Adriel Choo (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Adriel Choo (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Adriel Choo of Singapore was winner in 2013 and 2014 of the Master’s Round at the annual Girivihar Climbing Competition in Mumbai. The 25 year-old has been a member of Singapore’s national team. His best performance so far has been securing gold and bronze at the ASEAN Climbing Circuit and the 26th SEA Games in 2011, respectively. At world level competitions his best standing to date has been 11th place at the 2012 IFSC World Championships in Paris.


Adriel agreed to be interviewed for this blog.




When did you start climbing? What sustained your interest?


I started climbing in 2006 during my junior college days. I was first attracted to the “wow” factors of climbing, seeing professionals jumping around and doing unbelievable things on the walls and I wanted to be just like them. After a few years I began to see that this sport is a journey of discovery, understanding the whole dynamics of my body’s movement and how it reacts to different moves and positions. This led to my quest to become a new and improved climber every day.

How long did it take you to make it to the national squad? How often do you travel overseas to compete?


I first represented the state at the Asian Youth Championship held in Singapore in 2007. However, my participation there was nothing more than mere exposure to the regional scene. I truly began representing Singapore as a national athlete when I was training for the 26th SEA Games and the Asian Climbing Circuit in 2011. I mainly do bouldering and speed climbing where my interests and abilities are. I do not compete overseas regularly due to lack of financial support. But I try to join at least one major competition a year to see how far I can push myself in the international scene.

These are some of the overseas competitions I have been to in recent years:


  • IFSC Climbing World Cup 2013 (China and Korea)
  • IFSC Climbing World Championship 2012 (Paris)
  • 26th SEA Games 2011 (Indonesia)
  • ASEAN Climbing Circuit 2011 (Malaysia)
  • Indonesia Open X-Sport Championship (IOXC) 2011 (Indonesia)


Do you have a regular coach?


I do not have a regular coach. Everything is self-managed from head to toe. I do my own research for training knowledge and measure my progression against stronger others.


If an aspiring competition climber asks you what are the key aspects to focus on in training, what would you say?


Understand your body’s movements and identify your strengths and weaknesses. I believe in climbing with your strengths and working on your weaknesses to support your strengths. For example, I am particularly weak in my crimp-strength. I know I am barely strong enough to sustain considerable time on crimps unlike other climbers and so I always try to get over it fast and focus more of my energy on completing the rest of the boulder problem with my strengths in dynamic and coordinated movements.


How important is it for a competition climber to keep participating in competitions at home and overseas? Does the relevant training include getting familiar with competitions through frequent exposure to the format and learning to be comfortable with it?


That is definitely so.  Many athletes get stage fright whenever they are up on the wall because they are afraid of failing in front of everyone watching the competition. However, we must recognize that failure is part of the whole competition package and you can only get better if you learn from your mistakes and not go into every competition worrying about the same things. Take for example speed climbing. It is a fixed format and athletes training on it would have done it thousands of times and can even do it with their eyes closed. However when you shift them from training ground to a world cup scene, everything changes. The audience is larger; the weather is different, how you feel when climbing is different, your warm up regimes might need to be tweaked – the list goes on. This applies to bouldering and lead climbing too. More exposure will keep the athlete comfortable with new but similar environments and it will work to the athlete’s advantage.


You mentioned how failure is part of the competition package and how climbers must learn from their mistakes. Sitting in the audience, one sees climbers getting frustrated when problems can’t be solved. How do you personally cope with fear of failure and frustration?


Being unable to solve a boulder problem can indeed be frustrating. How you handle that frustration is something different and needs practice. You can channel that ferocity into your strength; you see this whenever somebody screams at the crux of a boulder problem. Yet he is focussed and alert in all aspects and not consumed by the frustration. This needs practice.


Adriel at the 2014 Girivihar Climbing Competition (Photo: Sharad Chandra)

Adriel at the 2014 Girivihar Climbing Competition (Photo: Sharad Chandra)

What is your normal day like in Singapore? Do you climb every day? Is there a training pattern you follow?


I am still studying and so my training days can get pretty erratic. Generally, I will have 3-4 sessions a week, 1-2 hours of focused training per session. I go to the climbing gym knowing what I need to accomplish for the day. Time is really short sometimes and you need to be disciplined enough to do only what you need to do. Before competition season I focus on getting physically fit and supplement it with injury prevention exercises so that my plans to train are not hampered by injury. During competition season I translate my physical fitness to climbing fitness by accumulating greater volume of climbing, making only good attempts on every boulder problem and learning from my mistakes.


Unlike many countries that have been traditionally home to climbing through rocks and mountains in their backyard, Singapore is very small in size. It has a population of roughly 5.3 million people (source: Wikipedia) and is highly urbanized. Can you tell us something about the Singapore climbing scene – how is it structured; what is the scale of infrastructure available? How is the national team chosen in Singapore?


We have around five climbing gyms in Singapore and a very, very small natural rock area at a place called the Dairy Farm. Because we lack natural rock to climb, most of the training people do are on plastic. Onsight Climbing Gym is the biggest climbing gym in Singapore to date, with full size competition walls for lead, speed and boulder. We have about ten boulder competitions and less than five high wall competitions (both lead and speed) on a national level, annually. We used to have a league based on points system similar to the one used at the world cups but that is no longer present. Regarding the national team, we do not have a fixed team right now due to complexities. Nonetheless, everyone is focusing on their own training and development.


Was the league based on points system helpful to grow climbing and competition climbing? Why was it discontinued?


I believe the league in Singapore was used to help the community identify consistently well performing athletes and perhaps act as a platform to push forth a case to the federation or other organizations to send athletes overseas for competitions. However although it might spur on budding climbers to push standards and match up with the top athletes, I believe the system tends to benefit the competitive community more than the general climbing community. The general climbing community is more leisure-driven and perhaps another system that involves group benefits might be better. 

When it comes to climbing natural rock or attempting long routes on natural rock, where do you go to? Hampi in India is known as a bouldering location internationally. Is that a place you would like to visit sometime?


I have been only to the Grampians in Victoria, Australia. Rock trips overseas don’t come often because they are expensive but I hope to go to other places to attempt some top tier boulders if I can. I have heard of Hampi and would like to visit it one day of course! Hopefully it will happen sooner.

Can you give us your estimation of the Asian climbing scene – which countries are the power houses in climbing today going by the results reported at the various Asian competitions?


There are a few outstanding athletes from the South East Asian climbing scene, namely from Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore.

What keeps you going in climbing – the fun, the competition or something else?


I love climbing competitions and I always look forward to joining one! The fun comes when each attempt really matters. Completing a boulder problem in just one attempt is truly satisfying!


(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. Thanks to Sharad Chandra for allowing the use of a photo taken by him.)


Kilian at work on the route next to Samsara (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Kilian at work on the route next to Samsara (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

On February 25, after the three part series `Beyond Ganesha’ was published on this blog, Kilian Fischhuber responded to a mail I had sent earlier.

I had asked him whether he had a rough idea of the grades for the two new routes he had created. He said, “ I have tried both routes. The left one seems possible but I think we need Adam Ondra for it…. The other route, next to Samsara, I was close to doing it but in the end I didn’t. I am not absolutely sure about the grade. This comes usually during the process of trying and is normally decided after the climb has been done. But I think it will be around 8c+.”

The “left’’ route Kilian cites, is the route shown in the photo featuring Kilian that you find in part three of the series.

As Kilian’s mail shows, for now Ganesha remains the hardest sport route in India. Initial estimates of Ganesha’s grade too had been around 8c+. It was fixed at 8b+ after being fully climbed.

The potential for routes harder than Ganesha seems to be there in Badami.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai)


Climbing in Badami (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Climbing in Badami (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

This article in three parts is a composite of two distinct narratives, one in normal text and the other, in italics.

The story of Badami is as layered as its sedimentary rock.

