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Adventurers & Explorers

Aug 24, 2018

Seven Female Indian Climbers Who Deserve Your Attention

A growing number of young female Indian climbers could soon take the world by storm.

WRITTEN BY

Jahnvi Pananchikal

Female Indian climbers, a growing demographic, will one day be known by many.

Adventure sports are rarely seen or heard of in mainstream news in India, unless we win a gold or a silver at a World Championship. Climbing as a subset of that goes completely unnoticed. When it’s talked about, it’s mainly as a male sport, even globally. We know very little on female Indian climbers, who’re equally winning medals and traveling the world for the love of this sport.

She battled against cancer but that didn’t stop her.

Climbing has seen a transition from requiring physical strength to needing more of logical thinking. When climbing a wall or a rock, one has to be tactical and efficient. In this light, it isn’t hard to imagine that such a sport can be enjoyed and perfected by anyone, man or woman. That’s how some Indian girls gained confidence to try climbing, and led the way for others to take up the sport. A few of them had support systems, and others had to battle it out with their families and the social context. But none of them gave up on climbing.

Here are some female Indian climbing champions who love what they do and are spread across India from J&K all the way down to Karnataka.

Shivani Charak, J&K

Photo: Shivani

17-year-old Shivani comes from a humble background of Dharmal, Jammu where she studied at a local government school in Domana. At the beginning of her sports career, she battled against cancer but that didn’t stop her from going after her childhood dream of becoming a professional climber. She received tremendous support from parents, her coach at Shining Star Academy, and the local school principal and staff members. Such a strong support system did wonders for her climbing journey.  IMF nominated her for national competitions and she brought a handful of gold, silver, and bronze medals for the state. Later, she went to Italy, Switzerland, and Slovenia to train for the World Cup and was ranked 7th in the championship. She also participated in Asia Cup, bagged 11th rank in bouldering, and was recognized as a national champion in speed climbing. This is no small feat for a young girl from Jammu who battled cancer.

Shivpreet Pannu, Amritsar

Photo: Shivpreet

Shivpreet won her first national bronze medal at the age of 11. Since then, it’s been seven years of hardcore climbing that got her 37 medals in total. That’s not bad for someone whose hometown lacks the ecosystem for climbing. Shivpreet, however, was smart enough to turn challenge into opportunity, and began traveling alone to Delhi for training on a regular basis. Her gratitude goes out to Adarsh Singh, a fellow climber, who inspires her with his humility and incredible support. In this journey, Shivpreet has been a national speed climbing champion for the last three years, and has participated in Asian Youth Championship, Asian Cup, and Asian Games. In 2014, she broke her wrist but that didn’t stop her from getting back on the wall a year later. She has been determined and perseverant in this ride, and it shows.

Vrinda Bhageria, New Delhi

Photo: Pankaj Singh

For Vrinda, climbing is a way of life. She definitely didn’t have the easiest time as someone who has to fight the idea of body image, having felt overweight as a child. Vrinda picked up climbing and realized how it positively changed her perception, even though it was hard initially. Vrinda, now 28 years old, has been climbing for seven years and has experienced rocks in Leh and Karnataka in India and also those in foreign lands including Italy, Germany, Greece, Thailand, Bulgaria, and South Africa. For her, climbing is about overcoming challenges, big or small. It is also a way to meet people who climb just for the love of it. It inspired her to start Boulder Box, a bouldering centre in New Delhi, which promotes the idea of movement in climbing, irrespective of gender, age, or physical ability. India definitely needs a stronger ecosystem with accessible avenues, and Vrinda is on her way to make that real.

You can follow Vrinda here.

Shreya Nankar, Pune

Photo: Shreya Nankar

Shreya was 13 when she bagged one of the four medals won at the Asian Youth Championship. She is 16 years old now, and for her, five years of climbing has been a significantly fulfilling journey. When she won a silver medal at the age of 11, she knew that she wanted to continue the sport. A permanent member of the Indian Sports Climbing Team, Shreya spends her day studying and climbing to make sure she doesn’t compromise one or the other. Moreover, everyone is happy so she can continue climbing without any complaints from others. Her stringent routine paid off and in 2016, IMF awarded her as the Best Female Athlete of the Year. With gold and silver and bronze medals at several Zonal, National, and International competitions, Shreya is certain to make climbing an important part of her future.

Sneha Sanjay Deogharkar, Mumbai

Photo: Omkar Gawde

Sneha wanted to spend her evenings after work in the climbing gym, but her parents wanted her to get married.

