Photo: Shyam G Menon

Photo: Shyam G Menon

I came to know Boulder 15 a dozen or more years ago, when Girivihar, Mumbai’s oldest mountaineering club, popularized rock climbing in Belapur.

The place provided modestly long sport routes on rock faces and plenty of boulders – like Boulder 15 – to climb.

The boulders lay strewn around on the hillside, just past Artist Village. The converging valley had a right arm and a left arm as you faced it. To the right were the old climbing areas; to the left were the new ones. Boulder 15 was tucked in the woods to the left. The access to the old climbing area was through a growing slum. It was dirty access but had to be accepted as such for a roof over one’s head is everyone’s battle in Mumbai. As long as the rocks survived, the climbers were happy. Belapur’s was the Mumbai / Navi Mumbai area’s first properly developed crag with sport climbing routes and boulders graded for difficulty of climb.

Artist Village and the enclosed valley with hillsides hosting climbing crags are special for another feature. It has become a one stop shop for divinity. Many years ago, a couple of temples, a church and a mosque were all that God wanted. Then His appetite became voracious. There was a pattern – somebody would paint a small rock in holy colour; it would soon get coconuts and flowers placed before it, then a small roof would materialize and within months, a place of worship would assume shape. In the initial years of God’s hunger for land, the real estate gobbled up was away from the climbing crags. A good friend, who had purchased an apartment seeing the quietness and beauty of these hills, was soon disappointed. His large window began offering views of trees being cut and bulldozers in action. Today, on both arms of the valley, places of worship have come up. When the trend started, the climbers were worried. They speculated of approaching loss of places to climb. But they also knew – their freedom and rights are only as good as someone else’s.

When a boulder is regularly climbed it acquires chalk marks. That’s how Boulder 15 used to be. Rock climbers love their rocks, seeing them as friends from an ancient past. Boulder 15 was a major attraction for climbers of beginner to intermediate grade. Overall, it is short, not exceeding perhaps six feet in height on the climbed side. But it provides a long traverse, the rock sharp enough to trouble the skin, an engaging pattern of hand shifts, carefully poised lunges and after all that – an exhausting pull-up to finish the route. It is a waltz in the park for experienced climbers. For those new to climbing and some months into it, Boulder 15 is engaging. I remained stuck in that intermediate grade of climbing; so Boulder 15 was a favourite.

Some weeks ago, after a break of several years from climbing, I returned to Boulder 15. More places of worship had come up on that hillside; several trees had been cut, others marked with paint as though awaiting sacrifice. Rather worryingly, twenty feet or so from Boulder 15, somebody had dug the foundation for a structure. By the next visit, couple of weeks later, Boulder 15 sported a large trident drawn with red paint.

Boulder 15 is not far from other boulders used for climbing. It acquired its name – Boulder 15 – because the climbing that happened in Belapur was enterprising enough to start one of India’s best rock climbing competitions more than 11 years ago. Each boulder used for competing was known by a number. Over time, as the encroachment on the hillside gathered momentum, the annual competition shifted to competing on artificial climbing walls. However, that was not before the local authorities promised to preserve the hillside as a “ nature park,’’ including empathy for climbing therein. Amid encroachment Belapur’s crags thus remained available for climbing even as elsewhere in Mumbai, crags faced pressure. Earlier this year, at an Udupi restaurant in Belapur, where a couple of us met for breakfast before heading out to climb, I recall chatting with climbers from Mumbai’s western suburbs come here to climb because they were denied access to their crags in Borivali. Despite its problems, Belapur had lingered an oasis.

What happened to Boulder 15 therefore disturbs.

On February 16, 2015, The Times of India published an article on the goings on. You can read it here:

It is understood that following the news report, senior officials from the local administration paid a visit to the hillsides in question for a first hand assessment of what had happened. Boulder 15 and other similar problems highlight a lacuna in Indian climbing. While safety regulations have been debated at climbing associations and government circles, there hasn’t been similar institutional support for ensuring continued, undisturbed access to climbing crags and the preservation of these crags. Crags near urban areas are particularly vulnerable.

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


The Himalayan Club's panel discussion on Everest. From left: Lindsay Griffin, Umesh Zirpe, Dr Murad Lala, Harish Kapadia, Dawa Steven Sherpa and Divyesh Muni (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The Himalayan Club’s panel discussion on Everest. From left: Lindsay Griffin, Umesh Zirpe, Dr Murad Lala, Harish Kapadia, Dawa Steven Sherpa and Divyesh Muni. Victor Saunders spoke via Skype, from England (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Expeditions to climb Everest may become costlier in the future, Dawa Steven Sherpa, Managing Director of the Kathmandu based-Astrek Group, said.

The Astrek Group has in its fold, Asian Trekking, one of the best known names in organizing Everest expeditions.