If you are used to the Himalaya or even the Western Ghats, then, on the approach to Badami from Hubli, you wouldn’t expect anything that hints `hill.’ The world is flat and open to the sun. Vegetation is the stuff of hardy scrubs; large fields, still standing patches of sunflower, dry sugarcane and the occasional tree. Massive bony oxen pull carts; buffalos saunter by, dogs have their tongues hanging out trying to stay cool. It is hot. Sun burnt farmers, old women with dry wrinkled skin. Tractors join the traffic. Dust rises easily. It is January. I can imagine what peak summer would be, here. More important for climber, there is not an iota of hill anywhere. Then at one bus stand en route, you see an isolated rocky outcrop next door. Slowly, as the bus moves on, you start seeing similar isolated outcrops, at best a long wall and all no more than a few hundred feet high. Reach Badami and the rock walls there are high but not tremendously so. They are beautiful. Badami’s story lay in the subtext. If the Himalaya is famous for its marine fossils, dating back to the ancient Tethys Sea, then here, it is the other extreme.

According to Dr Shrinivas V. Padigar, Head of the Department of Ancient Indian History and Epigraphy, Karnatak University, Dharwad, the rock at Badami contains no fossil record as it dates back to the Precambrian period, or simply put, a time when no complex life forms existed. Accounting for roughly 7/8th of Earth’s history, the Precambrian period ended around 540 million years ago. Respect for Badami’s rock thus stems from a dimension different from physical properties. It is frozen time. To imagine such antiquity, you should take a peek at the shape of continents and where India was in the Precambrian period. If the world’s highest mountains – the Himalaya – were formed after India drifted at a speed that is superfast by continental drift standards and smashed into the Eurasian plate, then the India of the Precambrian period hadn’t dreamt the Himalaya. India’s northward drift started only 140 million years ago. The Himalaya, the child of India’s collision with Eurasia, is much, much younger.

Simply put, the rock at Badami is OLD.

Badami and Hampi attract rock climbers.

Both places are in Karnataka, South India.

They are separated by 146 kilometres, small enough for climbers fuelled by passion, to cover for a taste of both worlds. Hampi is strongly identified with bouldering, the art of climbing boulders with little gear – just a pair of climbing shoes, crash pad to cushion one’s fall, chalk to keep the hands sweat-free and a friend to `spot’ you. Badami has bouldering plus a wealth of longer routes for sport climbing, which entails rope, pre-fixed bolts in the rock, more climbing gear than used in bouldering and definitely a second climber to `belay.’ Badami offers beautifully weathered sandstone (we call everything here sandstone but as geology shows, it is more complicated). Badami’s stone is kind on climbers’ fingers. Climbing in Hampi is done on granite. It shreds skin.

Badami has several popular climbing areas. From past visits, I remember crags named Indian Alley, Ganesh Plateau, Temple Area and Badami Deluxe. Today, at any one of these known climbing spots, you will see several bolted sport climbing routes. N. Ravi Kumar, who hails from Bangalore and is currently Director of NOLS India, was among the early climbers frequenting Badami. According to him those days, there was nothing on the approach to the Badami Deluxe and Temple Area crags, save a house and the small facility of the General Thimayya National Academy of Adventure (GETHNAA). Where several shops and houses now stand there was nothing. All the initial climbing was traditional (trad) in style, using removable protection as opposed to permanent protection. “ There were no bolts then,’’ he said. It changed with sport climbing’s ascent in India. One of the great attractions of sport climbing is that thanks to prefixed protection (expansion bolts), climbing lines are possible on rock faces otherwise devoid of adequate features to host trad gear (an overview of the various styles in climbing can be had from the September 2013 post Climbers in the Big Wall Mirror [Part Two]. It can be accessed either through the blog’s archives or simply click on this link: turn, that makes moves in sport climbing pretty difficult because tackling potentially sketchy rock faces is built-in into the ethos of this discipline.

The rock face hosting Ganesha (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The rock face hosting Ganesha (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

In late January 2014, as I stood in Badami facing the orange glow of its sandstone rock walls, my attention was on a rock overhang far to the right near the Temple Area crag. Bit over one kilometre from the local bus depot, tucked into the curve of the rock was a sport climbing route called Ganesha, sometimes, Ganesh. In climbing, routes have names. Graded 8b+ in terms of climbing difficulty on the French scale, Ganesha was right then the toughest among known, graded sport climbing routes in India. Ganesha was bolted some years ago by Alex Chabot, a champion climber from France. Its first ascent happened probably in 2011; the credit went to French climber Gerome Pouvreau. In Rohit Chauhan’s guidebook to climbing in Hampi and Badami, Ganesha’s grade was speculated as 8c or 8c+. This publication was the first guidebook for this area. Rohit recalled it as a rather lonely endeavour. Encouragement and support came from just a handful of people. A few overseas friends and Delhi-based climber-businessman, Mohit Oberoi, backed him. At that time however, Ganesha was yet to be fully climbed. Rohit said in a recent email from Spain that he had to count on estimation by others familiar with the Ganesha project, for a sense of the new route’s grade. As often happens in climbing, there is a gap between the perception of a route in project stage, and reality. The right grade is a consensus among climbers who climbed the route fully. Multiple ascents over a period of time then lower the grade. 8b+ is what Ganesha earned after first ascent; it is what it still has for grade.

The rocky hill dominating Badami’s landscape is part of the ` Kaladgi Series’ stretching from Kaladgi to Gajendgragad – that’s what I gathered locally. The most ancient of the rocks in this region is probably the batch of sedimentary rock in the vicinity of Kuligeri Cross, a place that you pass by en route to Badami. For a lay person like me seeking to know Badami, the age of the rock is however only one half of the fascination. As climber, the Badami rocks are my favourite. Something about them matches the enjoyment from climbing and the engagement with rock, I seek. But I am no geologist. I don’t know how to distinguish a rock of recent origin from Precambrian. My perception as I climb is tactile; touch and feel. Badami’s rocks are like fine sandpaper yet firm. Plus, they are wonderfully eroded into all sorts of cuts, grooves, pockets and jug holds, not to mention – slippery smooth in some areas. In popular lore, the agent that caused all this – from sedimentation to sculpting – is said to be water with one theory being that this area was below water once. Today’s Badami is quite inland from the sea (it is approximately 250 kilometres by road from Goa on India’s west coast); it is also 1923 feet up from sea level. There is even a rock arch of sorts, the remains of powerful weathering, some say by water – you can see its scaled down model in the local archaeological museum. How and where do we position water in Badami’s geological history?

I contacted Dr Navin Shankar, a geologist now working as Research Specialist with Excelsoft Technologies Pvt Ltd, an e-learning company in Mysore. According to him the Badami rock formations date back to the Proterozoic era, around 1.6 billion to one billion years ago. Within the Precambrian (4.6 billion years ago to about 540 million years ago), this would qualify to be in the second half. The Proterozoic period is divided into three stages. The time of formation of the Badami rocks corresponds roughly to the middle stage – the Mesoproterozoic, noted as the first age from which a fairly reliable record of the Earth’s geological history survives. Wikipedia describes this period as still poorly understood despite critical changes to the chemistry of our seas, the sediments of the earth and the composition of air. It is also the dawn of life, the age of development of sexual reproduction in micro organisms, very important for complex life forms yet to come.  And if you thought ` life’ here means life as we know it, please note: oxygen levels of the time may have been about one per cent of today’s and slowly rising. It was a very different Earth.

