Adventurers Ajeet and Deeya Bajaj share how they scaled the mighty mountain with sheer guts and talk about their strong father-daughter bond
By Shashwathi Bhanukumar
It was at the first light of dawn on April 16 this year that 53-year-old Ajeet Bajaj and his 24-year-old daughter Deeya Bajaj reached the summit of the world's highest mountain above sea level, Mt Everest. It was a special moment as they became the first Indian father-daughter duo to do so.
“Both of us were teary-eyed when we reached the summit. That's when we realised that we had made it and all that training and preparation culminated in such a beautiful and emotional moment. Then, we proudly placed the national flag on the summit,” recalls Ajeet.
Such thrilling endeavours are a way of life for Ajeet, who is a pioneer in adventure travel in India and a Padma Shri awardee. Deeya has followed in his footsteps. Ever since she could walk, Deeya has been going on hikes and other adventures with her family. So passionate is the family about offbeat travel and adventure sports, that they decided to start their own adventure travel company called Snow Leopard Adventures. The father-daughter duo spoke to ParentCircle about their strong bond and the expedition to Mt Everest, their toughest till date.
Q: So, Deeya, how old were you when you first developed an interest in adventure sports and travel, particularly hiking?
Deeya: My parents would carry me on expeditions when I was a baby. As soon as I could walk, I was hiking with them. Before that, I was quite lazy and would say things like: "Dad..I don't want to go, my legs are hurting...it's so early in the morning". It was at age 14 that I went on a first real expedition – a sea kayaking expedition to Greenland. That’s when I started taking it seriously.
Q. Ajeet, what was your reaction when your daughter first started showing serious interest in what you were doing?
Ajeet: I was overjoyed. I was a tender eight years old when my father took me on my first trek. So, I was very happy when Deeya also started enjoying the outdoors.
Q. What was the reaction of your family and friends when you started climbing together for the first time?
Ajeet: Our family and friends were really worried and yet, have been extremely supportive throughout.They do know that we do not take any unnecessary risks, we prepare well, we carry good equipment and follow all the safety guidelines.
Deeya: I think I'm lucky that my parents have always been supportive of me. Especially, in this field where there aren't a lot of girls. It's not traditionally something which has been associated with women; I believe it was important for me to change that perception and say: "Hey, women can do anything they want to if they put their minds to it." When we decided that both of us want to go climb, I think that was scary for my mother; if anything goes wrong, that's half of her family up there on the mountain.
Q. What advice did you give your daughter the first time she came on a serious expedition with you?
Ajeet: This has happened over the years...the important thing is to prepare; to prepare hard physically and with the right equipment. But more than that, I tell her to simply enjoy the great outdoors. The idea is to have fun and every time we come back, we want to do whatever we can in our small way to preserve the natural beauty around us, and also encourage others. Being amidst the mountains makes both of us very happy. I think that is when we are at our best; it is the most basic living – in a tent with the bare necessities but happy living.
Q. Deeya, when you first started, were you apprehensive?
Deeya: I don't think I was apprehensive because it has always been a way of life for me. It is something I have been doing from a young age: the progression has been so natural. Also, having my dad around really makes a big difference. I would have never done it otherwise. I know he is always around to help and guide me.
Q. What preparation did you do for the Mt Everest expedition?
Ajeet: I would wake up at around 5:00 a.m. and hit the gym by 6:00 a.m. An hour and a half of cardio, some lightweights, a swim and I would be in office by 9:00 a.m. Deeya would go and do all of this but a bit later in the day; she would come into office, do a bit of work and then she would hit the gym.
We also did four major expeditions for training. The first one was in Ladakh, where we climbed the Kang Yatze mountain which is about 21,000 ft; that was for two weeks in August last year. In December, we went to Nepal where we met our sherpas, we got our equipment and we did a winter trek. We crossed the Renjo-La pass (18,000 ft); that was a good experience and then in January, we went for some ice climbing and technical climbing to the French Alps. Then again, between late February and early March, we spent about two weeks in Ladakh, doing some high altitude training. We were lucky as we got to see the snow leopard while we were there.
