To say that Badami and Hampi, both in Karnataka, attract rock climbers would be to understate things. They are separated by 146 kilometres, a small enough distance to cover for climbers fuelled by passion. Hampi is strongly identified with bouldering, the art of climbing boulders with little gear — just a pair of climbing shoes, a crash pad to cushion one’s fall, chalk to keep the hands sweat-free and a friend to spot you. Badami, in contrast, has bouldering plus a wealth of longer routes for sport climbing, which entails a rope, pre-fixed bolts in the rock, more climbing gear than used in bouldering and definitely a second climber to belay. Badami offers beautifully weathered sandstone (we call everything here sandstone, but geology shows it is more complicated). Badami’s stone is kind on climbers’ fingers. Climbing in Hampi is done on granite, which shreds skin.
Badami has several popular climbing areas. From past visits, I remember crags named Indian Alley, Ganesh Plateau, Temple Area and Badami Deluxe. Today, at any one of these known climbing spots, you will see several bolted sport climbing routes. N Ravi Kumar, who hails from Bangalore and is currently director of NOLS India, was among the early climbers frequenting Badami. According to him, in those days, there was nothing on the approach to the Badami Deluxe and Temple Area crags, save a house and the small facility of the General Thimayya National Academy of Adventure (GETHNAA). All the initial climbing was traditional (trad) in style, using removable protection, as opposed to permanent protection. “There were no bolts then,’’ he said. It changed with sport climbing’s ascent in India. One of the great attractions of sport climbing is that thanks to pre-fixed protection (expansion bolts), climbing lines are possible on rock faces otherwise devoid of adequate features to host trad gear. In turn, that makes moves in sport climbing pretty difficult, because tackling potentially sketchy rock faces is built into the ethos of this discipline.
In late January 2014, as I stood in Badami, facing the orange glow of its sandstone rock walls, my attention was on a rock overhang far to the right, near the Temple Area crag. A bit over one kilometre from the local bus depot, tucked into the curve of the rock, was a sport climbing route called Ganesha. In climbing, routes have names. Graded 8b+ in terms of climbing difficulty on the French scale, Ganesha was then the toughest among known graded sport climbing routes in India. Ganesha was bolted some years ago by Alex Chabot, a champion climber from France. Its first ascent happened in 2011; the credit went to French climber Gerome Pouvreau. In Rohit Chauhan’s guidebook to climbing in Hampi and Badami, Ganesha’s grade was speculated as 8c or 8c+; this publication was the first guidebook for this area. Chauhan said in a recent email from Spain that he had to count on estimation by others familiar with the Ganesha project, for a sense of the new route’s grade. As often happens in climbing, there is a gap between the perception of a route in project stage, and reality. The right grade is a consensus among climbers who have climbed the route fully. Multiple ascents over a period of time then lower the grade. 8b+ is what Ganesha earned after first ascent; it is what it still has for grade.
One early morning, I walked away from the Badami bus depot towards the local APMC (Agricultural Produce Market Committee) office on the outskirts of town. From here, a dusty road branched off to the left, through an archway, onto the nearby hill — it was the way to the Temple Area crag and Ganesha. A young man by the roadside saw me approach, backpack and all. “Hello,’’ he said. I returned the greeting. “You climber?’’ he asked. What do you say, if you used to climb but haven’t done so for a long time? Besides, this whole business of defining climber and seeming one irritated me. I am sure the young man didn’t mean it thus, but I was already agitated with my thoughts. I smiled and shook my head. “Climber — that word is better used for others. I am simply in search of Ganesha,’’ I said. “Oh, Ganesha project — it is right over there,’’ he said pointing to a rock face. “What do you do?’’ I asked. “I am a climbing guide,’’ he said. That was a new development, for in none of my previous visits to Badami had anyone offered such an introduction. I met him a few more times later, at the crags, where he was with clients. He had been climbing for the past two years. A resident of Badami, he stayed in a house right where I met him.
