Between a rock and a hard place
“When you first approach a boulder, the idea is to follow the most obvious line to the top,” says Bengaluru-based Dhillan Chandramowli, 33, a media consultant.
It’s not for most people, but he’s talking as a boulderer. In scenic locations across the country, people like Chandramowli are meeting up on weekends or taking special trips to go bouldering.
This is an adventure sport where you pick a rock 15 ft to 35 ft in height, and then map a route to the top that you can follow using just your hands and feet; no ropes, no harnesses.
It’s an intense but relatively inexpensive adventure sport — the right shoes, and small mattresses called crashpads are the only equipment required. It’s also quite a social one — as you attempt your ascent, fellow boulderers shout out tips or encouragement, and move the crashpads around so that you don’t land on rock when you fall.
Once a route to the top of a rock has proved successful, it is recorded as the ‘route’ for that rock. There may be several route for one boulder. Then there are boulders for which no route seems to work and solving them can take a person years.
The first person to ascent a boulder gets to name it for the community. Delhi boy and bouldering champion Sandeep Maity, 26, took three years to make one of his toughest conquests ‘Playing with Shadows’. That was in Hampi in 2015.
“When you come across a problem that is hard enough to really challenge you, there is a certain excitement that just drives you to persist,” says Maity. “Sometimes you’re stuck in a loop, and every time you try, you think this is the day, and you try to hold on for just long enough. It’s all about technique and the thrill comes from the fact that your mind and your body are your only equipment.”
Bouldering originated about 100 years ago as a way for Alpine rock-climbers in Europe to train during off-season. It can be done indoors — that’s how most of the international competitive events are conducted, or outdoors.
But outdoor bouldering is seasonal — you can’t boulder in rain, snow or extreme heat. In India, climbers spend winters in places like Hampi, Badami and Turahalli in Karnataka and migrate north to areas such as Suru Valley in Jammu & Kashmir and Chhatru in Himachal Pradesh (HP) in the summers.
As the adventure sport became more popular, it made it to more and more sporting events — the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) conducted its first world championship in bouldering in 1999; competitive bouldering was introduced at the Asian Games in 2018, as part of the sport climbing triathlon; and bouldering will be part of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, also as part of the climbing triathlon.
In India, indoor bouldering walls have sprouted in the metro cities. At Bengaluru’s Equilibrium, monthly users have gone from 50 in 2013 to an average of 250 today, says co-founder Mahanya Sreedhar. In Delhi, the Indian Mountaineering Federation has a bouldering wall at its climbing gym. And Boulder Box was set up three months ago in response to growing demand.
Girivihar, Mumbai’s oldest mountaineering organisation, set up one of Mumbai’s first bouldering walls in 2010 at the Poddar College. “When we started, there were about four of us who would regularly practice here, but these days, some 15 climbers train at the wall every day,” says Franco Linhares, an amateur climber who manages the facility.
India even has a few competitive boulderers.
In 2013, Maity became the first Indian to qualify for the IFSC bouldering world championship.
The IMF sent seven climbers to the Asian Games last year, and at the Asian Youth Championships in China, also last year, India’s top climber Shivani Charak of Jammu and Kashmir came in 9th among 21 bouldering contenders.
“At IMF we have about 100 people coming in daily and special training programmes for different age groups,” says Vikramaditya Chaudhary, chief instructor at IMF. “Seven of India’s top climbers have qualified to for the upcoming Olympics in Tokyo.”
India is a haven of unexplored rock. There is the vast expanse in Hampi in Karnataka, one of the country’s most popular and most well-documented bouldering gardens; there are the lower Himalayan foothills in Himachal Pradesh. Badami in Karnataka offers a playground of sandstone boulders.
India’s vast potential as a playground for bouldering was first documented by British climber Paul ‘Pil’ Lockey in the 1990s; he spent months clambering around in the valleys of Himachal Pradesh and amid the granite of Hampi. Copies of his hand-drawn charts still float about in the coffee shops of HP.
These days, that kind of information is moving online, onto interactive, crowd-sourced websites such as mountainproject.com and 27crags.com and apps like Sloper Climbing and Vertical Life. These platforms, in addition to routes and locations, also offer training programmes and let you track and log your progress as a boulderer.
Fun with festivals
Because it’s relatively social, and few people are in it to go pro, there’s a friendly subculture around bouldering — shared resources, informal training camps, festivals. The Tom and Jerry Climbing Shop in Hampi, founded by local climbers Koushik ‘Tom’ JR and Vikas ‘Jerry’ Kumra in 2012, conducts the Golden Boulders festival every year.
Suhail Kakpori and Tenzing ‘Jammy’ Jamyang of GraviT, an indoor bouldering gym in Leh, have been holding a two-week Suru Bouldering Festival every year since 2016.
“The festival helps us explore the land and discover routes we wouldn’t be able to discover on our own. We get over 100 participants every year, and this year we are including activities such as rappelling, yoga, as well as workshops with some of our best climbers,” says Jammy.
December saw 35 women gather in Hampi for the first edition of CLAW (Climb Like A Woman). “We wanted to give women boulderers a safe space to figure out their moves, and make their mistakes, without being judged,” says co-organiser Prerna Dangi, 26. “Some of us just have different levels of strength and it can be quite intimidating, so CLAW seeks to provide a more open environment for people of different sizes, shapes and levels of toughness to test and push their limitations.”