“All the world’s a stage and men and women merely players’’ – William Shakespeare wrote so in As You Like It. Same holds true for climbing routes; they are stage and climbers, merely actors. In 2007, a team of rock climbers from overseas opened a climbing route in Ladakh. It has since become an absorbing challenge for a few dedicated Indian climbers.
In Sanskrit, the word samsara refers to the cycle of death and rebirth to which, material life is bound. Nirvana – in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism – refers to the profound peace of mind that is acquired with liberation from samsara. Climbing routes are usually named by those who ascend them first. The climbing route Giovanni Quirici pioneered in 2007 in Ladakh was called Samsara is Nirvana. According to published reports, others in the team included Elie Chevieux, Claude Chardonners, Guy Scherrer and Phillip Chabloz. The route lay on a rock face in Tsogra gorge in the Kharnak region and received little attention from Indian climbers for the next few years.
In 2010 or so, at the annual climbing competition organized by Girivihar in Mumbai, Pune-based Tuhin Satarkar met Elie. “ Elie mentioned about Samsara is Nirvana to me. I decided to find out more about it, and emailed him a few months later. He shared some information with me, but it was all very haphazard,’’ Tuhin, among India’s best young climbers, wrote in when asked. In early 2015, he did a recce trip to Leh to find out more.
A key person in the emergent Indian attempts to climb Samsara is Nirvana is Tenzing Jamyang. He manages GraviT, a combination of climbing gym and café in Leh. It is a popular hang-out for visiting rock climbers. Jamyang is also one of the organizers of the Suru Boulder Festival and runs an adventure travel business. His first brush with Samsara is Nirvana was roughly the same year Tuhin met Elie in Mumbai. A couple of French climbers were in Leh looking for the route. They had with them a rough map. Jamyang got some idea of the route’s location from that. But a climbing line on a rock face in vast mountain landscape – that needs more than approximate map to be precisely located. Over time, he gathered more information. When Tuhin arrived for the recce trip, Jamyang was able to link him up with a local horseman who knew Kharnak and the Tsogra gorge. Tuhin would later compare finding the rock face hosting the route to solving a puzzle. “ By the end of it I had everything I needed to attempt the route,’’ he said. Tuhin attempted Samsara is Nirvana with Pascal, a French climber. “ It was extremely challenging since there had been no ascent on it since 2007, when the first ascent had taken place. It was difficult to pinpoint the exact route and spot all the bolts. It resembled climbing the route for the first time. The weather conditions were terrible and we ended up having to retreat just 100 meters away from the summit, without completing the ascent,’’ he said.
Two things have been evident to some of the Indian climbers attempting Samsara is Nirvana. First, given sections of lose rock, it is a dynamic route. Climbers said the realities of the route keep changing through the years. Second, you must be able to handle long run-outs. Long run-outs make the size of potential fall before protection kicks in, big. Why this trait features on Samsara is Nirvana is unclear. One recurrent train of speculation has it that the pioneers may have been short of expansion bolts and so spaced out placement of protection. Tuhin explained his experience of the route, “ There are at least 20-30ft slabs of loose rock on the wall, which adds to the challenge. One needs to be very careful, especially due to the location and terrain since accidents can potentially be very dangerous. Since the first ascent in 2007, there has definitely been a lot of weathering, some parts of the rock have fallen off. We can’t really say anything about the run-outs, since we don’t know if any of the bolts have been dislodged or fallen off. It did make a difference while climbing it with the long run-outs.’’ When Tuhin and Pascal made their attempt of Samsara is Nirvana in 2015, Jamyang’s outdoor business had provided the required infrastructural support. During one of the support trips to Tsogra gorge, Jamyang said, Delhi based-climber Sandeep Maity got a chance to go along and see the route. In 2016, following that year’s Suru Boulder Festival, Sandeep and fellow Delhi-climber, Kumar Gaurav were having a conversation with Jamyang in Leh when he asked the two climbers: why not attempt Samsara is Nirvana? Like Tuhin, Gaurav and Sandeep are part of India’s new generation of rock climbers; all have been part of the national sport climbing team. Gaurav had apparently heard of the route from Tuhin. “ I said it just like that but the two of them were so motivated and fired up that a climbing trip got underway,’’ Jamyang said of that occasion when he mentioned Samsara is Nirvana to Sandeep and Gaurav. The required gear and support was assembled quickly and a four person-team, including Jamyang, left for the route in Kharnak. It was September 2016.
