Tucked away in the crags of Belapur in Navi Mumbai, is a small boulder with a tricky move on it called, `Franco’s Warm up.’
A name given by young climbers, it speaks much about the older gentleman whose name features in it.
Like all of us, Franco Linhares is inevitably growing old in life. But as he does so he is getting younger in climbing. You see him every evening at the small climbing wall at Podar College, first showing youngsters new to the sport the basics of climbing and then, doing some hard routes with the seasoned addicts. On weekends he turns up at Belapur, where the house of Abhijit Burman (aka Bong) has long been assembling point for climbers heading to the nearby crags. At 65 years of age, Franco is Mumbai’s most consistently active rock climber. He has been climbing for over three decades. That boulder in Belapur was aptly named. Warm-up is a sign of things to come and Franco in climbing is proving to be a bit of a Benjamin Button.
In the early 1950s, Franco’s father was stationed at Abadan in Iran, location then to one of the world’s biggest oil refineries. Franco was born in Abadan in 1950. The refinery belonged to the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC). In 1951, Iran nationalized oil properties. Refining ground to a halt at Abadan and riots broke out (a settlement was reached in 1954, which lasted till 1973 when the National Iranian Oil Company [NIOC] took over all facilities. The period from 1951 to 1954 is called The Abadan Crisis). Franco’s family moved to Mumbai and onward to Seria in North Borneo, South East Asia, where the oil company, Shell, had a refinery. Seria became Franco’s next home. In 1960, given his father’s desire that the children be educated in India, Franco shifted to Mumbai with his sister.
The Linhares family hails from Goa. Among Indian communities, Goans are noted for their love of sports. Franco attended the St Sebastian Goan High School at Girgaum in South Mumbai. His days there were filled with sports and games. “ My love for sports came from this school. Those were my formative years,’’ Franco said. Later he majored in Microbiology from Mumbai’s St Xavier’s College. By 1967, his family was also back in Mumbai for good. To keep himself occupied, his father worked at the United Services Club in Colaba, at the Archbishop’s House and eventually served a long stint at the Victoria Church in Mahim handling administrative matters. While looking for a job after graduation, Franco chanced to do a course at Bharat Laboratories in laboratory testing procedures. Course done, he commenced working for the company. He kept applying for jobs alongside; ` medical representative’ being much fancied those years. In 1973, Franco found long term employment at Hoechst Pharmaceuticals with a job in their quality control department. Every evening after work, he played hockey. This was on the road in front of his house in Mahim. Roads then were relatively free of traffic. They were playgrounds at hand. He also played for Hoechst in the company’s hockey and football teams, playing up to the senior division in hockey.
Purists in climbing and hiking, look down their nose at commercial trips. Yet it is through such visits that many Indians begin their engagement with the great outdoors. In 1979, Franco reached Kashmir as a tourist on a trip arranged by the Mumbai based-Lala Tours and Travels. On return he realized one thing – he visited Kashmir, yes; he saw nothing of its high mountains and wilderness. So the following year he went on a trek to western Sikkim. His companion on the journey was the late Roque D’Souza, a maths major from St Xavier’s working at Ciba-Geigy (subsequently merged with Sandoz to form Novartis) and a regular at the evening hockey matches. Franco’s first Himalayan trek was initially challenging. On the first day he had a tough time adjusting to the altitude. Then everything was fine. In 1981, he went to Chanderkhani Pass in Himachal Pradesh. The next year, he trekked to Sandakphu. On this trek, most of the camp leaders were from the Mumbai based-club, Girivihar. They used to discuss climbing. It was Franco’s introduction to both the subject of climbing and the club he would eventually come to be identified with. Girivihar is Mumbai’s oldest mountaineering club. Soon afterwards, Franco trekked to Matheran and Kalsubai (at 5400ft, Maharashtra’s highest peak) in the Western Ghats (Sahyadri), with Vijay Athawale, a colleague at Hoechst.
