The third youngest Indian to climb Mount Everest, 21-year-old Arjun Vajpai’s videos from Mt. Makalu advanced base camp (ABC) were the window into the disaster for the rest of the world. The young mountaineer was stranded along with 60 climbers at Mt. Makalu, the fifth highest peak in the world at 8,463 metres, when the earthquake struck Nepal on April 25.
Speaking about the moment he felt the earth shake, he shares, “I was with three other climbers, two Spanish and one Austrian, in the communications tent when it shook. We thought we were having high-altitude sickness due to lack of oxygen. But when all of a sudden, other climbers started feeling the same thing, we were confused as to what was going on.
Only when the shockwave intensified did we realise it was an earthquake. We heard loud sounds and rocks started falling. We rushed out of our tents and all of a sudden there was commotion in the camp.
Generally, in Makalu there aren’t many climbers, as compared to 3-4 teams with 15-20 climbers in our previous years’ experience, this time around there were 11 teams in Makalu with 60-odd climbers, 40-45 sherpas and several porters. In that moment, I realised that there were porters in the base camp who were going to the advanced camp and they had heavy loads.
There were sherpas with climbers who were moving from the Hillary Base Camp to the advanced camp and other climbers who were on their way from camp 1 to camp 2 at the altitude of 20,000 feet above sea level. So, when we felt the earthquake for the first time, we first secured ourselves and then thought about how we could start the rescue.”
When Himalayas start dancing in front of your eyes, you realise how small you are, says Arjun. “At first we didn’t know the extent of the damage as the weather changed and there was mist in Makalu. We tried to contact fellow campers in camp 1 and camp 2 via satellite radio but it wasn’t working, however, 12 hours later we were able to contact them and there was no casualty. So, we started planning out the rescue situation at the base camp.”
Arjun became the only link to the outside world via his videos after he shared his first video. Sharing what prompted him to record everything, Arjun says, “I realised that all of us wanted to inform our loved ones about what was happening us and that we were fine. I was thinking about my mom and knew that she must be tense and worried as the epicentre was in Nepal. So, my first reaction was to call home and inform my parents.
After two days, she asked me, ‘But why didn’t you think about capturing the avalanche coming down?’ I thought she was joking, when a 400 metres wide and 700 metres tall avalanche comes down towards you, you run for cover instead of holding the camera in your hand. The aftershock avalanche that came down was very close to the base camp but we were in a safe location. A few climbers suffered shock, seeing such massive pieces of rocks and ice coming towards you can scare anybody, I was scared too but at the same time you feel tiny in front of Mother Nature, you’re suddenly humbled by the presence of nature around you. But it wasn’t the time to be scared, it was the time to act, react and let our loved ones know we’re okay.”
Asked why he didn’t call for rescue sooner, Arjun explains, “We climbers were repeatedly asked on social media why we weren’t calling for rescue. I had very consciously taken the decision in my life to be there and now things were going wrong. I’ve been trained all my life to fight such situations. There were lot more innocent people who didn’t know what was coming their way and were stuck in bad situations and who didn’t ask for this. I had asked for this. I was there by my own choice. On Makalu, we all took this decision that we weren’t calling for rescue, and that we’d stay there and help out the sherpas who were trapped or hurt, help out the people who didn’t need to be there but were there because of us.”
Arjun is back home after nine gruelling days and all he now wants to do is catch up on some sleep. This was Arjun’s third attempt to scale Mt. Makalu, yet the young man isn’t disheartened that he couldn’t reach the summit. He refuses to acknowledge that it’s jinxed, and is determined to go there next year.
He concludes, “You would worry about earthquakes and avalanches only when your focus shifts from the summit. There were different phases in life when I had to let go of many things — friends, family, memories. This was the time to let go of fear.”