According to Gaurav, they reached the location of the route on the afternoon of September 17. By 2 PM, they started to climb. Gaurav took on the role of lead climber. Over the next three hours, they made it to the fourth pitch of the route. Then they came down for the night. Jamyang remembers Sandeep and Gaurav as a good, determined team. Next day, they commenced climbing at around 11AM. By about 4.30 PM, they were at the twelfth pitch. Each pitch signifies a rope length or slightly less. Any climb in which rope is used for safety, including multi-pitch climbs, typically features a lead climber and a belayer. The latter watches the leader’s back and secures the leader’s safety should there be a fall. The belayer’s position on a route trails that of the leader. As the leader climbs he / she keeps passing the rope through protection placed on rock. This may be placed by him / her or as is the case on bolted routes, already drilled and placed in rock. Expansion bolts have provision to take on a quick-draw through which the lead climber’s rope is passed. When the leader falls, he / she falls double the distance ascended above the last protection the rope was passed through. Run-out indicates the distance between one protection and the next. Where run-out is high, the fall can be equally big. Once the lead climber reaches the end of a pitch, he / she anchors self and belays the second climber as he / she climbs up.
Gaurav said that data left by the overseas climbers indicated 7b moves and a pretty difficult second pitch. That data was from several years earlier. “ I now think the twelfth pitch is the hardest,’’ Gaurav said. On that pitch, Gaurav took a fall; a big one. According to Jamyang, Gaurav fell twice that day. Following the first fall wherein he hurt his left ankle, he climbed back up. But the second fall from the twelfth pitch was a punishing fall. Sandeep, who was belaying, said that this particular portion of the climb featured both long run-out and a “ blind spot.’’ The latter referred to sections of the rock face where climber is not within eyesight of the belayer. A rock face can be undulating; there are intervening ledges, ramps and other rock features. Sandeep couldn’t see Gaurav. Depending on their size and the height at which climbers are, rock faces can also be places where it is difficult to hear properly, even if two people shout to communicate over the distance separating them. Although a climbing rope primarily links two people for safety; the pace at which it is fed to lead climber, its stillness, any resistance felt, how taut it is, how it suddenly goes slack – all these help provide the belayer an approximate idea of leader’s predicament. In blind spots and patches where oral communication is difficult, the rope’s behavior is like a telegraph line. It was the rope that told Sandeep of Gaurav’s fall commencing. He instinctively started pulling in the slack to contain the dimension of fall. There’s only so much any belayer can do when run-outs are long. From far, Jamyang saw the fall. “ It was a big one,’’ he said.
Gaurav injured his left palm in the fall. He was in a state of shock. Such big falls are not every day occurrences in Indian climbing. It was the end of that attempt on Samsara is Nirvana. Jamyang carried Gaurav on his back, from the base of the rock face to camp. By the time they reached camp, the injured hand was swollen. It was late evening and immediate exit to Leh was impractical, given several hours of hiking in between. Further, it being a small team, each of them had heavy backpacks. Luckily Jamyang was able to get a trekking group passing by, to carry Gaurav’s belongings with them to Leh. Next day, the climbers hiked out from camp and eventually reached Leh and hospital. On October 23, in Delhi, the injured palm – it was fractured – was subjected to surgery. Doctors were skeptical of pace of recovery, anticipating several months for return to form. By end November-early December, Gaurav however participated in a climbing competition in Nepal. In April 2017, he completed his Advanced Mountaineering Course from Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI), Darjeeling. This was followed by some mountaineering expeditions. There was an attempt to climb Laspa Dhura in Kumaon in May. It didn’t succeed. Reaching Leh in July, Gaurav along with his friend Jonathan Parker (they met at Suru Boulder Festival in Ladakh) climbed Stok Kangri East Face and Kang Yatse 1 and 2. They also went to Dzo Jongo in the Markha Valley region. Amid the recovery from injury and surgery he also made another decision – he would try the route in Kharnak again. Jamyang was already working on a second attempt by Sandeep and Gaurav on Samsara is Nirvana, emphasis this time being on a crew to document the climb. Gaurav however kept his project separate. It wasn’t smooth sailing. According to him, he had initially planned on attempting the route a second time, with Tuhin. That was set aside after the demise of Pune based-cyclist Ajay Padval, in Leh in July. Having navigated the months since injury with return to Kharnak in mind, Gaurav grabbed the next set of sponsors and supporters that came his way. The expedition was thus salvaged but he lacked a crucial element – he didn’t have a climbing partner.
