Chea Amelia Marak belongs to the Garo tribe in Meghalaya. The Garos are mountainfolk known for their climbing skills. As a child, Marak’s mother used to scramble up the arecanut trees that punctuate the ragged terrain of the North-Eastern state. Now, it appears, the legacy of climbing has been passed on.
At 15, Marak is set to scale new peaks. In 2010, she won two gold medals at the National Sports Climbing Competition organized by the Indian Mountaineering Foundation. In 2009, she won two bronze medals at the Asian Youth Climbing Championship in Kazakhstan. She is among India’s finest young climbers in a sport that appears to be an obsession in secret nooks and corners of cities such as Bangalore and Mumbai.
Up the wall: Chea Amelia Marak scaling the wall at the Kanteerava Stadium, Bangalore. Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Ironically, it was when Marak was on a break due to a fall while climbing two years ago, that she realized her passion for the sport. “Even when I was injured, I would come to the climbing wall (at Kanteerava Stadium in Bangalore) to see how others climbed,” she says.
So what does it take to scale rugged peaks? What about the fear factor? Are climbers born or made? “For all the natural skill one may have, climbing requires determination, courage, power and commitment,” says Marak. “I have no fear of heights. I don’t think any climber does.”
The fear of climbing, if any, comes from tales retold of horrific accidents. Hollywood films, such as Vertical Limit, have not just captured the pure adrenalin rush of scaling scenic mountains but the inherent perils surrounding it. In February, Danny Boyle’s latest offering, 127 Hours, based on a true story, will release in India—it’s about a climber who is trapped among boulders in Utah, US, and has to take drastic steps to save himself. But most avid climbers say, if seen in terms of percentages, that road accidents are more frequent than climbing incidents.
Enthusiast Jay Sheth, who is headed to Uttarakhand in a few months, hopes to climb the Ranglana pinnacle, which is over 5,500m high, alone. Sheth, who organizes events in Mumbai, started climbing only in 2006 and has never done a solo ascent. Temperatures will be sub-zero, something he has never experienced before, “99%” of the people he has spoken to discouraged him, his climbing hero Cyrus Shroff failed in five attempts at the same peak and no Indian has ever reached this summit. So why would Sheth, carrying 25kg of equipment and supplies, make a climb that would require him to spend a night on a ledge?
“It’s an adrenalin rush—some need to take out their frustrations with their boss, some like to punish themselves, some like the heights…it makes you tough,” he says.
“People ask me why some people take up climbing,” says Dinesh K.S., who runs Bangalore-based adventure sports gear manufacturing company Wildcraft Inc. “Some want to come close to danger. But some others look at it as fun: a way of solving problems with skills while scaling up different kinds of surfaces. I see it as gymnastics on a vertical plane.”
The passion for climbing, at least in Maharashtra, has historical precedence. Iconic Maratha king Chhatrapati Shivaji’s forts dot the rugged terrain of the Sahyadri mountains in the Western Ghats. In stories retold across generations, Shivaji’s trusted general Tanaji Malusare, also known as Simha (lion), scaled the rock surface to capture the fortress of Kondana near Pune. Malusare died in battle, leading Shivaji to name the fortress Sinhagad.
Arun Sawant, who was the first to summit the “virgin” Duke’s Nose in the Sahyadris in 1985, says his passion for climbing comes from his love for the wild and inspiration from Malusare. “Sitting alone on the summit, I have never felt alone with nature,” says Sawant, who leaves a Ganpati idol on top of every pinnacle he climbs.
In the over 30 years that he has been climbing, Sawant has witnessed only one fatality—among another group of climbers—in 1987. He says this happens when people take undue risks. Fortunately, the majority of climbers take calculated ones.
Keeping it under control
Marak reels off the fundamental instructions and the dos and don’ts of climbing: You can’t afford to put on weight; you need strong, flexible limbs; you need good climbing shoes; ropes; you need to acclimatize to different rocks and keep track of sweat on your palms while climbing; you need holds and harnesses; you cannot afford to eat junk; you need to do lots of push-ups; and most importantly, you need to concentrate on “just getting to the next level…one step at a time”.
Dinesh, who is a climbing coach accredited by the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), a US-based school that’s a world leader in “wilderness education”, explains that there are largely two different forms of climbing—“aid” and “free” climbing. Aid climbing is scaling rocks, boulders, walls and hills with protection, such as holds and harnesses, that prevent falls. Free climbing or “pure” climbing depends wholly on the climber’s skill.
Dinesh and his group of fellow climbers have tried to popularize the sport in Bangalore. Indeed, one of the first stores of Wildcraft in Bangalore even had a climbing wall at the back of the showroom in the Jayanagar area. In the mid-1990s, they helped install the climbing wall at the Kanteerava Stadium. “We set (up) this climbing wall to popularize the sport. We thought it was a good way to get people interested so they go out of the city to places like Ramanagaram and Tumkur to get the real experience of pure climbing in the wilderness. But the opposite has happened. Unfortunately, people only climb within the city,” Dinesh says.
Kishor Chavan, a distributor for mountaineering equipment manufacturer Petzl in India, bemoans the lack of “pinnacle” climbers in Mumbai and Maharashtra. Watching a bunch of children over the age of 9 scamper up the Arun Samant Climbing Wall in Nandadeep High School, Goregaon, he says the urban Indian has become too lazy to attempt something that requires roughing it out.
“There are a handful of serious climbers in Mumbai who chase summits and the untried, which is an irony considering the amount of safety gear available now,” he says, adding that the steep cost(a complete set of necessarygear can cost anything from Rs 10,000-12,000) does not help.
The sport survives on optimism and the passion of a few—like 15-year-old Marak and the 53-year-old Sawant who is still “searching for new spots”.
If you feel like an adventure, start from here
Trekking and climbing expeditions are organized by, among others, the Bangalore Mountaineering Club and outdoor adventure companies such as Outback India (www.outbackindia.com), Ozone Adventures (www.ozoneadventures.com) and Getoff ur ass (www.getoffurass.com) which have specialized climbing as a highlight for their outdoor packages. Mumbai has groups such as Odati Adventures (www.odati.com), Proboscis (www.proboscis.co.in) and Girivihar (www.girivihar.org).
Arun Janardhan contributed to this story.