Q. Apart from Mt Everest, which are the other mountains that you have climbed together?
Ajeet: We traversed Mt Elbrus in Russia, it is the highest mountain in Europe. That was in 2013. Deeya was just 14 when we did our first serious expedition -- the 18-day sea kayaking expedition to Greenland. And at 17, she became the youngest person in the world to ski across the Greenland Ice Cap, about 550 km, where temperatures can go as low as –45 degrees celsius at times.
Q. What was the best father-daughter moment from this hike?
Ajeet: Deeya got to the summit around 10-15 minutes before I did because I had a problem with my oxygen mask. I had promised my wife that we would always be together. But, at –45 degrees or so, if you wait around, it gets very cold. I took a quick decision that Deeya should go on ahead with a sherpa we trusted. She was climbing strongly, and we had crossed the most difficult bit of the climb. Luckily, I was able to rectify the problem. That was a tough decision, but in the end, it was the right one. The best moment of the trip was when I too reached the summit; it was a very emotional one too, when all our hard work paid off.
The climb down was more daunting. We had reached the summit at first light and now that it was bright, we could see the path – it looked dangerous. We told each other that we should really concentrate on the way down because one slip could have been disastrous.
Deeya: It never crossed my mind that my father was having difficulties with his oxygen mask. It was only when we came down and he told me that I realised how serious it could have been for him.
Q. Who is more resilient among you two?
Deeya: On Mt Everest, both of us were super resilient. We had trained really hard and that made all the difference. It was about mental strength and both of us were prepared because we had thought through everything. We were tested often but never thought of giving up.
Q. Deeya, what are the qualities you have imbibed from your father?
Deeya: We think and react similarly when it comes to dealing with situations and scenarios that arise in the mountains. He has always taught me to respect nature. He is also very generous on the mountains and I have learnt that from him -- to be humble about achievements and to realise we are fortunate to be climbing these mountains.
Q. Tell us about the bonding you share and how it has shaped your life.
Deeya: We bond better up in the mountains than when we are in Delhi. At home, we are a very normal father-daughter with rules like no late-nights and all that. We also have our share of disagreements. In the mountains, he is the person I trust completely, I know he has my back. But that relationship too has changed, I think. When I was younger, he would take charge and now we are like partners; we have got each other's back. We cannot have that kind of support, love and trust in random people. Having my dad around makes a big difference and has really changed my life.
Q. What has been your proudest moment?
Ajeet: As a father, it is the Mt Everest climb. The happy moments in our life are those where we can just be with our kids. That in itself – spending time outdoors – is big.
Deeya: There were so many. Dad will never admit it but age does matter in terms of how you feel on the mountain, and he was climbing up like a 20-year-old! The way he kept up, his energy, enthusiasm and passion throughout the climb, it has always been inspiring to me. I just feel that my dad is invincible, it's hard to remember that he also has his problems.
Q. Apart from climbing mountains and creating records, what else do you like doing together?
Deeya: Most of the things we do are adventure-related. We love to go scuba diving, to ski, kayak, go rafting – anything to do with adventure and adrenaline. As a family too, we seek to push our limits.
Q. What inspired you to start Snow Leopard Adventures?
Ajeet: This is a hobby, a passion and now, a profession. When I left college, all my friends were getting real jobs in the real world. But I decided to follow my passion, and I think that has made all the difference. They believe now that I have the best job.
Q. So, you have finished scaling Mt Everest. What next?
Deeya: We are thinking of climbing Mt Vincent in Antarctica.
Q. What is your message to youngsters who want to take up adventure sports and travel?
Ajeet: I think adventure sports and travel is a fantastic profession. Of course, it is critical that youngsters first build their skills to international levels and also respect nature. They must learn to manage risk appropriately whenever they go out. More important, they should also embrace sustainability and leave Mother Nature cleaner than how they found her.
Q. What is the message that you would like to give your father?
Deeya: I would like to say a big ‘Thank You’ to him, for being an amazing expedition partner, friend and father. He has inspired me to reach heights I could have never even imagined. I am so grateful to have such an amazing, supportive, adventurous and cool dad!
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