Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The recent incident of a trekker stuck on a high rock face near Malampuzha and eventually rescued by army personnel, should be cause for reflection in Kerala.

Footage broadcast on TV showed a rescuer descending from the top of the rock face, collecting the 23-year-old who endured nearly two days without food and water (there was a small cavity he could sit in), and the duo then being slowly hoisted up. It seemed a fairly straight forward operation. By the evening of the rescue, there were TV debates asking why the local police lacked the required skills. Unfortunately, that’s the wrong end to start enquiring. What one must find is the source of the required skillsets and ask why climbing, the sport hosting many of those skills, never gained traction in Kerala. 

In India, civilian presence in adventure sports like climbing was traditionally inhibited by the fact that they are expensive. When it came to the ability to afford gear and access prized terrain like the Himalaya (which unfortunately constitutes a sensitive border), the armed forces always scored. In the list of Indian mountaineering expeditions, one will therefore find a sizable military presence. In Indian media, rescuers are often described as trained in mountaineering.

Rock climbing in India, evolved differently from mountaineering. Here one half of the traditional impediments to adventure – accessibility – is less. Engaging rock faces are available in the ranges south of the Himalaya along with access less constrained by weather and security issues. Consequently, domination by military is absent. In their earlier years, India’s climbing clubs attempted some of these faces and features with what gear they possessed. Later club members pooled their resources and bought better climbing equipment. Nowadays, thanks to the growth in number of rock climbers and rise in disposable income, there are individuals owning a full set (a rack) of climbing gear.

From the perspective of rescue, civilian-rock climbing matters because notwithstanding difference in terrain tackled and variations to equipment thereby, many of the basic systems of mountaineering and rock climbing are similar. Besides south of the Himalaya, you are not dealing with snow and ice. In peninsular India, Maharashtra and Karnataka have produced good rock climbers. Maharashtra has a number of hiking and climbing clubs; some of their members climb rock regularly in the Sahyadri and have also done courses in mountaineering. Rescue related to the outdoors in Maharashtra, rarely sees the army called in; it is done by a combination of the clubs and local authorities. According to Umesh Zirpe, among the most respected expedition leaders from Maharashtra (he has led successful civilian expeditions to several 8000m peaks in the Himalaya), in the above-mentioned combination, as much as 90 per cent would be civilian volunteers familiar with hiking and climbing, working for free. The club Zirpe belongs to – Giripremi – was instrumental in starting South India’s only mountaineering institute in Pune. In 2016, the club and the institute launched the Maharashtra Mountain Rescue Coordination Centre (MMRCC). Today, the state has a 24×7 mountain rescue helpline that gets volunteers to respond in the event of a mishap, he said.

Arguably, the most crucial aspect in this ecosystem are the clubs and the treatment of climbing as sport; not as spectacle or something extraordinary. Done so and treated in a relaxed, unpressured fashion, learning happens. If one wants to be a good rescuer one has to be competent at the technical systems involved. This is not a macho accomplishment. It is basically comprehension of a given situation, knowledge of climbing gear and its maintenance and an understanding of system architecture. One gets good at this in direct proportion to how often one is practising the sport and which sub-category of climbing, one is interested in.

Bouldering for example, is minimalist; it dispenses with equipment (except for crash pad, chalk bag and rock climbing shoes) but teaches a lot about physicality and the grammar of movement. Sport climbing teaches more about systems but given climbing routes are prepared in advance, there is no need to delineate afresh a route on rock or set up anchors oneself. Traditional (trad) climbing – particularly multi-pitch – brings climber closer to the range of contexts and skillsets required for rescue. “ In multi-pitch trad climbing, one navigates on rock in a fashion that isn’t simply a continuous vertical progression. One may climb up, then correct by climbing down. Unlike sport climbing, there is more looking around. Plus, we get situations that require applying one’s sense of judgement,’’ Dinesh Kaigonahalli, among Bengaluru’s best-known senior climbers, said. While knowledge of multi pitch climbing provides the foundation, to be a rescuer there are specialized techniques to master additionally. Club culture and regular climbing expose us to the basics and the world of learning beyond.

This skills-led, civilian-based approach is also in tune with models reported overseas. For example, one of the world’s greatest big wall-climbing destinations is Yosemite in the US. It is home to massive rock faces cherished by many as an objective to climb. Occasionally, climbers get stuck or accidents happen. Rescue is done by Yosemite Search and Rescue (YOSAR). As a direct offshoot of adventure activity being treated as sport, rescue machinery in several countries is managed by motivated civilians familiar with the sport and locality, and trained in rescue systems. This is unfortunately yet to happen in India at large, although as mentioned earlier, in states like Maharashtra, there is an emergent self-reliance in rescue.

In Kerala, trekking and climbing remained small. Given the eco-sensitivity of the Western Ghats and presence of wild animals, the state’s wilderness is officially protected (as it should be). Extended monsoon adds to the complexity; rock climbing needs dry rock.  The state could have overcome this by opening up access to rock in less eco-sensitive areas and complementing the limited outdoor window with good indoor climbing infrastructure. That hasn’t happened as needed. Further, marketable soft adventure as is the case in tourism, is quickly understood in the state. When it comes to full blown trekking or rock climbing (or adventure in water and air), there is the tendency to initiate youngsters into the sport via agencies like the National Cadet Corps (NCC), which endorses the widespread notion that adventure is the domain of the armed forces. The paradigm was visible in TV programs around the rescue in Malampuzha as well; discussions featured police officers and ex-military personnel. This is despite the state of affairs overseas and the evidence of Keralites working in other states in India, who learnt to enjoy hiking and climbing as a responsible, civilian sport.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Wider knowledge of the proper techniques and etiquettes of trekking and climbing is the best way to avoid mishaps in the outdoors. Shorn of spectacle and treated as a sport (as done by responsible clubs), such awareness is disseminated easier. One gets to be in an ecosystem that is not only seriously pursuing the activity but is also sharing information on associated courses and workshops. Good club culture matters. If clubs end up serving vanity, alpha characters and internal politics (all, classic Indian problems), then they lose professionalism. Interestingly, one of the comments this author heard from a foreigner who spent time fostering outdoor culture in India, was how young Indians approached the outdoors like a caged beast set free. A direct product of conservative family and pressures at work, the behaviour breeds its own scope for accidents, he said.

Viewed through the prism of adventure, Kerala’s limitations are on show. Simple rescues have vaulted to the realm of madness by media and involvement of the armed forces. The solution is to treat adventure as an instinct within sport, base it in the civilian realm to which it naturally belongs and let a responsible club culture take roots. This will put in place a wider base of climbers, those competent in related first aid (there are first aid courses designed for people into outdoor sports and wilderness), and above all, a regimen of regular engagement with the sport for ultimately you are only as good as the last time you practised those skills. Ensuring that people stay in touch with their skills is a priority for Zirpe too, given the sizable share of volunteers in Maharashtra’s pool of talent for mountain rescue. “ We plan to conduct refresher courses,’’ he said.

The model of clubs should not be difficult for Kerala to emulate. Recreational running and cycling have become quite popular in the state and good clubs exist in those spaces. They invest in best practices, skills, dissemination of knowledge and provide support. That’s the way to go. But let’s be clear – notwithstanding the best we do, mishaps may still happen. A promising society learns from every incident without stifling the appetite to explore.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This is the longer version of an article by the author, published in The Telegraph : )           

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