At age 16, Arjun Vajpai became the youngest Indian to climb the daunting Mount Everest. Though still young, Arjun continues ascending to the heights of success. One of his recent trips was up the Tibetan mountain Cho Oyu. His story follows below.
People said I went up Everest a boy and came down a man. This was two years ago, when I was 16. After three ‘eight-thousanders’ under my belt, a near-death experience on Mt. Cho Oyu sent me back with a complete different feeling – contentment that I did my best. I was stronger for it mentally, though I had not been physically ready.
I learned about mountain sickness at the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering. When I started the sport, I heard from well-known and fellow climbers about how difficult it gets when you fall sick on a peak. I saw climbers who were fit in every sense of the word, but had to be evacuated from the mountains. I always thought it would happen to me only when I grew older, but I was wrong. Nature knows no age limit. I was 7,200 metres above sea level, trying to fight the cold and snow and wind. Reaching Camp 2 almost felt like reaching the summit.
This is an excerpt from an SMS I sent via satellite phone: “Reached Camp 2 (7,200 m/23,600 ft.) at 3:51 pm! Bad day today. Took seven-and-a-half hours. Terrible snowfall. Almost whiteout for all those weather reports! God has his own way. Steep climb and two overhangs to clear. Completely out of breath. Just could not see even a metre ahead. Fingers started to go numb. My Sherpas tried reviving by rubbing my hands but they refused to warm up. My mind was racing frantically.”
We could see Camp 3 when the snow stopped and, at times, even the summit. So tired was everyone upon reaching Camp 2 that no one said a thing. We locked up in the tent; nobody dared to move. We made noodles, but I felt too tired to eat. My night was spent wondering how the weather would be the next day.
It was a cold morning, and the wind was much too strong (40-45 kmph). Things looked grim. We had to wait another night before heading to Camp 3. A lot of climbers moved back to Base Camp. It looked like the mountain was not happy, and I respected its decision. The snowfall didn’t stop; I could barely leave the tent to attend nature’s call. I thought I might fly away with the wind. The weather didn’t do anything for my appetite, either; I could hardly eat. We survived on water and hot juice. The wait seemed endless as I sat with my Sherpas, but I found comfort and joy in talking to my mother, who told me that she and my dad were with me in spirit.
The next day, I awoke to a most pleasant surprise. As my eyes opened, there was light in my tent. The mere thought of the sun was comforting, so I slowly got up to look out. I could see my Sherpas having a look around, and I decided to move out. Suddenly, I realised my left elbow didn’t seem to work despite shaking it awake a few times – nothing. My first thought was that I’d slept in an awkward position. I decided to get out of my tent and move around. I called mom and told her the weather seemed better.
What happened after the call felt like a time lapse. My left arm had stopped working, and my left leg refused to show any sign of sensation. My toes were numb! My jaw and tongue felt heavy, and I remember my Sherpas’ worried hands massaging me. The heat pad didn’t seem to help. In the meantime, I switched to maximum oxygen. I could hear my Sherpas calling Base Camp, followed by a frantic call to our manager. I spoke to him and told him I would start descending as soon as I could.
I couldn’t help but wonder why this had to happen then. The weather had improved, and Camp 3 seemed so close. I kept telling my limbs to work, thinking that I could still change the plan. I had somehow managed to move out of the tent and there, above me, I could see the summit – it was so near, yet so far! I put on my backpack with my Sherpas’ help and began the descent. My heart ached, but my rationality prevailed. My dad always told me, “When your body gives way, your mind must take over.” These are the golden words I live by.
I called dad and told him the situation. He has never agreed to anything as quickly as he did. “Keep calm and come down ASAP!” he said. My descent will probably go down in my so-far short personal history. I harnessed myself to the rope and looked up for the last time. Cho Oyu, you missed a date with Arjun Vajpai – perhaps another day! Slowly and steadily, we descended; our first destination was Camp 1.
How difficult is difficult? What is impossible? Have I pushed myself to my limit? What is my limit? Is there nothing left in me? What is the meaning of giving up? What if I do give up? Death would be inevitable. The mind was wearing thin; my leg wasn’t moving. I pushed myself. In some areas, the Sherpas could remain by my side, but at overhangs and steep faces one has to climb keeping distance. The journey down seemed endless, and my mind was ticking away. So many thoughts crowded it. I imagined my mother’s worry. I thought it might be my last chance, so I wanted to talk to her. During every break, I wondered if I would see home.
I really don’t know what kept me going despite the negative thoughts. At one point, I even thought I’d give up and ask my Sherpas to leave me behind; I didn’t want to risk their lives. My body and mind were in pain, but mom had asked me pray, so I did. The Hanuman Chalisa was on my mind; it formed a rhythm.
I don’t remember how much I walked but at one point, I started seeing yellow everywhere. This was when the cerebral edema hit; I recognised it from my studies. Though my mind told me to give up, my dad had told me to walk on. I listened. I continued.
I finally reached Camp 1. My legs bent, and I was on my knees. In 20 minutes, it had become time to get going. I did not want to get up. Everything in me ached. My Sherpa picked me up and got me to my feet. My pain and fatigue had spiked to their highest level – is there even any scale to measure them? When I think back to that day, I don’t know how I did it. If I could walk back from Camp 2, then the next camp (ABC) was possible. I gave myself a goal; there was light at the end of the tunnel.
I could have been walking or crawling, or even been dragging myself. I felt helpless as my Sherpas carried my load. For years – years – I had hated climbers who put their load on the Sherpas and climbed like tourists. Here I was doing the same thing. They were slowed down, and I am eternally grateful for what they put themselves through. We reached ABC around six that evening. I remember almost crawling back into my tent – I had made it!
I had stared Death in the face. I wonder, even today, about what made me walk. Perhaps the mountain had taken pity on me. Though I did not conquer it, I conquered my fear. Maybe another mountain will teach me something different.