In 1997, two climbers from Pimpri-Chinchwad near Pune visited Bikaner in Rajasthan, at that time the only town in western India to have an artificial climbing wall.
Bikaner represented the new face of climbing. Its wall was ambassador for sport climbing, especially competitive climbing. Artificial walls were common overseas. Yet in the world’s second most populous country with a rising tide of urbanization and growing chunk of youth in its demography, the late 1990s played host to only a few isolated walls. Mumbai, India’s biggest city had none; as did Pune. On the other hand, away from the Himalaya, Maharashtra was among states actively engaged in rock climbing and mountaineering. It had a tradition of climbing rock faces and pinnacles in the Sahyadri (Western Ghats). In 1988, it had produced the first civilian expedition to an 8000m-peak with climbers reaching above 8000m on Kanchenjunga before retreating. A year after Shrikrishna Kaduskar and Surendra Shelke visited Bikaner – in 1998 – the first Maharashtrian would reach the top of Everest. Sport climbing especially competition climbing on artificial walls – was a missing piece in the state’s climbing mosaic.
Shrikrishna and Surendra resolved to get their home town a climbing wall. However they had more than a wall in mind. They had fashioned an approach – what they felt was best suited to both popularize a culture of climbing walls and keep them easily accessed by the public. Pimpri-Chinchwad, just outside Pune city, was the industrial hub of the region, home to many big engineering and manufacturing companies. It also had one of the wealthiest municipal corporations in India. On return to Pune, the duo submitted a proposal to the Pimpri-Chinchwad Municipal Corporation (PCMC) to build a wall. Then and now, climbing was and is a small sport in India, challenged for financial support. Shrikrishna and Surendra had set themselves a particularly tough assignment for not only were they seeking infrastructure in climbing, they were also seeking its approval and execution by local government. They ran from table to table and meeting to meeting, pushing things through with sheer passion till at last – in 2001, the wall came up near the Annasaheb Magar Stadium in Pimpri-Chinchwad. En route, they also addressed a related problem. Climbers are notoriously self-centred. Selfish would be wrong word to use, for that they aren’t. The thing is – climbing by its very nature is all about limiting the world to immediate environment. Climbers are doers. If you don’t climb, there isn’t any climbing – it is that simple. This often limits the merit they see in imagining / co-operating beyond immediate goal to be achieved. Consequently, the culture of outdoor clubs, mountaineering clubs and climbing clubs in India are full of stories on how they couldn’t come together on one platform to get important things done. Egos intervene. Personalities clash. Shrikrishna and Surendra belonged to a particular club – the Moraya Giri Brahman Sanstha. They knew the wall would succeed only if they got everyone aboard. So, the duo worked towards forming the Pimpri-Chinchwad Mountaineering Association (PCMA), comprising participation from all clubs. PCMA became the active face of the wall, running day to day operations. Looking back, you could say this was how the story of competition based-sport climbing in Pune began. And certainly therein, the story of a group of youngsters, first appearing on the scene as school students, later fetching podium finishes at national level competitions.
To those in Pimpri-Chinchwad, sport climbing was both new sport and a spectacle in the neighbourhood, for there is something intrinsically fascinating about climber moving up a wall. It contrasts one’s own safe stance on the ground and climber’s progression up vertical surface, so unnatural to the human being. The PCMC climbing wall, like any other, had fixtures on it – there were artificial holds; metal anchors, metal nuts and bolts. Additionally, when climbers arrived to practise, there would be their belongings ranging from water bottles to wallets, karabiners and other hardware kept by the side. The wall had no lockers. Not even for the group gear used on the wall. Everyday Shrikrishna brought group gear to the wall and took it back. The wall’s locality was not far from urban slums and its typically desperate population, growing up in denial, seeking the slightest route to scarce money. Theft became common. Personal belongings were lost. Climbing holds disappeared from the wall, as did nuts and bolts and sometimes, anchors. The thieves had no idea what the metal devices were meant for or even the actual composition and value of its expensive alloys. It was sold as scrap for a quick buck. On the other hand, it is the stated policy of any local government building infrastructure that access to the facility should be equal for all and it should benefit the local community. Slowly, the youngsters hanging around, unable to contain their curiosity, began climbing. “ For us, it was also definitely a way to get around the problem of theft. As their ownership of the activity increased, the locals urged those stealing to stop doing so. They knew who were doing it,’’ Shrikrishna said. I remember the PCMC wall as a simple, tall structure with a climbing wall on only one side of its framework (later a second wall was added). Next to it was the local swimming pool owned by the municipality. Between the two facilities was a long, low granite wall, basically the edge of the land on which the pool stood. This stone wall was also used by the climbers. They traversed it – hanging on with finger tips and perched on their toes – building up endurance. Typical of India, this creative mix of available options confidently hosted new ideas. It was all fuelled by interest, raw interest. During my days in climbing several years ago, I attended a clinic on sport climbing here. That was the first time, I saw the PCMC wall.
