CLIMBERS IN THE BIG WALL MIRROR (PART ONE)

Climber in the big wall mirror (Illustration: Shyam G Menon)

Climber in the big wall mirror (Illustration: Shyam G Menon)

The man on the climbing wall outside moved confidently, gracefully.

He initially traversed the lower routes; then climbed up, alone.

All of us, members of Girivihar, a Mumbai based-mountaineering club, returning from a climbing expedition in the Zanskar Himalaya, watched him from the dormitory of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF). It was 2004, Delhi. Abhijit Burman, who left the room to investigate, returned excited, “ that is Thomas Huber, they have come to attempt Arwa Spire.’’ Arwa Spire, Arwa Tower and Arwa Crest are snow capped peaks in the Himalaya characterised by huge vertical rock faces. Thomas was one half of Germany’s Huber brothers, famous for their ascent of such big walls. We learnt later that they successfully climbed the west peak (6088m) of Arwa Spire. 

Coincidentally, four years or so after that chance encounter with Thomas Huber in Delhi, the club decided to attempt the East Face of Kedar Dome (6830m) in Garhwal. To the best of Girivihar’s knowledge, there had been no officially approved Indian civilian expedition to attempt big walls in the Himalaya. When I spoke to him for writing this article, Burman attributed the move to an attempted convergence of the club’s experience in the Himalaya and the ascent of a new generation of rock climbers in Mumbai.

More than climbing, the project would prove an expedition in learning.

Girivihar’s challenges were basic.

Kedar Dome East Face (Photo: Franco Linhares)

Kedar Dome East Face (Photo: Franco Linhares)

Kedar Dome’s East Face involves mixed climbing. To begin with, there were few people in Mumbai who combined good skills on rock and ice. The mountaineering lot were given to the Indian tradition of large expeditions with hired helps. Alpine style ascents featuring lean teams were a rarity. Many of these mountaineers were average climbers on rock. They weren’t fiercely the Himalayan type either for mountaineering is resource-heavy; in the typical Indian environment, spending a month every year in the Himalaya is a costly luxury. And if you don’t frequent the Himalaya, you won’t be at home there. On the other hand, the best rock climbers had become Sahyadri (the hills of the Indian peninsula, called in total as the Western Ghats) crag rats never venturing into unfamiliar terrain. They had become specialized for their warm weather, climbing-ecosystem. They had no appetite for the punishment that high altitude and big, cold mountains posed. The club assembled a team largely composed of young rock climbers with a few mountaineers thrown in. At practice sessions in Pune and at Ramnagaram near Bangalore they understood how far off the mark they were in terms of teamwork and a work ethic suited to high altitude. Within months, the more experienced climbers agreed to call off the expedition. “ That first attempt was poorly imagined and planned. We had neither done proper homework nor understood what a big wall at altitude entailed,’’ Vaibhav Mehta, among the best rock climbers from Mumbai (now settled in France) and who was to lead the climbers on the wall, said. Burman and Franco Linhares, who was the club president then, travelled north to check out the targeted rock face so far studied only from Internet photos and expedition reports by foreign teams who had climbed it. In Garhwal, looking at Kedar Dome’s giant East Face, Franco was convinced of the enormity of the challenge. “ It was serious stuff,’’ he said.

Kedar Dome East Face (Photo: Franco Linhares)

Kedar Dome East Face (Photo: Franco Linhares)

As a club member, I was disappointed when the expedition was called off. Not so much for big wall lost as for an opportunity to attempt Kedar Dome in the regular mountaineering fashion. The way this trip was originally conceived, there would have been two teams on the mountain. I was to be in the much smaller team attempting a conventional ascent. Now that wasn’t to be. There is a slight vagueness surrounding the choice of Kedar Dome East Face as initial objective in big wall-climbing. Foreign reports still available on the Internet, clearly mention the nature of climbing involved. You could ask – why did the club target something as formidable as the East Face straight away? Girivihar also didn’t attempt big walls in the Sahyadri like Harishchandragad’s Konkan Kada (a huge amphitheatre of rock not far from Mumbai), which was a prized local achievement, before looking toward the Himalaya. Maybe the quality of rock didn’t appeal. Rock in the local hills, which were volcanic in origin, tended to break and fragment. Maybe the climbs were distinctly different with little learning transferable to the Himalaya. Referring to the aborted expedition, Vaibhav said, “ we had not properly thought through how to stay on the wall and were assuming that we could transfer the same Sahyadri style of climbing to the Himalaya; basically climb and set up fixed ropes, return at day’s end to base camp and then go back up the fixed ropes to start climbing from where we left off earlier. That works for the rock faces of the Sahyadri and the long warm days here. But when it comes to climbing a big wall in the Himalaya, the scale of mountain face and the variables affecting the climbing environment question such approach.’’

