Padma Shri-awardee Ajeet Bajaj is the first Indian to complete the Polar Trilogy. The managing director of Snow Leopard Adventures, who graces our A-List, talks to us about climbing Mt. Everest with his daughter and other adventures. By Kumar Shree
What was the first adventure you ever undertook?
When I was six, my father took me to Kashmir for my first trek. Thereafter, I trekked many times with him and got addicted to the great outdoors. Not only is the valley of Kashmir extremely beautiful, but the people are also incredible.
Was there a particular person or influence that steered you in the direction of a career in adventure?
My father introduced me to the great outdoors, and then my teachers at The Lawrence School, Sanawar, got me into mountaineering. I was also part of the Hiking Club, and later its president, in St Stephens College. One of the high points in my life was meeting Sir Edmund Hillary—I had the privilege of going white water rafting with him when he was the New Zealand High Commissioner to India.
How was the landscape of adventure sports in India when you launched Snow Leopard Adventures?
When I graduated from college, my friends were getting ‘real jobs’ in the ‘real world’. When I told them I was going to make my hobby, adventure travel, my profession, they thought I had lost it. Today, they acknowledge that I have the best profession on the planet. In 1990, when I started Snow Leopard Adventures, adventure tourism in our country was still in its infancy and was synonymous with daredevilry. Over the years, people have realised that if done properly, with good guides and gear while following a strict safety code of conduct, adventure travel can be extremely safe—safer than driving in the city. What we need is to follow government safety guidelines, train our guides well, and use internationally-certified equipment. Some of our Indian adventure companies are at par with the best on the planet today. Apart from risk management, all companies have to follow the ‘leave no trace’ ethos and act as honorary wardens for our wild areas. We have been seeing a rather disturbing trend of overcrowding and banning of some areas. Banning is not the solution; the answer lies in determining carrying capacity and sustainable management.
What’s the next adventure that you plan to tackle?
My daughter Deeya and I have climbed six of the Seven Summits, and we plan to attempt Mt Denali in Alaska, the highest in North America, in May 2020.
What are some of the most unique experiences on offer at Snow Leopard Adventures?
I would classify our experiences into three categories. First are our camps in the foothills of the Himalayas and in Orchha; second are our expeditions in various parts of the country such as the Snow Leopard trail in Ladakh, sea kayaking and multi-sport expeditions in the Andamans, climbing, trekking, and rafting/kayaking expeditions in the Himalayas, etc.; third, we specialise in outbound expeditions like the Kilimanjaro Climbing Expedition, the Everest Base Camp Trekking Expedition, the Kailash Mansarovar Expedition in Tibet, etc.
Where do you see the company going from here?
Within India, we are looking at expansion in the Andaman Islands, Ladakh, and Spiti, and also looking to set up a new camp on the Kundalika River in Maharashtra. We are also looking at setting up a few more sea kayaking expeditions. We would also like to focus on expeditions to exotic places such as Mustang in Nepal and Antarctica. We are also planning expeditions to the Seven Summits.
What has been your most prized accomplishment?
I have had the privilege of rafting and kayaking some of the wildest rivers spanning six continents, completing the polar trilogy—which entails skiing to the North Pole, South Pole, and across the Greenland icecap— undertaking many sea kayaking, scuba diving, and climbing expeditions, but my most prized accomplishment would be climbing Mt Everest from the harder North East ridge with my daughter, Deeya.
You travel with both your daughters. Which father-daughter adventure is the most memorable for you?
It’s hard choosing between two adventures that I’ve had with my daughters, Deeya and Meghna. The first one was a white water kayaking expedition on River Ganga from Devprayag to Rishikesh over four days. I was teaching them how to kayak—we skipped the big rapids but had fun together. The second one was a scuba diving experience in Bali. We shot an underwater dance video 20 meters below the surface to wish my wife and their mother a happy birthday.
You’re in the business of adventure tours. What does a vacation look like?
I am passionate about the great outdoors, and even when I am on vacation, adventure travel is a focus area. Having said that, after Deeya and I climbed Mt Everest last year, we took a family vacation in Goa, just bonding together as a family and spending quality time together.
What made you climb Mt Everest with your daughter?
Both my girls, Deeya and Meghna, were exposed to the outdoors at a very young age. Meghna is an avid scuba diver and a Taekwondo black belt. Deeya and I are passionate about extreme adventure. We have been kayaking, trekking, rafting, skiing, scuba diving, and climbing together for a few years now. Deeya has an Advance Course in mountaineering from the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering. Just before she went to Cornell University in the US, Deeya and I traversed Mt. Elbrus in Russia. Three years ago, when I visited her in her college, we decided that both of us should climb Mt. Everest. On the expedition itself, I would feel extremely proud when I would see Deeya climb strongly every day, but when we were in our tents, I was extremely worried for her safety and I would wonder whether I had done the right thing.
Tell us about the expedition and its preparation.
Preparation involved physical training for two to four hours every single day for about one year. Deeya and I also did four training expeditions. The first one was to climb a mountain in Ladakh called Kang Yatze, then we went to Nepal in December 2017, where we did a high-altitude winter trek and also bought a lot of our equipment and met our Sherpas. In January 2018, we went on a winter climbing expedition to the French Alps, and then in late February 2018, we went back to Ladakh and trained in an unusual way. We went looking for the snow leopard and were lucky to have four sightings of the elusive big cat.
Mountaineering involves a certain trust bond between climbers. Does the family dynamic transform with such expeditions?
Deeya has her youthful exuberance and high energy, we’re both meticulous with planning and train very hard, and our bond has become a lot stronger over the years, thanks to our adventure activities.
INDIAN: Ladakh and Spiti in Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Kerala, Andaman Islands, Sikkim, and Arunachal Pradesh.
GLOBAL: Greenland, Nepal, Canada, Chile, and Bhutan.