Located over 3000 kilometers south of Leh, Karnataka’s Mandya district is part of the Cauvery River basin. It is known for its sugarcane crop. Madhu C.R hails from Mandya, to be precise, a village therein called Chikkankanahalli. After schooling and two to three years of work at his family’s farm, he shifted to Bengaluru driven by the wish to have a career in sports (he used to play cricket in the village). “ It is difficult for a villager to get what he wants in big city,’’ Madhu said, a morning at the café within Bengaluru’s Kanteerava Stadium complex. Not far from where we were, was the stadium’s climbing wall. For six months, after moving to Bengaluru, he worked at a steel fabrication unit. During this time, he chanced to go trekking and made the acquaintance of Naveen, who ran a travel agency. Naveen guided him to the city’s best known climbing wall, located at the stadium. Madhu who was into running and boxing, also became a member of Mars Adventure Club and started working with them. Slowly, his interest in running and boxing faded; climbing became his chosen fix. He became good enough at climbing to participate in competitions at the zonal level. In his third year of climbing, he made it to the national competition. According to him, the best position he ever reached at the nationals was eighth in lead climbing and fifth in speed. It was at a national competition in Delhi in 2013 that Madhu met Gaurav for the first time. Not long after, they met again at Badami in north Karnataka, a much loved climbing destination in India. For someone new to climbing and life outside Mandya, Madhu’s forays engage. In June 2015 he made his first visit to the Himalaya; to Manali. He traveled alone. Unlike many first timers who stick on in Manali, Madhu visited Chatru as well – the aim being to boulder at both these places. Across Manali and Chatru, he spent some 45-50 days relishing the weather and fewer people found away from big cities. “ It was a nice experience. I liked it,’’ the youngster from Chikkankanahalli said. He also saw a huge rock face and committed it to memory as a face to climb someday. Since then, Madhu has returned every year to the Himalaya.
Madhu’s experience of big walls was restricted to rock faces at Savandurga near Bengaluru. He had climbed a couple of multi-pitch routes; the first such route he did was called Beladingalu in Kannada, meaning bright moonlight. In July 2016, Madhu made his second visit to Manali where he met Kumar Gaurav. According to Madhu, on this meet-up, Gaurav mentioned his interest in Samsara is Nirvana. While Gaurav then moved on to Leh, Madhu went alone for a recce of the rock face in Chatru fascinating him from the previous year. That year, past mid-September, Gaurav’s attempt at Samsara is Nirvana would end in injury. According to Madhu, around April 2017, Gaurav asked him if he would like to go to Kharnak and try Samsara is Nirvana. “ I was a bit confused because I had a lot of work at that time,’’ Madhu said. He thought for a week and said: yes. What a person is in normal life is rarely what person is, while climbing. Knowing a person as climber is therefore important while choosing partners. Gaurav and Madhu had worked as a team before in Badami. They had belayed each other on tough sport routes in Badami like Ganesha and Samsara (not to be confused with the one in Kharnak). In August 2017, they met at a village roughly 100 km before Leh and four to five hours’ hike from the route in Kharnak. Base Camp was reached on August 31. There were totally eleven people in the team. The expedition was sponsored and supported. When he saw it, Madhu liked the rock face hosting the climbing route.