Vijay quickly became Franco’s partner in outdoor adventures. Their friendship, strong to this date, can be gauged from Vijay’s recollection of events past, starting with “ 1st September, 1977’’ – the date he met Franco for the first time at the Quality Control Lab of Hoechst. Mumbai and Hoechst were new worlds for Vijay, hailing from a distant place, educated in the vernacular language and not even fully done with his degree course. He wrote in, “ I was obviously afraid of everything around. Franco was my role-model. Calm, soft spoken, a thorough gentleman and at the same time, mischievous, ready to participate in all sorts of picnics and parties! Our chemistry matched from day one.’’ According to Vijay, one of Franco’s friends pulled Franco out on a monsoon outing and Franco in turn, pulled Vijay in. That’s how their partnership began. The outdoor bug got them and then, others at office. “ What started as monsoon outings, slowly changed to one day treks and later to overnight hikes,’’ he recalled. Vijay had heard of the annual rock climbing camp conducted by Girivihar, wherein rock climbing skills were taught. Franco and Vijay attended the camp held at Kanheri Caves inside the Borivali national park. It lasted three to four days. From then on, for several years, Vijay and Franco went for every trek and climb organized by Girivihar. “ We just liked it. It was great to be out,’’ Franco said. With Harish Kapadia’s guidebook for trekking in these ranges available in the market, the Sahyadri became playground for Mumbai’s outdoor enthusiasts.
Given their regular attendance at club activities, Franco and Vijay were quickly co-opted into Girivihar’s management. Vijay was made secretary straight away. “ I was in the management committee as a sort of assistant secretary to Vijay,’’ Franco said. Those were the days of cyclostyle; the days preceding email. The schedule of outdoor activity for a specific period of time would be drawn up. It would be cyclostyled and posted to club members. Franco recalls doing this after his daily work at Hoechst. The Girivihar rock climbing camp had been Franco’s initiation into climbing. Besides Borivali national park, the other climbing crags in the Mumbai region then were at Mumbra and Kalwa. Unlike today, very few people had climbing shoes. Climbing was mostly done in `Hunter’ shoes, a model of canvas shoe with ankle guard and rubber soles made popular by Indian shoe companies. Occasionally, a climber or two seeking better grip on rock, pasted a strip of high friction rubber to the soles. Climbers set out early in the morning and climbed as much as they could.
The club’s climbing itinerary was mixed – it also included ascents of pinnacles, a pursuit that enjoyed considerable popularity in Maharashtra, where the Western Ghats are enmeshed in local history. Much of the climbing happened on weekends. That meant, major Girivihar climbs like the first ascent of the Khada Parsi pinnacle near Nane Ghat, took the club a few weekends to accomplish. The climbing style on rock was trad, that too within the limits of available climbing equipment. Right up to the early 1990s, India was a protected economy. Good climbing gear was hard to obtain and expensive. This did not impede the climbers of those days from choosing bold objectives. Their approach to climbing was however different from today; in particular, you read a route keeping in mind one’s competence and available equipment, before you climbed. Some of the pinnacle-climbs were personal projects. The club had a published itinerary of activity but was open to the private initiatives of its members.
In 1984, Franco was part of a team of friends who trekked to Annapurna Base Camp in Nepal. “ We went self supported, carting along 40 kilos of stuff only to find that everything was available along the way,’’ he said. In 1985, he got into his first Himalayan mountaineering expedition with a seat aboard Girivihar’s trip to climb Swargarohini and Black Peak in Garhwal. He hadn’t yet done his mountaineering course but he was taken along as he had been regular at rock climbing in Mumbai. Black Peak was assigned as potential climbing objective for the club’s ` junior team,’ while the seniors attempted Swargarohini I and III. On this trip, Franco and two others climbed Ruinsara. He had until then never held an ice axe, never worn a plastic mountaineering boot. However, he didn’t find the transition from climbing on rock to climbing on snow difficult. An engagement with the outdoors, begun in the fallout of a commercial trip to Kashmir in 1979, was now assuming serious proportions.
