Nutan Shinde-Pawar profiles three women pushing boundaries in Indian climbing and competing on the world circuit...
You might wonder where women feature in the Indian climbing community. In recent years, a major milestone in Indian climbing was passed as multiple women attained the significant grade of 8a. In 2018, Siddhi Manerikar was the first Indian woman to climb 8a with her ascent of Samsara in Badami. In January 2020, Prateeksha Arun also climbed the line, followed by Gowri Varanashi in December.
The hardest route climbed by Indian climbers so far is the notorious Ganesha 8b+ in Badami. The world-famous line has seen many male ascents since 2013. On the other hand, women seemed nowhere near 8a or never even believed that these projects were for them.
"We women don't try hard as we assume that higher grades are impossible. Men are stronger than us, our bodies are not built for such strenuous activity etc. etc are our random excuses. We do not consider ourselves worth anything big," says Gowri. It's a fact that women often shy away from adventure sports, imagining that these sports are only for men. Numerous cultural practices carve their mentality of feeling inferior when it comes to sports in general. Let's not get into that here, but there has to be someone to break the glass ceiling and lead a pathway to new beliefs.
Siddhi Manerikar (24) was born and brought up in a Mumbaikar family. She was introduced to rock climbing in 2009 when she was studying in 8th standard and she instantly knew that this sport was made for her. Soon she began serious training under the guidance of Rahul Pendse, a climbing coach based in Mumbai. Winning a medal in her first competition laid the foundation for her climbing career. There has been no stopping her since then.
Despite all the rewards and immense recognition for being a young female climber, she yearned for appreciation from her father. "My father did not like my participation in climbing. He wanted me to study. It was my Mum who always supported me. She also never stopped me from travelling alone," remembers Siddhi. Years later she encouraged her Dad's approval of her climbing by balancing academics along with practice sessions. "I somehow managed to do well in school. Then my father also started believing in me, but he never said it out loud."
Siddhi was aware of her family's financial condition and therefore never placed the burden of expensive climbing gear on them; instead, she earned it all through prizes and sponsorships. In the coming years, Siddhi kept receiving accolades. She was also selected by the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF) for international competitions. In over a decade of her climbing life, she had never really aimed at high grades. "I had been climbing in Badami from 2010 to 2014. It was all a part of rock training camps. Not once did I think I could climb in the 8-range," Siddhi adds. But something changed in 2018.
After a gap of four years, she returned to the Badami sandstone. Dhaval Sharma, a climber from Pune who had finished Samsara, persuaded her to try the line. "Dhaval kept saying that the route was of my style. I should at least attempt it. Competition-wise, the year was not so good, so I thought 'Why not give it a try?" On 5 November 2018, Siddhi ticked 8a with no hesitation. She top-roped and worked all the moves. That was a major confidence booster which gave her a hope of sending.
"The route was made for me. I did not have to train specifically for it as endurance is my strong point. I did a lot of long pumpy endurance training for competitions and I guess that helped a lot. I was prepared for Samsara by default." In the following two days she linked the sequences before the send-go, where she manoeuvred flawlessly to the top without any issue. The impossible was suddenly made possible.
"I was in total surprise. My mind was blank, actually," Siddhi laughs as she tries to remember her feelings on sending the classic. "All I remember is that I did not think I accomplished anything at that moment. It was after the news was released that I realised the magnitude of the feat."
The significance was that a woman had set new rules of possibility; it takes only one person and a little bit of courage to see the probability in the improbable. This led to many other women becoming inspired.
Prateeksha Arun (22), another competition climber with aspirations of international medals, thought of facing the Samsara in 2019. Being a daughter of a climber from the '90s, she was not oblivious to the sport. However, climbing was not her initial choice. "I was disconnected from the sport when we relocated to the US, so I took up gymnastics. Once we moved back to India, gymnastics wasn't an option due to lack of infrastructure. My dad suggested I try climbing. I did and I haven't looked back since," says Prateeksha.
Due to her never-give-up spirit, Prateeksha is the Women's National Lead Champion for four years in a row. She also participated in the Navi Mumbai World Cup in 2017 and various World Championships. "She is a highly driven athlete. After she has set her goal she will keep going until her body drops dead," Shivalinga M says, an international medal-winner in speed climbing in 2008 at the World Trex Games and Prateeksha's coach of ten years.
"I am so focused on the competitions I never really climbed outdoors. After 2016 I went to Badami in 2019. During that trip one of my friends was working on Samsara and I just came along. The lower section has powerful, technical movements which I really enjoyed. Surprisingly, I did all the moves on my first attempt. That is when Shiva gave me the idea of ticking Samsara. I also remembered speaking to Siddhi after she sent the route. She had encouraged me. It gave me more motivation that I could do it," Prateeksha remembers.
Even after setting her heart on the project, Prateeksha was not able to train specifically for the climb. Not long afterwards, she injured her shoulder and underwent a complete break of three months for recovery. The immediate goal after recovery was to prepare for the Nationals and other competitions. It was only in January 2020 that she thought she should go back to her dream climb.
"I knew she lacked endurance. We did routines to work on her weaknesses. When we were confident we returned to Badami," Shiva adds. During her second trip, the process of falling off the end continued. "She would fall right from the top move and she would come down crying. Being a coach I knew she had potential. It was only a matter of finding the right moment, I knew she would send soon."
Right at the last tick of the clock before she had to leave for Bangalore, Prateeksha clipped the anchor on 22 January 2020. "I was like 'Thank God!' I was not ready to go through the despair of going back home without succeeding. It was a moment of satisfaction. Looking back, it mostly reminds me of the tears, but also the fact that I didn't give up after so many failed attempts. I'm proud of that," she says.
Femininity and societal expectations can not only impact women's perceptions of our own physical strength, but they can also profoundly influence our life choices as we age and get married. To many women, it can seem impossible to pursue a personal goal other than a job or family after a certain age. To prove herself otherwise, Gowri challenged herself to complete Samsara before she turned 30.
Gowri Varanashi (29) discovered climbing while guiding people in the Amazon rainforest in Peru. A friend saw her climbing trees and recognised the rock climber within her. Nine years have since passed, and Gowri has never let anything stop her. Along with wilderness programs, she also runs Climb Like a Woman (CLAW), a climbing instruction initiative for women.
"I always thought Samsara was a beautiful, long and exposed line with amazing views. After finishing French Indian Masala (7b+) in 2017, I was tempted to see if I could project any harder. Samsara was a natural choice. I was curious to know if I could complete an 8a before I turn 30," Gowri says.
She began preparing in the US, which was halted by the unpredictable COVID-19 pandemic, but she refused to give up and post-lockdown, she resumed training under Shiva (Prateeksha's coach). "After Prateeksha, I knew what the route demanded. It was then easy to guide Gowri. She is an excellent athlete. She is careful of not overdoing it to avoid injuries. She is very much aware of the age factor, but never lets that stand in the way of her goals. She is the crimp queen. Her problem was endurance and fear of falls," Shiva explains.
"I was terrified of falls. I took around 30 falls of various types on lead walls to overcome that," Gowri adds. "Shiva had included this purposefully in my training plan." All of the practice sessions and new-found mental toughness took her straight to the anchor on 28 December. "I clipped and burst out crying. I cried out loud for minutes - I was thrilled. My whole life just played out in front of me. There were a series of hurdles back-to-back until the last minute I left for Badami. The pandemic was one, then I had pulley pain, then I injured my knees in a bike accident and there were various other things going on in my life. Many times I thought I would lose my mind. But training for Samsara kept me sane," Gowri explains.
Facing the Samsara of life and climbing, these women have paved the path into the 8th grade and beyond. They raised the bar of climbing in India, opening the door to future possibilities.
They are now encouraging other women to fight their inner Samsara. "Climbing is a fun sport to be in. There is no weight category or age category for climbing outdoors. It is crucial that more young girls try to climb hard. Girls need female role models whom they can relate to. The future is brighter for women."