Notwithstanding cancelled expedition, the big wall project didn’t die.

It hibernated.

That’s Girivihar’s strength.

In 2004 when we climbed that peak in Zanskar, it was after three expeditions to the region ranging from exploratory to path finding to actual summit attempt.

Two years after calling off the Kedar Dome trip, Girivihar organized a big wall expedition in the Miyar Nala area of Himachal Pradesh. This too was based on foreign reports but the approach to the project was more realistic. Vaibhav was by then working and living at Leh in Ladakh, where he ran a climbing gym. With him moving that side, a couple of close friends, also climbers from Mumbai, had shifted there. One of them was Shyam Sanap, a strong moody climber, particularly good at bouldering. They consistently climbed in and around Leh. This – climbing at altitude (Ladakh is above 10,000ft) – fitted in with the required approach to attempting any big project – like a big wall climb – at altitude. But problems continued. Typically big wall expeditions in the Himalaya – indeed any expedition – by foreign teams were lengthy affairs because acclimatization was a must to perform well. In the case of Indian expeditions, most people were on leave from city based-jobs they couldn’t afford to lose. So the duration of an expedition was normally just a month. It meant that those coming from the plains were not going to be climbing at maximum strength in Miyar Nala even if they had left Mumbai’s sea level-altitude in peak form. Second, the shortage of climbing equipment lingered. The group had no multiple sets of protection devices yet. The club’s cachet of equipment, collected and preserved over the years was there. But it seemed insufficient.

On arrival at location, the team shifted the target from an earlier planned vertical big wall to a more inclined, long stretch of slab. Rock in slab form with gentler incline is a better, more forgiving medium to get used to challenges. It was blunt experiential education happening. In the Himalaya and seeing that vertical face alongside available climbing calibre and gear, the team realized they were unprepared for a combination of long climb and absolute verticality. The shift to the slab made sense.

While the slab project was on, it rained.

Enter the third problem – bad weather. People from warm peninsular India were no stranger to the rains. Among Indian metros, Mumbai had one of the heaviest monsoon seasons. But how the rains felt, the way it changed the overall ambience – that took a toll depending on where you were. Up in the Himalaya, rain meant wetness and cold. Clouds descended, visibility would turn poor. What was joyous mood of expansive mountains till some minutes ago became world shrunk to a few square metres of relevance to human being feeling cold. Very often in such situations, teams have to wind up work and wait out the bad weather. The Himalaya is an epic you tackle patiently.    

I asked Mangesh Takarkhede, a seasoned sport climber and part of the second expedition what was the toughest difference between the Sahyadri and the Himalaya that he endured at Miyar Nala. “ Sitting in a tent doing nothing while the weather ran amok outside,’’ he said. Mountaineers and high altitude trekkers learn this from years of being out. Nature is not in your hands and you have to learn to be patient, last things out, sometimes work despite it. But urban climbing, even sport climbing (which is climbing on pre-designed, pre-set routes and is the style that hosts climbing competitions), was a different animal. It was young, impatient and increasingly in a self endorsing cocoon narrowly focused on climbing to the expense of all else. Bad weather and the unpredictability of mountain terrain aren’t a problem in the controlled conditions of a climbing gym – are they? Vaibhav himself admitted that he would rather climb than hike although hiking was the only way man ever properly understood any terrestrial environment. In the limited window of opportunity available, the team nevertheless ascended several pitches (rope-lengths) up the chosen rock slab, some getting their first taste of Himalayan rock and rock climbing at altitude. According to the club’s in-house report, “ In this first exploratory trip, The team succeeded in climbing a 1100m long virgin rock face, with climbing grade of about 5A and total of 23 pitches. The two team members who summitted were Vaibhav Mehta and Shyam Sanap, while others climbed a 600m route on the same face.’’

Toro Peak (Photo: Sharad Chandra)

Toro Peak (Photo: Sharad Chandra)

In 2012, a third big wall expedition was mounted. This time the objective was Miyar Nala’s Toro Peak, already climbed by a foreign climber who had left behind route details. Weather was good. The team climbed Toro Peak two times that month. It showed their growing comfort with the environment. The club’s report said, “ we succeeded in a pure rock climbing ascent of Toro Peak (4860mts)’’ They opened two new routes, one being a central route of 550m; the other, a South Eastern ridge of 400m. Two separate climbing teams, one of three climbers and the other, of two climbers, topped. The climbing grades appeared easy overall save for the final portions. The report indicated a long day (over 12 hours) from base camp to summit and back. To be factored in additionally would be the effect of altitude on human effort. All in all, it was a more encouraging outcome than happened on the previous trip.

