The usual laws of physics don’t work at Avathi. The boulders keep getting smaller and their angle gets more slabby as you get closer. There have been many times when I get psyched looking at a crack line and run up to it, only to find a pathetic five-foot slab with a crack on it! So when I saw this face, which seemed to maintain its size as I hiked up toward it, I was intrigued. It was a massive boulder with a bunch of cracks running up it, and a huge cave right underneath! As soon as I spotted this line, I knew it was going to consume me, and I needed to get back with my rope and rack.
Stan the man
A few friends had told me about this climber from the UK who spotted and projected a hard trad line at Mahabs, my home crag. I got in touch with him and asked him if he was keen on projecting the line at Avathi with me and I told him that we might have to camp out in a cave. He was instantly psyched and told me that he had dirt-bagged out of caves in the famous forest of Font, and many other crags in the UK. So, I was expecting to meet this grumpy, old, hard trad-man, probably with a fake leg and a bunch of whipper stories and epics; constantly yapping about how awesome the E grading system is; a typical grit, and here, I meet this goofy, grinning, brown-haired kid, who’s just uber-psyched to be traveling and climbing. He did fit in the E grades stereotype though and always had interesting stories.
After surviving a series of epics in Bhongir (another time, another piece), we drove back to Bangalore, got dropped off at Avathi in the middle of the night, and we started hiking up in a random direction with our massive packs. We reached the cave at around two in the morning, stashed our bags and decided to crash in a plateau higher up.
- Wake up as the sun hits us.
- Play some good music.
- Get to the cave and eat the leftover cookies and drink some cold chai.
- Start trading burns on the project.
- Stan tries to convert me to the E-grading system.
- Climb till we can barely feel our fingers.
- Then tape them up and climb some more.
- Roll up and cry.
- Early noon, hike down and walk 3 km to refill water and grab some Idlis (a type of savoury rice cake), pack chaklis, biscuits and tea for lunch. Get the stares from every single person on the street and wonder if it is because Stan’s a foreigner, or because we look like hobos.
- Take at least four mandatory selfies with the locals, for which they demand and talk about how Stan should make a living out of this in India. Stan’s Selfie Shop – fifty rupees a selfie!
- Hike back up, have some chai and get back up on the line again.
- Share stories, epics and the usual belay banter.
- Climb till we wish we were like Tommy Caldwell, missing the index finger, just so that we don’t feel the pain.
- Hike back out late in the evening, hitchhike it to Nandi Upachar, charge our phones, play a card game called Lulaa, wash occasionally, fill up our bottles, stuff ourselves with gulab jamuns and hitchhike back.
- Walk back into the trail leading to Avathi, making sure no one is watching us and then quickly make our way up to the cave and crash.
The hardest move on the route involves locking off on a mono finger lock, getting a high step and making a semi-dynamic throw to another finger lock. In the first four days, I managed to stick the move once, after 250–300 attempts on that one move. I knew I had a chance to send the line now; I just had to rest the finger and execute the move again. I decided to take two rest days and Stan decided to try another couple of lines that he had spotted.
The Hitchhike Barter
Every day, we had to hitchhike out to Nandi Upachar for dinner, and then hitchhike back to the Avathi. The first evening, I stood there for 20 minutes trying to hitch a ride while the people walking past us kept staring at Stan, while some stopped and asked him to pose for a selfie. Not a single person even showed the slightest of interest to give us a ride.
After a while, I asked Stan to try and went to sit on the side of the road. Before I even sat down, a Maruti 800 pulled over! From the next day on, we decided that I should hide, while Stan stops a ride in seconds and I come out like a fucking creep. Every ride, we get asked the same set of questions, and then when they drop us, they ask for a selfie with Stan. This barter made life so much easier, and from the next day, we always managed to hitch a ride in seconds.
The Leopard that came for Chai
“this is my first line of defence against the leopard, biochemical warfare!”
Stan had just finished onsighting a new lichen-coated trad line, Biochemical Warfare, and we saw a couple of Spongebob-ish figures hiking up toward us. Gujju and Harsha had come bouldering that evening and they happened to spot us from the road. We had a chill session with them, moving quickly between boulders, constantly being amazed by Avathi’s night sky and Gujju, Sharma-ing between attempts, talking about the flow and being one with the rock.
After the session got over, Gujju hikes up a bit and goes, “Hey, you guys spotted this?” It was a half eaten dog’s head, probably the leftovers of a leopard’s kill! And it was a two-minute walk from our cave.
Before we crash that night, Stan removes his socks and goes, “this is my first line of defense against the leopard, biochemical warfare!” and passes out almost immediately. That night, I realised that when I’m in a state of panic, there’s this heightened sense of awareness, where I can listen to every tiny sound and differentiate it, but it becomes of no use, as my brain completely goes mental and I become dumber than a cane toad.
The next two nights were pretty much hell, as I kept hearing these feeble sounds and had nightmares of the leopard devising a plan of attack. I ended up passing out after sunrise and tandoor-ing myself inside the sleeping bag. I needed to rest and recover, so I decided to support Stan on his projects and nap through the day.
Stan had spotted this typical gritstone-ish line, a 30-foot dicey slab with just one place to protect, 5–6 feet off the ground. The moves weren’t too hard but were technical, and they can feel very insecure if not executed perfectly. Stan had cleaned the lichen and top-roped it a couple of times. “I don’t think I can solo this mate,” he said.
