Subculture: Rock Climbing In India
As a climber and photographer, Jyothy Karat traces the provenance and growth of the sport in India
The first day of 2015 in Badami was cold. I was clinging on to a rocky overhang about 70ft high, petrified and with no strength to move. My arms were ‘pumped’ – meaning, lactic acid had built up in my forearms due to the strenuous climbing. I was sweating profusely, despite the cool breeze that was now threatening to throw me off the rocks. Inevitably, my hands slipped from the rocks. The rope, latched somewhere above and attached to my harness, broke my free fall, but my belayer couldn’t stop me from swinging like a pendulum. I suppose I had screamed, or maybe I only screamed inside my head. Later my friends told me that I had enough presence of mind to stop my swing using my arms and legs and therefore protected myself from crashing into the rocks. I remember my legs feeling wobbly on the ground. My belayer had brought me down safely. I felt somewhat embarrassed, disappointed with my own performance. And wondered whether I would ever get another chance to climb up those rocks, and be strong enough to do it well. That thought is perhaps what got me hooked on the sport of rock climbing in India.
For centuries, the idea of conquering mountains has possessed men and driven many to their untimely deaths. Mountaineering was pioneered in the West, but most Western climbers looked Eastward for their greatest challenge, the most famous of them being Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. Somewhere along the way, some of the Alpinists of the world recognized their obsession for climbing rocks and popularized it throughout the world as an autonomous sport. It was only a matter of time before India followed suit.
Rock climbing came to India in the 1960s, disguised as a necessary skill for mountaineering, and clubs around the country actively promoted the sport. Mountaineers practiced ‘aid climbing’, which meant climbing the rocks with the help of equipment, like
A few years later, ‘free climbing’ was introduced. Here, climbers use their arms and legs to scale a rock face a la Spider Man, and the equipment (ropes, harnesses, carabiners, etc) is only used to keep them tethered to the wall in case of a fall. And fall they would. But the idea was to pick themselves up and train harder and harder until they were able to reach the top without taking another fall.
The sport eventually took a competitive turn and the first competition in India was conducted in the winter of 1996 at the Indian Mountaineering Foundation, New Delhi. By then, artificial walls with plastic holds had been introduced and the activity came to be called ‘sport climbing’, distinguishing itself from its better half, ‘rock climbing’. Many rock-climbing enthusiasts hoped that these artificial walls would be used as training platforms to conquer harder climbs out on the cliff faces. But, they also gave rise to a new generation of climbers who focused all their attention on sport climbing and the myriad competitions that surrounded it, like Praveen CM, the only Indian climber to have won National Climbing Championships 16 years in a row. In turn he’s inspired the current reigning champion, Pune boy Ajij Sheikh. “I was introduced to climbing when I was in school. I saw Praveen sir win three gold medals in 2008. I cried watching the event. I thought to myself that I would grow up to become a champion like him,” says Ajij Sheikh, who did grow up to be the champion he’d always wanted to be. For Praveen, a chance encounter with rock climbing during a school excursion got him interested in the sport. His innate skills and effortless talent quickly saw him soar to the top of his game.
In Badami, hidden in the hinterland of Karnataka, a rugged, red outcrop – 2.5 billion years old – rises above a ravine. I’ve met some of India’s best climbers here, as also renowned climbers from abroad. For these men, the most vital lessons in climbing come from nature. “I go to the rocks to learn moves, so that I can implement them in sport climbing,” says Praveen. “Sport climbing and competitions are where we get maximum exposure.” He has been climbing in Badami for the past 15 years and says that this has been his training ground. “The sandstone is much kinder on your fingers than granite, which is found in Hampi. This advantage allows us to climb harder and longer on the rocks”
Karnataka is arguably the capital of climbing in India, thanks to the beautiful red rocks of Badami, the much-sought-after boulders of Hampi and a strong community of climbers from Bangalore who keep the sport alive and vibrant. But come summer, the climbing tribe migrates north to Manali and Leh, Ladakh, to escape the scorching heat of South India. In recent years, the climbing community has also developed new rock climbing areas around cities like Bhopal, Pune, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Delhi and in Wellington, Tamil Nadu, and Mount Abu, Rajasthan. These days, Praveen is busy training the local boys of Badami to climb. There are other adventure companies, like Climb Up in Delhi and climbing gyms like Equilibrium in Bangalore that organize rock-climbing trips for beginners. “The community consists largely of warm, friendly people, who encourage new climbers a lot. All you need to get started is connect with another climber in your city,” says Praveen.
But given its small, cult following, professional climbers still find it hard to appeal to sponsors. Sheikh laments about how social media marketing skills determine chances for sponsorship, rather than actual climbing skills. He says life, as a climber, is a struggle in India. Unlike officially recognized sports in India, rock climbing has no job reservations and has little or no support from the central government. Most millennials who have excelled at their game are self-driven athletes with day jobs. Kumar Gaurav says his family didn’t always support him in what he was doing. But as he began to get some media recognition, they started to think that, maybe he’s achieving something in his life. “My family has always tried to discourage me from climbing. Sometimes it feels like the whole world and everybody in it just wants me to quit climbing. But my strength is in swimming against the tide.” “You cannot achieve anything great without enduring hardships. If you want it easy, you cannot be a climber,” says Praveen, who also happens to be the only man in the world to have ever summited Mt Zambala, a 5850m tall, notorious peak in the Siachen Glacier.
Back in Badami, though, a new generation of young climbers is racing against the rising sun to summit the red hills. I have often stopped myself, just in time, from asking some of them why they do what they do. Because as a climber myself, I already know the answer – this sport is addictive. When you’re up on the rocks, challenging your fears, pushing yourself into making that one move that you had thought was impossible, you experience a moment of clarity, when you realize that most of your life’s problems are, after all, trivial. And then, when you’ve come down to the safety of the hard ground, you’re ready for your next big challenge. On January 7, 2016, a year and seven days after my first attempt, I climbed the 100ft rock face, with no fall and a camera