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Op-Ed

Aug 21, 2018

India’s Lost History – Part 1. Indians are Embracing Mountain Sports, But There is a Big Problem with #FakeNews

India's Instagram generation is finally getting outdoors - but has a deep-rooted problem acknowledging India's long-established climbing history, and those who came before them.

The Outdoor Journal is proud to present the first in a series of articles by Siddharth Chattopadhyay, that will rediscover India’s Mountaineering History. With interviews and contributions from many generations, who have contributed to India’s rich outdoor legacy across the country.

Technology is increasingly affecting and altering our lives faster than we ever imagined. It has not only made our lives easier and knowledge more accessible, but it has uniformly altered the social fabric of our modern society. Of all the generations so far, as some may say and agree, millennials seem to have gained the most from its use. The gain, though obvious, calls for a dialogue on how it may influence a culture built around telling untruths.

Of all the generations so far, millennials seem to have gained the most from the access to information brought on by 21st century technology. This so-called gain calls for a dialogue on how it may influence a culture built around telling untruths.

Unlike the inevitable generational gap, there appears to be a disconnect between the older and current generation of our times that is more subtle than you might think. The disconnect possibly emerges from a generation that stresses on baseless and often trivial claims to fame rather than the actual perceived values of their actions.

It is very self-centered and almost presumptuous of millennials to adopt technology and use it as a means to monopolize their contribution to the outdoor community. This not only reflects on their ignorance but also brings to notice a kind of ignorance that seems intended. Essentially, what this means is that when you work under the premise that all who came before you simply don’t exist, then it becomes a serious cause for concern. Under such a construct, if it wasn’t recorded and posted to Instagram, then it didn’t happen. And the first ascent or descent or flag planted on a summit belongs to the one who social media-ed or Instagrammed it first, rather than the generation which might have done all of that, and possibly even more without ever publishing it on the Internet. “Climbing was never a competitive sport, but now there is so much pressure to find some way to be the first,” said Billi Bierling: a German Journalist and climber now managing the Himalayan Database.

A screengrab from a 4Play Facebook share about the first North Face ascent of CB 13. Note the copy that the video was shared with; they mistook the north ridge with the North Face. North Ridge has been climbed before.

You can read The Psychology of Summiting Everest by Billi Bierling on OutdoorJournal.com.

When Apoorva, the founder, and editor in chief of The Outdoor Journal, first spoke to me about this subject, I remember being quiet for some time, lost in thought. I guess I wasn’t sure about where I’d start. Although, what concerned me the most was the foundation upon which I’d build the narrative. When I did begin my research, I came across overwhelming evidence that not only peeled off the disingenuous nature of Outdoor Journalism in our country but so much more. One of the most distasteful findings surrounded the indefatigable effort funnelled into branding of the heroic “first ascent” of a frozen waterfall in India. Mountain Dew India, one of the biggest adventure sport sponsors, had just published a video on their youtube channel titled: “Mountain Dew Real Heroes presents The Fall – India’s First Frozen Waterfall Ascent”. It was April 22, 2016. The video has since garnered more than 2 million views. There were other media channels that soon followed suit. “Their goal? To attempt the first ever ascent of a frozen waterfall in India,” said YOURSTORY. Another title from a different media outlet read: “These Brave Mountaineers Completed India’s First Ever Frozen Waterfall Climb. Bow Down!.”

This was nowhere near the first time someone climbed a frozen waterfall in India.

The really strange thing – this was nowhere near the first time someone climbed a frozen waterfall in India. Mountaineers have been climbing frozen water ever since front-point crampons were invented in 1933! The 1938 ascent of the Eiger’s fearsome North Face in Switzerland actually has a section called… wait for it… the Waterfall.

Encountering a section of a frozen waterfall on a massive mountain is generally par for the course – you only have to spend a few hours perusing entries in the American Alpine Journal to read all about Micah Dash and Johnny Copp’s epic ascents in the Zanskar region to understand that they were climbing rock, snow, crumbly shale, epic granite and frozen waterfalls as they reached the summit of Shafat Fortress in 2007.



Even if we are to talk about ice-climbing as a separate activity, akin to sport climbing or cragging or something similar to the Ouray Ice Festival in Colorado, the “first ever” recorded ascent of a frozen Indian ice/waterfall could have been in Sikkim in 2004. The team consisted of  Adam George, Philippe Wheelock and Richard Durnan, all from Colorado along with Carlene Grant from Canada, Kelsang Phuntsok and Tashi Sherpa from Sikkim and Andreas Prammer from Austria (Durnan, R. Sikkim. The American Alpine Journal. 2004. 384)

while it could be the most competitive space to get introduced to, it is built around humility

The thing about this community, as I have learned over time, is that while it could be the most competitive space to get introduced to, it is built around humility. And yet some of our present-day cultural icons have me convinced that it’s the mountains we climb and not ourselves. I remember one such conversation with a person whose preoccupation with becoming a known alpinist belied his earnestness. Now, this doesn’t mean that we aren’t pushing the envelope, what it means instead is that there’s a lack of maturity. It feels as though there’s an underlying competitiveness in our pursuit; a kind of complexity that arises from a complacent attitude of “me-knowing-more-than-you-do”. Isn’t climbing a selfless act or as Karn puts it: “an exercise in the destruction of ego?”

Over time, I realised that I couldn’t just single-handedly hold technology accountable, though it does add to the gimmick. I also realised that it is almost impossible to sustain a culture when it doesn’t have a strong footing, in which case the community can only thrive so much. So I visited The Prow area in Dhauj while climbing with a friend of mine, Prerna Dangi, a young and accomplished female Indian climber and mountaineer. It was my first time top-roping outside. I specifically remember the rack Prerna pulled out of her bag. As soon as I had the harness on I tied my first figure-of-eight knot. My gaze then shifted to this green multipurpose belaying-rappel device that felt unusually lighter. Although what impressed me the most was this nut tool meant for pulling cams or nuts out.  

While nearing Dhauj, possibly one of the best trad crags in the world, the outcrops made themselves visible from far away. It seemed like a climber’s paradise. As soon as I set my foot on the holy Dhauj soil, I became wary of the late climbing scene from the 80s. There is an undervalued guidebook that Prerna spoke of – compiled and written by Mohit Oberoi, a 46 year old doyen of rock, who has spent a lifetime climbing all across India, with a list of alluring crags in and around Delhi. When I learned about the book I bought it right away. I couldn’t have been more appreciative of the effort and work that went into bringing this record together. It just seemed so well-organized especially for a country that is yet to understand the value of institutional memory. Upon leafing through, l came across several routes with monikers such as “Burra Sahib” and “Hysteria with a Sten gun,” laid out with appropriate grades and caution. It gave me the impression that some of these folks were more active than I’d thought. Shortly after, I caught myself reflecting on what it must have been  like to be climbing back in the 80s – the heartiness of the community and culture around it.

This series is going to be a diary of my learnings as I rediscover India’s seemingly lost outdoor history, as an exercise in honest journalism, with research and interviews conducted with stalwarts across generations of the Indian outdoors. They will include Captain Kohli, known for leading an Everest expedition in 1965, which put 9 men on the summit; Mandip Singh Soin, a Mountaineer, Explorer and a Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society; Mohit Oberoi, an accomplished Climber and Triathlete; Punit Mehta, another accomplished climber and Harish Kapadia, a distinguished Mountaineer and editor of the Himalayan Journal. I hope to inspire our readers to dig into their own histories and that of their passions to help “rediscover” lost heroes.

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Athletes & Explorers

Dec 13, 2018

Steph Davis: Dreaming of Flying

What drives Steph, to free solo a mountain with nothing but her hands and feet, before base jumping? “Bravery is not caused by the absence of fear."

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WRITTEN BY

The Outdoor Journal

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In the coming days the Outdoor Journal will release an exclusive interview with Steph Davis, follow us via our social networks and stay tuned for more.

Do you have to be fearless to jump off a mountain? Meeting Steph Davis, you quickly realise: no, fearlessness is not what it takes. It’s not the search for thrills that drives her. She’s Mercedes travelled to Moab, Utah to find out what does – and to talk to Steph Davis about what it takes to climb the most challenging peaks and plunge from the highest mountaintops.

Steph Davis, getting ready to jump. Photo by Jan Vincent Kleine

At noon, when the sun is at its highest point above the deserts of southeastern Utah and when every stone cliff casts a sharp shadow, you get a sense of how harsh this area can be. Despite Utah’s barrenness, Steph loves the orange-gold landscape with its towers and elegantly curved arches of sandstone. But Steph is not here because of the natural spectacle. Here, in this area which is as beautiful as it is inhospitable, she can pursue her greatest passion: free solo climbing and BASE jumping.

Castleton Tower… Look closely. Photo by Jan Vincent Kleine

Today, Steph wants to take us to Castleton Tower. We travel on gravel roads that are hardly recognizable, right into the middle of the desert. Gnarled bushes and conifers grow along what might be the side of the road. Other than that, the surrounding landscape lives up to its name: it is deserted. Steph loves the remoteness of the area. “One of my favourite places is a small octagonal cabin in the desert that I designed and built together with some of my closest friends. It’s not big and doesn’t have many amenities but it has everything you need: a bed, a bathroom, a small kitchenette … and eight windows allowing me to take in nature around me. That’s pretty much all I need.” Steph Davis cherishes the simple things. She has found her place, and she doesn’t let go.

No ropes, no safety net. Photo by Jan Vincent Kleine

Castleton Tower is home turf for Steph. She has climbed the iconic red sandstone tower so many times she’s lost count. The iconic 120-metre obelisk on top of a 300-metre cone is popular among rock climbers as well as with BASE jumpers. Its isolated position makes it a perfect plunging point and it can easily be summited with little equipment – at least for experienced climbers like Steph Davis.

“It would be reckless not to be afraid. But I don’t have to be paralysed by fear.”

Steph is a free solo climber, which means she relies on her hands and feet only – not on ropes, hooks or harnesses. She loves to free solo, using only what’s absolutely necessary. She squeezes her hands into the tiniest cracks in the stone and her feet find support on the smallest outcroppings, where others would see only a smooth surface. Steph climbs walls that might be 100 metres tall – sometimes rising up 900 metres – with nothing below her but thin air and the ground far below. She knows that any mistake while climbing can be fatal.

Flying. Photo by Jan Vincent Kleine

The possibility of falling accompanies Steph whenever she climbs. Is she afraid? “Of course – it would be reckless not to be. But I don’t have to be paralysed by fear.” She has learned to transform it into power, prudence, and strength. “It’s up to us to stay in control.”

“You have to learn to face your fears and accept them for what they are.”

That’s what, according to her, free soloing and BASE jumping are all about: to be in control and to trust in one’s abilities. “It’s not about showing off how brave I am. It’s about trusting myself to be good enough not to fall. It takes a lot of strength, both physical and mental. You have to learn to face your fears and accept them for what they are.”

Touchdown. Photo by Jan Vincent Kleine

Steph Davis likes to laugh and she does so a lot. She chooses her words with care, and she doesn’t rush. Why would she? There’s no point in rushing when you’re hanging on a vertical wall, with nothing but your hands and feet. Just like climbing, she prefers to approach things carefully and analytically. That’s how she got as far as she did. “I didn’t grow up as an athlete, and started climbing when I was 18,” she smiles, shrugging. But her work ethic is meticulous and she knows how to improve herself. Whenever she prepares for an ascent, she does so for months, practising each section over and over again – on the wall and in her head – until she has internalised it all. She does the same before a BASE jump and practices the exact moves in her head until she knows the movement is consummate.

Steph loves the orange-gold landscape with its towers and elegantly curved arches of sandstone. Photo by Jan Vincent Kleine

“Bravery is not caused by the absence of fear.”

Would Steph consider herself brave? She says that she wouldn’t know how to answer that, you can see the small wrinkles around Steph’s eyes that always appear whenever she laughs. In any case, she doesn’t consider herself to be exceptional. “I’m not a heroine just because I jump off mountaintops,” Steph says she has weaknesses just like everyone else. But she might overcome them a little better than most of us do, just as she has learned to work with fear. “Bravery is not caused by the absence of fear. It is brave to accept fear for what it is, as a companion that you should sometimes listen to, but one you shouldn’t be obedient to.”

She slows the car down. We have reached Castleton Tower. It rises majestically in front of us while the sun has left its zenith. If Steph started walking now, she’d reach the top at the moment the sun went down, bathing the surrounding area in a golden light. She takes her shoes and the little parachute; all she needs today. Then she smiles again, says “see you in a bit”, and starts walking. Not fast, not hastily, but without hesitation.

All photos by Jan Vincent Kleine

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