In 2002, wall in place, Pimpri-Chinchwad hosted its first west zone competition. Those going in for the final rounds at the nationals were selected through zonal competitions. That was the norm. Around 370 participants arrived at the PCMC wall. In the ensuing competition, not one climber from Maharashtra qualified for the nationals. It was a humbling experience, one that showed where the state stood in the sport. But a large competition in town had its own silent impact. “I saw that 2002 competition and decided to start climbing,’’ Suresh Kohare, who hails from an underprivileged backdrop in the neighbourhood of the wall, said. He joined the ragtag bunch of climbers from the local community, now regularly climbing and slowly maturing. The training at the wall was totally free of cost. “ We charged them nothing,’’ Shrikrishna said. As the abilities of these youngsters became visible, Shrikrishna and Surendra visited the localities they came from, convincing people to send their children to climb. Luckily, there was one participation model available to tap and which the PCMC to its credit, made available. The municipal corporation ran schools in the region and most of the underprivileged students studied at PCMC schools. These schools had policies in place to promote participation in sports. The PCMC formally recognized climbing as a sport to support at its schools. To this date, it is the only municipal corporation in India to have done so, Shrikrishna said. That recognition for climbing also meant students good at the sport merited financial support – for example, they got a nominal travel and daily allowance when they travelled to other places to participate in climbing competitions.
As they visited the students’ houses, tackling the parents was hard work for Shrikrishna and Surendra. There was the obvious risk all parents saw in climbing and in the subsequent quest to affix responsibility they saw Shrikrishna and Surendra as where the buck stopped. The PCMC had students sign an indemnity bond but in reality parents saw the duo as being responsible. Needless to say, this was dicey. But the duo persisted as there was underlying passion to do something in and for climbing. Then there was the whole question of – what do you get from climbing? Remember, these are questions posed by people already living utterly difficult lives, in localities beset with social problems ranging from drinking to gambling. According to Shrikrishna, some of the best climbers that the PCMC wall produced never advanced further because their family compulsions saw them trade climbing for regular means of livelihood. Nevertheless, from 2002 onward, the duo ensured that a team of 30-40 local students participated at every annual west zone competition. The experiment secured result in 2005, when for the first time, two or three climbers from the PCMC wall, graduated to participate in the nationals with Somnath Shinde emerging a medal winner in lead climbing in the junior category. Following this, Shrikrishna and Surendra began to think – why not use the PCMC wall-model to set up more walls in Pune, even elsewhere in Maharashtra?
In 2005, they – under the aegis of the PCMA – submitted a proposal to the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC). In 2008, after much scouting, the duo was shown some vacant space in the premises of the Shri Shivaji Vyayam Mandir in Pune’s Shivajinagar. It wasn’t perfect for the space assigned for the wall was trifle cramped. But Shivajinagar was centrally located. Plus they got complete support from the local representative to the PMC, Balasaheb Bodake. In 2010, the Shivajinagar wall opened. It has both lead climbing and speed climbing walls. Soon after inauguration it shut shop for 3-4 months as the PMC took that long to approve the rates the PCMA could charge those reaching the facility to climb. By then, there was also another sad story to cope with. The old PCMC wall, from where this whole story commenced, had shut down reportedly due to the corporation insisting that the PCMA assume onus for security as well and not just daily operations. This caused a drift. Shut down and neglected, things have again gone missing from the old wall, Suresh said. Climbers from the PCMC wall now travel to Shivajinagar in Pune, to climb. On the bright side – there is one full fledged sport climbing wall available for use. Talks are on to restart the PCMC wall, Shrikrishna said.
(…..TO BE CONTINUED)
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai)