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)

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