Vaibhav on Toro Peak (Photo: Sharad Chandra)

Vaibhav on Toro Peak (Photo: Sharad Chandra)

But problems persisted. Given ancient volcanic rock that broke off periodically, many routes in the Sahyadri had shifted to being bolted diluting to that extent the climber’s ownership of protection placed. It freed him to climb but removed a critical component of true climbing from the frame, which was – you are responsible for your safety and should therefore know how to place protection. For the few still doing traditional climbing (trad) this way in the Sahyadri, Himalayan rock (nature of rock influences equipment placement style) was new. Result – the required trad climbing competence wasn’t second nature yet for the team. In contrast, years ago, Girivihar had pioneered civilian mountaineering from Mumbai, including the first civilian expedition to the Himalaya from Maharashtra and the first Indian civilian attempt to scale an 8000m peak, Mt Kanchenjunga. In the Sahyadri, it had trekked hard and climbed pinnacles. It had a past that was rich in Himalayan experience and trad climbing in the Sahyadri. Now it celebrated sport climbing and was identified best with an annual sport climbing competition on artificial climbing walls. Perhaps the unnoticed drift here had been acclimatizing to staged-events? Psychologically, this was a shift from the typical Himalayan environment and the whole deal of being outdoors. What Mangesh said had more to it than met the eye. An observation by Vaibhav also struck similar note. According to him, unlike in the Sahyadri, where rain was seasonal and spring and winter had nice dry days, a variety of factors affected the climber’s window in the Himalaya. When the weather was apt, you had to use it well. The climber had to be efficient; something particularly important on big walls where rope and gear could be many. Vaibhav felt that climbers from the smaller, sunny Sahyadri hills, while certainly good on rock, had slipped into a comfort zone (he didn’t spare himself). It was a bit like Sahyadri all the time, everywhere, when all the time and everywhere wasn’t Sahyadri. The biggest handicap born from comfort zone is ego. It blocks change. Arguments erupted at altitude among the participants during the second Miyar Nala trip causing fissures in the team. That’s how much a change to familiar context can mean. Equally, that’s how much an attempt to do something new can teach.

The team (Photo: Sharad Chandra)

The team (Photo: Sharad Chandra)

After three expeditions (including the one that was cancelled) and Toro Peak done, Vaibhav believed there was a lot to learn before the team could be on a genuine big wall. He was yet to trad-climb in the Himalaya with the same top notch calibre that he was capable of at lower altitudes in peninsular India. He wanted that flow to happen. “ I wish to climb hard on rock, at altitude,’’ he said in the Navi Mumbai suburb of Belapur, where preparations were on early January 2013 for the 10th edition of Girivihar’s annual climbing competition featuring sport climbers from home and overseas. That was the story till then of the first Indian civilian attempt to climb a big wall in the Himalaya. What they did does not match the visual impact of typical big wall-imagery from overseas or even such imagery from the rock faces of peninsular India, an environment they were used to. But they looked in the big wall mirror of the Himalaya and saw themselves. They knew where they stood. Knowing them, the team should be back for more. Vaibhav felt that a big wall expedition in the Himalaya could be candidate to collaborate with foreigners who had done it before. “ You learn a lot,’’ he said.

Perhaps that gentleman, from a morning long ago at the IMF climbing wall, should hear this.

 

Girivihar, on gauging the competence of its original big wall team, did the right thing by calling off the Kedar Dome East Face expedition and choosing instead to start from basics in Miyar Nalla. It may have been humbling but in climbing, such decisions in the interest of safety are as highly respected as a climb well done.

Among information studied by the club for the proposed Kedar Dome East Face expedition was material on the ascent of the peak’s South East pillar by Englishmen Tim Emmett and Ian Parnell. It showed the nature of difficulty in big wall climbs at altitude, the equation between chance and luck and the climbing styles unique to each team.