Although Madhu wished for a day’s rest before climbing, Gaurav decided to start climbing the next day itself. As they did, Madhu’s assessment of what he had got into became more realistic. The duo got stuck in the very first pitch. Slowly the route’s grade of difficulty and the meaning of long run-out began to hit home. “ I went in blindly,’’ Madhu said in retrospect. On the brighter side, that was also his preferred style; he does not like too much information, anxiety and consequent inaction. On the first day of climbing, they made it past the first belay station but could not make it to the first anchor of the second pitch. So they turned back. According to Madhu, away from the climbing route, the rock face affords easy access all the way to the third pitch. He fixed a rappel rope there, and abseiling down, marked the route over the second and first pitches. Then the duo started climbing afresh from the bottom. Gaurav took the lead and yet again, got stuck in the first pitch. Half an hour went by so. Then Madhu tried it using different beta. It was same outcome. Frustration was building up. Post-lunch, they tried again; Madhu clipped into the rappel rope for additional safety. He somehow climbed the first pitch. Gaurav followed. Madhu then started the second pitch, according to the Swiss, the route’s hardest section. He got stuck at the fourth or fifth bolt. He took a fall. He tried twice. With exhaustion catching up, the duo rappelled down. That was the end of the second day. Third day commenced with the team rappelling down from the third pitch to the belay station at the end of the first pitch. They started climbing from there. Madhu led; he cleared the second pitch in one go. Gaurav led the third, fourth and fifth pitches. Madhu led from the sixth to the eighth. Day 3 ended there. But before it ended, it exposed another challenge in the offing. Madhu tried a bit of the eighth pitch. He got stuck; the nearest bolt for protection was not to be seen. It appeared he had moved in the wrong direction. It was dicey. Consequences would have been severe had he taken a fall at this point. He would have landed on a ledge below. It took him 30 nerve wracking seconds to extricate himself from the predicament and locate the bolt. He had to traverse and climb down to reach it. Wind was picking up as they came off the face.
On the fourth day, the duo used a jumar (ascender) to reach the start of the eighth pitch from the fifth. Madhu led through the eighth, ninth and tenth pitches. Then he got stuck in the eleventh. He found that section technically difficult. He had to use trad gear to ensure safe passage (trad gear was used on the eleventh and fourteenth pitches). Somehow Madhu completed the eleventh pitch. He led the twelfth pitch too. On that, he overlooked a bolt. The result was – a long run-out developed. As mentioned before, the problem with long run-out is that it enhances the dimension of potential fall. A fall is typically double the distance you have climbed up from the last anchor. This length of potential fall is called fall factor. The farther behind the last anchor is from climber, the bigger the fall factor. At this stage, attempting the twelfth pitch, Madhu was “ super tired.’’ Tired climber caught in a tough situation – that is something everyone courting the vertical tries to avoid if they can. “ I got scared,’’ Madhu said. There was also an unnerving detail. According to Gaurav, on one of the bolts of the twelfth pitch, Madhu saw the quick-draw left by Gaurav a year before. That was from where he had fallen. Madhu climbed down a bit, rested a while and tried again. He still couldn’t find the right holds. He told Gaurav that he was unable to proceed. Gaurav told him to come down. Fourth day ended on that note but with a twist. The twelfth pitch commenced from a small ledge. They decided to spend the night there. It was their first bivouac on the wall. Between the two, they had carried a sleeping bag, a poncho, a jacket, a small cachet of dry fruits, half a liter of water and half a liter of Tang. “ The bivouac was not part of the plan. But it was the most efficient thing to do. It seemed better to finish the route and come down,’’ Madhu said. The night on the ledge was cold and windy. Mercifully it did not rain. Madhu could not sleep that night. He knew that the twelfth pitch was there, waiting for them.
