TURNING POINT

Siddhi Manerikar (Photo credit: Vikas Satarkar / Photo courtesy: Siddhi Manerikar)

An evening in Badami; a tough sport route climbed. It seems turning point to a competition climber. Will it usher in change? And if so, change of what sort? This is the story of Mumbai’s Siddhi Manerikar, her recent ascent of Samsara and what she thinks of it.

In Hinduism and Buddhism, Samsara denotes the cycle of death and rebirth.

There is an element of eternity and entrapment in what the concept implies. It is definitely other worldly, a dimension of understanding removed from the present. It also smacks a bit of climber’s high; all intense and immediate during a climb, very other worldly at the end of it.

Tucked away from public view, on the rear side of one of the rock massifs constituting Badami’s unforgettable architecture of rock, is a climbing route called Samsara. At 8a, in terms of difficulty of climbing, it is among the hardest routes in the area; at the time of writing, Ganesha on the way to Samsara was still lord of Badami’s sport routes at 8b+. On November 7, 2018, as her friends watched, a young woman from Mumbai made her way up Samsara. Over the past two days, she had focused on just that route and practised its moves many times, ironing out niggles and paying attention to details. This was her last day in Badami from given visit; her last shot at Samsara. Besides what she had personally discovered about the route through repeated attempts, tucked away in the mind was also tips from friends on how best to tackle Samsara. Some of them had assembled below to watch the climb. It was evening.

A sport climbing route of 11 clips (quickdraws placed for protection), Samsara’s crux lay in the initial stage, following which, the next challenge is a slightly long run-out between the fifth and sixth clips. You clear that and find yourself facing a pretty tricky set of last moves for finish. It was nearly dark by the time climber topped the route. Reporting the climb, The Outdoor Journal pointed out that while any claim of it being the toughest sport route yet climbed by an Indian woman can’t be validated for want of proper record keeping locally in the sport, Siddhi Manerikar has set the bar high for her peers.

Climbing in Badami (Photo: courtesy Siddhi Manerikar)

An intense game was underway on the cricket field opposite Poddar College in Matunga. The game was on the main pitch. Around it several other matches and training sessions carried on. “ Can’t you see?’’ a woman accompanying her daughter to cricket practice shouted as a cricket ball landed close by.  “ Sorry aunty,’’ the youngster responsible said, apologetically indicating that he had caught the ball on the upper portion of his bat and thereby, the lack of control in the strike. He grinned at the daughter; she grinned back. It was another Mumbai evening, business as usual in India’s cricket capital. But these days, not everyone falls for cricket. “ I always wanted to do something different. People queue up, to play cricket and football. Climbing in comparison appeared quite different,’’ Siddhi said. She belongs to a new generation of climbers, who grew up almost wholly in an ecosystem of competition climbing.  “ What happened in Badami is a departure from the norm in my life,’’ she said. We were at a café close to Poddar College and its small climbing wall, regular hangout for some of the city’s promising young climbers. It was early December; almost a month since that climb of Samsara.

Siddhi was born 1996 close to 500 kilometers away from Mumbai in Sindhudurg district, at a village called Shiroda. She is the elder of two children. Her father is a priest; her mother, a housewife. When Siddhi was around three years old, the family shifted to Mumbai, residing thereafter at Goregaon in the city. She attended Nandadeep Vidyalay, a school that coincidentally hosted one of the earliest climbing walls to come up in Mumbai – a wall built in memory of Arun Samant, an accomplished rock climber and mountaineer, who was one of Mumbai’s best in the field. He passed away in the Himalaya in 1999. His family constructed the wall in 2003. Built of ferrocement, the school’s wall cannot be compared to the walls of modern climbing competitions. But as an early wall and still the only one of some significant size around with dedicated community to match, it has the distinction of having shaped many of Mumbai’s young competition climbers. Siddhi was in seventh standard when the teacher in charge of sports at the school, asked for students interested in climbing. She enlisted for practice and pretty soon fell in love with climbing. Her coaches were Pramod Chavan and Rahul Pendse. Aside from climbing on the wall, Siddhi had occasional stints of climbing on natural rock at the nearby Borivali National Park. But by and large for this phase and phases to follow – it was the wall at the school that dominated her life. There was little of moving around within Mumbai to climb at different crags, something others into climbing regularly did.