Badami as seen from the top of the adjacent hill (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Badami as seen from the top of the adjacent hill (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The north and north-eastern segments of peninsular India had witnessed mountain building activity in the Mesoproterozoic period. This involved subduction of the margins of plate boundaries complemented by intraplate extensional tectonics resulting in the formation of a series of intracratonic basins, namely the Kaladgi formation. As per information on the Internet, intracratonic basins are a type of sedimentary basin. They form within stable continental interiors. They are typically shallow, circular in shape and have long histories of relatively slow subsidence. Over time, the intracratonic basins were overlain by sedimentary rocks and sediments. “ The rocks from the Mesoproterozoic age in the Badami area have been categorized under the Kaladgi Supergroup, further classified into Badami and Bagalkot groups,’’ Dr Shankar said. The Badami group comprises horizontally bedded multiple sequence of arenite and shale with limestone in small amounts. These sedimentary rocks and sediments are found in a large area of horizontally bedded ferruginous arenites from the north-western tip of Raichur district to Bijapur, Belgaum and beyond into Maharashtra state. The Bagalkot group consists of two mega cycles of repeated sequence of argillite followed by chemogenic precipitates predominantly of sandstone and dolomite with quartzite and conglomerate forming the base.

Standing in today’s Badami, it is hard to visualize this geological story. It is flat all around with a few rocky hills. Where are the sedimentary basins? To notice the ancient basins, which can be several kilometres long and wide, we have to get a bird’s eye view; a topographic picture of the region. In that, Dr Shankar said, the basins emerge. Further, some basins are now below the layers accumulated on top. By nature basins are depressions and water collects in depressions. The basins may have held water in the ancient past contributing to the submersion story. However in the vast scale of geological time, water isn’t sole agent forming, compacting and sculpting sedimentary rocks. Theoretically, wind and glaciers also perform that function although glaciers had no role in Badami. Into this, mix a later development. Badami now stands on the Deccan plateau. This large plateau formed around 60-70 million years ago through volcanic eruptions lasting several thousand years, some say, when India drifted over the Reunion Hotspot. The Deccan is a massive feature, much younger than Badami’s rocks but one that adds to the geological influences a scientist must sift through to understand still older times.


(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)


Tuhin in action (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Tuhin in action (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

An early morning, I walked away from the Badami bus depot towards the local APMC (Agricultural Produce Market Committee) office on the outskirts of town. From here a dusty road branched off to the left, through an archway, onto the nearby hill – it was the way to the Temple Area crag and Ganesha. A young man by the roadside saw me approach, backpack and all. “ Hello,’’ he said. I returned the greeting. “ You…climber?’’ he asked. What do you say, if you used to climb but haven’t done so for a long time? Besides, this whole business of defining climber and seeming one irritated me. I am sure the young man didn’t mean it so but I was already agitated with my thoughts. I smiled and shook my head. “ Climber – that word is for better others. I am simply in search of Ganesha,’’ I said. “ Oh, Ganesha project – it is right over there,’’ he said pointing to a rock face. It was a fine morning and the young man appeared a nice person to talk to. “ What do you do?’’ I asked. “ I am a climbing guide,’’ he said. That was new development for in none of my previous visits to Badami had anyone offered such an introduction. I met him a few more times later, at the crags, where he was with clients. He had been climbing for the past two years. Resident of Badami, he stayed in a house right where I met him, just inside the archway, close to the GETHNAA facility, not far from Ganesha. His name was Ganesh.

I was in Badami to learn more about another person, young like Ganesh.

Eighteen year-old Tuhin Satarkar from Pune, climbed Ganesha on December 14, 2013. He became the first Indian to complete an 8b+ route in India. He is the only climber supported by Red Bull yet in India. Internationally, Red Bull sponsors many athletes, among them climbers. “ Indian climbers have the strength and endurance required for demanding routes. What we lack is technique,’’ Tuhin said.

Tuhin Satarkar (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Tuhin Satarkar (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Although climbing infrastructure has improved in India, a huge gap exists between here and overseas. For example, take artificial climbing holds (with rising urbanisation, climbing on artificial walls has become the popular entry for youngsters into rock climbing) – big volume holds, features etc are still only trickling into India. On the other hand, they are the stuff of new routes at world cups and world championships, Tuhin said. We were in the restaurant of a hotel in Badami. The young man’s laptop had a prominent Red Bull sticker; he also offered me a can of the drink. In retrospect, a Red Bull sponsored-trip to climb in Austria and Italy with well known Austrian climber Kilian Fischhuber, in November 2013, may have helped improve his climbing and equip him for the unexpected December-rendezvous with Ganesha. Until this trip, Tuhin’s hardest climb had been a sport route called `Jackpot’ (7b to 7b+) at Sinhagad in Pune. During the 15-20 days spent climbing in Europe, he did his first 8a, a route in Italy. The tryst with Ganesha materialized after Paige Classen, an American climber who became the first woman to climb Ganesha, sought his help for her climbing project. Otherwise, Ganesha hadn’t been on Tuhin’s mind. In 2012, he had attempted the route, climbing up to the fourth clip (bolt plus quick-draw placed for protection) before giving up.

On India’s climbing scene, Tuhin is unique. At the decade old-Girivihar Climbing Competition in Navi Mumbai, I have seen him climb when still a school kid, moving over the years from junior category to senior. His parents are climbers. His father Vikas is a noted rock climber in Pune. While many young Indian rock climbers struggle to explain what they do – not to mention, why they do what they do – to their family, Tuhin had the required ecosystem at hand. He started climbing from age seven, growing up in a house with a climbing wall. His first climbing competition was in 2002, an event on the Pimpri-Chinchwad climbing wall in Pune. In 2007, he finished second at the nationals in the under-14 category. That was when he decided to take up climbing seriously; not so much as career as to climb seriously. Somebody he looked up to those days was Vaibhav Mehta, then living in Mumbai and leading a pack of sport climbers, the first bunch of climbers from the region to treat climbing as the only thing they wanted to do. Improving over the years, Tuhin became part of India’s youth team visiting championships in Singapore (2011) and Iran (2012). The Red Bull-sponsorship happened thanks to his participation in the Girivihar Climbing Competition, in a year when the company was one of the sponsors. As Navin Fernandes, Red Bull’s Athletes Specialist based in Mumbai, pointed out – Tuhin fit in well with Red Bull’s approach of investing in athletes when still quite young. Support from Red Bull commenced in 2013. Currently Tuhin is what you could call a professional climber; he climbs just as someone else goes to work in an office. Climbing is what he does every day. In India, Badami is his favourite climbing spot. He also claims to have been a fan of Alex Chabot, watching his videos, much before the French climber visited India and bolted a route named Ganesha.

Badami: stone, temples and caves (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Badami: stone, temples and caves (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Less than a kilometre from Ganesha as the crow flies is Vidyanagar, a residential colony. Everyone remembers a teacher. I had no problem finding the house of Dr Sheelakant Pattar. Now retired, he used to teach at the local school and college. More important, although majored in science, he is a history buff who took his doctorate in studies pertaining to Badami. According to him the oldest reference to Badami lay in Ptolemy’s works, where the name ` Badamoi’ has been mentioned. This is however contested. Dr Padigar feels that while the reference may exist, there is no certainty yet that Badamoi is Badami. What we do know is that there was a settlement here preceding Badami’s ascent in history. Before we talk of that ascent, let’s shift firmly from Precambrian to the age of human civilization and imagine Badami as a settlement near a rock hill characterized by steep walls. It is the 6th century AD. The political landscape of the neighbourhood is authored by such local dynasties / kingdoms as Kadamba, Vishnukundit, Kadachuri, Maurya (not the Maurya of Ashoka) and Nala. Enter, the Chalukyas. Who they were and where they came from appears still a matter of debate, for I came across different views. But the ascent of Badami – then known as Vatapi – under the Chalukyas, owes much to a strategic vision that both Dr Pattar and Dr Padigar pointed out – available readymade in the steep rock walls of Badami was a natural fort. All you had to do was fill in the gaps, which the Chalukyas did; such forts are generically called `Giridurg’ in these parts. In 543 AD, Vatapi burst upon the scene as the capital of the Chalukyas, a dynasty that would eventually become very powerful and influential in the history of this region. Indeed, in present day Badami, many commercial establishments choose to sport ` Chalukya’ in their name; some others fancy ` Pulakeshin,’ that being the name of the dynasty’s greatest king. Dr Pattar provided a bird’s eye view of Badami’s fortification thus: not far from the town is the Malaprabha River, a tributary of the river Krishna (compared to the age of the rocks in Badami, this river originating from the Western Ghats is very young – studies show it is only 40,000 years old). An invading army would have had to first cross the river, then, they would have to tackle what would have been those days a stretch of forest from the river to the fort, before attacking the fort built on steep rock walls. Although the Pallavas, who competed with the Chalukyas for influence in the region, did seize Vatapi briefly and today’s climbers with their modern climbing gear can scale the walls, by the imagination of the 6th century AD, the place must have seemed secure.