Next morning they began climbing at around 8 AM. They waited till then for the night had been cold and the rock needed to warm up in sunshine, so that it could be held by human hands. Staring at the twelfth pitch, Madhu was sure he wasn’t going to give up. Gaurav shared the sentiment. They motivated each other. Thanks to night on the ledge, their fingers and feet were almost numb from cold. Additionally Madhu’s feet hurt badly. Good rock climbing shoes are expensive to afford. More precisely, climbing routes being varied depending on type of rock and length of climb, the shoes required for each climb also varies. The rock climbing shoes Madhu owned were meant for aggressive climbing. That meant they fitted very tight on the feet, driving energy to the big toe. This is perfect for short, aggressive climbs. Long routes require a more relaxed fit and Samsara is Nirvana wasn’t just long, it was proving to be a multi-day affair. Managing all this in his head, Madhu once again overlooked a bolt on the twelfth pitch. The run-out grew. But there was a difference now. The duo’s confidence level was up; they knew they weren’t going to leave the job half-done. Madhu cruised through the difficult section. “ That morning I knew I could do it. The only thing to be careful about was a fall because the run-out was long,’’ he said.
Pitch number thirteen was easy. But problems persisted. The next bolt – bolts have hangers for attaching quick-draws, so they are sometimes called hangers for convenience – couldn’t be found. On risky dynamic routes featuring patches of bad rock, hangers positioned by pioneers also serve to show the way. In their absence, climbs become difficult. Worse, when you are attempting a given route and you can’t locate hangers, how do you tell the climbing world that what you climbed and finished was actually the route? Progressing through the thirteenth pitch, Madhu encountered two belay stations at the fourteenth. He went towards one of them but was confused of way ahead. He found a rock patch, flaky and loose. “ One day that will come down,’’ he said. He used trad gear to stabilize himself and stayed there for a while, wondering what to do. Gaurav climbed up to join him. Finally the duo found an anchor forty feet further up but left of the route they were on. It became visible when sunshine graced its metal and it shone. Madhu used trad gear to correct his direction, reached the bolt and clipped in. From there to the end of the sixteenth pitch was easy. Except for one issue – the end of a climb is typically indicated by a proper belay station. All they saw at the end of the sixteenth pitch was a single hanger. They looked around for signs of route continuing. They couldn’t find any. It was perhaps a fragile ending in terms of convincing those who seek firm proof of exact route completely done (some articles on the Internet describe Samsara is Nirvana as 17 pitches-long; Gaurav said, the topo [description of climbing route] he had, showed 16 pitches). According to Gaurav and Madhu, they looked around for more bolts and accepted that single bolt as conclusion of climb because they couldn’t find any more bolts marking the way. They spent half an hour savoring their success. Then, they rappelled down to the eighth pitch. By around 8 PM, they were at the bottom of the face.
As rock climbing gains currency in India spawning a new generation of professional athletes backed by sponsors and media, the competition among climbers has risen. It is not the innocent, forgiving world of before. Climbers, climbs done, claims of first ascent – all get thrust under the scanner. News of the 2017 climb evoked mixed response. Critics latched on to the lack of clarity in route taken – especially the climb’s concluding portion. Purity of climb from beginning to end – that too has been questioned. When it became clear that Gaurav was proceeding with his own plans to attempt the route, Sandeep – part of the Indian team for the 2017 IFSC World Cup in Bouldering at Navi Mumbai – availed an opportunity to train in Slovenia for the event. Among others training so was Pune-based Ajij Shaikh. According to Ajij, Sandeep apprised him of the project he had got into – Samsara is Nirvana – and asked if Ajij wished to join. Ajij, who is among India’s best sport climbers, had already heard of the route from Tuhin. He sought more details. He knew that hailing from Pune, the bulk of his climbs had been in warm weather conditions. Samsara is Nirvana is in Ladakh, a region with average elevation near 10,000 feet, its mountains and rock faces being still higher. In June, all four – Sandeep, Ajij, Madhu and Gaurav – would converge in Navi Mumbai for the World Cup; Sandeep and Ajij to climb and compete, Madhu and Gaurav to volunteer.