Photo: courtesy Siddhi Manerikar

Siddhi’s first climbing competition was the 2010 edition of the national open climbing competition organized by Girivihar, Mumbai’s oldest mountaineering club. This annual competition held continuously for about a dozen years was responsible for increasing curiosity for competition climbing in Mumbai. Ahead of climbing, contestants are kept in isolation. “ The Girivihar competition was my first taste of isolation. I didn’t know that climbers would be required to sit so ahead of competition, away from everyone else. I grew tense and anxious. It was only when I appeared before everyone to climb that I relaxed,’’ Siddhi said recalling that first outing. At the school wall she was among promising climbers. The coaches took note. Following the Girivihar competition, Rahul dispatched her to Badami for a training camp conducted by the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF) ahead of the Asian Youth Championship. “ My climbing was utterly basic at this point. The camp was a good experience. The coach in charge was Keerthi Paes,’’ Siddhi said. By 2011 (in ninth standard now and competing in junior category), she was at her first zonal competition (west zone). It serves as selection ground for the nationals. At the national competition which followed, she placed seventh. Then at a national open climbing competition held in Ooty, she placed sixth in lead climbing. “ I participated in lead and did alright because that and bouldering was what we could do at the school wall. I used to get selected for speed climbing but our wall didn’t have a route dedicated to speed climbing. Those days, the star shaped holds you find in speed climbing were also not available in India. However I have no regret at drifting away from speed because my climbing style is more static than dynamic. It needs to change and I am currently transforming it slowly,’’ Siddhi said.

2011 was a year of improvement for her. Back in Badami for that year’s IMF training camp, Siddhi attempted a tough route called Badami Pillar. She made it quite some ways up, impressing herself and her coaches. Called subsequently for a climbing camp in Delhi, she got selected to the team headed to Singapore, for the 2011 Asian Youth Championship. “ It was a major development in my life – to be going abroad. But I was still a school kid and not mature enough to comprehend the gravity of getting to represent one’s country,’’ she said. Following the selection, a plethora of challenges commenced. Siddhi was a minor with no passport. Her parents had no passport. She had just entered tenth standard, a milestone year in Indian education with attendant rigmarole of coaching classes to do well in academics. The paperwork to secure passport was particularly tough because her father didn’t own a house in Mumbai. On top of it, her younger brother – he isn’t physically robust – came down with kidney ailment. Caught in all this, Siddhi was unable to attend the pre-Asian championship training camp in Bengaluru. Rahul trained her at the school wall. Eventually, six days prior to departure her passport came through. Siddhi flew to Bengaluru, joined the rest of the team and proceeded to Singapore. She participated in lead climbing. She was eliminated before the semi-final. “ In my eyes, I did well. All my training had been on the school wall,’’ she said. Later that year, she secured her first medals at the national climbing competition; silver medal each in lead and bouldering. Then she stopped climbing to concentrate on her board exams. She passed with a score of 72 per cent overall. Starting from scratch again after the break, she failed to secure a berth in the Indian team for the 2012 Asian Youth Championship. There were no medals at the nationals too. Much of 2012 was a disappointing blank.

Photo: courtesy Siddhi Manerikar

By January 2013, she was back to winning ways with podium finish at a competition organized by GETNA. Then familiar pattern repeated – camp at Badami and selection for the 2013 Asian Youth Championship at Surabaya, Indonesia. She was one of three girls selected that year in overall team of nine. The outcome in Indonesia was encouraging. She reached the final and placed fourth in lead climbing. In February 2014, her twelfth standard board exams were a slightly tense phase for Siddhi. After all the climbing that happened earlier, she had just a month to prepare. In the middle of the exam schedule, her father suffered a heart attack and was hospitalized. She passed the exams, securing 65 per cent marks. That year Rahul pushed to have a team of two climbers from the school wall – Siddhi and Akash Gaikwad – appear at the World Youth Competition due in France. The IMF’s regular calendar features only participation in the Asian Youth Championship. Rahul managed to rope in sponsors but according to Siddhi, the team’s application for visa got rejected. Luckily the Asian Continental Championship was scheduled to take place in Lambok, Indonesia, ten days later. The team headed there. Siddhi made it as far as the semi-final in lead climbing. She participated in bouldering but didn’t go past first round. After Indonesia, Siddhi participated in the west zone competition where podium finish for her, had become routine. This 2014 edition of the zonal competition was the first time her parents watched her climb. Siddhi’s parents never went to see her climb at the school wall. They didn’t object to her interest in climbing. Her parents had one condition – be good at studies too, which she was. Support for climbing was provided quietly. Her mother was particularly supportive. “ My father supported but he wasn’t demonstrative about it. Speaking in terms of the character he wished to see in me – he wanted me to have my feet on the ground,’’ she said. Those frequenting Mumbai’s climbing competitions remember Siddhi as climber free of parental entourage. It is usually she and friends.