The blitz gang. From left - Madhu, Adarsh, Ajij, Gaurav, Tuhin and Sandeep (Photo: Vinay Potdar)

The blitz gang. From left – Madhu, Adarsh, Ajij, Gaurav, Tuhin and Sandeep (Photo: Vinay Potdar)

In mid January 2014, Vinay Potdar, friend and climber, reached Belapur in Navi Mumbai to assist at the annual Girivihar Climbing Competition (for more on the competition, please see earlier posts on this blog – 2014 Girivihar Climbing Competition / Daily Report, 2014 Girivihar Climbing Competition / Countdown and A Competition’s Solo Climb). He was coming straight from days spent climbing in Hampi. Vinay was intrigued by a certain development. Soon after Tuhin’s success on Ganesha and around the same time, in a blitz of sorts, across bouldering and sport climbing, across Hampi and Badami, a handful of young Indian climbers, ranging in age from sub-20 to early-20, cruised past the 8-mark. There was Guarav Kumar (from Delhi)  and Madhu C.R (Bangalore) polishing off Samsara (8a) in Badami, Ajij Shaikh (Pune) pulling off two 8a boulder problems – The Diamond and The Middle Way – in Hampi and Sandeep Maity (Delhi) doing the last two boulder problems plus Black Moon (8a) in Hampi. The Middle Way was made iconic by Chris Sharma of the US, who featured it in `Pilgrimage,’ a film on him climbing in Hampi. The question isn’t so much about who climbed what first or whether some of these routes were done before by others. Making a claim or telling the world of what you did is an option exercised by people in media ridden-world. It is not an expectation set by climbing. What interests more, therefore, is the spectre of a bunch of people, cracking a certain level of difficulty coincidentally around December 2013-January 2014. Mohit Oberoi who runs the Adventure 18 chain of shops that retail adventure gear has longstanding experience in both sport climbing and competition climbing. He attributed the emergent shift to greater availability of climbing infrastructure (artificial climbing walls) and properly graded routes in India. In the past, Mohit himself had climbed close to the 8-level but overseas. The critical element in the new development, he emphasised, is Indians breaching the 8-mark in India. Twenty years ago, the toughest graded climbs by Indians in India were in the early sevens. “ What we are seeing is a much awaited shift,’’ Mohit said.


(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)


Kilian Fischhuber at work on a new route in Badami (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Kilian Fischhuber at work on a new route in Badami (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The most obvious thing in Badami is its beautiful rock walls.

They not only have this orange-ochre colour, but with the right sunshine, at the right time – they are also dramatic.

Badami’s ancient stone temples and caves add to the scene.

If stone is so obvious, you would think – Badami’s story should be one of stone. That is true but it isn’t wholly so, for as with many organized settlements, the oldest constructions found here are of brick. Dr Padigar attributes this to a rather universal trend – in human civilization, stone and the lifeless initially went hand in hand. Much before people built with stone to live in such buildings, they used stone to build tombs, reserving bricks for inhabitable spaces. In India, the taboo was first broken by Buddhism. A lot of early cave and stone structures in the country is Buddhist in origin. Hinduism followed in adopting the practice. In the Badami region – there are caves and temples here – the oldest caves are Hindu. This aside, Badami’s story in stone goes all the way back to crude stone implements from the dawn of human settlement (these tools are displayed at the local archaeological museum). From such antiquity it spans right up to the glory of stone temples under the Chalukyas. The oldest stone implements discovered date back to about 100,000 years ago, part of what is called by archaeologists as a `stone line’ (suggesting the level of open ground at a time when stone age people would have been active here), a metre and a half below the ground in Lakhmapur. Like Precambrian giving way to eras of complex multi cellular life, from these small, isolated stone implements, human craftsmanship graduates over the years to construction. What is on show in the later and more complex architectural history of the region is the craft of working soft stone. In South India, working hard stone like granite has been the domain of the Tamil kingdoms further south and south east from Badami. Thus the hard granite of Hampi wasn’t exploited by the Chalukyas although Hampi is just 145 kilometres away from Badami. On the other hand, some of the temples of Hampi are built of soft stone brought in from elsewhere. The first detailed report about the stone monuments of Badami-Pattadakal-Aihole is the 1874-work by James Burgess. There is also an earlier photo album-like publication by Meadows Taylor. As medium for craftsmen to work on, Dr Padigar believes that the stone of Badami proper was probably the best in the region; the sandstone here is firm despite being sedimentary in origin. “ The Aihole version tends to crumble,’’ he said. How the soft stone-craft flourished in Badami has interesting angles. Although Badami had trade guilds, guilds of architects, craftsmen and artists don’t seem to have existed – Dr Padigar said. By the Chalukyan era, there were many talented architects in town; some of them were brought from outside Badami as well. Ilkal in the region, has the widest variety of stones and a particular monument in Nandwadagi is unique for converging a variety of stones into one building.

An architect or craftsman in the Chalukyan era wasn’t a specialist devoted to one medium or style. They had to have expertise across mediums – from stone to metal, be versatile. They even had duties as soldiers in war. As regards artistic style, one of the engaging points according to Dr Padigar, is that in the Badami-Pattadakal-Aihole region (collectively called Badami for the purpose of explaining history in this article), you find doses of North Indian architectural styles in the ancient stone buildings. You also find local architects (their names are there in inscriptions) – some of who built without patron for given project – evolving their own hybrid style. For art and architecture, the area was thus a melting pot, a case of north meeting the south. In all of ancient India, the Gupta period is deemed the Golden Age in terms of art and architecture. Dr Padigar thinks that the Chalukyas were much inspired by what was happening in the north and central parts of India and sought to showcase something similar in Badami. He isn’t surprised by the resultant synthesis because even in still older times, as when the great king Ashoka ruled vast parts of India, Badami and its neighbourhood was under the administrative influence of the northern empires. In fact, the range of artistic influences that converged in Badami under the Chalukyas only add to the academic curiosity to find out where these people hailed from. Was there something to the story of their life before Badami that shaped in them the urge to synthesize at a new capital rising from the dust? All this reminded me of my own experience doing a story on Hindustani classical music in North Karnataka (please see earlier post of January 2, 2014: Hubli-Dharwad: Life after the Legends accessible on this link: The question there too had been why Hindustani classical music flourished in Hubli-Dharwad but not further south, say in Mysore, famed for supporting the arts.

Tuhin Satarkar climbing n Badami (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Tuhin Satarkar climbing in Badami (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Tall and lanky, Tuhin’s hands and legs reach far on rock. This shapes his climbing style. His successful climbs become projects entailing homework for others with a different climbing style. I recall Gaurav Kumar telling me that he would have to work to climb Ganesha as the route isn’t his style. And climbers do that – every style, every human size has its strengths, ability to innovate. According to Tuhin, Ganesha has strenuous moves at start, cruises through the middle and near the finish poses a battle with fatigue. At the bottom of Ganesha to take a photograph of the climbing route, all I saw was an overhang; the route seemed like ascending the edge of a mild mushroom. As elsewhere in Badami, on Ganesha too, chalk marks on rock betrayed the holds, the features – the key to tackling the route’s challenge. More accurately, one half of the key; the rest is climber. What is a key if you don’t know how to use it?

