The first thing to know about bouldering, and perhaps the most important, is that sooner or later you are going to run out of holds.
There are a host of technical climbing words to describe what boulderers do when their hands have nothing to grip, but essentially it comes down to this: Press down your fingers and palms as hard as possible against any kind of undulation on the rock surface, jam your toes hard on the rock at odd angles, and brace yourself.
The mere friction of rock against palms and toes, and the strength of your muscles, are supposed to keep you stuck to the smooth, sloping surface till you figure out your next move.
It’s just the kind of thing Sandeep Maity loves.
“All balance and friction and tricky stuff,” Maity says, slapping chalk dust on his palms to counter the sweat, and surveying the little outcrop of rocks rising over 20ft in the middle of a park in New Delhi.
Maity is light, lithe and supremely agile. He has a calm, perpetually amused look on his face, and he was the first Indian to compete at the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) Bouldering World Cup, held in Millau, France, this May. A remarkable feat, since rock climbing exists mainly as a marginal recreational activity in India.
“I was really nervous at the world champs,” Maity says, “some of the world’s best climbers were there. Some of them have been climbing for 20 years, and I am just 20 myself. But once I realized that I was there for the experience, to learn and observe, it became a lot of fun.”
He finished towards the bottom of the pile, but it was still a critical move up for Indian sport climbing. After the championships, Maity went to Austria to compete in two IFSC World Cups.
In fact, 2013 has been a year like no other. In the last six months, Maity has been to France, Italy, Slovenia and Austria, making his pilgrimage to some of the world’s most famous climbing sites. “Fontainebleau in France is a dream for any climber,” he says. “It’s where bouldering was discovered and developed.”
The sandstone rock formations in the forests of Fontainebleau, on the outskirts of Paris, have been used for climbing since the 19th century. The area is so central to climbing that the system used in Europe for grading the difficulty of a bouldering route is called “Font”.
“I climbed a 7C here,” Maity says, referring to a number towards the upper end of the difficulty spectrum on the Font grade.
In Italy, he tackled massive granite formations in lush Alpine surroundings, with very steep overhangs where he learnt how to “Mantel”—a counterintuitive move which involves pushing down on a hold to lift your body up when there are no overhead grips to pull up on.
In Slovenia, Maity trained with champion climber Klemen Becan, and tackled his first limestone formation—where the rock is soft, and the holds are hidden in little “pockets” pockmarked on the rock surface.
“In India, we are still climbing hold-to-hold,” Maity says. “But throughout Europe I was constantly doing ‘volumes’, big triangles or oval shapes where you don’t get a grip.”
"Maity, who first started climbing at 12, knew by the time he was 14 that there was nothing else he wanted to do"
Maity, who first started climbing at 12, when he was fascinated by the climbing wall at his school in Delhi (a rare feature), knew by the time he was 14 that there was nothing else he wanted to do. A professional climber is unheard of in India, where the sport has no commercial base. But Maity gave up on college to focus full-time on climbing. Finances are always a struggle—for his Europe trip, he put in his own savings, his friends pooled in, and a couple of organizations pitched in as well—coaching is non-existent, and his parents swing between pride and anxiety at their son’s choice of career.
Maity’s participation in global sport climbing competitions, though, is a good indicator of the aspirations of a new generation of rock-climbers. Last year, the Indian team finished fifth at the Asian Youth Climbing Championship in Iran, its best performance. The seven-member team included Pune’s Tuhin Sartarkar, 18, who has already bagged a sponsorship deal with Red Bull, and Bangalore’s Chea Amelia Mark, 18, considered the best woman climber in India. Both are determined to become professional climbers.
But the biggest boost for India’s sport climbers came from the performance of Kumar Manikandan at the Paraclimbing World Championship in Paris in September, where he won gold, the first Indian person to win any kind of medal at a senior-level international sport climbing tournament. Born with polio in his right leg, Manikandan, 26, lives in a slum in Bangalore. His father is a carpenter, and his mother used to roll incense sticks for a living.
“Manikandan is a huge inspiration,” Maity says. “He is the man. He is getting our sport the attention it deserves.”
If there’s one thing Maity regrets about this year, it’s that sport climbing lost its bid to become an Olympic sport. It was voted out of the shortlist of sports in consideration for the 2020 Games at an International Olympic Committee meeting on 29 May, just as Maity was making his way back to India from his Europe tour.
“I was so depressed,” Maity says, “I switched off my phone, and did not talk to anyone for a couple of days. Being part of the Olympics would have changed everything for our sport.”
Maity will forget the disappointment soon though, hanging precariously from a thin crack on a massive wall in the Zanskar gorge in Ladakh, where he is headed next.