In October 2013, I chanced to witness a climbing competition at the Podar College-wall (for details please visit https://shyamgopan.wordpress.com/2013/10/04/bouldering-competition-at-podar-college/), organized by Girivihar. Quietly standing by, watching the proceedings was Pio Linhares. During a brief conversation at his house in Mahim, Pio, 93, recalled some of his own old adventures – among them travelling with a convoy of trucks during the beginning of World War II, from Mumbai to North East India and across the border through Myanmar and Thailand to Singapore. That was when he worked for the Ford Motor Company’s Mumbai office. The Abadan years were after this phase. I asked him what he thought of his son’s affection for climbing and the outdoors. Was he prepared for the dimensions it acquired? “ I allowed him to do what he wanted. I did not hold him back. It is when you restrict somebody that they get frustrated and you need to worry,’’ Pio said.
In 1986, Girivihar decided to attempt Kamet (7756m). Franco couldn’t find the required leave to join the team. He helped reach the expedition’s gear all the way to Malari and then returned to Mumbai. Away in the Himalaya, on the Kamet trip, the idea of another expedition was born – an attempt on Kanchenjunga (8586m), the world’s third highest peak. According to Franco, Kanchenjunga wasn’t the first choice. The club’s first choice was Everest (8850m). Everest via its normal route was already booked and the available opportunity was a climb via one of the harder faces. That’s how Kanchenjunga entered the frame. The club’s junior team was told clearly – they needed to do their basic mountaineering course. By now the `junior team’ – it had the likes of Franco, Vijay, Sanjay Chowgule and Amod Khopkar – had been climbing regularly. In 1986, Franco did his basic course from the mountaineering institute in Manali then called the Western Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (WHMI). Attempting a big mountain like Kanchenjunga requires preparation. The club’s junior team was told to select a peak and plan an expedition. They decided on Hanuman Tibba (5900m) in Himachal Pradesh. The team led by Vidyadhar Joshi, included Franco, Amod and Milind Bhide. But it turned out to be a challenging trip with the team’s progress halted by heavy snowing. Eventually Vidyadhar climbed Friendship peak nearby as a consolation. “ Eighty per cent of my trips to the high mountains ended up living in inhospitable conditions and then coming back,’’ Franco said.
The Kanchenjunga expedition happened in 1988. Having secured from Hoechst the needed leave of three and a half months, Franco went with an advance party to the mountain’s Base Camp in Nepal. Their role – carry in the expedition’s gear and supplies. The advance party had 300 porters or so. The rest of the team flew to Taplejung and proceeded to Base Camp. Franco’s trek began from Hille, ahead of Taplejung and entailed 14-15 days walk to reach Base Camp at around 18,000ft. This included a three day-walk on the glacier ahead of camp. After reaching Base Camp, the team set out to establish Camp I. Kanchenjunga was a powerful influence on Franco. That expedition shaped the reputation he would subsequently have at Girivihar. He went up to Camp 4, at around 24,000ft on the mountain. He spent two nights there. There were suggestions that he proceed further up. He declined the offer. Didn’t a potential shot at the summit interest you? – I asked him. After all, the summit is where every mountaineer wants to be. “ I was completely exhausted and hyperventilating like mad. I was at the end of my tether. Saying no wasn’t a difficult decision for me,’’ Franco said. Girivihar’s Kanchenjunga expedition – it was the first Indian civilian expedition to an 8000m-peak – failed by a thin margin. It saw two climbers – Charuhas Joshi and Uday Kolwankar – reach above 8000m. It also saw the tragic demise of a team member, the expedition’s deputy leader Sanjay Borole.
Amid this, Franco ended up spending 28 days above Base Camp on the mountain, a significant altitude for someone to stay that long at a stretch. When the expedition was wound up, he volunteered to go with the party carrying down the body of the deceased member and proceed onward to Mumbai. This trip included another duty en route – he was deputed to meet Elizabeth Hawley, the legendary American journalist who kept a record of expeditions and climbs in the Nepal Himalaya. He also spent some time wandering about Kathmandu with his newly gained mountain-look. One of Franco’s memories of Kanchenjunga is the huge beard he acquired during the expedition. He roamed all around Thamel sporting the beard and kept it on till he got back to Mumbai. Franco considers the Kanchenjunga expedition as having been very important for Girivihar’s junior climbers like him. They climbed high on Kanchenjunga, spent much time on the mountain and worked in several camps. He recalled the case of Shantanu Pandit, who was also an upcoming climber like him at that time. Shantanu became one of those who worked the most, having walked in with the advance party and leaving only after expedition’s wrap-up. Vijay had accompanied the expedition’s film crew to Base Camp. “ It was a three month-long strenuous, tragic expedition and very few team members returned home in sound mental and physical condition like Franco did,’’ he said. The very next year after Kanchenjunga, four club members including Franco, went to attempt Menthosa (6440m) in Himachal Pradesh. They reached Camp II pretty quickly and could have gone for the summit, except – there was heavy snowfall. The team stayed put at Camp II for three days and then returned. In a second attempt on the peak, some years later, Franco would reach only till Camp I.