Through late January to early February 2014, Tuhin and Kilian Fischhuber have been climbing in Badami. Kilian climbed Ganesha soon after arrival. I hung around watching some of their later projects. When I left Badami, two new routes were in the testing stage. One, next to Samsara, had been climbed in sections and was awaiting all the sequences to be sewn up in one flow; the other – on a nearby overhanging rock face – kept defeating the climbers with a very strenuous move in the middle. The unsaid quest across these routes, that tantalizing thought beyond enjoying climbing was – are there routes in Badami exceeding Ganesha in difficulty? Will India get an 8c or 8c+; will we touch the 9-mark? Today the toughest sport climbing routes in the word are in Spain and Norway, both graded 9b+, both climbed by the 20 year-old Czech rock climber, Adam Ondra. The ascent in Spain took him weeks of work.

Amazingly, what the Chalukyas laboured to create by way of influential empire was lost in no time once their power waned. In the sweep of history, Badami’s decline resembles stone dropped in water; as sudden as its appearance as the Chalukya capital, except – the decline is despite new found prominence as capital. As the Chalukyas fade, so does Badami. Post Chalukyas, it came under the orbit of the Rashtrakudas, the Hoysalas, the Vijayanagar kingdom, the Adil Shahi rulers, the Mughals, the Marathas, the British – on to present day India. Everyone who followed the Chalukyas left their mark, but none like the Chalukya.“ Chalukya craftsmanship is in a class of its own,’’ Dr Padigar said. According to him, while there are monuments in Badami hailing from the well known Vijayanagar period, in terms of craftsmanship they don’t match what was achieved 800 years earlier under the Chalukyas. Today Badami sees life as a hot, dusty town framed by timeless sandstone. The town’s architecture is characterized by the characterless architectural mess of modern India, old buildings and new, a clash of concrete, metal, paint and glass. Traffic on its main road has grown. Cell phone towers have appeared and like elsewhere in India, here too, there are those with one hand stuck to the ear, phone sandwiched in between. On the street’s edge, bull dozers are forever tearing down something. Life goes on amid gaping holes in concrete and twisted steel rods puzzled for logic. A man stood on half a balcony and calmly sipped tea observing the rubble. Monkeys sat on roof tops. Pigs ran around and a dark muck lurked in open sewers.

Kilian Fischhuber (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Kilian Fischhuber (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Not all climbers like Badami. I have noticed that.

Many prefer Hampi, reportedly more relaxed and at home with climbing compared to this town.

For the faithful, Badami is the home of sandstone and that route called Ganesha.

In climbing, nothing comes to you and your comfort zone. You have to venture out. Kilian is from Innsbruck in Austria. I asked Kilian what he thought of Badami. “ This is a great place to climb. Good rocks and good routes. My only problem is with the heat,’’ he said one evening, on the winding path to the Temple Area. It was a team composed of three people in the main – Kilian, Tuhin and Johannes Mair, who handled photography and film making. A typical day featured Tuhin climbing and Kilian belaying, or vice versa, with Johannes perched on nearby rock or dangling from a rope, filming the scene. Once in a while, Johannes too climbed. Over an evening and the following morning and evening, I watched Kilian and Tuhin work the two newly bolted routes. Would they be tougher than Ganesha? – I wondered. In sport climbing, the nature of the animal is such that the question can’t be avoided. Climbers I spoke to in Mumbai (where some of the blitz gang had gathered for the 2014 Girivihar Climbing Competition) felt that routes tougher than Ganesha existed in Badami.

Third week of February, I checked with Tuhin to know what happened after I left Badami. Both the new routes, he said, have remained work in progress. Kilian almost completed a climb of the route next to Samsara. But then almost, isn’t the same as completed. And with neither route fully done, it is probably correct not to guess their grade yet. 

The search is on for beyond Ganesha.


(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. He would like to acknowledge the help provided by Dr Shrinivas Padigar, Dr Sheelakant Pattar, Dr Navin Shankar, Vinay Potdar and Dr Sambhu Pankicker towards writing this piece.)     


Photo: Shyam G Menon

Photo: Shyam G Menon

Some months ago, in Mussoorie, I asked a senior experiential educator from the UK, why the simple experience of being outdoors wasn’t deemed as good an education as contrived outcomes delivered from the same. Why is it team-building and leadership; why isn’t it plain nature, just being there? He said I was overlooking the genesis of outdoor education in Europe in the shadow of the continent’s wars. That’s the imagination at work.

If I visit my understanding of the world I was born to, the legacy of war is more than boot camps teaching camping skills and mountaineering expeditions primed for conquest. The 20th century is the bloodiest century known to man. We fought two world wars and several local wars and battles. I recall novel after imported novel read during my college years and foreign movies watched, in which the hero was fashionably ex-army. There were lots of wars a protagonist could be veteran of – World War II; Vietnam, Korea, not to mention Afghanistan and Iraq for more recent heroes (I understood only later the tremendous psychological impact of World War I on mountaineering). Service in the armed forces or exposure to war was also there in the non-fiction realm with the biographies of some noted civilians mentioning military service.

Post World War II, our world changed drastically as the consumerist age with its giant industrial systems, and eventually the age of information technology, took off. In the century of war, corporate culture popularised the idea of war among companies and preparedness for battle within. Corporate officials are soldiers in another uniform. Indeed, once when I went to assist at an outdoor management development (OMD) program, I was intrigued to see an Outdoor Expert – OE as they are called in the business – attired in military fatigues, even as the program never left a resort’s lawns. Very likely, had he been dressed differently, he wouldn’t have seemed adequately outdoors to the clients training to demolish rivals in the market place. The world hasn’t really been at peace in the last hundred years or more; it has always been plotting war in the head. Even the media carries this tenor. Not only are large media corporations the stuff of corporate and competition, the media – especially business media – loves to see a war in tussles for market share and company acquisitions. I understand now why it is so unglamorous to be out in nature just for the heck of it without achieving something. I understand why no runner worth his / her salt will run without looking at the watch. Achievement has become proof of existence.

As the perceptive would say, nowadays such conflict also arises from straddling two different cultures – indoors and outdoors. If you want to make sense (and sense is compulsory for money), then you have to be relevant to indoors for that culture has the world’s money. Go outdoors to be poor and spiritual; go indoors to be rich and materialist – that would seem the case. Like generals at war strategising from safe zones, money likes to stay safe while its extended fingers explore the unknown. Reports reach headquarters from the field informing of challenge and progress. Occasionally, the indoors is borne outdoors in great comfort. Most important perhaps – unless you are achieving outdoors, you outdoor ventures don’t get support from indoors. It is the old arena mentality. Over time, a certain quality of contemplation has exited the outdoors. Triumph by well funded expedition and reduction of activity to action have become dominant. It reflects the world’s ways. First, success matters. You do what it takes to be successful including success guaranteed through commercial contract. Second, if you think habitually, you will probably wander off into avenues of imagination that are counterproductive to becoming successful. Equally, it is a noisy world and adding noise in your head through thought when world outside is already a din, seems invitation for disaster. Why think when we can dull thought through action? A climbing video – its dialogues, its editing style, its attitude – is often lifeless despite the action in it. We try to compensate with stunning visuals but there is only so much CPR can do to breathe life into dead video. Besides, we are tired of seeing the same CPR over and over again. Increasingly the stuff of smart packaging, the longevity of each media fad and format is shrinking. Few people talk of it – we are gradually exhausting our appetite for media, especially synthetic media.  

