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A Wave of Lockdown New-Routing in India Article

© Raghava Poojari

Nutan Shinde-Pawar shares some new Indian rock climbing developments that occurred during the COVID-19 lockdowns, as locals headed for nearby outcrops...


2020 and 2021 were punctuated by global lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With no access to climbing gyms, climbers around the world rediscovered neighbouring crags in their search for rock. Many of the local gems, overshadowed by the popular areas, suddenly saw the light of day. And in the less prominent climbing nations like India, there was a radical change. Indian climbers saw an opportunity to explore and develop new climbing destinations. 

Varlakonda's granite monolith.  © Praveen Jayakaran
Varlakonda's granite monolith.
© Praveen Jayakaran

There has long been a culture of crag development, bolting new routes and travelling to different places for climbing in India - but it evolved at a slow pace. The pioneer climbers of the '70s and '80s, with their discovery of historic sites, initiated crag development. At a regional level, local climbing communities bolted cliffs, putting numerous climbing sites on the Indian map. This provided plenty of playgrounds for millennials to climb on. However, following the spread of artificial walls and climbing gyms in the early 2000s, outdoor enthusiasm declined. 

Hordes of kids became interested in competitions. Climbing in the wild became secondary. A multi-day escapade of bolting or sending an enticing traverse through the rock features on tall spires wasn't fun anymore. It was not about the adventure, climbers were thirsty for hard routes. Tenzing Jamyang AKA Jammy (39), an explorer of Suru (a bouldering site in Ladakh region) and Delhi crags remembered: "This transition was seen globally. When artificial walls were introduced climbers, resisted going outside. Many were interested in competitions. Suddenly the comfort of climbing close by and less hustle was attractive."

Yedumadu is an exceptional spot near Bangalore, Karnataka that has only high boulders, but good cracks.  © Praveen Jayakaran
Yedumadu is an exceptional spot near Bangalore, Karnataka that has only high boulders, but good cracks.
© Praveen Jayakaran

Despite the lack of new crags, the so-called "hardcore" climbing sites, Badami and Hampi, rose to popularity. Both these hotspots lie in North Karnataka (in South India). Ganesha 8b+ in Badami, the hardest sport route in the country and multiple V9-V12 boulders in Hampi were opened around 2010. In the following years, these high-grade ascents brought in a new generation of climbers. The drive of accomplishing powerful, new-school moves rekindled the desire to discover more treasures. 

With the advent of the digital age, travelling and adventure sports gained acceptance in Indian society. Travelling for a living or trying out adventures boomed nationwide. Climbing as an outdoor sport or a hobby became more popular and the concept of "climbing for leisure" germinated. Suddenly, climbing was not limited to serious competitors or kids alone, but welcomed adults with families and jobs. No medals, but gaining fitness, leading an active lifestyle and scoring personal bests were their aims. 

Suru and Sethan, both renowned bouldering sites in the remote region of Ladakh and Himachal Pradesh respectively, have seen an influx of climbers from all around the world since 2015.  

Sohan P (46) who has developed many crags in Karnataka, said: "I cannot comment for the rest of the country, but there is certainly a renewed energy in the last six-seven years in Bangalore (capital city of Karnataka). This seems to be driven by an increase in the number of climbers and an awareness of global climbing standards through Instagram."   

Quality crack climbing in Yedamadu.  © Praveen Jayakaran
Quality crack climbing in Yedamadu.
© Praveen Jayakaran

The desire to beat our own records and climb into the unknown was amplified during the pandemic. After the first lockdown in March 2020 and the second in April 2021, while a section of climbers were restricted to their homes, the others living close to rock resorted to scoping out new lines. Ripon Jeet Singha (32), an explorer of bouldering areas in West Bengal (in East India), said: "During the lockdown, we had enough time. I camped for 2-3 months at the nearest climbing spot and explored an abundance of boulders. This was the most satisfying time of my life. There's so much more to explore, the sky's the limit here!"

In the periods of relative freedom, there was a newfound love for travel, nature and outdoor climbing. A series of workshops, festivals and events proved popular. Overall, the community was growing. There was a surge of climbers at every site, setting up benchmarks by sending higher grades or christening lines on untouched rocks.

Singha added: "Since the competitions weren't happening, the kids fond of competitions were diverted to the outdoors. There were many breakthrough ascents from these climbers. Our climbing standard is growing. This is inspiring beginners to climb more, pulling more climbers outside. This is a nationwide phenomenon."

Whatever may be the circumstances for this change, I feel this is a golden era in the country's climbing scene leading to an explosion of crags. Here are a few of the newest crags in the making:

Dhauj, Mangar (Delhi)

Jamyang on a newly bolted 6a+ in Dhauj. Since September 2021, the team has been bolting the mined rock here.  © Damlemsang Vaiphei (Sang)
Jamyang on a newly bolted 6a+ in Dhauj. Since September 2021, the team has been bolting the mined rock here.
© Damlemsang Vaiphei (Sang)

Dhauj or Mangar lying in the Faridabad district of Delhi boasts monoliths of sandstone and quartzite. This is one of the earliest outdoor crags of India developed in the '70s and '80s by luminaries Mohit Oberoi and Robert Chambers. Although its guidebook was released in 2001, the area remained out-of-mind for Delhi climbers. It was mainly a trad climbing site (bolting was not allowed in the forest). In 2018, Ashwin Shah reintroduced this area, hosting groups for trad climbing. He was accompanied by Jamyang, Sandeep Maity and a team of millennial climbers, who in 2019 organised the first ever Indian trad festival called Grit Fest. Their idea was to familiarise people with trad climbing with workshops and open more sport and boulder routes. 

Jammy said: "When you want something and try hard, you get it. In the pandemic, after a lot of struggle, we got permission to bolt. By that time we had opened a few boulder problems too. Since Dhauj was becoming popular we decided to build a homestay. During the lockdown, having plenty of time, we constructed the campsite and opened many more routes ourselves. Now the area has everything. People just have to come here!"

Within 25km from the city, Mangar is perfect as a day crag with options for camping. There are a total of 500 routes and the possibility of many more. The trad lines are still the older ones established in ground-up fashion with big runouts, while the sport and boulder problems are powerful and high-grade, all of these lines resembling various eras of climbing. 

Dehradun, Uttarakhand

The Tachhila crag lies on the banks of the Song river and has unique features like river-washed rock.  © Ayush Goyal
The Tachhila crag lies on the banks of the Song river and has unique features like river-washed rock.
© Ayush Goyal

Although Dehradun is the hub for trekking and mountaineering enthusiasts, climbing is out-of-reach. Tachhila, in the outskirts of Dehradun, was the result of Yash Choudhari's hunger for climbing when he shifted to Dehradun for work. Choudhari (30), an outdoor expert, bolted many lines on sedimentary rock faces and Dehradun now has its own home crag. He said: "There was no climbing gym or rock walls in and around Dehradun. I had heard of this BSF (Border Security Force) training area where they practised rappelling and basic climbing. Himanshu and I made the rock face climbable during the 2020 lockdown."

Choudhari hosts weekend workshops to teach climbing skills and popularise the sport amongst tourists and the locals. With only 15 possible lines, Tachhila cannot be a climber's hotspot. But it is sufficient to introduce rock climbing to the locals and create a community.

Apart from Dehradun, Barapatthar and areas around Nainital (the most popular hill station of Uttarakhand) has a tremendous scene of outdoor crags, developed by Anil Belwal, Vikram Bharti, Vinod Joshi and others.

Crag development in West Bengal

Tilaboni hills, Purulia district

Glimpses from the Bengal Boulder Fest in December 2021. Singha working moves on Burning Crack.  © Arpita Roy
Glimpses from the Bengal Boulder Fest in December 2021. Singha working moves on Burning Crack.
© Arpita Roy

Purulia lies in the Eastern State, West Bengal. It's a hilly town known for wilderness, granite domes and dense forests. This district has a high concentration of exquisite granite and has major developed sites. Tilaboni hills is one of the emerging bouldering places developed by Singha, Anwesha Konar (23) and his team. Early climbing workshops were held in the '90s with a few routes made accessible. In 2014 Singha stumbled upon this concealed area of boulders and the chapter of expansion began. It was only during the pandemic that progress skyrocketed. 

Tilaboni bouldering.  © Arpita Roy
Tilaboni bouldering.
© Arpita Roy

The area bloomed so much that a bouldering festival was organised in December 2021, which was attended by climbers from everywhere. With 160 boulder problems of varied style and two multi-pitches, Tilaboni has become a climber's hub in just two years of growth.  

Bansha and Sikhra, Purulia district

Bansha and Sikhra are the two other granite crags in Purulia that have soared in extent. Sudipto Pal (36), a veteran climber, is quietly involved in bolting the Bengal rock faces. He was introduced to these rocks in 2019 and since then has tried vigorously to put up cracks, off-widths and a range of traditional climbs along with sport multi-pitches. Pal added: "These areas should have been explored long ago. An orthodox outlook and a lack of investment hindered the development of climbing here. We also started crowdfunding in 2021 with limited success. Our plan is to create an internationally renowned climbing destination on par with Badami and Hampi."

Topo map of various boulders at Bansha.  © Sudipto Pal
Topo map of various boulders at Bansha.
© Sudipto Pal

Roofs, overhanging structures, magnificent slabs from 100 to 350 metres — there are more than 600 possible lines (trad, sport and boulder) in these rocky lands waiting to be discovered. Extensive use of tiny footholds and crimps sharpen technical skills — good practice for big walls in the Himalayas.

Sikhra multi-pitch routes.  © Sudipto Pal
Sikhra multi-pitch routes.
© Sudipto Pal

Crag Development in Karnataka

Bangalore has had a long tradition of climbing since the 1960s. World-renowned climbers like Johnny Dawes, François Hagen-Mueller, Lillian Daudent, Doug Scott and Jeff Jackson have opened lines here. With 500+ documented long routes up to 400 metres and 1000+ boulder problems, Bangalore is the heart of Indian climbing with an exceptionally active and sizeable climbing community. 

In recent years, the tradition of exploration has proliferated. Sohan P, a senior climber who has bolted more than 100 lines around Bangalore, said: "Two particular areas that have gained popularity since the pandemic include Varlakonda and Yedumadu. Both these areas have little or no access issues, are close enough to large population centres, and there is still potential for hundreds of quality routes."

Varlakonda 

Varlakonda, located 90 kilometres from Bangalore in Chikkaballapur district, is a mile-long granite monolith. Climbing in Varlakonda originated in 2015 when GETHNA (a quasi-government adventure promotion body) added 18 routes. Since then Bangalore Climbing Initiatives (BCI) has added another 25 additional routes, and believes that there is potential for another 50+ routes in the area. BCI is a non-governmental, not-for-profit entity consisting of recreational climbers who maintain and develop routes around Bangalore. 

Photo taken at ROMP 2019 held at Varlakonda by BCI.  © Praveen Jayakaran
Photo taken at ROMP 2019 held at Varlakonda by BCI.
© Praveen Jayakaran

Unlike the slabs around Bangalore, Varlakonda offers more diverse climbing, but largely face climbing and splitters that may require laybacking. There are some 50 routes of 5.8-5.13 grades (both trad and sport, including six multi-pitches up to 250 metres in height). 

Yedumadu

Yedumadu in Ramanagara district lies 35 kilometres from Bangalore, is an old climbing area, spread over 6.5 square kilometres, and has only high boulders. It is one of the oldest climbing areas from the '70s. Sohan added: "As it is only trad and bouldering here, which requires less expensive resources (bolting hardware), the development here is more democratic."

The climbing tradition here has been bouldering and short but intense trad routes up to 20 metres long. Recently, the number of trad and boulder climbs has blown up to 200 and 500 lines respectively. The area is a playground to learn cracks techniques, from fingers to body-wide cracks and a variety of slab to overhanging boulder problems. 

Yedamadu festival scenes.  © Praveen Jayakaran
Yedamadu festival scenes.
© Praveen Jayakaran

Through Bangalore Romp, an annual festival, BCI hopes to educate people in all forms of climbing and publicise the climbing spots. 

Both of these areas are capable of making India a climbing nation - Varlakonda has the potential to be similar to the Gunks in New York and Yedumadu could be the crack climbing Mecca of India. 

Crag Development in Andhra Pradesh

The lagging state in South India, Andhra Pradesh is gradually catching up with the rest of the country. A highly inspired bunch of youngsters, Raghava Poojari (22), Devendra Patiyal (26), Chanakya (29), and Hyderabad climbers are on a mission to highlight the potential outdoor crags in their homeland. 

Mahendra Hills 

Mahendra Hills in Hyderabad, famous as a park for evening walks and small picnic trips, is now becoming a bouldering chill spot. During the first lockdown in 2020, while unable to travel for climbing trips, Poojari found solace in the urban walking park. Mahendra Hills is a nature retreat lying amidst the hustle-bustle, filled with granite blocs.

Climbers attempting 6a+ to 6b lines on high boulders. Iconic rock with a quality grade line. East side of the city is visible.  © Raghava Poojari
Climbers attempting 6a+ to 6b lines on high boulders. Iconic rock with a quality grade line. East side of the city is visible.
© Raghava Poojari

Poojari explained: "I grew up in the neighbourhood yet the possibility of climbing never struck me before. After I started climbing, I found it right around the corner. I have now accumulated a fair amount of climbers through workshops and we do evening sessions on the boulders here." Poojari and Patiyal have managed to set up 50 boulder problems from 5A to 7A level with the possibility of hundreds more. 

photo
The neem tree rock with five possible routes on it.
© Raghava Poojari

Pandava Guhalu

The other potential crag is Pandava Guhalu or Pandava Caves in the Warangal district of Telangana. The archaeological site has paintings from 1000 BC and it is believed that Pandavas sheltered in the region.

Rock paintings at Pandava Guhalu.  © Chanakya
Rock paintings at Pandava Guhalu.
© Chanakya

This hillock has acres of limestone towers, boulders and gigantic faces with features that are perfect for climbing. Chanakya and Patiyall organise regular climbing events and nature walks. Although the area has just a handful of routes, it is just a few years from becoming another Badami or even larger than that.

Pandava Guahalu features unusual limestone formations.  © Chanakya
Pandava Guahalu features unusual limestone formations.
© Chanakya

Crag Development in Sikkim

Sikkim is the smallest Himalayan State lying in northeast India. Despite the vast expanse of the Himalayas, the state is not renowned for its pristine rock. Lokesh Sharma (43), foresaw the possibility of bouldering in Chakung village in West Sikkim and has epic mountain landscapes along with huge limestone blocs. 

Jammy working on an overhanging boulder with big jugs on Two Legged Flamingo (6C+) and being spotted by the Sikkim locals.  © Lokesh Sharma
Jammy working on an overhanging boulder with big jugs on Two Legged Flamingo (6C+) and being spotted by the Sikkim locals.
© Lokesh Sharma

With the help of Lokesh, Jammy and Maity explored the mountain hamlet for high-quality bouldering in 2018. Jammy added: "These rocks were covered with heaps of moss and vegetation. We had to clean a lot and needed more time. In 2019 and again in 2021 we got the opportunity to get hands-on and make the area accessible." During the local music festival in December 2021, rock climbing was introduced to the villagers and a boulder competition was held. "A lot of the kids involved in drugs and alcohol got a direction with climbing. We can see the locals have accepted the sport," Jammy continued. 

Sandeep Maity trying a highball surrounded by lush green landscapes.  © Sharad Chandra
Sandeep Maity trying a highball surrounded by lush green landscapes.
© Sharad Chandra

Over 50 problems ranging from 6A to 7C on slabs and overhangs on peculiar limestone are developed and hundreds more are waiting. When asked why this remote area must be visited by every climber, Jammy said: "You hardly get limestone rock in India. Chakung has a lot of that. And since the area is in its early days there is high bandwidth for opening new lines and FAs. This is exciting for people!"

Sethan, Himachal Pradesh

Sethan, a remote hamlet lying 20 km from Manali in Himachal Pradesh, is a rising bouldering destination of India. Nestled in the alpine conifers and granite towers, the village is a climber's hub with infinite scope for all types of climbing. However, only bouldering was accessible until today. In 2019, Sudhir Pawar (39) envisioned opening sports and trad lines on the Himalayan crag.

Sudhir Pawar cleaning a new route.  © Gayatri Juvekar
Sudhir Pawar cleaning a new route.
© Gayatri Juvekar

It was only during the pandemic, in October 2021, when his actions came to reality. With a team of inspired climbers, five routes that can be extended to big walls were christened. Pawar said: "It is my dream to make big walls and Himalayan rock accessible to every climber. Beginners usually are scared of going to the mountains. With easy big walls and trad routes, they can gain experience and improve their skills for hard climbs. This is just the first phase of our project and our vision is to do a lot more in the Himalayas."

Amrit Appaden opening another trad line on the Sethan crag. The crag has been named Tushit Lok.  © Gayatri Juvekar
Amrit Appaden opening another trad line on the Sethan crag. The crag has been named Tushit Lok.
© Gayatri Juvekar

***

India - being a diverse and geologically gifted country - is en-route to become an ultimate climbing destination with the rise of these fine climbing sites. My hope is to see India become the next climbing nation!



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16 Feb, 2022

Some quality vege on that last photo

22 Feb, 2022

Love this. Indian rock looks so good! Hope to get out there someday.

22 Feb, 2022

For some reason this article made me incredibly happy, thanks! I'd never had India on my rock climbing/bouldering map (except for Johnny, Jerry and Kurt's fascination with the monkeys on the bouldering blocks at Hampi).

Not realistic at the moment (or maybe even ever), but the article makes me want to go there and check it all out. Keep up the good work!

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