For Franco, the Himalaya was an on-off affair. “ I used to come off the Himalaya saying – no more of this. But after about a month of being in Mumbai, I would start planning the next trip,’’ he said. In that stage of his life, Franco had an expedition almost every year. Over time however, the zest began dipping. His problems were two – the cold and the altitude. Twice he experienced chilblains. His capacity to acclimatize smoothly also seemed to progressively fade. On an expedition to Shivling (6543m), he had his first bout of nausea at Tapovan (4463m) itself. During another trip to Kang Yatze (6400m) in Ladakh, he chose to halt his ascent short of the summit as he felt exhausted. In comparison, the Western Ghats of Maharashtra (called Sahyadri locally) stayed playground. “ I have been to many places, many times in the Western Ghats and yet enjoyed it every time. I never had that attitude of wanting to visit a place just for the heck of saying I was there. For me, every venture into the outdoors is different even if it be a repeat visit to the same place,’’ Franco said.
Franco is strongly associated with Girivihar’s annual rock climbing camp as an instructor and is possibly the best remembered of all club members for his generally supportive, nonintrusive ways. His calm, uncomplaining disposition often saw club responsibilities dumped on him. Vijay remembered an adventure camp from years ago, wherein the camp’s lady instructor had to leave after a few days. The question was – who will replace her? The choice was unanimous – Franco. “ Whenever others were reluctant to accept a responsibility, he would take it up without any hesitation,’’ Vijay said. But that didn’t mean Franco was without preferences. There was a phase when he worked for the outdoor industry. It didn’t last because he knew his calling in the outdoors was of a different sort. However he did nudge others into the outdoor line. Manohar D’Silva is a senior instructor with the US based-National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). Years ago, his introduction to rock climbing had been through a Girivihar camp (the 32nd camp held by the club), his batch of trainees becoming much loved at the club under the acronym, RC-32. Manohar wrote in about Franco, “ besides being super impressed by this fifty plus-year old person easily climbing rock faces, I was deeply influenced by his fitness routine. It greatly contributed to me losing close to thirteen kilos in eleven months. More than ten years later, I continue to be impressed by Franco’s increasing level of fitness and his love for rock climbing. Franco came across as a genuine human being who connected with others and was concerned about their well being. His teaching style was patient and encouraging. Franco was directly responsible for me switching to the outdoors as my vocation. I vividly remember the conversation over tea in an Irani cafe in Mahim where Franco laid to rest my apprehensions of making ends meet through work in the outdoors. That conversation was a turning point for me. I will always be indebted to him for that.’’
