Angus Kille reflects on his vagabond days in Hampi, India, where a lump of granite taught him more than he bargained for...
It was the only boulder problem in Hampi I could name before flying to India for the first time. There was a blur of other names that hadn't caught my curiosity, but 'The Middle Way', with its position on the cover of Chris Sharma's Pilgrimage video, was like the front page of my imagination.
Hampi was like the promised land, untouched boulders for as far as you could see and probably quite a lot further; you could immerse yourself there and forget about the outside world, which is what I did. And India tasted great; there were thalis, dosas, masalas, momos and plenty of banana lassis and chai. And then there was all of the yoga, freethinking, weird people, eastern philosophy, wonderful people, alternative ideas, recreational drugs and 'energy'.
Initially I only visited The Middle Way as a little sightseeing trip to satisfy my curiosity, the perfect egg-shaped granite boulder perched on a platform as if to showcase its perfection. For some people this problem wouldn't seem so hard or impressive, but to me it was like a monument to difficulty. I hadn't bouldered 8A before and even as I approached this fierce, intimidating boulder, climbing it was inconceivable.
A razor blade in one hand and a sloping crimp in the other, compressed together with a poor smear under your foot in a vain attempt to leave the ground. You just think about how hard you can pull on those holds and then try, and fall. We took it in turns, enjoying the absurdity of it, how implausible it was to climb something we couldn't even start. It was fun, and ridiculous, and it tore the tips of my fingers but it was exciting to think of what other people were actually capable of. The more absurd it felt the more inspiring it was that someone could climb this.
I went again, the sixth or seventh attempt to leave the ground. I pulled myself close to the rock, that ancient, 2.4 billion-year-old granite, trying only to cling to its surface with so little to hold me there. With the one foot on the ground I pushed away and squeezed and squeezed as if I were only trying to squeeze and climbing were no longer the objective.
I managed to jump off the ground and land back there a moment later, but my squeezing and pulling had delayed my return to the ground by half a second, and for that slightly extended moment I was almost climbing. Well… not really, but it was enough. I had made progress; minuscule, almost imperceptible progress, but the door was open and I was already immersed in the fantasy of it.
By the end of that session I had succeeded in staying in the air long enough to be caught on camera using a particularly high shutter speed. I was pictured clinging to the convex belly of this granite egg as if gravity had forgotten its job. It was so brilliantly improbable, but there I was, my face contorted with strain, a laboured grimace and veins popping as if I were climbing 8A.
Weeks passed in Hampi along with a few bags of chalk, some holiday novels and half a roll of tape. Plus the odd day swimming in the lake, the occasional night frolicking under the full moon, a few motorbike-related mishaps, some gastro-intestinal upsets, sleepless sweats and days hiding from the sun behind my book.
And there were the days bolt-clipping in Badami, running from monkeys that occupied the cave temples, losing it at beach parties in Goa and getting lost on the road in between. The more you wander, the more of India you find; in sleeper trains, bazaars and street-food stalls, there are more castes, classes and religions in India than all of Europe; India's culture is as richly flavoured as its food. If I wasn't a stray climber I could have spent another life vagabonding this sub-continent, drifting into its many corners and emerging with a bigger picture of a much bigger world.
As the weeks went on, India soaked into me and I gave my sweat and my skin to its perfect boulders, and once a week I returned to The Middle Way like a ritual in failure. Except in every session I made a small gain, I latched an edge or swung for the side-pull and every session was a little progress.
After about eight weeks and as many sessions on the problem, I had worked my way around most of the other boulders on the Rishimuk Plateau and my progress on The Middle Way had come to a halt.
Two months seemed an awfully long time to be having fun in one place and I had the feeling I was becoming a Hampi overstay; so much sunshine and obsession that I'd forgotten to leave. Was I taking this obsession too far? It was never likely that I could do this problem and the idea that it was possible, which had started with simply holding myself off the ground, didn't seem like a valid reason to remain in this bouldering haven indefinitely.
Following some rest and a run of good form on the rocks, I had conserved enough energy and skin to warrant a good burn on the 'proj' and word had it that a strong team from Delhi would be padding it out for a session. So the scene was set: good timing, good spotters, pads and a whole team of psyche.
It was golden hour, the sun retreated into the haze that covered the horizon leaving cooler air and the faint smell of sweet chai and baked rock. Dragonflies danced around us as I tried to keep my nerves calm in the boulder's long shadow. This was sending hour.
So I warmed up and taped my fingers; tape on two tips and superglue on another. I tried not to draw any extra attention as I approached the boulder, climbed smoothly through the first, fiendishly powerful moves, left-right-left, and all too quickly I found myself lurching for a crucial dead-point crimp. I was surprised not to find myself falling and realised quickly that this was as far as I'd ever come, my fingers wrapped neatly around this crisp edge I'd never caught before. Clinging on desperately, trying not to let my focus or my fingers slip on moves I'd certainly underestimated, I pushed through leaving nothing in reserve.
I top-out and can't believe it. A setting Indian sun on this golden boulder and I'm on top of it, on top of the world. A triumphant and unashamed scream from me and an eruption of applause from below, I think even the chai wallah was cheering at me in my haze of disbelief.
I'm glad I have an obsession and I'm lucky it's climbing. I suppose my obsession could have been anything, but anything that allows you to push back that boundary of what 'impossible' means is worth the commitment.
Angus is an MIA Climbing Instructor based in North Wales.