In August, Ajij went to Leh. It was his first visit to the Himalaya. Following time spent in Leh to acclimatize and a trip to Suru Boulder Festival, in September 2017, Jamyang, Ajij and Sandeep reached Tsogra gorge to attempt Samsara is Nirvana. By now, news of Madhu and Gaurav climbing the route had filtered through. It was also tad late in the season. Ladakh was beginning to get cold. Sandeep and Ajij climbed for two days but the attempt had to be aborted following fall and an uncomfortable bivouac on the rock face. According to Ajij, the grade of climb isn’t too hard. What makes Samsara is Nirvana challenging is the combination of grade, the impact of altitude on climbing, long run-outs and the cold environment. Plus, unlike sport climbing, multi-pitch entails a lot of hard work; there is gear, ropes and stuff you need for potential bivouac to haul. On the second morning of their climb, as he started to lead, Ajij had found the rock too cold to grip. He felt tired and not in his elements. Eventually the duo aborted the climb at the eighth pitch or so. Sandeep plans to try Samsara is Nirvana, again. I asked Tuhin if he planned to attempt Samsara is Nirvana again. “ I do plan on attempting the route again,’’ he wrote in. Ajij wasn’t sure he would. The curiosity was there but the environment in which the route was, bothered. He was in a train in Pune, when we spoke. Amid erratic phone network, sound of locomotive horns and the chatter of people around, he said that multi-pitch climbing at altitude wasn’t exactly his cup of tea. Sport climbing seemed more his style.
Both Madhu and Gaurav now think of attempting more trad routes and big walls in the Himalaya. “ It was smooth, working with Gaurav. There hasn’t been a dispute or disagreement, so far,’’ Madhu said. By now he had finished the tea and butter idli he ordered at the cafe. Monsoon was waning and Bengaluru’s weather was pleasant. “ I will adjust with anything,’’ Madhu said of coping with the Himalaya, “ whatever challenge is there, I will take it. Of course, I will think before I take it. Whatever happens is right for me. Good or bad doesn’t matter.’’ At the time of meeting him for this chat, Madhu was yet to do a mountaineering course. He wasn’t in any hurry to do one. He said he preferred the challenge rock climbing offered. Gaurav credited Madhu for the duo finally topping out on Samsara is Nirvana. About himself, he said he had approached the route – scene of his earlier accident – with a positive mind.
On August 12, 2011, Giovanni Quirici died.
The talented Swiss climber was killed in a fall in the Alps. A post on the website of The British Mountaineering Council (BMC), dated August 21, 2011, said, “ although exact details have not been forthcoming, the Geneva-based Swiss alpinist was leading a pitch on Le Chant du Cygne (Swan Song), Michel Piola’s last of five new routes on North Face.’’ The North Face referred to was the north face of the Eiger. Piola is a noted Swiss climber who, according to information on Wikipedia, opened more than 1500 routes worldwide with more than a hundred in Europe’s Mont Blanc massif alone. Quirici was both former Swiss junior climbing champion and a member of the country’s national climbing team. He left indoor competitions to focus on first ascents on rock. He established several difficult first ascents. The report on BMC’s website said, “ It appears that 33 year-old Quirici took a big fall and died more or less instantly. His partner was rescued unharmed.’’ Dwelling on Quirici’s climbs, the post also mentioned that four years earlier, in 2007, he had put up a 650m rock route in Ladakh, named Samsara is Nirvana.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. Reconstructing a climb is difficult especially if you haven’t been on the route or at the site of the climb. Please factor that angle in, as you read. This article is primarily based on separate conversations with Kumar Gaurav and Madhu. Given the first round of talk with Gaurav featured a weak phone connection, details of climb are as Madhu said during a face to face chat in Bengaluru. A subsequent clearer conversation with Gaurav served to fill things in, some more. Climbing is an intense personal experience and sometimes recollection of intense experience may not be 100 per cent accurate. Please factor that too in. Treat this as a writer’s attempt to piece together a narrative from multiple sources. Tuhin and Ajij connected from Pune, Sandeep and Jamyang from Delhi. This article was triggered by Facebook posts on the climb by Gaurav and Madhu. However in the process of talking to people and writing, it evolved to be more about the route and the effect the route had on climbers. The author wishes to emphasize that given climbing is capable of injury if practised without proper risk management skills or adequate attention, no climbing route should be positioned / treated as a proving ground. “All the world’s a stage and men and women merely players’’ – William Shakespeare wrote so in As You Like It. Same holds true for climbing routes; they are stage and climbers, merely actors.)