I don’t climb much these days. But of all the outdoor sports I care about, rock climbing is the most accessible. And thrilling, which is a bonus. Watch any child clamber up rocks, and you will see how natural it is—this connection we have with rocks. Take it further: I would say it is an evolutionary link that harks back to the time when we sat in caves and pounded rocks into sharp spears.
I love rocks. Historians wax eloquent about the fact that they are three billion years old and have stood the test of time. But, for me, rocks are a supremely sensual exercise. Their craggy yet smooth texture reminds me of a man’s face before a shave. The undulating curves remind me of a woman’s hips. And no, I don’t swing both ways, contrary to what the previous sentence might indicate. Not that, as Jerry Seinfeld would say, there is anything wrong with that.
Trust the rock: This is a physical and mental sport.
Most people think that rock climbing is a very physical sport. That it is. But it is equally a mental sport, although not in the ways you think. Superior climbers such as Lynn Hill or Harish Kapadia talk about strength, concentration and courage, to be sure. But they also talk about controlling the mind in a way that is more Eastern than anything else.
World-class climbers are intensely spiritual people. They talk about “listening to the rock” and using it as a guide in the climb. They use mantras, and believe that you have to “earn” a summit after investing in a climb and failing, sometimes many times. Above all, they talk about letting go and trusting the rock.
As any skier will know, in most adventure sports, proficiency increases when you relax and “go with the flow”. Sure, going with the flow is a cliché, but it is incredibly hard to achieve for most rational people who are used to thinking that improvement comes through more hard work, effort, thought and planning. For strategizers such as these, the prospect that you can get better at something by thinking less and letting go is a contradiction that doesn’t come naturally. The reason it works is because when you loosen up, your body’s deep-rooted instincts take over and show you the right way.
When I climbed rocks, my greatest advances came when I followed my instructor’s seemingly nonsensical advice. I remember scaling a modest 15ft rock as a beginner. I reached a point when I froze. Every climber has gone through this experience. I was a dozen feet above the ground and could see the sharp craggy plateau below me. I was panic stricken and breathless, or rather, I was holding my breath in panic. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t reach the next ledge with my hands and couldn’t do what Robert was saying from way below, “Push yourself up with your legs. Jump a little and grab the ledge above you”. Hell, no. I wasn’t jumping anywhere. It would involve a moment in time when I would be suspended in thin air without foothold or handhold.
“Bring me down,” I called. “I can’t do this.”
Yes, you can, came the voice from below. Loosen up a little. Breathe. Breathe, girl. Relax, and push away from the rock with your foot. You won’t fall. Trust the rock. Push away from the rock and jump towards the ledge above.
I rolled my eyes. What did Robert mean, trust the rock? All I could see were the sharp points below that would bash my skull if I fell.
You know what? It worked. After several deep breaths, I emptied my head of all the logical “no way this can work” thoughts and engaged in simple blind trust. This is what kids do. They don’t care about the future; they don’t see consequences with blinding clarity like adults do. I choose my words carefully.
Clarity is blinding sometimes because it tells you that certain things are not logically possible. Jumping away from a rock, for instance, is a sure way for gravity to work. Or so you think. What actually happens when you push away from a rock is that you fly upwards around the bulge to the next ledge. You grab it, and you are home free. You laugh with delight at conquering what you thought was impossible. And you are hooked for life.
Bangalore is blessed with fantastic rock climbing sites a mere 2 hours away in Ramanagaram, where Sholay (1975) was shot. Outdoor enthusiasts abound in this city, too. Thankfully, I have recently found an outdoor enthusiast who can factor in a key element in my current existence: kids. Most outdoor types are bachelors. They don’t have to deal with kids and their erratic schedules. To find a guy who can take not just me but also my kids rock climbing is like manna from heaven. Ramesh is just such a guy and his kids, it turns out, are around my kids’ age.
Even better. He will not hold it against me if I back out of a climb because of a child’s illness. He will not think me a wimp if I ask for a basic climb because I want to take my six-year-old along.
We went climbing at Savanadurga a few weeks ago: four families with lots of kids. Ramesh and Anand led the trek. Manish climbed with his baby on his shoulder, while the rest of us hobbled up a seemingly vertical cliff face. It was enervating and energizing. I can’t wait to do it again. The kids were the best climbers. They had a low centre of gravity and simply ran up the cliff while the rest of us pondered imponderables such as, “What if we fall?”
Shoba Narayan hopes to climb Duke’s Nose near Khandala next year. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org