Following the zonal competition witnessed by her parents, Siddhi secured gold in lead climbing and silver in bouldering at the national competition. “ That was my first gold at the nationals,’’ she said. In 2015, she headed to Arco in Italy for the World Youth Championship and competed to no significant outcome in lead climbing and bouldering. “ I was not happy with my performance,’’ Siddhi said. Later that year, after the annual participation in west zone competition, she proceeded to Pune to train for the nationals. There at the popular climbing gym called Rock Aliens, she suffered a fall while climbing and twisted her ankle resulting in injury to the ligament. There were two days left to nationals in Delhi. After consulting her family doctor, she climbed at the nationals. The injured ankle and foot was swollen. So she wore a shoe of bigger size on that foot. She borrowed her friend’s shoe for the purpose; luckily it was same make and model as her own. Siddhi secured silver in lead climbing. She couldn’t do justice to her shot at bouldering because she was becoming increasingly scared of aggravating her injury. After the 2015 nationals, she took a break of four months to recover. There was a reason for participating in the nationals at any cost. The first IFSC World Cup in bouldering to be held in India – organized by Girivihar – was due in 2016 in Navi Mumbai. Thanks to her performance in lead at the nationals and likely based on her earlier performance as well, Siddhi got a berth in the Indian team for the 2016 World Cup.

The Indian team for the 2016 IFSC World Cup in Navi Mumbai (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Two editions of the IFSC World Cup in bouldering were held in Navi Mumbai – in 2016 and 2017. As host nation, India sent big teams to both events. But the outing was hardly memorable. According to Abhijit Burman aka Bong, who was closely associated with the two world cups, the qualifying round had featured routes within a range of 7a to 8a. Yet no Indian climber made it past the first round. The two events are arguably valuable reminders for Indian climbing, on both the need to improve and how to improve. Siddhi took consolation in a small detail – she was ranked 28th in the field at the 2017 World Cup in Navi Mumbai and for that one year, her name too featured in the list of those ranked for that World Cup season. Ahead of the 2017 World Cup in Navi Mumbai, the Indian team had enjoyed a stint of training in Slovenia. Siddhi was among those who went. She was unable to take full advantage of the visit because according to her, she was still worried about her ankle and the worry was pushing her into being cautious while climbing. But Slovenia was excellent window to see how training for climbing is done overseas. Among things she noticed – the notion of this climbing route for men and that, for women wasn’t there. Everyone attempted the same routes irrespective of how easy or difficult they were. There was only competence to aspire for, gain and improve.

Some from the senior lot tracking climbing in Mumbai felt that Siddhi has potential but the generation of Indian woman climbers she belongs to requires steeling by more intense competition. According to them, the earlier generation of woman climbers – names like Shanti, Archana, Valsala and Dasini among them – were almost evenly matched (each noted for strength in some particular department) and competing together long enough to be shaped by such ecosystem. Results in their time were hard-fought. For the current generation, well matched field hasn’t graced every competition, they argued. In Mumbai, Siddhi is ahead of the field in women’s climbing. For her own improvement, she requires more good climbers around so that the ecosystem is competitive – this was their observation. I also came across a suggestion for those chasing harder climbs: if you break new ground climbing a hard grade, then repeat it. Climb the route twice so that the outcome is yours to own.

