This image was downloaded from the Facebook page of the 2018 movie. No copyright infringement intended.

A film with two good actors.

One of them, I was already familiar with from earlier movies watched.

I had seen Ben Foster in the 2007 film ` 3:10 to Yuma’ and the 2015 movie on Lance Armstrong, ` The Program.’ I knew what to expect. Thomasin McKenzie was an unknown quantum. I hadn’t seen the 2014 concluding installment of ` The Hobbit’ trilogy or ` Jojo Rabbit’ of 2019. Seeing her confidently hold her place next to Ben Foster and in some ways, even set the tone for the lovely film I was watching, was a lesson in grace. The film was ` Leave No Trace,’ released in 2018 and since, highly acclaimed.

The film revolves around a father-daughter duo, who elect to live away from human settlements. The father is a war veteran with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD); regular life is tough for him to endure. The daughter is home-schooled. She has a sense of awareness, sensitivity, independence and responsibility that can only be described as advanced for her years. They make their home, camped unseen in the depths of a forested park. It is illegal to do so, on public land. They take care to keep their presence invisible to others, except a few similarly camped on the periphery, who Will (the character played by Foster) sells painkillers to.

Thomasin McKenzie in Leave No Trace (This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of the movie. No copyright infringement intended.)

The cocoon is disturbed after the daughter is noticed by a visitor. Authorities intervene. As the film illustrates the difficulty faced by the father-daughter duo trying to integrate into society as authorities wish them to, you wonder – why can’t otherwise peaceful people be left alone? The question becomes even more relevant as investigation by authorities reveals that the daughter has been brought up well. It becomes less a case of abnormality and more of incongruity with world as we know it. At the same time, it is also clear that the extreme lifestyle of the father-daughter duo is not ideal. It has its shortcomings and the daughter’s progressive choices reveal the balance with settled life she personally seeks; it is an equilibrium different from the harsh ethic pursued by the father escaping PTSD. It is a very reflective film; one that will be enjoyed in proportion to how much leash you gave yourself to question life.

Directed by Debra Granik, the movie (I saw it on Netflix) is affectionately shot. The two lead actors have done a brilliant job. Not having seen her work before, I found myself reading up on Thomasin McKenzie after watching ` Leave No Trace.’ She is without doubt, a major talent. As Will returns to life in wilderness, he is seen on the trail and then veering off it into the surrounding vegetation. It is an aerial shot that includes in its frame the sprawl of nature. The leaves and branches shake a while betraying person who stepped off trail. Then, the canopy reverts to what it was – a calm, green, cover; its secrets secure within its fold.

This is a beautiful film. See it.

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


Kilian Fischhuber (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Kilian Fischhuber is among the most decorated competition climbers in the world. Hailing from Austria and participating in bouldering and lead climbing events, he has the rare distinction of winning more than 20 World Cup events. Having retired from competitions in 2014, Kilian has enhanced his repertoire of climbs. He travels the world in search of routes to climb; in the process he has visited India. Kilian worked for a while as a teacher in Innsbruck. Since end-2019, he has been a national team coach for Austria Climbing. Thanks to this, has been able to train since April 20, 2020 with elite athletes at the gym “ Ki” in Innsbruck, which is also the national training center. They were given special permission. “ We have to maintain strict protocol including distance, number of athletes, disinfection and the like,’’ Kilian said. He spared time to respond to questions mailed by this blog on the new normal in climbing forced by COVID-19. 

Reports have now begun coming from Europe of lockdown relaxation and the resumption of climbing. To your mind, how do we reconcile the need to observe disease related protocols with the sport of climbing? Is this a sport that can coexist comfortably with COVID-19 protocols or do you see climbers being pushed to situations where it is a choice between enjoyable sport and protocol?

We had a serious outbreak of COVID-19 here in Austria. Due to strict regulations, a lockdown and maybe a pinch of luck we avoided a larger mess. Now we see protocols relaxed and some kind of normality return. However, we kind of live under the shadow of a future outbreak and possible repeated lockdowns. Austria Climbing and the Austrian alpine federations worked on regulations for climbers and I hope we can enjoy our sport almost as before, soon. We’ll need more space per person and will have to follow hygiene protocols and use common sense to maintain our reclaimed freedom. As we have no other choice I guess we’ll have to coexist with the new rules. I’ve been climbing since more than two weeks now and the new normal doesn’t feel so bad to me.

If we broadly divide climbing into bouldering, lead climbing and mountaineering, do you see the impact of COVID-19 protocols as being fairly uniform for all these segments or do you suspect that a branch like bouldering, which is generally more social, requiring spotting and capable of climbs over shorter distances may be hit harder?

I’m afraid some will be hit harder than others. The virus definitely does not treat us fairly in any sense. It’s the same with sports. Contact sports or sports where you have to touch others (as in spotting) will see a larger impact. But again, I think with common sense we can live with the new normal.

