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