Shyam Sanap, 32, is a talented climber. At his peak, he was often called the best boulderer in Mumbai. He has known Franco for at least 15 years. According to him, Franco’s climbing has steadily improved. At 65, he is doing some of his best climbing. “ At the wall and at the crags, Franco not only does his share of climbing, he also attempts problems being tried by stronger climbers, much younger to him in age. He does not waste any opportunity to climb that comes his way,’’ Shyam said. Aniruddha Biswas (Aniruddh) reached Girivihar through RC-32. Franco credits Aniruddh for much of the improvement in his climbing that happened in his later years. Time spent in the US saw Aniruddh’s climbing improve dramatically. “ Aniruddh used to keep on encouraging me. I now climb hard. I try to play tag with all the youngsters around. I enjoy it. I don’t care if I can’t do the hard stuff they do. Just attempting it makes me happy. Over time I have realized that I can also do it,’’ Franco said. At the Podar College-wall, I suspect there is more to the young company Franco finds himself in these days, than meets the eye. It speaks of his adaptability. In 2003 Vijay moved to Goa. As they aged, the climbers of Franco’s generation faded, transformed to being organizers or became high priests and commentators of the sport. Franco soldiered on, climbing. Long ago, it was the old black and white photo from Matheran; later – Girivihar’s classic climbing years, today – the Podar College-wall and Belapur’s crags. The one constant has been climbing and the outdoors; connections with visitors to life built around these experiences. As the clock ticks, the crowd around him has been getting younger. The Podar College-wall is the deep end of such youth. “ It is awesome what he is doing at this age,’’ Anuj Naik, 28, climbing since the past one year at the Podar College-wall, said. Besides many years spent climbing around Mumbai, Franco has climbed rock in various places in India – from Badami, Hampi and Yana in Karnataka, to Pachmarhi in Madhya Pradesh and the Miyar Nallah area in Himachal Pradesh. He has also climbed in Sicily, Italy. “ Now I am thinking of a climbing trip to Greece,’’ he said. Along the way he took voluntary retirement (VRS) from Hoechst, served as president of Girivihar and stayed a bachelor. He is also a devout Catholic who likes his periodic visits to the church.
“ I hope I can climb as long as the body permits. I just want to climb rock. I have always loved rock climbing. With all the modern climbing that has taken off, I wish to lead a 7a someday. That is my goal. As regards big mountains, I find altitude and cold challenging. So that is a bit difficult,’’ he said. In the pantheon of climbing grades, 7a is arguably the beginning of truly difficult, demanding climbs. This author is a very average – probably bad – climber. The hardest route he ever led was a 6b or near about. Stand in the author’s shoes, add Franco’s age and say lead climbing – 7a acquires a different hue; it is an engaging challenge. It may seem a bit puzzling – this courting of climbing as pure physicality (which is the image sport climbing evokes) after beholding climbing on a much larger canvas in the Himalaya. In disciplines like bouldering for example, the equivalent of a whole mountain at altitude to tackle, will be a tricky move or two, utterly strenuous but rarely exceeding 20ft in height. Compared to bouldering, bolted sport routes are longer but as predetermined, pre-protected routes they can be said to be partial to highlighting the physicality and edginess of climbing than the art of figuring out an ascent. Franco concedes this. On the other hand, he avers, he has a high tolerance for pure action, physicality and game formats thanks to his old school days. He doesn’t mind the perceived loss of thought and grandeur when world reduces to action filled-sport climbing in finite space. Is there something of a life simplified, a return to old days and St Sebastian Goan High School in erstwhile mountaineer hanging out at the Podar College-wall or dreaming 7a at 65? One wonders.
When I first met Franco in the late 1990s, he had just acquired a pair of green classic climbing shoes called Kamet, his first pair. Then a black and purple Boreal Laser was added to the collection. Thereafter as climbing acquired intensity among the devout in Mumbai, climbers – Franco among them – burnt rubber fast. Now he carries an Evolv Pontas, a Five Ten Galelio amd Anasazi to the crags. I asked Franco if he had set out to be a climber. “ I think the story of my life is that I just drifted. I kept doing things, meandered to wherever the current took me, stopped where the current stopped and then, carried on again from there,’’ he said. In Franco’s case this would seem to have become a unique strength. Unlike the average rock climber / mountaineer who bristles with achievement or loves to add arrows to his / her quiver of achievements, Franco has remained a very approachable person. With three decades of climbing under his belt, he has memories and stories. But the way he recollects – akin to taking out an old volume from the shelves and blowing the dust off it – you get the impression that he lives in the now and here. Those who have climbed will agree – that’s one of the experiential imprints of climbing, especially its increasingly young, action filled-genres like sport climbing. At Mumbai’s crags, at the Podar College-wall – that is how people and Franco are. It is a celebration of one move, the next move and the now in both. Along the way, in the many hours accumulated climbing, you notice a passing number – 65.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. He would like to thank Sharad Chandra for allowing the use of one of his photographs.)