Siddhi in action at the 2016 IFSC World Cup in Navi Mumbai (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

2017 was the beginning of a slump in climbing for Siddhi. Given her semester exams in November 2017, she couldn’t train well for that year’s nationals. There were no medals. Next year, 2018; the nationals were split into six events – two each for lead, bouldering and speed climbing – spread through the year. In the middle of that calendar – in April – Siddhi had the final exams of her graduate studies. Along the way there was silver and bronze picked up at two lead climbing events as part of the nationals. But she still wasn’t feeling energized about her climbing. It was at this juncture that her friends from the Poddar College wall put together a trip to Badami. Siddhi joined them. Upon reaching Badami, they lost no time starting their climbs. “ I had no plans or goals. I have always liked Badami and the only thing I wished for was to spend time climbing sandstone there,’’ Siddhi said. She climbed some of the easy routes around. Then one of her friends, Dhaval Sharma, suggested that she attempt Samsara.

Early morning November 5, she went with Vasant Kadre – he had attempted Samsara before – to try the route. Vasant climbed and put quickdraws in place. Siddhi top roped it; dissecting the whole climb into sections, practising each section and then linking it all into a sequence.  Later, all of evening, she rested. November 6 early morning, she returned to Samsara. This time, Vasant completed the route successfully. Siddhi practised the moves again. She felt better. That evening, with Shubham Jagtap belaying, she tried Samsara again on lead. She was leading on natural rock after a long time. Between the fifth and sixth clip, where run-out is tad long, she sensed that old worry of potential ankle injury returning. “ The ankle injury was playing on Siddhi’s mind. She was concerned that it may repeat should she fall,’’ Shubham said. When you fall in sport climbing, the arc of the fall with distance from last protection clipped into as radius, draws the climber back to the wall / rock face being ascended. All this happens quickly and as climber closes back in on rock, it is the legs that are wielded in front to absorb impact. Siddhi’s worry was relevant. To her credit, she practised every section of the route thoroughly. She is a short climber. The moves to tackle each section – what climbers call beta; is influenced by their physicality. Moves needn’t be the same for everyone. Each climber has to figure it out based on his / her ability, skills and physical dimension. “ Siddhi figured out the beta herself. We didn’t tell her anything,’’ Shubham, who has climbed Samsara, said. Given all the good attempts were happening by evening, Siddhi decided to assign final attempt for next evening.

Samsara; starting the climb (Photo: courtesy Siddhi Manerikar)

The morning of November 7, her last day in Badami on that visit, she had another practice session on the route. November 7 evening, with Shubham belaying again, Siddhi formally attempted Samsara on lead. According to Shubham, there were three attempts that evening. In the first one, she fell from the ninth clip. In the second, she fell from the third clip. At this point she was a bit shaken. After resting for ten minutes, she tried again. This time Siddhi sent Samsara (in climbing, sending a route means successfully completing it). On tough routes, muscles get pushed to the limit. Climbers are prone to take rest or shake off lactic acid accumulation on their limbs. This may happen just after clipping in to quickdraw close by. For a climb to be accepted as clean, at such instances of rest and shaking off pumped muscles, climbers must not take advantage of the belay and transfer their weight to it. Shubham said that Siddhi’s weight was never felt on the rope. “ It was a smooth climb. There was no downgrading of the route,’’ he said. It was late evening by the time Siddhi’s third attempt – the successful one – concluded. Light was now low. Unfortunately the lack of adequate light left its imprint on photographs clicked of the final stages of the climb, her friends said. Samsara done, Siddhi left Badami for Mumbai the next day, as scheduled.

For Siddhi, Badami is special. It has been her favorite natural rock-fix, away from the artificial walls and competitions she grew up with. “ In November 2018, I came to Badami from a slump in climbing. The success on Samsara therefore feels good. It also feels like a turning point. My life so far has revolved around competitions and preparing for them. Samsara brought me back to natural rock. I will continue to compete but there is now the desire to do more climbs on natural rock, in the outdoors. Samsara happened at the right time,’’ Siddhi said. As for plans ahead – she wishes to attempt Samsara again; do it a second time. On the career front, now that she has completed graduation, her wish is to appear for the Combined Defence Services (CDS) exam.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is based on a conversation with Siddhi Manerikar. Podium finishes and competition details are as stated by her.)  

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