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.
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.
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.)