Amid Everest climb's 60th anniversary, Indians adopt the sport

NEW DELHI -- Indians broke three world Everest climbing records this year, a sign of how increasing wealth is fueling the country's appetite for pursuing extreme sports.

Raghav Joneja

NEW DELHI -- On May 21, Raghav Joneja, 15, became the youngest Indian to scale Mount Everest, beating out the previously held record of Arjun Vajpai, who climbed the world’s tallest peak at the age of 16 in 2010.

“I’m at the top of the world. It’s a dream come true," Joneja told SmartPlanet, speaking over the phone on May 27, a few hours after reaching Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, following a week-long descent.

As the world celebrated the 60th anniversary of the first climb to Mount Everest by New Zealand’s Edmund Hillary and Nepalese-Indian Tenzing Norgay on May 29, India’s adventure sports enthusiasts said their appetite of seeking thrills and setting records is just beginning to take off.

Businessmen and trainers involved in organizing adventure sport expeditions say that interest in this field is being sparked by growing awareness about such sports through the electronic media, and fueled by an increasing number of Indians who are can now afford the associated costs.

The Everest trip costs an Indian climber about 1.8 million rupees to 2.5 million rupees, which is about $33,000 to $46,000.

Indians who attempt Everest do it on their private expense, or they are part of publicly or privately funded expeditions.

Ang Tshering Sherpa, member of Nepal’s National Tourism Council and former head of the Nepal Mountaineering Association, said that while the 2013 figures on the number of climbers are still to be compiled, he estimates that 600 people scaled Everest this year with about 100 Indians attempting, and 75 percent of them successful. After the Nepalese, he said, Indians were the highest number of international climbers, this year, followed by Americans and the Britons.

This year, India has set three world records -- the first twin sisters to scale Everest, the first female amputee to scale Everest and the youngest team in the world to scale the mountain (six students from The Lawrence School in Sanawar).

The Lawrence Sanawar School team

Joneja, who was part of the school team, has set his sights on climbing Kanchenjunga, the world’s third-tallest peak and India’s highest, and also climbing Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, the highest peak in Africa.

And why did he want scale Everest? “It takes you away from the hectic routine of every day life. To see the view and to have fun with friends,” he said.

Breaking India's record for the youngest student was a big bonus.

Neeraj Rana, who heads an adventure sports company, Ocean to Sky, charges approximately $33,000 for each person he takes to the Everest from India. This year, he led the Everest climb for 17 Indians, 16 of whom made it to the top, including the school team.

Mr. Rana, a former army man, who climbed Everest for the second time this year, says that the fee includes $10,000 royalty fees charged by the Nepal government, meals for month-and-a-half, payment to local guides and porters, transportation costs inside Nepal and the cost of equipment.

“These are highly technical climbs so we have to buy the best equipment to ensure absolute safety,” he said. “None of the equipment is made in India, and it is all imported from abroad.”

And what Indians pay, Rana says, is less than what Europeans and Americans pay for the trip -- $60,000 per person -- since Westerners get charged more by guides and porters.

Magan Bissa

Magan Bissa, 59, a prominent mountaineer in India, has attempted the Everest climb four times, the first time in 1984. For that trip, Mr. Bissa said, the Indian government paid 4.5 million rupees, which is about $82,000 for a 20-member team, or $4,100 per member.

On his fourth attempt in 2009, Bissa said that he took his wife along, and while he received funding, they had to borrow money from relatives to cover her costs.

Bissa said that while more Indians are climbing Everest now, he described the expedition as “a bit too commercial and professional.” Bissa said that today, even those climbers, who only trained for a few months, can scale Everest if they follow a trained professional and take good guides.

Back in the eighties, Bissa said that climbers would only take porters, but they would have to find their own way to the top, which made the expedition more difficult. “Now, there is a traffic jam on the Everest,” he said. “One climber has to move over so the next one get his chance at the top.”

Mark Jenkins, who scaled Everest last month, wrote in National Goegraphic, "When I arrived at the apex on May 25, it was so crowded I couldn’t find a place to stand."

"Meanwhile, down below at the Hillary Step the lines were so long that some people going up waited more than two hours, shivering, growing weak—this even though the weather was excellent," he said.

Satish Neupane, general manager of Himalaya Expeditions, a popular adventure sports company in Nepal, said that with the growing demand from international tourists to climb Everest, companies like his are mushrooming in the small Himalayan country.

These companies are sub-contracted by Indian companies to take their climbers up the mountain, and they organize all the logistics, which begins with picking up the climbers from the airport, said Neupane, and works out to $25,000 to $50,000.

Ajay Joneja, Raghav’s father, said the investment is completely worth it. “For a life-altering experience, which will make a man out of him … definitely,” he said.

Sanjana Rana, who runs the Ocean to Sky adventure sports company, along with her husband, says that Indian parents, generally regarded as worrywarts, are increasingly allowing their children to pursue extreme sports.

She says that a great deal of fear, which parents felt, has been dissipating because they are now able to do their own research over the internet, and find out the safest way for their children to pursue these sports.

Joneja said that his parents were initially skeptical when he told them about his plan to climb Everest. He recalled that while his father came around quickly, his mother took a while to convince.

“He was very focused and knew what he was getting into,” said Ashu Joneja, Raghav’s mother. “His dedication convinced us.”

His father said that parents of the students had been regularly in touch, and three of their dads had even accompanied the team to the base camp.

Those involved in the adventure sports business in Nepal and India expect the craze to climb Everest to grow among the young generation of Indians.

But Bissa, whose health has been severely compromised because of an oxygen shortage during his last attempt, also continues to cherish the dream of making it to the top. "It's been an obsession with me since 1978," he said. "My intestines are damaged now but I'm hoping that there will be some technology that can aid me."

"You see, Everest is my Olympics and I still have to get the medal," he said.

PHOTOS: Facebook pages of The Lawrence School, Sanawar Everest team and Magan Bissa

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