Can you give us an idea of how a typical climbing session looks like for you these days? There has also been this debate around chalk powder versus alcohol based-liquid chalk for the present times. Which type of chalk do you use?

When I go rock climbing, I climb with my partner Anna. We live in the same household. When we meet other climbers we try to maintain the distance which is usually no big deal. I use normal chalk but I bring hand sanitizer to the crag.

From a 2015 visit to India; Kilian Fischhuber climbing in Badami, Karnataka (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Indoor climbing gyms are now a major part of the sport. How do you think COVID-19 protocols will affect climbing at these venues? While physical distancing may be possible, frequent sanitizing of surfaces will be a challenge depending on the size of gym. Are there any practical approaches with protocols included, beginning to emerge at climbing gyms in Austria and elsewhere in Europe?

I don’t think it is possible to disinfect climbing surfaces in climbing gyms after each climber. I feel that sanitizing your hands frequently, avoiding contact with others, more space and using face masks is all we can do. If there’s another major outbreak the gyms will be closed again anyways. Our gyms have gradually begun opening last week. First the outdoor walls opened and soon, with new protocols, indoor walls too. What I don’t know is whether it will still be lucrative for gym owners to run large gyms with only few people inside.

What is the general attitude you sense with regard to climbing in the months immediately following relaxation of lockdown? Are people coming out to climb or is there reluctance? Are they waiting to see what protocols to follow at crags and gyms?

The vast majority runs with the protocols. I’ve been rock climbing again since about two weeks (when relaxation began in Austria) and most people I met behaved responsibly and showed understanding.

Who do you think should take the lead in setting health related protocols so that sports like climbing can resume in a safe fashion when lockdown relaxes?

The Austrian Climbing Federation, the alpine federations and the gyms proposed a protocol to the Austrian Health ministry which has been adopted so far. All the decisions are aligned with what health experts from the government propose.

How was the situation like in Austria when the pandemic was at its peak? Were all the major climbing crags and gyms shut?

All gyms shut, nobody went climbing.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. Please note: the above interview should be seen in the right perspective. It reflects circumstances in Austria, which is very different from the predicament in India, a nation of 1.3 billion people with crowded cities. The interview is presented here to foster awareness and hopefully, contribute to templates for the new normal.)


Illustration: Shyam G Menon

In early 2019, Steve Swenson, former president of the American Alpine Club had visited Mumbai to receive the annual Kekoo Naoroji Book Award from The Himalayan Club. In May 2020, amid lockdown in India due to COVID-19, this blog contacted Steve for pointers on how relevant agencies in the US were advising the climbing community. The following is drawn from links he suggested for reference.

Here’s what Access Fund posted on its website:

We strongly encourage all climbers to help flatten the curve and err on the side of caution. Here’s how you can help:

Follow the lead of your Local Climbing Organization.

DO NOT travel to climb.

Strictly comply with all shelter-in-place and similar orders.

Strictly comply with all closures and restrictions, and follow federal, state, county and city guidelines on social distancing.

DO NOT take unnecessary risks. Don’t be the person that creates more stress and burden for our medical and SAR professionals.

Please understand that climbing areas will still be there once this crisis passes. The best way to return to normal in the shortest period of time is for all of us to do everything we can to stop the spread of the virus as quickly as possible. In many cases, that will mean that we simply shouldn’t go climbing.

There was this observation too on the Access Fund website: Over sixty years of scientific research has proven that being outside in nature, or even just viewing natural landscapes, helps reduce stress hormones, high blood pressure, type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and premature death. Being in nature also lifts our spirits and helps us feel connected to something bigger than ourselves.

At the time of writing, Access Fund had announced a webinar for mid-May 2020 on the topic, “ Climbing during the pandemic.’’ It was to feature representatives from the outdoor community and the medical fraternity.

On its part, the American Alpine Club posted the following:

The COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented and impacts us all. Our community must act thoughtfully to “ flatten the curve” to reduce transmissions of the virus over time.

We are concerned about transmission of COVID-19 to rural or gateway communities. These remote towns often have limited access to medical facilities and their closely-knit, interconnected social structures are more prone to the spread of infection.

Please keep places like Bishop, Fayetteville, Moab, Springdale, and Slade as safe as possible by limiting recreation-based travel at this time. If you have a trip planned, please reschedule until we are through this health emergency. This is not the time to head to the desert or rally to your favorite national park for “social distancing.” While outdoor time is necessary for each of us during this turbulent period, we need to stay local and limit our interaction with vulnerable communities.

Consider also keeping outdoor objectives conservative to reduce the load on the medical system. Backcountry emergencies contribute to overloading hospitals and potential shortages of ventilators in intensive care units. As always, be safe out there and mindful of unnecessary risks.