At the recently concluded 2014 annual seminar of the Himalayan Club, both the guest speakers – Marko Prezelj (leading alpinist from Slovenia) and Jim Perrin (climber, well known author from UK) – mentioned world addicted to media. From what I could glean and adding my thoughts as well, I believe, the problem works at several levels. First, there is the declining value of first hand assessment. As Marko pointed out, many people are experts ahead of being on their chosen mountain, thanks to Google Earth. A tool can help but a tool shouldn’t replace a whole mountain. If that is acceptable, then why venture out to be on the mountain? Don’t forget, climbing and mountaineering are tactile pursuits. Second, at the retail level, many of us – and that includes climbers – are hooked to social media, trusting its response to validate our existence. What is a great climb? The one that gets most likes on Facebook? This media circus can become questionable distraction. Joke or not, one of the greatest young alpinists of our times is said to have attempted a dangerous mountain face solo with more batteries for his media / radio equipment than food to eat. When he got stuck, the suffering became great media. On the other hand, amid the seductive blend of adventure and publicity, it has become common habit to climb something – anything – and put it on social media because an established motor response to lauding climbs gives anything vertical the licence to seem massively adventurous. The applause becomes an endorsement of adventurer although the vast majority of us are doing tame stuff and even the great climbs we do are routes already done by others. No matter how far we go the relation between us and everyone else – our social world – trails us like a conspiracy brokering means to fame in the head.

Marko appropriately wove into his presentation a clip on mountaineering from Monty Python (, the British comedy series. If we climbers take ourselves a little less seriously, we will notice the element of conquest and drama we strive to introduce into an account of even the smallest hump climbed. Over the years, technological innovations and improved climbing styles have actually reduced the risk on many climbing routes. Yet a video of climbing Everest via the normal route with all frills and bells attached, still labours to create a Hillary and Tenzing of everyone following in their footsteps.

Photo: Shyam G Menon

Photo: Shyam G Menon

Perhaps the reason for such media is because we want to make ourselves impressive and saleable. Saleability is imperative for the funding models of climbing and mountaineering. Welcome to the third point – in a strange mirror-like situation, the expedition model resembles a triangular peak. Only a few people reach the mountain summit to hog all the attention. For that, many unnamed others and plenty of resources are used. If the supporters / sponsors have to be incentivized to contribute, they must get a piece of the final glory. It is return on investment, bang for the buck. As demands for mileage multiply, climbing narratives converge to similar idiom. It is less mountain, more compulsions of business model. Worse – everybody is still mesmerized by old stories of blood and gut. What do you do if you didn’t grunt, groan and spill blood? It is a sad state of affairs – the sponsor wants mileage; even first time trekker wants mileage and hunts for mountaineering-like moment on flat land to put on Facebook. I know it myself – it is hard to write what you did on a mountain in simple language devoid of drama, when the urge within is to sound like true blue adventurer. Vanity interferes. With the funding models we have, that vanity not only got institutionalised, it also got condoned as necessary ingredient for without imagery of vintage adventure, who wants a narrative in the media and without media where is sponsor’s bang for his buck? We have condemned ourselves to the limited world of the permanently extraordinary. To me, one of the greatest moments in Marko’s presentation was when he described a very long period spent in the mountains as – it was becoming too much. At that point on the mountain, he wishes to be back home with family. Not surprisingly, in Marko’s presentation, his family and their house, appear as fulcrum periodically. My learning here is not family or house but a senior alpinist like Marko, acknowledging “ too much.’’ At heart, the outdoors is an aesthetic. It is that simple. Let me add something here on the media, an animal I am familiar with. Many reasonable headlines I gave the outdoor articles I submitted for publishing were replaced with headlines suggesting `top,’ `summit,’ `conquered,’ `peak’ and such in them. It was as though anything happening on the mountains couldn’t be seen differently. It had to be conquest. Another regular is the word `tough.’ A lot of imagination in the media about climbing revolves around this word. The reason this happens is clear – the media’s patrons are all indoors. The far opposite of indoors will hence attract. Now think – what would happen if this media got embedded in our brain? Marko offered an aesthetically extreme view but one that definitely engaged. How solo is solo climbing if next to the climber there is a cameraman dangling from a rope filming everything? For Marko, solo means `alone.’ I call that an extreme view because it could mean no media, no freelance journalist. I however concede – that is a ` pure’ view.  

For the heck of climbing’s philosophy – and everybody agrees that the core philosophy of anything in climbing is a drift to the pure ethic – can we have a seminar to debate viable expedition models that preserve freedom and mountaineering in the real sense? Can there be sponsors who don’t seek return on capital? People who give because they find something intrinsically valuable in adventure? Maybe even adventurers who are happy to do what they can with just available resources and sponsors who have means other than traditionally imagined ` mileage’ for returns? How about a sponsor who says – I don’t care for summit but give me a completely environment friendly expedition? How about someone who says – I believe in mountaineering as human heritage, so here’s the money? If there is reformed ethic in the tail and the tail wags the dog, won’t expeditions be different? I therefore won’t say that the outdoor community should court the extreme of declining help from those with capital to preserve purity of ethic; I submit for consideration – have we conveyed what the outdoors means, well enough, to those having capital? And for that, do people in the outdoor community have a genuine understanding of the outdoors in the first place?

Think about it.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai)


Parker Hall (Photo: Shyam G Menon)Fans of the Indiana Jones series, will remember the scene from the first film when cinema’s favourite archaeologist faces a huge scimitar-wielding opponent. For a minute, we think it is time to bid goodbye to the adventurer played by Harrison Ford. Then, slowly recovering from the sight of scimitar swishing about, he pulls out his gun and fires. One bullet fells the imagery of the terrible scimitar. As simple as that; balloon pricked.

Something similar happened last November, during the last session of the 2013 Mussoorie Writers’ Mountain Festival when the documentary film `Kukuczka’ by Jerzy Porebski was screened. In the film (a tribute to the legendary Polish mountaineer Jerzy Kukuczka), veteran mountaineer Kurt Diemberger comments on the current craze for speed ascents on formidable mountains. Gracefully aged by time, Diemberger has a serene, saintly gaze. He gently laughs and compares these swift climbs to the difference between sex and loving a person, understanding a person. Sometimes in the world of adrenalin soaked-climbing, you need a wake-up call as effective as Indiana Jones’s bullet. This seemed just that. The analogy was perfect; the delivery in Diemberger’s affable way, equally so. For me, it was one of the truly memorable moments of the last edition of the festival. You come to events like this, to rediscover the value of thought. Restoring thought in outdoor sport is particularly difficult as the world of marketing and media have squeezed contemplation out leaving us with action junkies in close-up.

William Dalrymple speaking at the Mussoorie festival (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

William Dalrymple speaking at the Mussoorie festival (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

On the other hand as author David Roberts wonderfully pointed out (he was quoting Benvenuto Cellini) in an old essay on mountaineers’ biographies, there is value in writing memoirs when you are past forty and not before. As you age you learn to see what happened from a distance, not with your nose to the rock. Yet thanks to competition, marketing and media, our world has been losing that distance, that perspective. As ornaments for adventurer grow, the outdoors fades to being means for a world resonating us. It is like you swallowed K2, vacuumed the Sahara or gulped down the Pacific to become something bigger than they all – which you do in the human world. You tower above others while whatever you conquered exists timeless out there. It is both a crisis in human imagination and a crisis in sponsorship models for without claim by superlative (in world running out of superlatives) and consequent interest shown by media, money shuns adventure. I found Diemberger’s comparison, spot on. It is easier to manufacture reasons for attention by marketing’s logic, than to know the mountains or lose yourself to what you like and where you had been. That’s the thing – are you willing to lose yourself, trade rank among humans for mere place in everything? I found myself laughing hearing Diemberger’s observation. I also found myself saying: thank you!

Ayush Yonjan (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Ayush Yonjan (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The Mussoorie Writers’ Mountain Festival is both about writing / arts and about mountains / the outdoors. It is special for me. First, it gets me back to the hills, reunites me with others similarly cast. Second, as a writers’ festival, it returns the intellect to a domain rapidly trading intellect for the glamour and decisiveness of action. I write as outsider. Despite much time spent climbing, I wasn’t good climber. Still, if average climber may speak up – I was never fascinated by just action. Save perhaps in the thoughtless depths of tackling a climbing route, which is too much an instance of focused, intense existence to be generalized as life. Firmly into middle age, I also realized that my being has a spiritual side, which needs attention as much as my body. A larger landscape now interests me. To feel the larger world, you stay open to a variety of stimuli ranging from music to photography, to painting, writing, science, history, geography – for all this exists out there. A festival like the one at Mussoorie, I felt, approached the outdoors so. Notwithstanding shortfalls, it strives for more dimensions than one.

