The Hills Have Climbers - The Sport of Climbing Finds its Legs in India

A room with rock-climbing equipment adorning nearly every inch of the wall is what Ganesh Waddar wakes up to. It’s still dark outside but he doesn’t need the sun to light the way. He knows Badami like the back of his hand. Climbing gear in tow, he steps out to take in the relaxing sounds of the sleepy town. The humdrum hasn’t started just yet; not that it matters to him. By the time the town awakes, his nose will be pressed against a sandstone wall and his sights set on topping out one of the hundreds of climbs in Badami. No dogs, no hens, no pigs, no locomotives, no markets, no people. Just a few coffee-powered climbers screaming ‘Allez! Allez!’ each time Ganesh’s sinewy body makes a tough move look incredulously easy before clipping. A look of relief from Ganesh is followed by silence. “Next climb?” And on they go.

Encouraging shouts of “Allez!” accompany Manikandan too, albeit in a different setting. The sounds of hyperactive badminton, frisbee and football enthusiasts along with countless motor vehicles on the road adjoining the GETHNAA Wall at the Sree Kanteerava stadium in Bangalore keep him anxious for the most part of his climb. No sandstone and no calming sounds of tiny rivulets, crickets or wind funnelling through valleys. Just a chalk-smeared wall with slimy holds and all that noise. It’s a wonder he manages to keep his calm on overhangs or some of the ‘dynos’ he pulls off, each of which requires absolute focus.

The difference in setting is because while the one can’t think of another way of life, the other does it as a means to an end.

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The rustling of plastic covers doesn’t incite nearly as much of a reaction as they do when you’re in Badami. Monkeys rush at you from every direction as you stand to grieve the absence of promised hills. The derelict station isn’t exactly the sight you’d expect either. It’s charming but not ideal, particularly when you’ve been told Badami is a life-altering experience.

Pictures and stories stemming from the place seem to have let you down. But on the 15-minute drive towards town, you come to understand that those pictures and tales don’t do justice to the place. Badami is far beyond anyone's imagination.

With the famous cave-temples at our back, we ride towards town and arrive on dust-filled barely-tarred roads with a sizeable population of pigs roaming free. Pigs aren’t usually a good sign; but ask the many backpackers sliding off buses and sleep-walking towards multiple climbing destinations and they’ll say, the moment they see excited group of pigs line the streets with sewage water still dripping off them, it’s a sign that great climbs aren’t far ahead.

Sure enough, a 30-minute walk off the main road and you arrive at the base of some of the most beautiful sandstone structures on this side of the globe. What was once a seabed 3 billion years ago is now sun-kissed hills of red clay, glimmering fossils and more.

The regulars know their way around. Most of the routes including the paths to the Deluxe, Ganesh or the temple areas are quite straightforward. The climbs themselves: well, that’s a different ballgame. There are boulders and sport climbs for inexperienced but it’s the serious stuff that gets people travelling from half-way across the world to a relatively unknown location in north Karnataka. They weren’t wrong about the life-altering bit.

About the Writer

Having worked with Deccan Herald and Wisden India as a sports reporter for over a decade, Roshan Thyagarajan is now taking a breather as a freelance journalist. While basketball and cricket are sports he participates in on a professional level, rock climbing and alternate sports keep him occupied for most of the year.