100 meters up Savandurga, we are exposed, without protection, and alone. Ambar, a local climber, and I are the only two that decide to make the treacherous climb up one of the steeper routes of India’s largest monolithic rock. At a 60 degree incline on smooth granite, I realize this climbing trip is quickly turning from a fun expedition to a serious slab climb. We watch as the eight other people on our trip slowly slide down the face to take the less strenuous route to the ruins at the top. Resting my Merrell Barefoots on less than 6cm of rock with a 30lb pack on, I am committed to the climb. I shift my weight to prepare for the next miniscule foothold, look to my right, and notice a string of bolts leading up to our objective. Without gear or ropes and my climbing shoes packed away in the deepest corner of my pack, the gravity of the situation hits me at once: we are in the midst of free climbing a 7 pitch (800 foot) slab sport route in Southern India. Ambar’s face lacks any hint of concern or worry. He is smiling. He has done this climb twice before, and neither time with proper gear. We look at each other and then up the route. We push on.
Not many people think of rock climbing when they think of Southern India. Yet, the state of Karnataka, located on top of the Deccan plateau, is a climbing oasis during America’s cold winter months. With warm days and cool, breezy nights, the climate is ideal for any outdoor enthusiast.
This was my third trip to India and I was finally able to spend two weeks with a more adventurous, climbing mentality. I purposefully went to places looking at crags and potential routes, spoke with as many people as possible about climbing in India, and got my hands on some gnarly chimneys and holds.
The actual reason for returning to India was for a friend’s wedding. Paul Rosolie and Gowri Varanashi, owners of Tamandua Expeditions, are outdoor hikers, snake wranglers, and adventurists by nature, and decided to turn their celebratory vacation into an expeditionary adventure. We started with Savandurga. Popular among local schools and day hikers, Savandurga has some big walls and smooth granite potential for some of the most serious climbers. After an overnight camp at the summit and a five-hour trek around the rock, we descended and viewed this giant from a new perspective. I gazed from a field reminiscent of the meadows that lay under El Cap and my eyes jumped from potential crack to roof for what would be the best and most challenging route to conquer this juggernaut.
Currently, India’s climbing culture is limited to Facebook and Yahoo groups, dreamroutes.org, and meeting people at bouldering spots. As far as I could gather, only one store in the city of Bangalore sells UIAA approved climbing gear, and for a country with a weaker currency, most gear is sold at the same price as in the United States when converted. This presents an obstacle for those making a livable Indian salary, which converted to US dollars, is below what one may earn in the U.S. Further, it provides a challenge for younger generations looking to try something new by testing themselves in the growing sport of rock and wall climbing. Yet, climbing in India grows. Even people who don’t climb have noticed its rising popularity. Bangalore has even opened a brand new outdoor climbing wall at its Kanteerava Stadium in the heart of the city.
I was unable to visit other Indian climbing meccas such as Ramnagar, Badami or Turahalli, but from what I hear, they truly are a climber’s paradise. They feature big sport and trad routes, insanely hard bouldering problems, and so many cracks you’ll never want to do a fist jam again. Via email, Bangalorian Sudeep Lakkaiah explained:
I have been in the climbing community for the past 15 years and unfortunately haven’t been climbing much in the past 5 years. I have some plans to bring out a detailed guide climbers who visit Karnataka with my experience in climbing and with the help of some of my fellow climbers here in Bangalore.
Bangalore’s Facebook group also has frequent contributors who initiate climbing discussions and share their experiences with others. Suhan Pavuluri is one such contributor who said to me, “Hampi was put on the world map by Chris Sharma. Another German climber contributed tremendously to putting up over 200 bolted routes in Badami. A team of French folks in the 90s put up bolted routes in Savandurga.” Facebook groups for climbing near other Indian cities are being created every day. There is a huge potential to put Karnataka and India on the global climbing map. The secrets of great climbing spots are there, shrouded behind Indian culture.
The small amount of tourists combined with the vast amount of climbing routes (both climbed and unclimbed) leave a person with a haven of climbing dreams that is often unavailable in America due to climbing’s popularity. I can only hope to return as soon as possible and seriously try all the spots Karnataka has to offer.
A few days after Savandurga, and Paul and Gowri’s wedding, we drove into the country to a small village called Hanchehalli. The drive there was along hilly landscapes strewn with vertical faces and incredible bouldering opportunities. Some of these hills are still not described on dreamroutes.org. With each hill we passed, I was more amazed that the western climbing world still has not caught on to South Indian climbing.
When we finally arrived at the house we were staying at, the sun had set and a full moon bathed the countryside in a warm bluish glow. While dinner was being prepared, I packed my shoes and chalk bag and went out into the hills to find some new routes. I free climbed some very easy problems to get a feel for the rock. I crested to the top of a large boulder that to my surprise gave me a beautiful vantage point of the house, fields, and surrounding hills. Awestruck and silenced by the beauty of the view, I sat down, legs dangling, closed my eyes, and let the warm breeze wash over me. I could smell the chalk on my hands and feel my shoes snug on my feet. I was in heaven. When I opened my eyes, the moon offered perfect clarity to my immediate surroundings on the eastern hill. I gazed at the rocks. With boulders the size of houses and 70 foot vertical faces, the possibilities were endless.