Eighteen year-old Tuhin Satarkar from Pune climbed Ganesha on December 14, 2013. He thus became the first Indian to complete an 8b+ route in India and he is the only climber supported by Red Bull in India. Internationally, Red Bull sponsors many athletes. “Indian climbers have the strength and endurance required for demanding routes. What we lack is technique,’’ Satarkar said. Although climbing infrastructure has improved in India, a huge gap exists between here and overseas. For example, take artificial climbing holds (with rising urbanisation, climbing on artificial walls has become the popular entry for youngsters into rock climbing) — big volume holds, features, etc, are still only trickling into India. On the other hand, they are the stuff of new routes at world cups and world championships, Satarkar said. We were in the restaurant of a hotel in Badami. The young man’s laptop had a prominent Red Bull sticker; he also offered me a can of the drink. In retrospect, a Red Bull-sponsored trip to climb in Austria and Italy with well-known Austrian climber Kilian Fischhuber, in November 2013, may have helped improve his climbing and equip him for the unexpected December rendezvous with Ganesha.
Until this trip, Satarkar’s hardest climb had been a sport route called Jackpot (7b to 7b+) at Sinhagad, in Pune. During the 15-20 days spent climbing in Europe, he did his first 8a, a route in Italy. The tryst with Ganesha materialised after Paige Classen, an American climber who became the first woman to climb Ganesha, sought his help for her climbing project. Otherwise, Ganesha hadn’t been on Satarkar’s mind. In 2012, he had attempted the route, climbing up to the fourth clip (bolt plus quick-draw placed for protection) before giving up. On India’s climbing scene, Satarkar is unique. At the decade-old Girivihar Climbing Competition, in Navi Mumbai, I had seen him climb when still a kid, moving from junior category to senior over the years. His parents are climbers. While many young Indian rock climbers struggle to explain what they do — not to mention why they do what they do — to their families, Satarkar had the required ecosystem at hand. He started climbing from age seven, growing up in a house with a climbing wall. His first climbing competition was in 2002, an event on the Pimpri-Chinchwad climbing wall in Pune. In 2007, he finished second at the nationals in the under-14 category. That was when he decided to take up climbing seriously.
Somebody he looked up to in those days was Vaibhav Mehta, then living in Mumbai and leading a pack of sport climbers, the first bunch of climbers from the region to treat climbing as the only thing they wanted to do. Improving over the years, Satarkar became part of India’s youth team visiting championships in Singapore (2011) and Iran (2012). The Red Bull sponsorship happened thanks to his participation in the Girivihar Climbing Competition, in a year when the company was one of the sponsors. As Navin Fernandes, Red Bull’s athletes specialist, pointed out, Satarkar fit in well with Red Bull’s approach of investing in athletes when still young. Currently, Satarkar is what you could call a professional climber; he climbs just as someone else goes to work in an office. Climbing is what he does every day. In India, Badami is his favourite climbing spot. He also claims to have been a fan of Alex Chabot, watching his videos much before the French climber visited India.
In mid-January 2014, Vinay Potdar, friend and climber, assisted at the annual Girivihar Climbing Competition. He was coming straight from climbing in Hampi. Potdar was intrigued by a certain development. Soon after Satarkar’s success on Ganesha, a handful of young Indian climbers, ranging in age from sub-20 to early-20, cruised past the 8-mark. There was Gaurav Kumar (from Delhi) and Madhu CR (Bangalore) polishing off Samsara (8a) in Badami; Ajij Shaikh (Pune) pulling off two 8a boulder problems — The Diamond and The Middle Way — in Hampi; and Sandeep Maity (Delhi) doing the last two boulder problems plus Black Moon (8a) in Hampi.
The Middle Way was made iconic by Chris Sharma, who featured it in Pilgrimage, a film on him climbing in Hampi. The question isn’t so much about who climbed what first or whether some of these routes were done before. What is more interesting is the spectre of a bunch of people cracking a certain level of difficulty, coincidentally around December 2013-January 2014. Mohit Oberoi, who runs the Adventure 18 shops that retail adventure gear, has longstanding experience in both sport climbing and competition climbing. He attributed the emergent shift to greater availability of climbing infrastructure (artificial climbing walls) and properly graded routes in India. In the past, Oberoi himself had climbed close to the 8-level, but overseas. The critical element in the new development, he emphasised, is Indians breaching the 8-mark in India. “What we are seeing is a much awaited shift,’’ Oberoi said.
Tall and lanky, Satarkar’s hands and legs reach far on rock. This shapes his climbing style. His successful climbs become projects, entailing homework for others with a different climbing style. I recall Gaurav Kumar telling me that he would have to work to climb Ganesha, as the route isn’t his style. And, climbers do that — every style, every human size has its strengths and ability to innovate. According to Satarkar, Ganesha has strenuous moves at the start, cruises through the middle and poses a battle with fatigue near the finish. At the bottom of Ganesha, to take a photograph of the climbing route, all I saw was an overhang; the route seemed like ascending the edge of a mild mushroom. As elsewhere in Badami, on Ganesha too, chalk marks on rock betrayed the holds, the features — the key to tackling the route’s challenge. More accurately, one half of the key; the rest is the climber. What is a key if you don’t know how to use it?
Through late January to early February 2014, Satarkar and Fischhuber have been climbing in Badami. Fischhuber climbed Ganesha soon after arrival. I hung around watching some of their later projects. When I left Badami, two new routes were in the testing stage. One, next to Samsara, had been climbed in sections and was awaiting all the sequences to be sewn up in one flow; the other, on a nearby overhanging rock face, kept defeating the climbers with a very strenuous move in the middle. The unsaid quest across these routes, that tantalising thought beyond enjoying climbing was — are there routes in Badami exceeding Ganesha in difficulty? Will India get an 8c or 8c+; will we touch the 9-mark? Today, the toughest sport climbing routes in the world are in Spain and Norway, both graded 9b+, both climbed by the 20-year-old Czech rock climber, Adam Ondra. The ascent in Spain took him weeks of work.
In climbing, nothing comes to you and your comfort zone. You have to venture out. Fischhuber is from Innsbruck. I asked him what he thought of Badami. “This is a great place to climb. Good rocks and good routes. My only problem is with the heat,’’ he said one evening, on the winding path to the Temple Area. It was a team composed of three people in the main — Fischhuber, Satarkar and Johannes Mair, who handled photography and film-making. A typical day featured Satarkar climbing and Fischhuber belaying, or vice versa, with Mair perched on a nearby rock or dangling from a rope, filming the scene. Once in a while, Mair too climbed. Over an evening and the following morning and evening, I watched Fischhuber and Satarkar work the two newly bolted routes. Would they be tougher than Ganesha, I wondered. In sport climbing, the nature of the animal is such that the question can’t be avoided. Climbers I spoke to in Mumbai (where some of the blitz gang had gathered for the 2014 Girivihar Climbing Competition) felt that routes tougher than Ganesha existed in Badami.
In the third week of February, I checked with Satarkar to know what happened after I left Badami. Both the new routes, he said, have remained works in progress. Fischhuber almost completed a climb of the route next to Samsara. But, then, almost isn’t the same as completed, and with neither route fully done, it was probably correct not to guess their grade yet. On February 25, Fischhuber responded to a mail I sent him on the matter. “I have tried both routes. The left one seems possible, but I think we need Adam Ondra for it. The other route next to Samsara, I was quite close to doing, but in the end, I didn’t. I am not absolutely sure about the grade. This comes usually during the process of trying and is normally decided after the climb has been done. But I think it will be around 8c/+,’’ he wrote. The “left route’’ was the one featuring that particularly hard move in the middle. The search is on for beyond Ganesha.