Dawa based his views on the emergent need for better regulation on the mountain, underscored by recent events. A safer passage, which any regulation aspires for, could eventually mean more expensive expeditions.

In April 2013, there was an ugly episode when a small group of elite mountaineers climbing by themselves and a team of Sherpa mountain workers fixing ropes for many other climbers, had an altercation that led to a clash ( for that story, please see In April 2014, a year after the previous incident, there was a terrible avalanche on Everest that killed 16 Sherpa mountain workers on the spot with another person dying later.

According to Dawa, the first incident reported widely as a clash of conflicting climbing styles (unsupported alpine style versus commercial climbing format) actually had roots in the progressive evolution of the Sherpa mountain worker to someone conscious of his role and contribution to expeditions on the mountain. “ They no longer see Western climbers as above them,’’ Dawa said. It was a clash of egos; both sides saw themselves as elite in what they do. (Later he told this blog, news reports on the April 2013 incident were one sided and not sufficiently empathetic to Sherpa mountain workers because the community was not media savvy.)

At the same time, there is an element of accumulated grievance providing tinder. There is the competitive pressure of almost 2000 trekking companies in Nepal, all of them eligible to arrange Everest expeditions if they meet some basic criteria and very little of that criteria examining competence or accrued experience on the mountain. In the resultant race to quote low and secure clients for a shot at Everest, mountain workers’ salaries and working conditions take the hit. Thus, there are disgruntled mountain workers, mostly from the smaller companies. “ There needs to be a better way of deciding who is eligible to conduct expeditions on Everest and who is not,’’ Dawa said. The existing situation harbours danger. Besides, he pointed out, “ bad operators who treat their people badly are bad for the industry.’’

He said options that could be explored include positioning service providers in distinct tiers based on such factors as years of experience, nature of work done, staff strength, extent of training for staff, equipment quality etc, following which, a given agency in given tier could be matched with a suitable expedition. You could also create a structure to move up the ladder. However, completely questioning commercial expeditions for being a business or frowning down upon them is ill advised because many important shared services like search and rescue, availed by alpine style climbers too, are supported by the richer revenues from guided ascents. The two climbing styles co-existing together made sense.

Earlier Dawa had asked which expedition on Everest couldn’t be labelled commercial for under prevailing laws everyone climbing had to be associated with a trekking company and even alpine style climbers used porters to reach loads to the base of a mountain. One way to distinguish between the two would be to acknowledge as commercial, that expedition which wants every paying member or most paying members on the summit.

According to Dawa, surveys had shown that a majority of the Sherpa mountain workers lacked formal training but all of them had informally picked up skills as their mountain work was hereditary. With better industry regulation looming and logical at that, mountain workers have begun acquiring formal qualification to guide. Dawa said that 33 Sherpas now possessed international mountain guide certification; in another month at least seven more workers would similarly qualify. On the other hand, a qualified professional won’t work for a low salary. Also, some of the qualified mountain workers prefer to work as guides in the proper sense of the word. They decline to carry clients’ loads.

All this – from the likely shake-up within the 2000 odd trekking agencies to mountain workers improving their technical qualification – point to more expensive Everest expeditions in the future. On the client side, this weeding out could mean a drift back to technically competent climbers on Everest as opposed to anyone who can pay.

Fuelling the trend further is the frustration from accidents like last year’s avalanche. When the avalanche occurred and people died, of the more than 50 Liaison Officers who should have been around (they could have helped coordinate with government), only three were present. The concerned government minister visited eight days later, for which event some of the liaison officers made sure to be present. These actions were noticed by the community of mountain workers, provoking anger, Dawa said.

Dawa was speaking mid-February 2015, at the annual seminar of the Himalayan Club in Mumbai.

Providing an overview of the concerns of Sherpa mountain workers, he said that they saw their job on Everest as traditional and hereditary. They felt that risk rose with price war; the industry’s rules and regulations were not known well to its rank and file, government decisions were sometimes ad-hoc and not including mountain workers in the process, a professional rescue squad is absent, priority in rescue goes to foreigners, the mountain workers wanted a bigger share of the royalty collected from mountaineering to be ploughed back into the industry and there should be better employment conditions and better monitoring by government of the conditions on expeditions.

A panel discussion on what Everest climbs had come to be – featuring Victor Saunders, Lindsay Griffin, Umesh Zirpe, Dr Murad Lala, Harish Kapadia, Divyesh Muni and Dawa – witnessed heated debate around Zirpe’s successful leveraging of Everest’s popularity to raise resources for climbing 8000m peaks and Kapadia’s contention that many technically challenging climbs existed, often unexplored, in the less expensive smaller peaks of the Himalaya.

Interestingly, costs are lower to attempt Everest by routes other than the much climbed normal route; costs are also lower for climbs in the off season. There are few takers.

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