Finally, we all should follow the directions outlined in the CDC’s guide on how to keep yourself and others safe from the virus. It’s necessary that we as a climbing community make decisions from the perspective of the most vulnerable people in our community.

The AAC is certain that the climbing community can be a part of the solution to COVID-19 by taking collective action now.

Some parks in the US have opened for limited use during the day. The website of Washington State Parks provides an idea of how such entities approach the current predicament.

To begin with, the parks have said that parking capacity will be reduced at some urban locations as reducing the number of parking stalls leads to less number of people and thereby, less crowds. Authorities want people to respect closures and visit only parks that are open for day use. The detail of limited restroom facilities at some parks has been mentioned. Before they go, people have been asked to check what is open and what isn’t. They have been advised to enjoy the outdoors only when healthy; if they have fever, cough or shortness of breath, they have been told to save their outdoor trip for another day. If you are healthy and going out, then bring your own mask or bandana. Overnight stays are not allowed. So opt for an outing closer to home. Stick to immediate household members to check any potential spread of virus. Bring own soap, water, hand sanitizer and toilet paper. If upon reaching a park, it is found to be crowded, then go elsewhere or return another time. Avoid crowds. Practise physical distancing (six feet). Similarly, leave at least one parking space between your car and the next. Wash your hands well. Pack out what you pack in. Be kind and respectful to the park staff.

One segment where protocols are still being figured out is that of climbing gyms. Gyms have significant presence in the US.  On climbing gyms, Steve Swenson said, “ no one knows yet what the protocols will be.”  State governments in the US are setting the time frames for a phased approach when different parts of the economy can reopen. “ So it varies from state to state.  In most states, things like gyms (which include climbing gyms) are included in the third phase of reopening which is one of the latter phases.  The nature of what these latter phases will look like and when they can happen, will be determined by what happens with the spread of the virus after the phase 1 and 2 parts of the economy reopens,’’ he said.

Please note: In India, all sports, outdoor pursuits and climbing gyms have remained suspended or shut since commencement of lockdown. At the time of writing, the lockdown was still in force. The ground realities of life and the challenges faced in tackling disease are very different in India, compared to the US. The contents of this article are presented for thought and discussion by those related to outdoor pursuits, who recognize the need for evolving best practices in these troubled times.

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


This image was downloaded from the Facebook page of the film. No copyright infringement intended.

There is life, and then, there is how you should live life.

The first is a blend of existence as it is and world as perceived by our sense organs. The second is a blend of individual sensory perception and opinion from the human collective; in fact, more of the latter. Most of us get entangled with the second approach. We are busy living life as it should be lived. Till one day, you wake up and ask yourself: what did I do to my life? My one shot at existence?

That one day came to octogenarian Edith (Edie) Moore in the phase following her husband’s demise. Her daughter, with whom she has a strained relationship, plans to shift Edie to a retirement home. The elderly woman resents it. The juncture invites reflection. Following a wild childhood that she thoroughly enjoyed in the company of her father, Edie had got married to George, a man with a very controlling nature. Thanks to him, she had been unable to go on a climbing trip with her father to Suilven, a mountain in the Scottish Highlands. Two days after their argument on the subject, George got a blood clot that rendered him invalid; “ he never walked or talked for thirty years until he died. And dad died not long after George had his stroke. So that was that, I never went.’’ Edie took care of George and her daughter but in the process, was denied her own life. Now in her eighties and beset with her daughter’s plans for her, the widow decides to take up that old trip to Suilven.

This is the premise of the 2018 movie, ` Edie.’

It is a beautiful film with Sheila Hancock in the role of Edie and Kevin Guthrie (remember him from ` The English Game’?) as Jonny, a young man who offers to lead Edie up the mountain.  What makes this film particularly meaningful is the way the narrative mixes straightforward story telling with contemplation on what happens to us in life. Sometimes the choices we make, hijacks our journey to the expense of all other possibilities. This is what happened to Edie in her younger days. She was reduced to being care giver and taken for granted. In her old age, she is a concoction of the rage in discovering that her best years were wasted, the frustration of being unable to feel young again (and be honorably treated while trying it) and eventually, the delight in undertaking an almost monastic pilgrimage to Suilven, a motif capable of restoring dignity to her existence. This is not an outdoor film in which, the rules of wilderness are strict and unflinching. There is an element of affection for the main protagonist, a sense of nature and heavens being supportive. But it doesn’t matter for the underlying warmth and compassion of this movie shot in great landscape, is refreshing.

This is a good film to watch (I saw it on Disney-Hotstar) especially in these days of lockdown due to COVID-19. Stuck at home and counting the hours, we have been reflecting on life. There is an Edie in each of us, seeking release.

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