Mountaineering may not be her main passion but Bhagyashree Sawant a national-level athlete, cyclist and rugby player, and an international-level karate player has set herself a tall target. And she's determined to climb up to it.
The 18-year-old student of computer science at MD College, Mumbai, is vying to become the youngest Indian woman to climb Mount Everest. Ask her about the attempt, and she says, "I've done some climbing before. But the Everest is different from all of them. It's just so much more exciting!"
Sawant is travelling with inspiring company. Her companions include 16- year-old Arjun Vajpai, who will be the youngest Indian to have climbed Mt Everest if he summits successfully. Leading the expedition is Apa Sherpa, who holds the record for climbing Everest the most times. This will be his 20th ascent.
Vajpai, who's a student of Ryan International School in Noida, joined Nehru Institute of Mountaineering soon after his Class 10 board exams. A few months and a couple of courses later, his instructors deemed him capable of summiting the highest peak in the world.
Vajpai had been trekking to the Sahyadris earlier, and his experience from there helped him with his first high-altitude climb to the Draupadi ka Danda 2 (DKD2) last October. Once on top, he became the youngest person to have scaled the peak. And there has been no looking back. Or down.
Although his parents were concerned for him, he alleviated their apprehension by promising them that he'd take things one step at a time. "And now, eight months later, he's climbing the Everest. We know he's fit because during DKD2, he didn't suffer from headaches or show symptoms of highaltitude sickness," says his mother Priya Vajpai.
Training for the climb
Sawant's summit attempt began in February 2009 when she met Gaurav Sharma, who's now her endurance training coach, and joined his team for Enduro3, the annual endurance race in Pune. Sharma, a martial arts trainer for the Mumbai police, had been scouting for a female athlete to meet the requirements of the race. "They found me fit enough to perform, and we began to practice sprinting and long distance running together," says Sawant.
Following the race, Sharma began encouraging Sawant to give the 8,848-metre peak a shot. What worked in her favour was the fact that she'd been an athlete all her life and wouldn't have to prepare too hard. She continued with the same exercise regime under Sharma's guidance, and took about two months to gear up.
Vajpai's training for the climb also included yoga to increase flexibility and cardio for improving lung power. His instructor also made him undertake arm, calf and back exercises, and put him on a diet high in protein and carbohydrates.
"He found it difficult to get used to it at first, but his passion helped him go on. I keep telling him that there's always a second chance, but he's never tense about the climb," says his mother. The final go-ahead, however, was given only after the doctors were consulted, especially keeping his age in mind.
At the foothill of a record
Vajpai is already at Everest basecamp, having successfully completed his acclimatisation climb of Island Peak and acquired another record in the process. Asked what makes him seek such dangerous thrills, he said, "The rush you feel at the summit is something that makes you want to go back. You get addicted to the view that you can't capture from a camera."
Sawant is set to join the rest of the team once she climbs Island Peak a few days from now. Meanwhile, she's been improving her agility with indoor wall climbing and eating a lot to put on some weight before the Everest climb. "An expedition sets you back by a couple of kilos, and since I'm an athlete, I find it hard to gain weight back. So I'm hogging pre-emptively," she says.
The duo will make their summit attempts a few weeks from now, climbing higher with each successive sortie until they're fully acclimatised and can make the final push to the top.
Vajpai is already looking beyond; his Everest attempt is just step one of a plan to climb the seven tallest peaks across the seven continents.
World record in the making
Jordan Romero (13) has been climbing mountains his entire life. He started training to climb the seven tallest peaks on the seven continents when he was 9, and his first climb of the expedition was Mt Kilimanjaro. If he climbs the Everest, he'll become the youngest person ever to summit the peak.
You're on your way to becoming the youngest person to make the Seven Summits climb. How does it feel?
I'm not thinking about the record. I'm just thinking about the mountain. My goal is to climb the Seven Summits, and since Mt Everest is part of them, I'm climbing it. My age is not an issue. I enjoy climbing, and I'm going to make it to the summit irrespective of whether it takes me two months or two years.
Did you have to follow a special training regime to gain the strength and hardiness required?
I began training when I was 9. I mix it up a lot so that it's not boring. I run, do freestyle skiing, mountain biking and play sports.
How do you prepare for the ascent? What do you think of at that time?
Everything is one step at a time. I try not to look at the big picture and focus on small goals. I focus on what I need to do. In crucial moments, I make sure I'm doing everything right.