Unlike other teens, his heroes are not cricketers or movie stars. He hardly watches cricket matches and films don’t interest him. Instead, Arjun Vajpai, 16 years and eight months old, is pursuing an unusually lofty interest -- Mt Everest.
The son of a former Indian Army commando, the 12th grader from New Delhi starts his quest from Kathmandu Sunday when his mettle will be tested with a run up to the 8,848 m peak.
To train for the big climb -- which would be a record-breaking one -- he will first take on the Island Peak, a 6,189 m mountain from which Mt Everest is just 10 km away.
The mission completed, he will reach the Everest base camp in April to be part of the Eco Everest 2010 expedition led by living Everest legend Apa Sherpa, who has summited the peak 19 times and hopes to best the record.
Arjun, a humanities student from Ryans International School in New Delhi, will create a new record if he is successful. He will become the youngest Indian to achieve the feat, breaking the record set last year by Maharashtra’s Krushnaa Patil, who summited at age 18.
“I am not attempting the climb for records,” says Arjun. “Mountaineering is the most non-competitive sport. I want to do it for the on-the-top-of-the-world feeling you have when you reach the highest point on earth and look down at the incredible view below you, a forest of peaks. There’s nothing more a man can want.”
A trekking lover, Arjun began to train seriously as a climber two years ago after he visited his grandmother in Pune and saw the Sayadri Hills. He has done a basic and advanced course from the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM) in Uttarkashi where he got an A grade.
“When the NIM principal suggested (that) he have a go at Mt Everest, I was apprehensive at first,” says Arjun’s father Sanjiv Vajpai.
The former army captain is haunted by the death of his friend and fellow commando Major Jai Bahuguna’s brother Harsh Bahuguna during an Everest expedition.
Years later, he came to learn that Jai Bahuguna too had fallen almost at the same spot during another Everest expedition.
“I did not want to expose my young son to such dangers,” Capt Vajpai told IANS. “But NIM officials said his age was a plus factor and Arjun was a good climber.”
Arjun, who climbed the 5,716 m Draupadi Ka Danda peak in Garhwal last year, is thrilled he is going to meet Apa Sherpa.
“It’s going to be a really great experience to meet a man who is a living legend,” he says with awe. “I want to ask him: You have summited Everest 19 times. Now you can do it blindfolded. I will learn a lot from him.”
His other heroes are Reinhold Messner, the dynamic Italian climber who was the first to summit Mt Everest without oxygen cylinders and the first to tame all the 14 highest peaks in the world, and Portuguese football player Cristiano Ronaldo.
His favourite sport is soccer. He is also a taekwondo aficionado.
The only thing that struck a jarring note was the difficulty Arjun’s family faced in trying to raise the nearly Rs.3 million (Rs.30 lakh) for the expedition.
“No corporate house showed any interest,” says Arjun’s mother, Priya Vajpai. “While teams have been bought for the IPL matches for crores, no one in India is willing to spend even a fraction of that to promote other sports.”
Initially, three other Indians were scheduled to take part in Eco Everest 2010. However, only the gutsy 30-year-old physical education teacher Mamata Sodah, also from Haryana, could generate the funds.
Bhagyashree Sawant from Maharashtra and Ashok Vardhan from New Delhi failed to.
“We are really lucky to have some great friends,” says Priya Vajpai. “We raised part of the money through individual contributions. We are still trying to raise the rest of the money.”
If he returns to Kathmandu in May after having been on top of Mt Everest, Arjun will become a celebrity teen with a new record.
But he has not thought of the limelight that will follow. “Let me first do it,” he says.