A COMPETITION’S SOLO CLIMB

“ Bong, what’s happening?’’ the policeman asked exasperated.

It was late January, well past midnight and while the music system at the small venue hosting a hundred or so climbing aficionados had long died in tune with prevailing law, somebody staying nearby had complained against the clapping and cheering.

The big Bengali appealed to his Marathi friends, “ please, baath karna yaar.’’

Belapur has known its climbing crazies for years.

And even the crazies knew that climbing at 1AM was crazy.

It was the men’s final.

“ Ten minutes more, that’s all,’’ Bong said.

Mangesh nodded and went to mollify the cops.

Erstwhile rock climber, still trekker-mountaineer-cyclist and most important – technician at large – Abhijit Burman aka Bong is the soul of a climbing competition taking place in Navi Mumbai for the last ten years. In late 2003, in his tiny apartment choked by climbing gear and small climbing wall, Burman who works at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), shared his idea of an annual open climbing competition. Those days, there was no big event in Indian climbing comparable to overseas climbing festivals. Such festivals brought together the community. Fellow club members put up the prize money and in January 2003, the first edition of Girivihar’s climbing competition got off to an enthusiastic start.

Girivihar is Mumbai’s oldest mountaineering club. Starting life as the Inter Collegiate Hiking Club of the Mumbai (then Bombay) University almost six decades ago, it opened up so that more people could join. Along the way, it acquired its present name and structure. Over the half century of its existence, its members have trekked and climbed extensively in the Sahyadri hills of Maharashtra state besides undertaking several mountaineering expeditions in the Himalaya. It holds annual adventure and rock climbing camps to train young people. Currently, its activity continues with regular itinerary of hikes and climbs plus new pursuits like cycling added by interested members.

From an early edition of Girivihar's annual climbing competition (Photo: Sharad Chandra)

From an early edition of Girivihar’s annual climbing competition (Photo: Sharad Chandra)

Within a few years of the competition’s commencement in 2003, it attracted young climbers from Mumbai, Pune, Bangalore, Davengere, Bikaner, Delhi, Kolkata, Darjeeling and North East India. It coincided with a time when Mumbai saw a group of young climbers led by Vaibhav Mehta come to the fore. Given to full time-climbing, they soon became the competition’s route setters and manpower. 

The whole effort smacked of home grown enterprise.

Organizing it is still, as one senior club member put it 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. Unable to afford artificial climbing walls, the BARC technician engaged carpenters to make temporary ones. Critics were several. Over time, the walls – the Girivihar competition focuses on bouldering – improved and the climbing contagion spread. Rules for judging followed international norms. On an average 50-60 participants turned up for the competition; in 2011 it touched 116. They compete in men’s women’s, boys and girls categories. There is 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, so on and so forth. There was a constant feeling of land, including the crags, being under siege from that sum total of everyone’s presence, climbers included – urbanism. It was the sort of politics, climbers had no appetite for and as for climbing, the imagination of India’s `settled’ world probably held no room for such mindless pursuits. Second, long climbing routes, secure enough for regular climbing and competition, were hard to come by in Belapur. Even today they are not many. But of boulders – there was no shortage.

Despite known interest in climbing and mountaineering, Mumbai never got 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, his architect brother Indrajit and Grivihar’s climbers set out to do.

Abhijit Burman aka Bong (Photo: Sharad Chandra)

Abhijit Burman aka Bong (Photo: Sharad Chandra)

Normally in India, we hesitate to present to the world our 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 how the crags and the approach to it were, slowly faded. In retrospect, one could say that this discovery of climbing as 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 – a former world champion (Alex Chabot of France, he was the competition’s route setter in one year), 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.

India’s top climbers participated albeit erratically thanks to the politics of the domestic climbing circuit. Where prize money and funds once came from club and well wishers, sponsors stepped in – names from India’s outdoor industry like AVI Industries, Wildcraft, Adventure 18 and Rocksport, mainstream companies like L&T, Saraswat Bank and Hindustan Unilever and the agency which built Navi Mumbai – CIDCO. Internationally known climbing gear manufacturers – Petzl and Beal – provided money and equipment. The year Alex Chabot arrived, the French embassy expressed interest. In contrast to all this home grown activity in Belapur, neither Navi Mumbai nor Mumbai has yet a climbing wall of international standards.  

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. He impressed for both his enthusiasm for climbing and also his willingness to engage with other climbing enthusiasts. With him, there was no standing on ceremony and bureaucracy. Girivihar members met him to apprise him of the competition. The man was a pleasure to talk to. Payne gave the club members a patient hearing. Within weeks the Belapur competition was shortlisted for likely inclusion in UIAA’s calendar of events. The Girivihar team was thrilled. However, Indian administrators, overseeing national competitions for selecting the best, objected to a local climbing competition acquiring such 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 at the organizers’ because the international recognition denied had been despite proven enterprise at Belapur. Some climbers speculated that the authorities were averse to foreign climbers participating in the competition; hence the cold shoulder. If so, it would be well to remember that young Indian climbers watch Internet and read climbing magazines to track a sport which acknowledges no here and there. Climbers from many countries meet at Indian climbing hotspots like Hampi and Badami. From such camaraderie is born open competitions like Girivihar’s.

From the 2012 competition (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

From the 2012 competition (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

“ May be its time we called a spade a spade,’’ Franco Linhares, former president of the club and still climbing in his sixties, said of the official attitude.

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.

At the venue in Belapur, the cops still hovered on the periphery.

Burman’s ten minutes were ticking.

“ Tomorrow’s headline: Competition outside, organizer inside’’ – someone joked pulling his leg.

Traditionally, the liveliest team at the competition has been Pune’s youngsters. With only hours now separating the men’s final on artificial wall from a new morning of competition at Belapur’s natural crags, one of  the seniors accompanying the team said, “ Bong, the kids don’t want to go to their rooms. They are saying, let’s go straight to the crags and sleep there.’’

Given the policemen around, the laughter was stifled into a mix of giggles and hushes.

It was quintessential climbing community.

All this was 2012.

The next year, 2013, marked the competition’s tenth anniversary.

In 2012, Vaibhav had said that Burman wished for an invitational Asia Cup for the competition’s tenth anniversary. Recognition from Indian authorities, if it came, was seen to be helpful. It posed two advantages. First, it would help secure sponsors. Funding is tough and every year, the competition typically ran a deficit with individuals bridging the gap contributing their own money. In 2012, Mangesh Takarkhede, who had been a winner at the competition in its initial years and now runs his own adventure services company, invested with Burman in the steel structure for building the competition’s walls. That checked one annually recurring cost. Second, recognition by the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF) would likely fetch overseas participants travel concessions and such from their respective climbing bodies.

The invitational Asia Cup didn’t happen.

But as always in Belapur, in January 2013 too, climbers from various parts of India and overseas turned up.

There was no dearth of enthusiasm.

As for that home grown expertise in building climbing walls, Girivihar has since built a popular bouldering wall at the city’s Podar College. The wall is managed and maintained by the club.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. An earlier version of this article was published in The Hindu Business Line newspaper in May 2012. Those interested in hiking and climbing can reach Girivihar at www.girivihar.org)

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