Sneha started climbing for fitness at the age of 26. Usually, for an Indian girl, that’s the age to get “settled.” Her parents initially discouraged her from pursuing this sport and considered it dangerous. They thought it was time for her to get married. Sneha, however, wanted to spend her evenings after work in the climbing gym. She finally chose the sport and has been climbing for four years now. Ranjit Shinde, a national champion, recognized her efforts and supported her to take it seriously. Then she won 3rd rank in Zonal Bouldering Competition (West Zone) and 6th rank in IMF’s National Sport Climbing Championship Competition in Bangalore in 2016. Finally, it didn’t turn out to be such a bad choice for Sneha. She loves the outdoors and enjoys boulders in Hampi, Badami and Manali. After years of practice, she has rough hands, callused fingers, big muscles, and bunion toes, but none of that matters because climbing makes her happy. When marriage does happen for her, it’s anyway a great way for Sneha to see if her partner is a good fit!

Siddhi Shekhar Manerikar, Mumbai

Photo: Siddhi

“She is a girl, why would you let her go climbing and travel alone?”

When Siddhi went climbing, neighbors would discourage her mother from sending her alone. “She is a girl, why would you let her go climbing and travel alone?” they would say. But Siddhi’s mother didn’t care for that, and simply supported her throughout her climbing career. Initially, Siddhi had to explain climbing to others, given the lack of awareness. But as she continued to excel in the sport, people’s interest grew as they gained more knowledge about climbing. She began in 2010, and this 22-year old has already played a total of 16 Zonal and National championships, along with 6 International championships including 2 World Cups. In 2017, she was included in the world ranking and will participate in Asian Games in 2018 and the Olympics in 2020. Siddhi is a girl climber and totally okay to travel the world!

Prateeksha Arun, Bangalore

Photo: Prateeksha Arun

Prateeksha began training a lot harder after competing in World Cup 2017. She saw how a team of national champions was nowhere close to the standards of competitors from other countries in the championship. She feels that India has great climbers but they are forced to cope with poor infrastructure. But it also means that they have to keep trying harder to set new standards and transform culture. Her mom’s go-getter attitude means a lot to Prateeksha and she feels fortunate to have parents who support her choices. Many of her friends’ parents do not encourage their children to pursue climbing as a serious option. May be the kids should take out their parents for climbing, just so they can experience how much fun it can be. Prateeksha’s father is a climber too, and that surely worked out well for her. She is 19 and has been climbing for ten years. She has won several national medals and is currently the National Champion in Bouldering. Soon, she will be on her way to Austria to compete in the World Championship in September.

You can follow Prateeksha here.

Many thanks to Inspire Crew for introductions to these amazing female Indian climbers! Inspire Crew is an evolving platform for women in extreme and adventure sports in India.

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Features

Feb 20, 2019

The Death Zone

World champion free-diver Pierre Frolla sinks without air to depths unreachable by most scuba divers. One day he nearly didn't make it back to the surface.

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WRITTEN BY

Pierre Frolla

This story originally featured in print, in the fall 2015 issue of The Outdoor Journal

Deep down under the sea, so far away from where you live, I have been through the last seconds of my life.

In 2005 or 2006 (oddly I don’t remember), I had the worst accident of my freediving career. After being world champion in variable weight apnea with a dive at 123 metres, where I used a weighted sled for descent and returned to the surface by pulling myself along a line and using my fins, I was training to go deeper.

“No matter what happens to you, you’re stuck underwater. There’s nowhere else to go.”

In my sport, risks are quite important. Imagine you’re running a 400-m race. You start way too fast, and after a few hundred meters you’re out of breath and you just can’t go anymore. What do you do? You just stop, walk a bit and slowly catch your breath again. When you’re free diving, no matter what happens to you, you’re stuck underwater. There’s nowhere else to go.

The basis of my sport is quite simple. Going beyond 100 meters is mythic. Only a few hardcore specialists, including the “no limit” guys can go beyond that. Athletes use a weighted sled to dive down and an inflatable bag to return to the surface. This means that the free diver reduces his energy loss to the max, and that’s exactly why he is able to go so deep. The world record is held by Austrian Herbert Nitsch: 249.5 metres on June 6, 2012, in Santorini, Greece. The problem is that at those depths, water pressure is unbelievable! At 100 m, for example, the pressure is about 11 kg per square centimeter of your skin. Consequently, the volume of air inside the human body is pressured and reduced too. Take an empty but sealed plastic bottle: If you get to this kind of depth, it’ll greatly deform. That plastic bottle is a metaphor for your body. This also means that if water manages to seep somewhere inside you through your mouth or nose, it will do so with such force that it’ll destroy everything in its path. Drowning is inevitable, and no Apneist can be saved in such case, even if experienced help quickly intervenes.

