The year was 2018. At 3:30 am on 16 May, as hurricane-force winds buffeted the summit of the world’s highest peak, the exhausted, sleep-deprived father-daughter duo, Ajeet and Deeya Bajaj, was gearing up for their last mile through the pitch-dark night from the North side of the mountain. Roughly an hour away from the peak, something went wrong. The tube supplying oxygen to Ajeet’s mask had frozen, coercing him to stop. A few more steps and he could die within minutes.
At 4:30 am, Deeya stepped on to the top of the world, a little before the brink of dawn, without her father but she could not process the magnitude of what she had achieved. “When dad asked me to go ahead, there was no time to question the decision,” the 28-year-old clenches her jaw as she revisits the moment. Fifteen minutes later, just as the sun rose at Mount Everest, she saw her father walk towards her.
With tears in their eyes, smiles on their faces, and pride in their hearts, the two hugged each other. As the Bajajs unfurled the tricolour, they also became the first Indian parent-daughter team to climb Mount Everest.
And there was more to come. Two years later, they scaled Denali, also called Mount McKinley — the highest mountain peak in North America — to become the first Asian father-daughter duo to climb all Seven Summits of the world.
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Over 8,000-meter elevations, low oxygen levels, high altitude, remote locations, fuzzy-brained, extreme cold, unannounced avalanches, and icefalls — these are just some of the hallmark features of Mount Everest, or what many describe as the ‘death zone.’
“If something happens to you, there is nothing like rescue,”57-year-old Ajeet says, noting how fortunate he was that the head sherpa in his group had an extra mask that helped him summit the Everest.
The Bajajs chose to scale Everest from the North side (which demarcates the border between Nepal and Tibet) — a strategic choice considered more technical and challenging route when compared to the South side. “When you are convincing a mother to let half of her family go on the expedition, we need to take as much precaution as possible,” Deeya says.
But acing the climb is only half the battle won. Descending from a height of 8,849 meter has its own set of challenges. “It’s the attitude, not the altitude,” said Jake Gyllenhaal, who portrayed an American mountaineer Scott Fischer, in Everest (2015) — a film based on the 1996 Mount Everest disaster. It is the same principle that Ajeet and Deeya abide by.
At 7:15 pm on 16 May, after 19 hours of laborious descent following the summit, Deeya and Ajeet reached the North Col of Everest, where they spent the night before heading back to the base camp the next day.
It was their third time at the North Col, but it was nothing like the first couple times. The first time they arrived at the North Col, it was during their acclimatisation hike, when the clouds of self-doubt and nervous anticipation had not quite faded away. The second time was while going up to the top as the Bajajs felt excited about taking on the challenge. “But the third time, there was a sense of relief and gratitude,” shares Ajeet.
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Like father, like daughter
Ajeet is an early riser with a strict discipline to exercise first thing in the morning. Deeya imbibes the same drill, only a little later in the day. Ajeet expresses his love for the outdoors with child-like enthusiasm. Deeya weighs her words in conveying a similar love for adventure. Ajeet was 12 years old when he climbed the 12,000 feet high Friendship Peak near Kullu. Deeya went on her first hike before she could even walk. Despite being a generation apart, both father and daughter are an extension of each other’s personality.
They are perfectly in sync — one’s thrilling endeavor has metamorphosed into a career in adventure travel while for the other, it has been the way of life. Ajeet, along with his wife Shirly Thomas Bajaj, runs Snowleopard Adventures, an adventure tour operator, while, Deeya is pursuing MBA from Wharton Business School in Philadelphia, US.
The energy in their spacious residence in DLF Phase 3, Gurugram is a reflection of their years of adventures and achievements. Just as you drive through the neatly stacked identical (almost) low-rise condominiums of Garden Estate, you might miss the Bajaj residence if you aren’t too careful. The five-step walk from the main gate to the door across the tiny garden is just enough time to marvel at the house’s colonial architecture.
As is the case in most homes inhabiting pets, it is Sasha, the family dog, who is the first to welcome (not so warmly) any visitor.
Despite the presence of a huge Christmas tree outside the living room, it is the umpteen number of accolades and family pictures in the living room that draw attention.
Between photographs of the family meeting former President Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, and Deeya and her younger sister Meghna’s first kayaking trip, it is Ajeet’s Padma Shri — the fourth-highest civilian award of India — from 2012, that shines the brightest. If not for a dozen of trophies, and plaques, it appears to be a regular living room with a humongous library on one end and a television on the other.
Sitting across each other on the couch nestled in the middle of the room on a chilly December morning, Ajeet and Deeya can go on talking about their expeditions and love for the outdoors until interrupted.
“We bond better up in the mountains than when we are at home. Even that has evolved now. When I was younger, he would take charge but now, we have got each other’s back,” says Deeya, while also acknowledging the privilege and psychological support it provides when traversing the mountains with your parent.
Regardless of what or who you are climbing a mountain with, there is always an element of risk, and it does not make the expedition any less predictable. Ajeet recounts a particularly windy corner during their summit to Denali in June 2022, with narrow crevices on a steep slope, to emphasise the individual challenges of any adventure. But he agrees that just a word of comfort and support from Deeya makes a lot of difference.
“More than dad bubble-wrapping me, the psychological safety of having someone who is looking out for you, is incredible,” says Deeya.
From an adventure buddy, Ajeet quickly transforms into a doting father each time Deeya recounts her experiences, be it her first major expedition i.e. sea kayaking in Greenland at the age of 14, or her stint at the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering or admission into an Ivy League institution.
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Ain’t no mountain high enough
If Everest was the most difficult climb for the Bajajs, Mount Kosciuszko — the highest mountain peak in Australia — was barely a walk in the park. Among others, Kilimanjaro (Africa), Elbrus (Europe), Aconcagua (South America), Vinson Massif (Antarctica), and Denali (North America) have been the difficult ones to traverse (in that order).
“There is no challenge too big,” says Ajeet. The 57-year-old is also the first Indian to complete the polar trilogy, which entails skiing to the North Pole, South Pole, and across the Greenland icecap.
Mountaineering is often regarded as a solitary, meditative experience where one tries to escape family, work, etc. In Bajajs’ case, family and work are interspersed with their passion. But more than ‘getting away’ from reality, the two thrive on the adventure and camaraderie they have gained along the way. It helps that Ajeet’s wife and Deeya’s mother, Shirly is an adventure lover herself, hence convincing her for any expedition was never too challenging.
“Mountaineering is very much a team sport. If someone is not well, you descend together. There are times you are alone with your thoughts but the best part is when you are with people you are bonding and travelling with,” says Deeya.
In 2018, when Ajeet and Deeya were descending from Everest, their group took a break. Sitting atop a height of about 10,000 ft with a steep path downhill, the cold winds were escalating at an unimaginable speed. Just then, they asked one of their Sherpa buddies, “How do you say “my butt is cold” in Nepalese?” Within seconds, the laughter pierced through the ice-cold atmosphere. Four years later, when Ajeet and Deeya reminisce about the moment, sitting in their home, they still laugh their hearts out.
Sports or outdoor activities are their go-to option to unwind even when the two are not climbing mountains together. Be it cycling, swimming, or tennis, you may take nature away from the Bajajs, but you can’t take them away from nature. “We also have a term for it. SOS, which stands for, scenic overdose syndrome. Nature at its purest and raw state, that’s what fuels our tank for the next expedition,” says Ajeet.
After summiting the seven highest peaks in the world, one would wonder what comes next. While they think of the next adventure, for now, the Bajajs are headed to Aravali Biodiversity Park, a familiar territory five-minute drive away.
(Edited by Ratan Priya)