The hard work, the glamour and the controversies — no Everest expedition is without these.
In May this year, a 16-year-old British boy reportedly became the youngest person to climb the highest peaks on all seven continents, capping his achievement by summiting Mount Everest. In the same month last year, 16-year-old Arjun Vajpai from Noida had become the youngest Indian to climb Everest. Vajpai’s success was, however, overshadowed by 13-year-old Californian Jordan Romero who became the youngest to make it to the top of the world just a couple of hours later. Romero’s record is unlikely to be broken because the Chinese government subsequently banned climbers below 16 from attempting Everest through Tibet, the route Romero took. (Nepal already had this rule in place.)
Being the highest peak in the world at 8,848 metres, Everest (named after George Everest of the Great Trigonometric Survey of India; it’s called Sagar Matha in Nepal and Jomolungma in China) also became one of the most popular with climbers ever since Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary became the first to scale it in 1953. Over 5,000 successful ascents have been made by 3,400 climbers since 1953, many having summited more than once, according to figures released by the office of well-known Himalayan chronicler Elizabeth Hawley. The American Alpine Journal, in a 2003 study analysing summit attempts between 1980 and 2002, attributed the increasing success to “superb equipment, cumulative knowledge of the routes, good weather forecasting, extensive use of fixed ropes and the growing experience of leaders and Sherpas.”
But expeditions to Everest are also supposed to be among the most commercialised, given that it is every climber’s (professionals and others) dream to summit, and companies in Nepal are more than willing to arrange everything possible needed to make climbers more comfortable. Some outfits are also alleged to short-rope clients up, whereby the climber is pulled up the most difficult parts by Sherpas with ropes harnessed to his or her waist. Vajpai, who climbed Lhotse (the fourth-highest peak at 8,516 metres) in May this year, has not escaped these charges. But he refutes them, saying he would never call himself a climber had he been short-roped up. “That’s like being put on top of the mountain, not climbing it. Romero also faced similar allegations. It’s shameful if you use short-roping or make your Sherpa carry your rucksack and all your equipment, which I’ve seen people do,” says he.
So can just about anyone climb Everest, if one has the money? Not exactly, says Kaju, an expedition manager with Asian Trekkers in Nepal, the company Vajpai ascended with. “The most important thing is to be mentally and physically fit. For Indians, we recommend that they complete the basic and advanced mountaineering courses either at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling or the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering in Uttarkashi. You need to have some background in mountaineering.” But these are only recommendations, not rules set in stone, and there are people who turn up with very little experience. “We have turned people away who we feel are not fit enough to make the attempt. The problem is, when we reject them, some other company will accept them, and we have found many people struggling on the mountain as a result,” he adds.
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Vajpai himself completed the basic and advanced courses, each lasting a month, from Uttarkashi. “The instructors there noticed that I was able to acclimatise very well in high altitudes, which is critical while climbing. They were the ones who felt I should attempt Everest despite my initial lack of confidence,” he says. The courses at Uttarkashi included instructions (and practical experience) in rock craft, snow craft and ice craft, different knots and how to plan an expedition by yourself, as well as climbing the 5,700-metre practice peak DKD2. But that was just the beginning of Vajpai’s preparations for Everest. For another six months, he spent eight hours a day working out: four hours in the morning were devoted to improving calf and leg muscles through tyre pulling, (running with a tyre attached to him) and another four hours were spent in the evening in the gym. The evening session focused on cardio-vascular exercises, building stamina and muscles, including running with bricks tied to each ankle, to prepare him for the 4 kg each foot would weigh while climbing, thanks to boots and crampons.
Vajpai was also on a 5,000-calories-a-day diet, consuming half a kilo each of chicken, meat, fish and sprouts, 15 eggs, a dozen bananas and milk. “But this was not too tough, since I’m a big-time foodie and the ‘dustbin’ of the house,” he says with a grin. The idea is to build enough reserves with a high calorie diet because up in the mountains, you burn around 10,000 calories a day while climbing and the most you will be able to eat is 3,000 calories because of the dip in the amount of oxygen you are able to take in. The toughest stretch is above 8,000 metres, known as the dead zone, when your body starts shutting down slowly because of the lack of oxygen.
Nearly a month after his return from Lhotse, Vajpai has begun preparations for his next goal — to ski 1,170 kilometres from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole, while pulling a sledge of 140 kg, with a guide. The expedition will be unique, says Vajpai, because it will be unsupported and unassisted, meaning there will be no helicopters airdropping supplies in between. “No Indian has attempted this before and only eight people in the world have been successful,” he says. He is also trying to get sponsors for the Rs 70-lakh trip. The Rs 20 lakh for Vajpai's Everest expedition came from his army officer-turned-businessman father and his friends, while a few companies stepped in with funds for Lhotse.
Returning to the popularity of Everest, Vajpai says that in itself is not a bad thing. “But people need to be aware about the kind of demands such an expedition makes on you, physically and mentally.”
The short-roping controversy, however, may not die down so easily. Lavraj Singh, a former mountain guide and BSF officer, who first climbed Everest in 1998 as a 25-year-old, says that many people these days resort to unethical tactics while climbing. “The entire idea is commercialised now, with people doing it for publicity. When we climbed, it was a very personal experience. I myself used an oxygen cylinder only on the final day of climbing,” says Singh who summited Everest twice again in 2006 and 2009. He adds that it would be possible to climb Everest for around Rs 11 lakh — you typically pay at least Rs 20 lakh while going through an expedition company (this will include the cost of your equipment and Rs 12-13 lakh for the royalty fee charged by the Nepal government and the expedition company’s service fee).
Indian Mountaineering Foundation Director Colonel JP Bhagatjee declines to comment on the controversy, though, interestingly, he says the foundation encourages people to climb ‘virgin’ peaks (ones that have never been summitted) rather than Everest because, again, “it’s too commercialised. Every facility is in place for those who want to attempt it.”