At great depths, nitrogen becomes narcotic and leads to what is called nitrogen narcosis. This kind of intoxication from staying in great depths for too long is the same as when you drink too much. In other words, you lose total control of your body and mind, and you become unaware of potential dangers. Acting like that underwater can kill you, as the slightest mistake will have incredible consequences. In my personal training, I mix apnea in variable weight and other constant weight dives, where I dive only with the force of my arms and legs.

Today, my team and I decide to put the weight to 118 m. I know I can go down 115 m, but we want to push a little, as it’s part of training. Once down, I’ll have no choice but to go back on my own. I also know there will be a small parachute and an oxygen tank hooked to the sled, but neither will be for me. The bottle empties very slowly and inflates the balloon. Both serve only to return equipment back to the surface. It’s easier for us to work like that rather than starting a counterweight system.

If I want to live, I have only four seconds to start my ascent. But I am stunned and unable to move. I think about my team: What will they do when they go down to find me, lifeless and filled with water?

I feel my legs sinking knee-deep in a soft, thick and viscous material.

I begin my descent. I pass my midterm diver. Very soon, it gets dark. I do not have glasses because they would serve me for nothing in this environment. So I stand, with my eyes closed. I’m relaxed and sinking slowly in the water like I’m used to. I feel the pressure now, but I also suddenly feel the sledge slowing. Then it stops, softly. Usually it stops dead. When I realize that something is wrong, I feel my legs sinking knee-deep in a soft, thick and viscous material. It is almost as if moving sands are closing in on me at 112 meters below the surface. It is actually a mixture of clay and silt, a mound a few meters higher than the sonar onboard the boat. It wasn’t identified even though it stood in the stack axis of the descent of my sledge. It’s nobody’s fault; sonar is not so precise.

In no time, I understand what’s happening to me. I’m stuck. I cannot get my feet outside the box, and I know there’s no exit door. I simply do not have enough oxygen to both work my way out of this with strength and go up as I have expected, swimming, with my hands and fins. If I want to live, I have only four seconds to start my ascent. But I am stopped, stunned and unable to move. I think about my team: What will they do when they go down to find me, lifeless and filled with water? I’m dying; that’s it. Today is the day. In 15 seconds, I will have consumed all the remaining air I was keeping for my ascent. I am also a few seconds away from being caught by nitrogen narcosis. I will go crazy right before dying.

“Did I become a vegetable?”

Suddenly, I have an idea. The parachute. Yes! I trigger the opening of the small air valve, which then rushes into the parachute. It’s working but it’s slow and long. So I wait, very still, with my eyes closed. I have no other choice. I try to relax. Everything at 112 m is multiplied by 10. One consumed oxygen molecule at the surface is equal to 10 or 12 molecules consumed at that kind of depth. One second is equivalent to 10 seconds. Time and life are both very cruel at the bottom of an ocean. I am now barely conscious. Finally, I remember feeling the chute tearing me away from my trap like a champagne cork. The ascent back to the surface, back to life, is way too long. When I reach the surface, I have strangely not entirely lost consciousness, but my body no longer responds to my brain. Did I become a vegetable? My team, frightened, retrieves and saves me. If I had not been so well-trained, I would not have survived this scary adventure. Instead of the planned 2 minutes and 40 seconds that I went down under water for, I stayed 3 minutes and 50 seconds. In the boat, I gradually recover and quickly regain all my abilities.

Pierre Frolla reascending to the surface, following the guideline with the sled and parachute attached to it.

A few years later, I’m on a movie set doing 60-m free diving over and over all day long, and an air bubble is created in my brain on one of these repetitive dives. But instead of being redirected into my lungs, it remains stuck in my head. When ascending, inevitably, this tiny compressed air bubble suddenly decompresses and its size gets multiplied by six. I immediately lose consciousness. Later, I wake up in a hyperbaric chamber. I stay there for eight and a half hours. But when I wake up in that box, I cannot feel my body. I’m unable to move. For hours, I do not know if I will stay quadriplegic or not. This awakening in the box is one of my worst-ever memories of free diving. I do not understand what is happening to me. It takes me 30 minutes to remember that I was free diving and to deduce that I certainly had a bad accident.

Apnea is an extreme sport. I’ll remember it always. Yesterday I dived to 113 meters. I’ll do it again tomorrow.

Photos by Franck Seguin

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