The first time I was here in 2010, I walked to the assigned venue, past walls hosting photographs of mountains by Coni Horler, a participating photographer. Evenings, music took over – that time, it was artistes passing through town and, I suspect, some of the staff of Woodstock school who performed. The school is the festival’s immediate ecosystem.

Romulus Whitaker (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Romulus Whitaker (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

In 2013 – the festival trifle bigger and shifted wholly to the school’s Parker Hall – I walked to the venue through an exhibition of Thangka paintings by the Nepali artiste Ayush Yonjan. Evenings brought on stage, a band from the hill town of Shillong in North East India. They sang songs from the 1950s and 1960s.

In between we had a host of speakers, among them – Krzysztof Wielicki, William Dalrymple, Romulus Whitaker, Janaki Lenin, John Gans, Mark Vermeal, Simon Beames, Mamang Dai, E. Theophilus, Omair Ahmed, Dawa Steven Sherpa, Allan Sealy, Sejal Worah, Daniele Nardi, D.R. Purohit, Jeph Mathias, Kaaren Mathias, Tara Douglas, Maria Cofey, Peter Smetacek, Neela Venkatraman, Freddie Wilkinson and Deborah Baker. The topics spanned history to wildlife, experiential education, poetry, mountains, mountaineering, photography, river journeys and butterflies.

The band from Shillong (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The band from Shillong (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

As before, the festival was anchored by author, Stephen Alter and his team, including those from the school’s Hanifl Centre for Outdoor and Environmental Study. It was supported by the Winterline Foundation, begun by Woodstock alumni.

No doubt, all that engaged. But In 2013, my take away was Diemberger’s comment on film. I guess my personal set of circumstances, my private funk in climbing was waiting for it. Like a bullet to invincible images on stained glass, the comment demolished the intervening interpretation of climbing by distinction and let nature in. I imagined speed climber distracted by the changed ambiance, sitting down to admire the world from a mountain slope. Something has snapped in him. He thinks – how about a tent, a warm cup of tea, some love and affection, the slow life?

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)



Here’s a story from 2013.

It has been updated to include developments till January 2014.

Vinay in action.

Vinay in action.

Vinay is rarely on the ground.

In photographs, he is usually cyclist airborne.

Either that or, he is a streak of dust gathering speed as he rolls down an  inclined hillside, probably prelude to a launch. When I met him in early 2013, Vinay Menon’s reputation could be summed up as – he is forever jumping off things. That’s how he described himself, “ I am always jumping off something or the other.’’ On the Internet he had a following. He was considered to be the best `free rider’ in India. Mountain biking has several disciplines under it – Dirt Jumping, Slope Style, Trials, Cross Country, Four X, All Mountain, Endurance, Street and Free Riding among them. Of these, free riding values self expression and creativity, being a demonstration of what the rider can do with his bicycle, skills and terrain. Although he respects all disciplines and indulges in several, Vinay’s forte is free riding.  As yet there didn’t seem to be anyone around in India who was pushing the sport as Vinay did. Driven, his efforts had got him travelling overseas, meeting and interacting with international cyclists that he looked up to – names like Brett Tippie and Dan Cowan. Closer to my world of writing, Vinay was also Deputy Editor of the Indian cycling magazine `Free Rider.’ I first met him in Mumbai, when he was passing through town, part of a long, north-south ride with clients.

During the brief chat, I heard of Praveen.

Welcome to the story of Psynyde.

We shift to Pune, western India’s adventure capital. Like Bangalore further south, it has that change effecting-matrix of educational institutions with students from all over and a young mobile workforce at engineering companies and IT outfits, exposed to trends elsewhere and open to trying out new things. Praveen picked me up around lunch time. He drove his car slowly to a Subway outlet. We found ourselves a table. Then, Praveen sat nervously, his eyes on the bicycle mounted on the car’s back, the car visible through the eatery’s glass doors. That bicycle was seriously precious. It was the reason for our conversation. The road outside was busy. It doesn’t take much to flick a light road bike off a car’s back or do something to damage it. Praveen’s nervousness was understandable. A little later, if I remember correctly, he managed to keep the bicycle in safer territory, near a security guard. That done, he relaxed.

Praveen and Vinay

Praveen and Vinay

Vinay got interested in mountain biking in the mid-1990s. By then, Praveen Prabhakaran, was already an established addict of the sport in Pune. Both mentioned Sameer Dharmadhikari, then at Mumbai IIT, who was committed to mountain biking and was a pioneer of sorts. A complete idea of the sport was yet evolving. The youngsters used Indian cycles and existing trails on nearby hills. They banked on overseas mountain biking magazines, the occasional video and TV program for a sense of what to do. But as Praveen and company rode hard, jumped and abused their bikes in an effort to be like the foreign riders, one constant prevailed – they frequently damaged their cycles which were not designed for such riding or such levels of abuse. Needing spare parts frequently, Praveen sold old newspapers to raise funds. Naturally, there was a limit to such funding. On the other hand, there seemed to be no end to how much a dedicated cyclist could push his cycle to repair. Slowly Praveen’s interest drifted from pushing the ante in his chosen sport to tinkering with cycles. How do you make them suited for the sport; how can they stand up to abuse?

In his first experiment, Praveen took a rigid frame Indian mountain bike (MTB) and made it into a dual suspension cycle, subsequently named (perhaps aptly) `Frankenstein.’ Then, the story gets wilder. In his second such modification – this time a friend’s Indian dual suspension-MTB that wasn’t compressing properly – he outfitted the cycle with Bajaj M80 suspensions altering the whole cycle in the process. “ It worked!’’ he said. And as things got wilder like this, he understood the interdependence of bicycle dimensions, engineering and components. A bicycle is a wholesome organic unit; you don’t simply take one element out and stick another in. A commerce graduate into 3D animation but no backdrop in engineering, Praveen steadily moved to making bicycles – in the literal sense of making; that is, manufacturing them – his life’s aim. When in his animation career, he got laid off at one of the biggest companies around, he said enough is enough and launched headlong into what he always wanted to do – make performance bicycles.

The Subway was now busy with office goers come to eat. Vinay had joined us. We seemed misfits in the suddenly emergent purposeful corporate-ambiance of the restaurant – the restless dreamer who makes cycles, the long haired-cyclist whose sense of career may puzzle regular office goers and freelance journalist, who may be fashionably free but is forever short of money.  Back to the story – Vinay’s trajectory had progressed differently from Praveen’s. He was hard core mountain biker, very much into riding and skills. Unlike Praveen he hadn’t shifted focus to obsessing with the mechanics of bikes although that day in 2013 he owned nine cycles, some of them top notch. But having pushed bikes to the limit, he too had a feeling of what they were and could be. Praveen’s craze to craft performance bikes appeared synergic with Vinay’s hard riding. They seemed an ideal combination of designer-craftsman and tester.

What next?

Praveen with the Psynyde Caffeine.

Praveen with the Psynyde Caffeine.

