“Bong, what’s happening?’’ the policeman asked, exasperated.
It was late January 2012, well past midnight, and while the music at the small venue hosting a hundred or so climbing aficionados had long died, in keeping with prevailing law, somebody staying nearby had complained about the clapping and cheering. The big Bengali appealed to his Marathi friends, “Please, baat kar na yaar.’’ Belapur has known its climbing crazies for years, and even the crazies knew that climbing at 1am was crazy, but it was the men’s final. “Ten minutes more, that’s all,’’ Bong said.
Erstwhile rock climber, still trekker-mountaineer-cyclist and, most important, technician at large, Abhijit Burman aka Bong is the soul of a climbing competition that has taken place in Navi Mumbai for the last ten years. In late 2003, in his tiny apartment choked by climbing gear, Burman, who works at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), shared his idea of an annual open climbing competition. I still remember that day. We had come back from a whole morning at the crags; a physically fit, shabby-looking bunch with chalk powder on their clothes and hands. In the room, packed with crash pads and plastic drums bearing climbing equipment, we sat on the floor, while Bong handed out cups of tea and settled for his weekend pravachan on the cot.
Pravachan — that’s what we called it; the world according to Bong, the world according to the climbing community. The session that day had a theme. In those days, there was no big event in Indian climbing comparable to overseas climbing festivals. Bong wanted to start one in Belapur. Fellow club members put up some of the prize money and in January 2003, the first edition of Girivihar’s (Mumbai’s oldest mountaineering club) climbing competition got off to an enthusiastic start. The event hosted a mix of competition in Belapur and, if I recall right, a ‘rock trip’ for those interested, to well known climbing locales in India such as Hampi and Badami. This format — compete in Belapur and then climb for fun at some great climbing spot — became the annual pattern.
Within a few years of the competition’s commencement in 2003, it attracted young climbers from Mumbai, Pune, Bengaluru, Davanagere, Bikaner, Delhi, Kolkata, Darjeeling and northeastern India. What really mattered was how it coincided with a time when Mumbai saw a group of young climbers, led by Vaibhav Mehta, come to the fore. They were the city’s first lot of addicted climbers, whose GPS coordinate on any given day was typically some tough route on a rock. Pioneering new routes left, right and centre, they etched their legacy in the form of engaging route names, my favourite being the very evocative Finger Crisis. Critically, they represented both the local equivalent of young, brash climbers portrayed in overseas magazines and the advent of technical information such as climbing grades to the field. Given to full time-climbing, they soon became the Belapur competition’s route setters and manpower. The whole effort was a home-grown enterprise and, as one senior club member put it, organising it was an “annual fire-fight’’.
Once called India’s biggest open climbing competition (now there are more), the Belapur event is actually a tiny affair, for climbing itself is small in India. But, it is big for those involved. They bring to the table enthusiasm to match. Unable to afford artificial climbing walls, Bong engaged carpenters to make temporary ones. Over time, the walls — the Girivihar competition focusses on bouldering — improved. Bong’s brother Indrajit, an architect, helped design posters and also contributed to building the walls. Official T-shirts were printed. My kitchen even has an official coffee mug, courtesy a climber whose family owned a ceramics business. Rules for judging followed international norms.
On average, 50-60 participants turned up for the competition; in 2011 the number touched 116. They competed in men’s, women’s, boys and girls categories. There was also a small component of competing on natural rock at crags on nearby hills progressively lost to that classic Mumbai situation — slum encroachment. Incidentally, when the competition began, the larger component was climbing on natural rock, but a combination of factors encouraged the drift towards artificially built walls. First, the approach and access to Belapur’s climbing crags was always through the scars of urbanism’s expanding fringes — slums, real-estate lobbies, religious clans seeking real estate for places of worship and so on and so forth. Second, long climbing routes, secure enough for regular climbing and competition, were hard to come by in Belapur — even today there are not many. Mumbai couldn’t get its act together to put up a world-class climbing wall. On the other hand, artificial walls for bouldering aren’t as capital intensive to build. That’s what Bong, Indrajit and Girivihar’s climbers set out to do.
Normally, in India, we hesitate to present to the world our unglamorous life and home-built solutions. This changed when foreign climbers passing through Mumbai started seeking out the local climbing community and joining in. Any apologetic tone about the crags and the approaches to them slowly faded. In retrospect, one could say that this discovery of climbing as a leveller of disparities contributed to the confidence Girivihar showed in dreaming up a competition on home-built bouldering walls. As they did at the crags, foreign climbers dropped by for the competition as well. Among them was a former world champion (Alex Chabot of France), members of the Iranian national climbing team and in 2012, current and former national team members of Singapore and Indonesia. Additionally, there were several others who participated for the fun of it from Europe and the US.
Some years ago, climbing’s apex body worldwide, UIAA, had a special initiative for youth. The late Roger Payne, at that time a senior UIAA functionary, was in Mumbai for a Himalayan Club lecture. With him, there was no standing on ceremony or bureaucracy. Girivihar members met him to apprise him of the competition, and Payne gave the club members a patient hearing. Within weeks of his return to Europe, the Belapur competition was shortlisted for likely inclusion in UIAA’s calendar of events. However, Indian administrators, overseeing national competitions for selecting the best, objected to a local climbing competition acquiring such a profile and interacting directly with international bodies. They put their foot down.
That year, although the competition ran as planned, there was a pall of gloom over it because the international recognition denied had been despite proven enterprise at Belapur. To its credit, the competition was back the next year and the year after that, each time hosting young, happy climbers from around the country and some from overseas.
In 2012, Vaibhav Mehta said that Burman wished to organise an invitational Asia Cup for the competition’s tenth anniversary. Recognition from Indian authorities, if it came, would be seen to be helpful. This posed two advantages — it would help to secure sponsors, and recognition by the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF) would fetch overseas participants travel concessions and such from their respective climbing bodies.
The invitational Asia Cup didn’t happen. Instead, plans for a World Cup gathered pace. In January 2015, Girivihar’s monthly circular said, “We are aspiring to host the 2016 IFSC Bouldering World Cup.’’ IFSC is the International Federation of Sport Climbing, and as things stand now, the event will be held in Navi Mumbai. Alongside, the club has disclosed plans for an Indian national bouldering team that will participate in the 2016 World Cup. This plan includes a comprehensive training programme for the team. Meanwhile, the annual bouldering competition, which used to be held every January in Belapur has been rested for 2015, as the organisers have shifted their attention to the planned World Cup.
Shyam G Menon, is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.