A competition's solo climb

| Updated on May 10, 2012 Published on May 10, 2012

Moving spirit: Ponti Hardiyanto of Indonesia who won the men’s final of the 2012 edition of Girivihar’s climbing competition, in action

Abhijit Burman

Bong, what's happening?” the policeman asked, exasperated. It was late January, well past midnight and while the music system at the small venue housing a hundred or so climbing aficionados had long died in tune with prevailing law, somebody staying nearby had complained against the clapping and cheering. The big Bengali appealed to his Marathi friends, “Please, baat kar na, yaar.” Belapur has known its climbing crazies for years. And even the crazies knew that climbing at 1 a.m. was crazy. It was the men's final. “Ten minutes more, that's all,” Bong said. Mangesh nodded and went to mollify the cops.

Erstwhile rock climber, still trekker-mountaineer-cyclist and – most important – technician at large, Abhijit Burman aka Bong has been the soul of a climbing competition taking place in Navi Mumbai for the last nine years.

In late 2003, in his tiny apartment choked by climbing gear and small climbing wall, Burman, who works at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), shared his idea for an annual open climbing competition. Those days, there was no big event in Indian climbing that compared to overseas climbing festivals, which brought together the community. Fellow club members put up the prize money and in January 2003, the first edition of Girivihar's climbing competition got off to an enthusiastic start.

Girivihar is Mumbai's oldest mountaineering club. Within a few years, the competition attracted young climbers from Mumbai, Pune, Bangalore, Davangere, Bikaner, Delhi, Kolkata, Darjeeling and the North-Eastern states. It coincided with a time when Mumbai saw a group of young climbers led by Vaibhav Mehta come to the fore. Given to full time-climbing, they soon became the competition's route-setters and manpower.

The whole effort smacks of home-grown enterprise. Organising it is still, as one senior club member put it, an annual “fire-fight”. Once called India's biggest open climbing competition (now there are more), the Belapur event is a tiny affair, for climbing itself is small in India. Unable to afford artificial climbing walls, the BARC technician engaged carpenters to make temporary ones. Critics were several. Over time, the walls – the Girivihar competition focuses on bouldering - improved and the climbing contagion spread.

Rules for judging followed international norms. On an average 50-60 participants turned up for the competition; in 2011 it touched 116. They compete in men's, women's, boys and girls categories. There is also a small component of competing on natural rock at crags on nearby hills progressively lost to that classic Mumbai situation - slum encroachment.

Along the way foreign climbers started dropping by – among them, a former world champion; members of the Iranian national climbing team and in 2012, current and former national team members of Singapore and Indonesia. India's top climbers participated, albeit erratically thanks to the politics of the domestic climbing circuit. Where prize money and funds once came from club and well wishers, sponsors stepped in - names from India's outdoor industry, such as AVI Industries, Wildcraft, Adventure 18 and Rocksport, mainstream companies such as L&T, Saraswat Bank and Hindustan Unilever and the agency which built Navi Mumbai - CIDCO. Internationally known climbing gear manufacturers - Petzl and Beal - provided money and equipment. The year the former world champion Alex Chabot arrived, the French embassy expressed interest. In contrast to all this home-grown activity in Belapur, neither Navi Mumbai nor Mumbai has a climbing wall of international standards.

Some years ago, climbing's apex body worldwide, UIAA, had a special initiative for youth. A senior UIAA functionary was in Mumbai for a lecture and Girivihar members met him to apprise him of the competition. Within weeks the Belapur competition was shortlisted for likely inclusion in UIAA's calendar. Indian administrators, overseeing national competitions for selecting the best, objected to a local climbing competition acquiring such a profile and interacting directly with international bodies. That year, although the competition ran as planned, there was a pall of gloom at the organisers' because the international recognition denied had been despite proven enterprise at Belapur. To its credit, the competition was back the next year and the year after that, each time hosting young, happy climbers from around the country and some from overseas.

Next year, 2013, is a big year for the competition because that marks its first decade. Mehta said Burman would like an invitational Asia Cup. For this official recognition may help. It has two advantages. First, it would help secure sponsors. Funding is tough and every year, the competition typically runs a deficit with individuals bridging the gap contributing their own money. This year, Mangesh Takarkhede, who had been a winner at the competition in its initial years and now runs his own adventure services company, invested with Burman in the steel structure for building the competition's walls. That checks one annually recurring cost. Second, recognition by the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF) would likely fetch overseas participants travel concessions and such from their respective climbing bodies.

Unfortunately, Indian authorities haven't yielded. Some climbers speculate that the authorities are averse to foreign climbers participating in the competition; hence the cold shoulder. If so, it would be well to remember that young Indian climbers survey the Internet and read climbing magazines to track a sport which acknowledges no here and there.

Climbers from many countries meet at Indian climbing hotspots such as Hampi and Badami. From such camaraderie is born open competitions like Girivihar's. “Maybe it's time we called a spade a spade,” Franco Linhares, former president of the club and still climbing in his sixties, said of the official attitude. On their part, the organisers may have to streamline their act to something more systematic, disciplined and decentralised.

Burman's ten minutes were ticking. “Tomorrow's headline: Competition outside, organiser inside” – someone joked pulling his leg. Traditionally, the liveliest team at the competition has been Pune's youngsters. With only hours now separating the men's final on artificial wall from a new morning of competition at Belapur's natural crags, one of the seniors accompanying the team said, “Bong, the kids don't want to go to their rooms. They are saying, let's go straight to the crags and sleep there.” Given the policemen around, the laughter was stifled into a mix of giggles and hushes. It was quintessential climbing community.

(The writer is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

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Published on May 10, 2012
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