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Travel

Apr 03, 2019

Climbing Stories: Yabadabadoo!

An Indian climber and a foreigner hitchhike their way to hillside boulders in Avathi, and set up camp in a leopard's den, to scout Bangalore's best lines.

WRITTEN BY

Aravind Selvam

The Seed

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.

The Routine

  • 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.

 

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I recently 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! I slept in the same spot for 3 days peacefully, before I found a half eaten dogs head. 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. Ended up passing out after sunrise, and tandoor-ing myself inside the sleeping bag! #tradclimbing #campfirestories #epics #typetwofun #rockclimbing #climbing_pictures_of_instagram #gipfelclimbingequipment #climbing #thegreatoutdoors #rockclimbing #stories #getoutdoors #climbinginindia #liveclimbrepeat #climbing_worldwide #doyouclimb #travel #travelstoke #viewfromoffice #mountains #camping #campinglife #offwidtharmy #fitrockarena

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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.

Yabadabadoo!

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!’

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Travel

Jul 03, 2019

Rafting The Usumacinta River: Highway of the Maya – Part One

The Mayan ruins, largely abandoned by 1000 AD, were left to moulder under the engulfing jungle. Today, the descendants of these ancients remain on the move, the Usumacinta is their river of life.

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WRITTEN BY

Jack Billings

Jack Billings has previously featured in The Outdoor Journal, and more information can be found on his contributor page. On this occasion, the below article and adventure was shared with Linda DeSpain married since 1981, having enjoyed their first river date in March 1978. A world traveller across all hemispheres, she continues to focus on her writing what she insists others portray in theirs: capture all of the senses. Linda currently dips into adjunct teaching with a college of education students. Meanwhile, she captures her wanderlust for excursions

For aeons untold the Usumacinta River of Mesoamerica has been the easiest way through the dense jungle to transport people and goods. As the source of water, irrigation, and food for the entire basin, it remains the connection between present and ancient. The river has connected sophisticated regional centers with millions of citizens who shared and fought over commerce and territory. The most-developed restorations boast of regal architecture, intense cosmological ceremony, irrigated agriculture and astrological observation – all from peoples who built immense stone monuments without beasts of burden or metal tools. The Mayan ruins accessible today, largely abandoned by 1000 AD, were left to moulder under the engulfing jungle. Today, the descendants of these ancients remain on the move and the Usumacinta is their river of life.

Imagine a seven-day 88-mile rafting excursion on the frontier between Mexico and Guatemala. Combine serenades by howler monkeys while crocodiles bask on rocks near the water’s edge. Squadrons of small, blunt-faced green parrots called loras chatter overhead. The marvelous waterfall at Cascada Busiljá propels itself over travertine boulders into the river, and an epic adventure is borne. Add the chance to visit two abandoned, ancient Maya kingdom-cities, accessible only from the river, and you have the rafting trip of a lifetime: Usumacinta, the Sacred Monkey River.

The Usumacinta rises in the western Guatemala highlands, and the mountains and high ground in southern Chiapas, Mexico, forming part of their common boundary. This aquatic highway that supported the rise of Mayan civilization then flows north-northwest until it reaches the Gulf of Mexico and one of the richest fisheries in the world.

Map by Victor Hugo Ramos, Wildlife Conservation Society, Guatemala.

We found this trip on outfitter Rocky Contos’ Sierrarios.org website months before and were instantly excited. Contact with other boating friends very shortly assembled a group of 11 experienced rafters. Our rallying point was Palenque, Mexico, near the magnificent Maya ruins of the same name.

A temple at Palenque. Photo: Jack Billings

Though an important state, at least two other major kingdoms located on the Usumacinta rivaled Palenque and dominated the river’s vital trade route: Yaxchilán and Piedras Negras. Today, much of these ruins have been hacked out of the enveloping jungle. Far more are unrevealed.

The Mayan civilization reached its zenith during the classical era from 300 to 1000 AD. Recent, revolutionary technology known as light detection and ranging (LiDAR) allows scholars to remove digitally the tree canopy from aerial images of the now-unpopulated landscape. The ruins of a sprawling pre-Colombian civilization have emerged that were far more complex and interconnected than most researchers had supposed.

Assembling in Palenque, our group joined the three guides, Herman, Fernando and René. All our personal gear, coolers, and other supplies were loaded into a large trailer, pulled by a nine-passenger van that carried most of our group. On the morning of February 20, we departed Palenque for a five-hour drive to the launch site at Frontera Corozal.

At Frontera, the river is wide, slow-moving, a deep, emerald green. With the help of the guides and a few local fellows, we inflated all five 16-foot self-bailing rafts with hand pumps, together with two catarafts and three inflatable kayaks. By 4:15 PM, with a few quick strokes, we pulled into the current and began our journey downstream.  We went only about five km when the fading afternoon light urged us into camp at an unbroken expansive sand beach on the Mexico side of the river. We were on our way!

Running at about 28000 cubic feet per second the water was a very comfortable temperature, unlike other rivers we have run. Almost immediately after launch, the howler monkeys took up roaring and bellowing across the river. Theirs is the quintessential sound of the jungle. The voice is deep, loud and hoarse, something like a gigantic sea lion or a small T-Rex. From perches high in the canopy their distinctive sound carried through the river corridor.

Full moon over Guatemala. Photo: Don Dubin Photography

That night the full moon rose over Guatemala, directly across the river. For a time, it was obscured by a large cloud with beams shining both up and down toward the river. As it got dark, an impressive frog chorus sprung up across from us. There seemed to be two groups, calling and responding to one another.

The next morning, we resumed our passage to the Yaxchilán ruins, located within a large horseshoe-shaped bend in the river. Though not as extensively excavated and restored as Palenque, this site is particularly known for its well-preserved sculptured stone lintels set above the doorways of the main structures. A large plaza overlooks the river and the lowlands beyond. Yaxchilán was often in conflict with its downstream rival, Piedras Negras, and went to war with Paleque in 654.

Because the Yaxchilán site has been excavated and restored well up the hillside, trails through the jungle bring you to sunlight. Everywhere were new scents, some sweet, others spicy, still others earthy. The density of the jungle at the margins of the ruins reminded us that it never sleeps and is always growing.

Grand Plaza at Yaxchián. Photo: Don Dubin Photography

An active water taxi service brings tourists from Frontera every day. These 25-feet long, narrow, wooden boats are powered by 60HP motors and are outfitted with an awning over the middle to provide shade and rain protection for travelers. While most of the visitors spoke Spanish, we also heard French and English.

The river flows by, mostly silent, an omnipresent force dividing the jungle canopy. Some riparian banks are sandy and brush covered. Elsewhere is a continual jumble of limestone rocks and slabs, often fluted from aeons of tides and sediment. An insect chorus calls constantly out of the dark.

Dense jungle lines the river corridor. Photo: Don Dubin Photography

We breathe freely on the water while the jungle seems impossibly dense. Shimmering curtains of strangling, suffocating vines line both sides of the river. The diversity of canopy layers is striking. A flowering tree springs forth while mysterious scents waft across the river.

A welcome relief from the heat of the day and exertion of rowing awaits us at a cascading travertine spring not far downstream. It beckons the chance to jump off a 15-foot ledge into the deep, cool water.

You can read second part of Rafting The Usumacinta River: Highway of the Maya here.

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