The crux of their climb was high up at around 6000m. The degree of difficulty of this portion was estimated as 6c in accordance with the French system of grading. To put it in perspective, while there are climbers in Mumbai who have climbed at grades beyond this level, the said portion is at 6000m altitude where oxygen is less and exertion would be tiring, not to mention, the risks associated with a 2000m rock face. You are also carrying stuff you need on the wall. In an interview to planetfear.com Parnell said, “ As usual we carried no bolts and had a pretty light rack, only six pitons, which we placed about once each. We were very lucky to find good tent sites except for one day where we had to bivi* on some poor sloping ledges halfway up the final rock headwall, shivering the night away racked by continuous stone fall. The main difficulty on top of the crux pitches was following with a big rucksack, which was very tiring.’’ According to him there were times when they cried; sometimes, threw up from the strain. Plus, “ add to this the first 600m section we climbed in the night, which included some terrible rock with no protection and no belay.’’    

The crux was on-sighted (that is, climbed without any prior information about the specifics of the route; discovering it as you climb) by Emmett, who was described as among Britain’s strongest all-round climbers. He called it the most demanding piece of climbing he had done without falls. Interestingly, while Parnell was well experienced in the world’s big mountains, this was apparently Emmett’s first trip to the Himalaya and only his second alpine climb.

*Bivi is colloquial for bivouac, which is to camp while still on a climbing route. This spans being in a portaledge (a small, hanging tent) on a rock face to using any other type of shelter to having no formal shelter, spending the night on some ledge, sometimes with sleeping bag, sometimes, without.

(PLEASE SEE PART TWO OF STORY FOR EXPLANATORY NOTES)

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. He would like to thank Sharad Chandra and Franco Linhares for permitting the use of photographs from their collection. An abridged version of this article was published in Man’s World magazine.)

CLIMBERS IN THE BIG WALL MIRROR (PART TWO)

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

EXPLANATORY NOTES

Big wall climbing

When the first moves in modern rock climbing and alpinism happened in Europe, the Americans got left behind. There wasn’t a personal stamp for them in the sport’s evolution. In the mid 20th century, they focused their attention on El Capitan, a sheer rock face of around 3000ft in Yosemite. The race to climb El Capitan and the subsequent ideological confrontation between two schools of climbing – one advocating clean climbing with removable protection (that is, you use devices which you can keep taking off from the rock as you progress up a wall leaving little trace behind of the climbers’ passage), the other, prone to installing permanent bolts into rock to host the protective gear – was a famous chapter in the evolution of climbing. It birthed two American greats with contrasting approaches in rock climbing – Warren Harding and Royal Robbins (please see earlier post ` The Short Cut’ for details).

Although huge rock faces had been climbed already in Europe, El Capitan’s first ascent revived the interest in big walls. The debate on climbing style continued. The French bolted like crazy. But the Americans and the British, favoured climbing with removable equipment, one reason why traditional (`trad’) climbing is big in the US. While established long routes (especially bolted ones) may get speed-climbed later, exploratory big wall climbing can be equipment-heavy. It requires efficient equipment management and entails staying on ledges on the rock face being tackled, sometimes using portable hanging shelters called portaledges. The climbs are typically multi-day affairs. Big wall climbing at high altitude (as the Huber brothers did on Arwa), developed as an extreme version, for high altitude is tough environment to hike in, forget rock climbing. Rocky peaks in West Karakorum and Patagonia became iconic in the discipline. These include Pakistan’s Great Trango Tower (6286m) and other rock faces in its neighbourhood and Torre del Paine of Chilean Patagonia with its rocky peaks of modest elevation but tricky Patagonian weather nonetheless. In India, visually speaking, the Arwa peaks fit the big wall category beautifully. Through all this however the attraction to climb El Capitan rules strong as that is the de facto spiritual ground of the discipline. Even established big wall climbers from other geographies come to Yosemite to prove themselves on El Capitan’s routes. Thus the Huber brothers, despite climbs elsewhere, briefly held a speed record on El Capitan. I have come across Indian climbers who dream of trying El Capitan one day. That said, big wall climbing is at its classic best when it is exploratory for that is true climbing, that is when climbing is stretched to long affair and gear and knowledge of gear placement is tested. In practice, in the high mountains, a big wall may stop being strictly rock and strictly vertical to being mixed terrain and amalgam of gradients. Some extreme mountaineering routes therefore have the traits of rock climbing’s big wall.

Bouldering in Miyar Nala (Photo: Sharad Chandra)

Bouldering in Miyar Nala (Photo: Sharad Chandra)

Types of climbing:

Bouldering: This is the minimalist form of climbing. The gear used is restricted to climbing shoes, chalk to keep the sweat off one’s hands and a crash pad to cushion falls. No ropes are used. As the name betrays, you climb boulders, typically up to fifteen or twenty feet high. Your friends `spot’ you as you climb to make sure that if you fall, you land on the crash pad. Since you don’t climb high, bouldering compensates by challenging you with very difficult moves, some requiring climbing technique, others, raw power.