Enter `Psynyde’ – that’s what the two named their fledgling enterprise. To start with, Praveen underwent customized training in Computer Aided Design (CAD) and focussed his initial manufacturing efforts on bicycle components like stems, seat clamps and bash rings. Vinay tested it. He also gave it to his cyclist friends overseas for testing. Feedback was encouraging. While this was on, Praveen began designing a bicycle. The two friends agreed that their first hand built-Psynyde bike should be a road bike because mountain biking was yet in its infancy in India. Not to mention, MTBs are more complicated to make. Praveen did considerable homework. There was the research on materials, sourcing the materials (triple butted niobium steel alloy from Italy), selecting tubes of the right strength, relating tubes to preferred ride quality, learning frame geometry, adapting the geometry to suit rider dimensions and mastering the art of joining tubes to make the frame. If required, the erstwhile 3D animator also makes the cycle’s fork from 4130 chromoly (chromium molybdenum alloy) steel. The bike debuted in July 2012. Two cycles made so far and two underway it had found customers in Pune, Bangalore and Andaman and Nicobar islands. Save some specialized tasks like brazing, Praveen did most of the work. Home doubled up as workshop. And in case you hadn’t guessed it yet – that was a Psynyde mounted to the back of Pravin’s car. The specific model, which he had chosen to retain for personal use, was called `Caffeine.’

The typical customer in this niche category is a serious cyclist, who knows the difference that right sized frame, correct geometry and good quality materials bring to performance. “ I believe we are the first in India to custom-build high performance bikes using high quality materials,’’ Praveen said. The Psynyde bike costs more than a similar looking off-the-shelf bike but is cheaper than comparable custom built cycles overseas. If all goes well, from measuring the customer for optimum frame size to delivering the bicycle, it takes approximately 1-2 months. The ` performance’ segment that Praveen referred to was his chosen differentiator’ there were others also building bikes. A March 2010 news report mentioned Zubair Lodhi and Faisal Thakur in Mumbai, who made customized, sometimes theme based-bicycles. In 2011 and 2012 The Hindu reported about Bangalore based-Vijay Sharma who made eco-friendly cycles using bamboo. Psynyde, Praveen said, customized for high performance. That’s the underlying philosophy. Vinay as tester, emphasized the intended direction.

Traditionally in India, the bicycle models produced by a handful of mass manufacturers have been staple diet. The companies making these cycles owed their DNA to controlled economy, not DNA in performance biking. It was mass manufacturing. Simply put, it meant – they made, you bought unquestioningly. Slowly – and perhaps one should say: reluctantly, for portions of the market were far ahead of the companies in terms of imagining cycling – that has changed. The leading bicycle companies have introduced new indigenous models besides importing cycles from overseas (please see the story: Cycling’s Second Youth posted in August 2013 on Outrigger, for an overview of the Indian bicycle market / industry). Still, a company can rarely match the deep end experience that enthusiasts cobble together. At Psynyde, you have two young cyclists using their knowledge and field experience to build performance cycles. Overseas such teams have birthed strong brands. Dig into bicycling history and you will stumble on brands whose genesis can be traced back to small enterprises, often founded by cycling enthusiasts. However small these early Indian attempts in the niche maybe it’s hard to ignore the passion. Before me was a young man, old enough to be as well employed as anyone in Pune’s corporate crowd. He could have been one of those breezing into the Subway outlet and eating a meal over corporate gossip or plotting next move in corporate career. Yet he had made cycling his life. The other person had chucked up his last job and walked into a crazy dream of making bicycles that had somehow lingered eternal in the head. I repeatedly asked Praveen how he, a 3D animator, learnt about materials, fabrication and welding techniques, normally seen as the turf of bicycle factories. He said if you are determined, you learn. Perhaps I also overlooked the nature of the bicycle – it is technology and simplicity at once. Years ago, the first bikes pedalled by these two Pune cyclists had been Indian makes. Those cycles are the guinea pigs that triggered a journey, which from another perspective is a measure of how different the new market is, compared to the old one. Not surprisingly, a news report from April 2012 said that the two dominant domestic players – Hero and TI – planned to introduce customization. But no matter what big companies do, the beauty I found in this story of two cyclists was quite simply that they did what they liked. They pursued it diligently, seriously.

The Psynyde Alchemist

The Psynyde Alchemist

January 2014.

Praveen and I met in Pune for an update on the old story. As said, the first bike model – a road bike – was called Caffeine. I remember it as precious strapped to car’s back. The second model was a cyclocross (looks like a road bike but can go off road too) called `Hammerhead’ and sold to the client in Andaman & Nicobar. The new models due – thanks to orders received – included the track bike `Alchemist,’ fashioned from stainless steel. There is the planned touring MTB named `Jaisalmer,’ which will be a mix of MTB frame in steel and touring essentials like rack mounts at the front and back for luggage. Also planned is a rather ambitious dual suspension MTB, which Praveen reckons will be his toughest assignment yet. It will be partly made of aluminium, the first time Praveen will work with that material. The designer and builder of cycles had also got himself a new job as photographer; something he said was necessary for income even as he kept building cycles.    

That’s the story of Psynyde.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This is the expanded version of an article previously carried in The Hindu and Man’s World. The photos used herein were provided by Vinay and Praveen.)      


???????????????????????????????I quote two paragraphs from pages 83 and 84 of Brian D. Kharpran Daly’s book, ` Caves for the Uninitated’:

“ You know, Marisa, it is a real pleasure to impart knowledge to someone who is eager and has a thirst to learn. I will be only too happy to teach you all I know, step by step.’’

“ Just be good and disciplined kids and follow your heart in what you want to do in life. I can only help in igniting the spark in your heart.’’

Brian’s book on caves is structured as a series of chats with a group of youngsters after their visit to a cave in Meghalaya, the Indian state best associated with caving.

To me, the above mentioned paragraphs sum up my own impression of Brian.

There are very few like him in the Indian outdoors. In these days characterized by the specific highlighted to overshadow the whole, it is very difficult to find a mind given to appreciating the whole. I add – in our times of greatness while still young, knowing the whole is a time consuming process. Caving for Brian, could have easily reduced to technical skills, high adventure and apartness by what all that means – much like advertisements of adventure these days. That’s all we care for; life in single dimension, climber on vertical face.

Brian’s story is different.

When I met him in Shillong some years ago, Brian came across like an oddity in the regular outdoor spectrum. Already feted for his contribution to caving in India, he was still explorer at heart, someone who saw caving as the sum total of an experience spanning skills to science to the sheer grandeur of nature. Plus, he was articulate, down to earth and hardly like so many others adventuring for distinction. Not to mention – he made good wine. I came off happy to have met somebody who was multidimensional, someone who represented the whole as opposed to specific highlighted at the expense of the whole. There was an unmistakable maturity in the meet-up. Maybe – and here I am guessing – that’s a product of being pioneer. For Brian’s entry into caving not only signalled a leap in the scale of cave exploration in Meghalaya, caving also struggled to coexist with rising environmental threat to Meghalaya’s caves, courtesy mining. With that threat hanging as Damocles Sword over the very medium he fancied, Brian was likely forced to learn the subject from all angles. If so, his mind was perfect for the job. As the book shows, Brian’s awareness of a cave straddles the many aspects that make a cave what it is. I should also mention that I know of few persons in the Indian outdoors, who pursued their case (in Brain’s instance, protection of Meghalaya’s caves) all the way to the Supreme Court, even if it was to eventually lose the battle (please see the August 2013 post in Outrigger: The Caves of Meghalaya).

Brian D. Kharpran Daly  (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Brian D. Kharpran Daly (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Given this backdrop, I think Brian was cut out to write this book. A lay reader wanting to know more about caving couldn’t have asked for a better author in terms of experience in the subject, love for the subject and willingness to be evangelist for it. Brian leads the reader on through stalagmites, stalactites and siphons to gear used for caving and on to simple dos and don’ts for safe cave exploration. Strictly from the perspective of book review, it is a slightly inconsistent book beginning as easy, informal narrative but becoming trifle textbook like over the last quarter. It could have been better edited. However for all its minor shortcomings, Brian has successfully presented us with caves in general and Meghalaya’s caves in particular, all the way from the natural chemistry forming them to the myths and legends man wrapped them in. It is a wonderful effort in a country yet to adequately notice the speleology in its midst.

Our knowledge of the outdoors, the Indian outdoors and adventures therein, will be incomplete without this book on caves.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai)