A high and lonesome life on the rocks

Karnataka’s stunning variety of rocks, including the granite cliffs of Savandurga, one of Asia’s largest monoliths at 1,226m, is home to an exciting subculture of climbing

A climber at Savandurga. Photo: Courtesy Sohan Pavuluri
A climber at Savandurga. Photo: Courtesy Sohan Pavuluri

Aalok Bharadwaj still remembers that time in 2007 when they got lost on the rock. His partner Venkatesh was leading on High Lonesome, an 800ft climb in Karnataka. “We couldn’t find the next bolt. Venkatesh kept a cool head and found a way to move to a ledge off the route, running out almost the entire 60m length of rope for me, opposed to the usual 30m between pitches in climbing.” The duo eventually made it out okay by exiting from the shoulder of the rock. It’s far from the toughest climb Bharadwaj has done, but it’s one that will always stay with him. Now he can be philosophical about that day: “Adventure begins when things start to go wrong, they say”.

High Lonesome was named by Dinesh Kaigonhalli, a member of a cool gang of Bengaluru climbers who grew up on a diet of rock ‘n roll and Louis L’Amour (other climbs were named The Quick and the Dead and First Fast Draw). They never needed an excuse to drive out of the city in the 1980s and 1990s to conquer Karnataka’s stunning variety of rocks, including the granite cliffs of Savandurga, one of Asia’s largest monoliths at 1,226m.

Bharadwaj learned to climb at the age of 10 with Kaigonhalli, described as the author of many of the region’s classic climbs in a soon to be released guidebook by Bangalore Climbing Initiatives (they’re BCI and Bangalore Climbers on Facebook). The guide traces Bengaluru’s climbing tradition to the 1960s, though most of the pioneers were mountaineers not rock climbers. The group is run by people like Sohan Pavuluri who’s a finance guy for General Electric in the real world. His wife ensures he gets one day in the week off from family duties to go climbing.

Indians have recently discovered the fitness merits of this sport and cities like Pune, Delhi and Bengaluru now have climbing gyms (Navi Mumbai hosted the Climbing World Cup last year), but Karnataka’s wild and wonderful climbing subculture has been around for a while thanks to the abundant natural arenas located in places like the red sandstone of Badami, the rocks of Hampi (a global bouldering destination) and Gabbar Singh’s residence in Ramanagara. Turahalli Forest, on the outskirts of Bengaluru, doubles up as the city’s outdoor climbing gym, says Pavuluri.

The sport’s inclusion in the 2020 Olympics will only ensure its popularity grows further, though Bharadwaj says this will happen only if the CrossFit crowd embraces climbing. Participants in the immensely addictive American Ninja Warrior, for example, are mainly hip hop artistes, parkour experts and climbers, he adds.

India has several climbers who compete (look up Ajij Shaikh from Pune and Praveen C.M. from Bengaluru) but my favourite is 30-year-old Manikandan Kumar or Mani. When he travelled alone to Paris in 2012 and won his first international medal, a gold at the Paraclimbing World Cup, he had to spread the news through Facebook: “I’ve become a world champion.” That was also the day his dad, a carpenter, finally stopped nagging him to get a proper job.

Getting him to tell me his story over the phone is like pulling teeth. When we meet at the base of the 56ft climbing wall at Kanteerava stadium, his second home for the past 14 years, he warms up slowly. That’s just the way I am, he says. He’s been asked to do a TED Talk for the past two years but he’s too shy to get on stage and talk about himself for 6 minutes.

Kumar loves Roger Federer for his talent and his humility (his gmail ID is maniroger). He idolizes climbing champion Ramón Julián Puigblanque, partly because at 5ft, 3 inches, the Spaniard is only a few inches taller than Kumar. He usually ends up being the shortest participant in any international paraclimbing tournament, which can be a pain because climbing a wall is also about your reach.

For some, rock climbing is a more personal pursuit. For Kaigonhalli, climbing meant escape. “It meant freedom to me. The very idea of moving over a certain medium in a certain plane solving puzzles interests me…. Only when you go out to explore, you explore within. It taught me that there is happiness in simplicity and that fear is something you can control.” Kaigonhalli is an engineer but gave up that life for the love of rocks. He figured out a way to make a living out of it too, when he co-founded Wildcraft, a popular adventure sports equipment chain of stores.

Climbing is a spiritual experience for Bharadwaj too. Like Kaigonhalli, he believes in the old fashioned, outdoorsy climb over the recreational or competitive kind practised on artificial walls. For him too, it’s about being connected with the outdoors and stepping out of his comfort zone.

“It’s a very elegant, very balance-y sport…instinctive and intuitive. That’s why children figure it out easily,” says Bharadwaj over coffee. His adventure products and services start-up FeetOffGround retails the popular Mini Mighty, a climbing wall for children.

Play Climbing, an online community to promote rock climbing, is hosting a pull-up competition in Bengaluru later this month. “You can develop your big muscles at a gym but to develop your small muscles, the only way is to climb,” says Bharadwaj. A climber’s strongest muscles are in his fingers, he adds. He taps his fingers on my tiny cup of espresso. “I could do a pull-up on something as thin as this handle,” he says.

Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable. She tweets at @priyaramani and posts on Instagram as babyjaanramani.

Also read Priya’s Mint Lounge columns

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