Red-carpet welcome for Everest's youngest Indian hero

Red-carpet welcome for Everest's youngest Indian hero

Arjun Vajpai. AFP

But as the 16-year-old made India proud Saturday by hoisting the tricolour on the icy summit of the world's highest mountain, he is now a celebrity with a red-carpet welcome laid out for him in Kathmandu.

Coming Saturday, a week after becoming the youngest Indian climber to have trodden the path taken by Tenzing Norgay Sherpa in 1953, the 12th grader from New Delhi's Ryans International School will be awarded a medal by Nepal's President Ram Baran Yadav in Kathmandu.

Arjun will also be congratulated by the Indian ambassador to Nepal, Rakesh Sood, and give a talk at Kendriya Vidyalaya Friday, with his hero Apa Sherpa, who has climbed Everest 20 times.

Flown to Kathmandu from Lukla airport by helicopter Tuesday, Arjun spent the rest of the day catching up on sleep and had no time to dwell on his new status as a celebrity.
Asked how he will cope with the new-found stardom once he returns home Monday, his reply is characteristic.

"I am not going to let it go to my head," he told IANS. "My role model is Apa Sherpa. He climbed Mt Everest 20 times and is a world-class celebrity. Yet he is the most down-to-earth person I have seen. I am going to learn from my experience, say no to nothing and live the moment."

An hour after Arjun added a new chapter to the history of Indian mountaineering, US schoolboy Jordan Romero created mountaineering history by climbing Mt Everest at the age of 13 and eclipsing Arjun's achievement.

The Indian teenager, who is from suburban Noida abutting Delhi, hails the American teen's achievement wholeheartedly.

"Mountaineering is a very non-competitive sport," he says. "People who take it as a competitive sport are stupid. I was a little nervous first when I heard about Jordan's summit attempt because of his age. But he proved to be a giant. He had trained immensely and when he summited, I appreciated it."

When he stood on the 8,848-metre Everest peak at 6.33 a.m. Saturday, Arjun says he felt a sense of achievement as well as pride as an Indian.

"I felt pride as an Indian when I planted the Indian flag on the summit," he said. "Then I went on my knees and thanked God. It was a dream come true. I saw the magnificent Milky Way above me and the curve of the earth below. And my hero Apa was only five metres behind. I felt on top of the world, literally."

When he returns home, the first thing the new celebrity wants to do is to sleep on his own bed. "It's just struck me that I am now feeling homesick," he says. "Also, every part of my body is screaming for rest."

But when he was moving towards the summit, he felt no exhaustion or any of the difficulties many other climbers have suffered, like dizziness, loss of appetite and breathing difficulties.

"Even above 8,000 metres (called the Death Zone because of the dearth of oxygen in the rarefied air), I had no problem," he says. "When I reached South Col (about 7,920 metres) and could see the top, I was confident I would be able to reach there."

On the lower slope, he says his health improved and so did his appetite.
"I actually gained 2 kg," he laughs. "I think I was eating like four men."
It made Apa exclaim. "Arjun, how much you are eating!"

While he was encouraged by individuals in his own country and his instructors at the Nehru Mountaineering Institute, Arjun's only regret is that he received no support from the corporate sector of the world's fastest growing economy.

The Everest summit has made him find his vocation. His plan for the future includes fostering a love of climbing among youngsters and training them.  
"Mountaineering is not just about climbing," he says. "It is also about teamwork, patience and confidence-building."

Now that Everest has kickstarted his career in adventure sports, Arjun would like to either aim for the Poles next or the six remaining highest peaks in the six other continents.

But his immediate project is something more down to earth.
"My mom (Priya Vajpai) just called," he says with a laugh. "And she reminded me that my half-yearly exams start from June 23."

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