The next day, our climbing adventure started.
We started by hiking up the western hill and free climbed as many spots as we felt comfortable. Though we lacked a lot of equipment, Noel (Paul’s friend and fellow climber) and I did get to try was a classic V2 called “Spoons not Forks”. It started with two hand holds spaced 6 inches apart, and left us with a left foot smear and a right heel hook. A far-reaching move followed by a couple small crimps allowed us to top out. We then got our hands on some overhangs that were at least V5+ and dug our fingers into the smallest cracks on some shorter routes. We jammed our bodies into chimneys and cracks. We pushed ourselves hard. But without much gear, decided not to free climb the more pumpy or chossy routes.
A quick hike up the hill past “Spoons not Forks” lead us to a 65 foot cliff full of clings, underclings, and tiny foot holds. With no cracks for trad gear, we tried the first couple moves of a potential 5.10-5.11, vowing to come back, bolt it, send it, and write guidebooks for the entire region. It’s good to have dreams.
As the sun began to set, our arms were burning from the South Indian sun and our throats were parched. Paul, however, who has been to the area many times, proposed one more challenge: a 70-foot chimney he called “The Bread Loaf”. Aptly named for its resemblance to a giant loaf of bread that has been split into three pieces, the rock had two potential great climbs. The first on was the “Bread Loaf Chimney”. As we approached the hill from the road, a group of farmers tending to their cattle began to yell at us. We stared down at them and heard white noise. There were rumors of Asian hyenas and sloth bears in the area who had been killing local dogs – did one live on this hill? Or was it the thorn-laden path we were walking up that they were trying to warn us about. Perhaps they saw a bunch of white dudes scaling rocks and simply thought we were crazy. Luckily for us – us being those who didn’t understand Kannada (the local language) – we interpreted their yelling as cheers of support for these unclimbed routes. How foolhardy.
We finally reached the chimney and looked down its dark corridor. Despite dehydration, a setting sun, and pumped arms, I quickly put on my shoes and chalk bag, and slid into 4 foot wide crack, and prepared myself. On one side, the rock was covered with bird droppings from a hawk’s nest above, and the other side was a slightly over-hanging rock filled with small protrusions. I decided to put my back against the bird shit. I braced my back against the wall, chalked hands against the other rock, and lifted my feet. As I felt my feet grip the rock, I raised my hands and slid my back up a couple inches. Wax on, wax off— a couple inches at a time.
As I climbed, I noticed my feet were not gripping the rock as well as I thought they would. Was I too tired and pumped? My trusty Sportivas were gripping all the other rocks just fine. Was being dehydrated getting into my head? Exhaustion is a funny thing. You see your foot placement, you know how to position your weight and you commit. Yet, your balance is off and you question yourself – how can this be?
I’ve done this before.’ You think to yourself as you realize what a mental game being pumped is.
I wiped my feet with chalk and knocked my palm against the wall before sliding further upwards – 40 feet from the bottom, 20 to the top. To my dismay, the rock that my feet and hands were on was a minefield of hollow pockets – the slabs were just waiting to come off. Rocks chipped all around me, crashing against the walls and breaking on the floor. My hands pressed against the rock and I placed my feet in position to push myself up a few inches closer to the top. I was elated as I looked up and realized how close I was to the top. It’s always in those moments – when you feel that you are overcoming exhaustion and the adrenaline boosts your confidence – when something gets pulled out from under you. Before I knew what was happening, my feet had slipped off the rocks. For a fraction of a second, I was airborne. Instinctively, my hands locked against the rock. Only my shoulders and palms were keeping me from slipping down that chimney like a skinny Santa on Christmas. As my feet dangled in mid-air, I struggled to find the smallest millimeter of rock protruding out. I found it, took a deep breath, and told myself that this was as stable as I could be at the moment. My shoulders throbbed.
Later on, Paul and Noel (who were the only two observing the climb) would tell me that they gasped hard in that moment. They saw the rock chip, my feet slip, and watched me dangle there. Was this free climb worth the first ascent of some rock among thousands in the far off South Indian countryside?
Totally. I continued up the chimney.
The top was only about 10 feet away, but the chimney was widening. I soon was going to have to choose a side and face climb the rest of the way up. With only my shoes and chalk bag, and feeling weary from a full day with little food or water, I decided to stop my ascent and leave it as a challenge for another time. As we passed through the chimney to the other side, my real challenge loomed over me. The second climb. On the side of this rock was a clear-cut crack – starting from the ground, it went up vertically, then diagonally, and then vertically again to the top. That’s what I was to return and complete. The “Bread Loaf Chimney” and “Bread Loaf Crack” are our challenges. It is what we plan on returning to next year to send. Another dream – like one rock amongst thousands – that will soon become a reality. Game on, Santa.