The next day, Stan shoved a couple of cams in a horizontal crack five feet off the ground and cruised up the next 25 feet of a technical slab with no protection! He came down grinning, and named it, ‘The leopard that came for Chai, E1’.
Days at the 20th Mile Cafe
I wasn’t resting enough, as I was shitting bricks every night because of the leopard. Also, we had pooped out the entire sector around the cave and we needed to give Avathi some time to recover! So, we decided to move out of the cave for a bit, hike out with our packs and find a spot to camp outside. We hitchhiked to 20th Mile cafe, a nursery/kennel/cafe close by.
The entire day, we kept ordering samosas and grape juices every hour, shared stories, kept moving our chairs to stay in the shade and played a card game called Lulaa. Although Stan wasn’t successful in selling the E grading system to me, he told me all these stories about the gritstone legends, their epics, the way the climbing culture evolved there, their ethics and the futuristic first ascents; I ended up having immense respect for all these legends and their unique ethics. We bought ‘The Hard Grit’ movie, (probably the most famous climbing movie in the UK), and Stan would keep telling me more stories about the sketchy ascents in the movie as we watched it!
That evening, the owner of the cafe, Nishant, walked over to us and asked if he could join us to play. Lulaa is a card game that I made up. I was explaining the rules of a famous game called Kabu to Stan, and realised that I didn’t remember most of the rules of Kabu. I taught Nishant my made up game, he got it after a couple of rounds and we were really hooked! We ordered more food and played for another 3–4 hours. He was stoked when we told him we’ve been living in the hillock and climbing the last 4 days and he offered us his lawn to camp for the night. He refused to take any money and told us he had a great time talking and playing with us.
After another day of stuffing ourselves with Samosas and a lot more of Lulaa, we decided to give the line one last session. My finger felt slightly better but was still swollen and hurting. We hiked back up. Stan got ready to belay as I tied in. Sunsets at Avathi are always magical and the weather that evening was just beautiful.
I started climbing, managed to get past the crux mono finger lock, got to a glorious hand jam, slotted a 0.75 cam in and shook out. I tried not to focus on the finger that was hurting and got the next finger-lock higher up. My feet cut loose and I took a huge swing on the finger lock. I knew I wouldn’t be able to hold on for long, as the pain was a bit too much to handle, so I threw for the next hold, missed it by a couple of millimeters and took a fall, screaming in disappointment! By the time I got lowered down, the pain settled in. My hand was completely swollen and I had no sensation in my right index finger all the way down to my wrist.
We headed back to the 20th-mile cafe and decided that some booze might help ease the pain. Stan worked his magic and got a car ride all the way to the city! We got dropped off at ‘The Druid Garden’, a brewery worshipped by the local climbers of Avathi. We ordered two glasses of every brew and started rambling. Stan, a brit who loves his beer, goes “Man, the IPA here is almost as good as the stuff we get in the UK, or I’ve forgotten how good beer tastes like after the last few months of shitty Kingfishers!” We had a couple of more glasses of our favourite brews and stumbled out. Stan told me about his plans to trek around Nepal the next month, gave me a parting hug and wished me luck for the project.
It had been a week and the sensation in my finger started to kick in and so did the pain. The next week, I had been caught often zoning out of conversations, ranting randomly about the route every time I got high and doing weird beta-dances! I was totally consumed by this route and fell prey to the usual cycle that every crackhead goes through.
- Phase one: The cravings hit and he wakes up to nightmares and shivers. He gives in and plans another trip.
- Phase two: Gets stoked AF and can’t wait to get back on the project.
- Phase three: 7–10 attempts in, completely destroyed, thinking why he ever thought that this was a good idea.
- Phase four: The swelling goes down, the scars settle in and we’re right back to phase one.
Pranav, my partner from Chennai, couldn’t take any more of my rants and agreed to drive down to Avathi and project the line with me. We reached Avathi mid-noon, hiked up to the cave and were greeted by a dog’s skull and a half-eaten paw right outside the cave. The leopard clearly wasn’t very happy with how we invaded his cave a couple of weeks back. We set up the line, and I rehearsed the lower crux and the mini-crux higher up a couple of times. Pranav gave the line a few tries and began linking moves.
‘When life gives you lemons, make lemonade, gulp that shit down and go out climbing. Yabadabadoo!’
The entire boulder turned bright golden as the evening sun rays hit us and I racked up, calming myself down for the lead. I managed to stick the mono finger lock crux move; somehow completely avoided the swing and cruised through the top crux. I knew the climb was in the bag for me if I just keep it together and cruised through the next half of easy climbing without stopping to place any pro. I romped to the top, just stoked out of my mind! I named the route ‘Yabadabadoo’, after the days Stan and I spent living out of the cave.
The next two days, Sid from Chennai and a huge gang of Avathi regulars came down and were chilling with us while trading burns on the line. I had a lot more space on my mind to appreciate the little things, not having the constant pressure to send. I realised how grateful I was to have the opportunity to be in these grand places, in the company of good friends and to be doing what I love the most.
As a wise man once said, ‘When life gives you lemons, make lemonade, gulp that shit down and go out climbing. Yabadabadoo!’