Arjun Vajpai first made headlines as the youngest Indian to climb Mt Everest in May 2010, at the age of 16. Ever since, his milestones have been recorded by the summits he’s made progressively—youngest to climb Mt Manaslu and youngest mountaineer on Mt Lhotse in 2011 and youngest Indian on Cho Oyu in 2016 (his second attempt and the one where he almost died).
He was also the youngest Indian to summit Makalu, the fifth highest peak in the world, considered to be one of the most challenging summits amongst hardened mountaineers, in 2016. Vajpai attempted Makalu four times: The first attempt failed, the second resulted in the loss of a fellow mountaineer, and the Nepal earthquake took place during the third.
Kangchenjunga, the third tallest mountain in the world, proved to be a challenge for Vajpai in 2017, thanks to weather conditions. However, Vajpai felt that the failed attempt was the mountain’s way of asking him to return, with clearer intentions and less baggage, figuratively and literally. He went back this year with a decision to climb the 28,169 feet (8,586 metres).
On May 20, 2018, he summited Kangchenjunga, only using supplemental oxygen from Camp 4 towards the summit push, because the weather was bad. The feat has made him the youngest person in the world to have conquered six peaks above 8,000 metres; he’s got eight more to go, and the next on his list is Shishapangma (8,013 metres) in Nyalam County, Tibet.
Patience is not just a virtue at these altitudes; it’s also a bit of a lifesaver. Reaching the peaks isn’t just about crunching through ice and balancing on rickety aluminium ladders across bottomless gorges. Waiting for the weather to be clear enough to allow safe passage to the summit is what ultimately saves your life. Which means there’s a lot of just hanging around sometimes waiting for the near perfect conditions.
Waiting however isn’t always quite the relaxing retreat it sounds like. In 2016, in the camp on the way to Cho Oyu, Vajpai woke up in his tent after 2-3 days of waiting for the weather to clear, only to find his left side paralysed. He was accompanied by two sherpas, who tried to warm him but failed. Vajpai has cerebral thrombosis from the acute cold, and the blood clot had led to the paralysis. The sherpas made the decision to leave him and return with help when the weather cleared. In the meantime, Vajpai called his parents and told them he didn’t think he was going to make it back this time. Fate had other plans. In his feverish state, Vajpai noticed a gap in his tent and although half paralysed crawled a bit further down the mountain, until he passed out. The weather turned and at that point a group of sherpas rescued him. The incident inspired a rather dramatic advertisement too, with his longtime collaborator Mountain Dew, which cast Hrithik Roshan as Vajpai in the campaign.
Kangchenjunga was a challenge of a different sort, not just because of its height, but also because the trek itself was more demanding, not allowing regular rest periods after Camp 4, according to Vajpai. That meant approximately 12-13 hours of continuous climbing. The final summit has been well earned, and Vajpai is just taking a breather before laying out plans to conquer the remaining eight.
Follow Arjun Vajpai’s journey on Kangchenjunga Calling , a series produced by VICE for Mountain Dew.