Sport climbing: Sport climbing routes are longer than bouldering problems. Expansion bolts are drilled into rock to prepare a route. These bolts can take `quick draws,’ through which the climbing rope attached to your harness is passed as you ascend. The idea being – if you fall you will be stopped from going all the way down by the nearest quick draw and bolt. The other end of the rope is with your friend who is belaying. He feeds you enough rope to keep going up, monitors the feed and uses a belay device through which the rope has been passed to prevent the free end of the rope from quickly running out should you fall. Belay devices work on the principle of friction; some allow the belayer to manage this friction manually, others with auto-lock facility restrict the rope-feed to one direction thus automatically checking slack in the system should the climber fall.

Trad climbing: This style is characterized by the use of removable protection like cams (also called `friends’), choke nuts and pitons. The climbing style is near similar to sport climbing with your friend belaying you. On trad, you are more cautious than on a sport route because there is no previously installed protection on the route. As you climb up you look for features in rock, like cracks, to place the protection. Once the protection is placed, you attach a quick draw to it and then pass the rope through the quick draw. Once the lead climber has reached a rest spot, he anchors himself securely and belays the second climber up. As the second person does so – if it is a two-person team – he cleans the route removing all the gear that was placed as protection. This is clean, pure climbing. Unlike sport climbers, trad enthusiasts have to carry a lot of gear. Transferred to big walls, this work will also include gear-hauling for as you progress up a rock face you have to carry with you whatever you need for life and work further up.    

The club, the people:

Girivihar (www.girivihar.org) started life in 1954 as the Inter Collegiate Hiking Club of the Bombay University. In the mid-1960s, the name was changed to Girivihar to broaden the membership base to beyond the university. It is today Mumbai’s oldest mountaineering club with a track record of mountaineering in the Himalaya and trekking and rock climbing in the Sahyadri. Of late the club has also spawned an interest in cycling. Girivihar is notable for its regular itinerary of weekend activities (trekking or climbing depending on the season), annual outdoor training camps for school students and adults and an annual bouldering competition that sees participation from India and overseas. The club’s office bearers meet every Wednesday at a cafe in Dadar in the city. Girivihar was also instrumental in setting up and managing the climbing wall at Mumbai’s Podar College.

Franco Linhares is past president of Girivihar and most importantly, its longest serving. He is probably the oldest, consistently active rock climber in Mumbai. You will see him every other day on the Podar College climbing wall and at most weekend treks / climbs of the club save those occasions when he escapes to merry Goa or can’t get away from life with the climbing bug for the slower pace of a hike. A chemist by training and once employed with a MNC, he chucked it all up for a life in the Sahyadri and the Himalaya. Abhijit Burman aka Bong is an institution in Girivihar and the Mumbai climbing scene. An unforgettable character, he works as a technician at BARC. He has been central to many Girivihar projects. A mountaineer and cyclist, he appears to have transformed to being a mover of projects and their manager.

Shyam Sanap on Toro Peak (Photo: Sharad Chandra)

Shyam Sanap on Toro Peak (Photo: Sharad Chandra)

Years ago, Vaibhav Mehta etched his name into the rocks at Mumbai’s Borivali National Park, founding a climbing route aptly called `Finger Crisis.’ From them on, he hasn’t looked back. Originally not members of Girivihar, Vaibhav and his close friends – Shyam Sanap, Sandeep Varadkar, Mangesh Takarkhede (they originally belonged to a group called DARE) – was the energy missing in Mumbai’s sport climbing scene. They were the first hard core addicts of the sport, spending days obsessed with climbing-problems and blazing a trail difficult for others to emulate. Until the arrival of these youngsters, the prized pursuit in Mumbai’s rock climbing was ascending pinnacles in the Sahyadri. Climbing was largely trad climbing but leaning towards bolted routes given the nature of rock. Vaibhav & co fueled sport climbing. Now, as the big wall climbing-story shows, trad probably beckons. Vaibhav has ranked among the top sport climbers in India and more importantly, distinguished himself as a route setter for climbing competitions. This generation of climbers linked up easily with overseas rock climbers, particularly the French. Rather amusingly the most common encouragement in Mumbai’s climbing circles now, is “Allez!’’ Vaibhav ran a cafe and climbing gym in Leh for a few years. He now lives in France, visiting Mumbai in time for Girivihar’s annual climbing competition where he is usually the route setter.          

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. He would like to thank Sharad Chandra and Franco Linhares for permitting the use of photographs from their collection.  An abridged version of this article was published in Man’s World magazine.)