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Indian mountaineer Arjun Vajpai was disappointed when bad weather prevented his attempted summit of Mount Kanchenjunga during this spring's climbing season in Nepal. But Vajpai, India's only professional mountaineer, knows he'll be back to take another crack at the third highest peak in the world. "It was disheartening, but not heartbreaking, because it was not for any technical reason [that the attempt failed], but because of the absence of a clear weather window. That factor is not in human hands," says the 24-year-old, who returned to India recently after his month-long expedition.
India's only consistent professional high-altitude mountaineer for nearly a decade now, since summiting Mount Everest at the tender age of 16, Vajpai is no stranger to adversity. On his first attempt at Mount Cho Oyu in Nepal, in 2012, he was snowed in for three days at 7,000 metres, and lost sensation on the left side of his body due to oxygen deprivation. Abandoned by his sherpas, he crawled down to base camp, a journey that took over 17 hours, using only his right arm and leg. But in 2016, he returned to Mount Cho Oyu and made the summit. "I was left to die, but something inside me kept me going then and still does," he says.
Being a full-time pro has its own challenges, the foremost being finding sponsors for expeditions that cost upward of Rs 25 lakh apiece. But the young mountaineer has always managed to find a company to back him, even if at the eleventh hour, and there are signs that other pros may soon follow in his footsteps. "I am possibly the only full-time mountaineer in India, and my aim is to be the youngest to summit all of the 14 highest peaks in our world," says Vajpai, who has already climbed five of them.
He's not alone. This spring, Indian and international mountaineering had a unique 'first' with two ultra-runners reaching the summit of Everest. Kilian Jornet, arguably the best ultra-runner in the world, made it in less than 16 hours, and Indian navy officer and ultra-runner Brijmohan Sharma, a.k.a. Breeze, found himself on top of the world on May 21.
In 2016, Breeze became the second Indian to finish the 'Badwater', an ultra marathon in the US. He finished the 217 km run 20 minutes quicker than his predecessor, Arun Bharadwaj, so he also owns bragging rights as India's fastest. "I've wanted to climb Everest since I began mountaineering in 1993, and nearly made it in 2015, when the earthquake struck Kathmandu. Being from the defence forces it's not easy to get corporate sponsors, but the navy and some friends chipped in so that I could succeed. This year I managed to do that, but I am broke now," he says with a chuckle. Bitten by the high altitude bug, 43-year-old Breeze plans to climb all the tallest mountains in the world in the coming years.
Meanwhile, India's Border Security Force officer and veteran mountaineer Loveraj Dharamshaktu reached the cone-shaped peak of Everest this May for the sixth time, an Indian record.
Be it the seasoned experience of Loveraj or the youthful drive of Arjun Vajpai, Indian mountaineering has many a high waiting to be achieved.