. The very next year, he was the youngest climber to summit Mount Manaslu. Vajpai is also the youngest Indian mountaineer to scale Mount Cho Oyu, the world’s fifth-highest mountain, at about 8,188 metres, in between Tibet and mainland China.

Vajpai is just back from his summit to Mount Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world. “The weather was very very wicked this year. It was impossible to go beyond camp four due to avalanches. But, towards the end, all our patience and perseverance paid off and on May20, at 8.05am, we made it to the summit of Kanchenjunga. As soon as I hoisted the Indian flag, I could sense a great calmness come over me. It was as if someone had drugged me,” he says with a laugh.

The biggest challenge was the impending monsoon. Rains in the greater Himalayas are known to be very nasty. However, Vajpai is no stranger to hostile environments. On his first attempt to summit Mount Cho Oyu in Nepal in 2012, he was snowed in for three days and suffered semi-paralysis through the left side of his body due to oxygen deprivation. Assumed dead, he managed to crawl to the base camp using the right side of his body. With his undying spirit, he returned to Mount Cho Oyu in 2016 and managed to scale the peak.

Blood, sweat and strategy

High-altitude climbing offers a series of mental and physical challenges played out in some of the most beautiful places on our planet. Mountaineering is all about overcoming those challenges, feeling a sense of accomplishment and learning a little more about yourself, believes Vajpai. “The mountain doesn’t know the difference between a big mistake and a small one,” he says. “The margin of error is very minuscule. You must know what you are doing. Your decision and what you do might end up taking other people’s lives on the mountain. Training is the only way to ensure you return alive and in one piece.”

Vajpai’s training schedule is built on two levels—stamina-building and muscle endurance. His day starts early at 3.30am with 70km cycling. This is followed by a 21km run and CrossFit and yoga sessions spread out throughout the day. When he’s not on the road or in the mountains, Vajpai is scaling the climbing wall he has set up in one of the rooms at his home in Delhi.

Arjun Vajpai Arjun during his recent expedition to Kanchenjunga

Nutrition is another important aspect of training. Mountaineers burn almost 10,000 to 12,000 calories in a day when they are climbing in extreme conditions with lack of oxygen. This leads to drastic weight loss and muscle breakdown, which needs urgent attention when they are back. Vajpai is on a high-protein and high-carbohydrate diet. Breakfast, typically, comprises of eight eggs with a quarter kilo of boiled chicken, a litre of full-cream milk, six bananas, sprouts and fruits. Lunch is a quarter kilo of fish, chapatis, pulses and a big bowl of curd. Mutton is reserved for dinner along with salad and curd.

Climbing 8,000m and higher does have its repercussions on the body. “When you are climbing you lose a lot of brain cells due to lack of oxygen, he says. “And brain cells are the only cells in your body that never regenerate. Also, there is water seeping between your brain and skull. I have to live with a permanently swollen retina, red eyes and burnt skin. That notwithstanding, I feel great. But sooner or later, I am sure the mountains will have their ways to teach me.”

Born an asthmatic, Vajpai practices yoga and pranayama regularly. He also loves to meditate on the mountains.

Rough sleep always precedes a climb. Vajpai admits to being restless before each expedition. Sleep is restricted to a mere three to four hours a day. “I am happy when I am at physical unrest. But I definitely need the mental peace. And it comes only when I am in the mountains. That’s when I feel alive.” For Vajpai, climbing a peak is more than just reaching a summit. It’s about conquering your own internal challenges, whether that means overcoming fears, pushing your limits, or trying to create a personal best in terms of physical and mental accomplishment. The mountain is really just an innocent bystander during this process.

“Regardless of training, equipment and planning, there will always be an inherent danger in mountain climbing. Weather remains a potentially lethal wild card for any expedition. You boot up, say your prayers and hope that the ice is calm. It is very dangerous, but it is also unspeakably beautiful.”

When not climbing the world’s tallest mountains, Vajpai loves to cook, pasta being his favourite. Listening to music and playing football are his other passions. Partying or dating, however, puts him at unease. “I think I am already married to the mountains,” he says.

So, what do you do after having scaled six peaks above 8,000m? If you are Arjun Vaipai, you simply prepare to scale the next one—Mount K2, the world’s most difficult mountain.


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