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Athletes

Sep 04, 2017

Adam Ondra Climbs World’s First 9c

He’s done it! Adam Ondra has sent "Project Hard” after a prolonged siege on what is now the world’s hardest single pitch of rock climbing.

WRITTEN BY

Michael Levy

On September 3, Adam Ondra ushered in a new level of difficulty for rock climbing  by sending a to-be-named route that he heretofore referred to as Project Hard. The Czech climber announced his success coyly, with a simple, indirect Instagram video:

Ondra has talked repeatedly about how the line would likely be the world’s first 9c (5.15d). In a press release, Ondra said of the route:

In the morning it felt like every other day on the Project. It was hot, but the air was crystal clear and dry. But I felt very little pressure and lot of psyche. Key ingredients for sending the world’s first 9c. At the end of the route when I knew I did it, I had one of the strangest emotions ever. I clipped the anchor and I could not even scream. All I could do was just hang in the rope, feeling tears in my eyes. It was too much joy, relief and excitement all mixed together… Months and months of my life summed up in 20 minutes. So much time and effort in something so short but intense as hell. Every minute spent in Norway, every move in the gym was totally worth it. This route never really turned into a nightmare, despite the time I spent on the route. It was a fun process, and it was even more fun to finish it off.

Grade confirmation will have to wait for future ascentionists, but with Ondra climbing at such an inspired level, who knows whether that will be in ten months or ten years? Below, read The Outdoor Journal’s initial interview with Ondra from mid-July when he was deep in projecting mode. The interview provides some of the most detailed descriptions of the climb yet available.

Adam Ondra, at just 24 years old, has spent the past decade seamlessly making the jump from wunderkind—he sent 9a (5.14d) at just 13 years old—to full-fledged rock climbing superstar. In the past 6 years more specifically, he has been at the vanguard of hard sport climbing, bouldering and even big wall trad climbing, managing to expand the definition of what is possible with sticky rubber shoes and chalked up hands. It all begs the question: Is there an upper limit for Ondra?

With his Project Hard in Flatanger, Norway’s Hanshelleren Cave, for seemingly the first time Ondra is daring to find out. He has made the first ascent of all three of the hardest sport climbs in the world—Change, in Hanshelleren Cave, Norway; La Dura Dura at Oliana, Spain; and Vasil Vasil at Sloup, the Czech Republic—each meriting the still-rare 9b+ (5.15c) grade. Ondra has stated that Project Hard will be a step up at 9c (5.15d), which would make it the most difficult single pitch of climbing the world has ever seen.

With his 9b+ ascents, the question was never really if Ondra would finish them, but when. With Project Hard, that certainty is more fragile.

But Ondra is trying his utmost, climbing harder than anyone ever has before on a rope.

And he’s making progress. Just under two weeks ago, Ondra made the first ascent of a new 9b, Move Hard, as part of the process of working Project Hard. The new 9b links the first crux of Move, a prior 9b he established in the cave, into the second crux of Project Hard.

Then, just over a week ago, Ondra did what he described on Instagram as the “9b+ link,” or the “whole route without the first 20m of 8b [5.13d].” He wrote, “Possibly my hardest route ever, except for the fact that is not a route at all… Yet.”

The Outdoor Journal caught up with Ondra for an exclusive interview in between his projecting and training in Flatanger, Norway.

Adam Ondra working “Project Hard.” Photo: Pavel Blažek.

Watching the short clips of you on this climb is pretty incredible. What’s your most recent progress on the route since your “9b+ link” a week ago?

Nothing, unfortunately. Since then I fell ill, and all the progress was halted. It’s been pretty much four days without climbing at all. Kind of strange, because the first four days of my trip I fell really really good, but for some reason I couldn’t do crux one. Then the next day, I finally made the 9b+ link.

Can you describe the entire line?

It’s like 45 meters, more or less. There are 20 meters of 8b [5.13d] climbing and then you come to a mega kneebar. Then another 5 meters of big jug pulling from the kneebar into the place where the the sequence of crux one starts.

Crux one has 10 moves. It’s an 8C [V15] boulder for sure. On its own, for sure one of the hardest boulders in the world. It’s definitely the boulder that’s taken me the most time ever. And, you know, I approached it as a boulder problem. I would just jug up and try it as a boulder problem on its own.

Then later there is a second crux that is an 8B [V13] boulder and then a third crux that is a 7C [V9].

The 9b+ link was from the start of the ten-move crux. So then the next thing to do is add five relatively easy moves right below crux one. But the crux is so much harder after adding the first five relatively easy moves.

The most frustrating thing is I still don’t know how close Project Hard is, because I didn’t get the opportunity to try this link with the five extra moves while being strong and fresh. I think that once I can get this bigger link with the next five moves, I can do the whole thing.

It was definitely a bit annoying getting sick. Starting to feel a bit better though, so now I’ve started training again, and hopefully in a week I’ll be back in shape. But that’s the way it is. It was just an ordinary cold, but if I want to try Project Hard I have to be 100% fit.

Ondra on sighting “Rottame” (8c/5.14b) in Ceredo, Italy. Photo: Giampaolo Calza

So you think you’ll be able to do the whole thing soon after you’re able to link it from those five pesky moves? Even though there are still those first 20 meters you won’t have added?

I think once I do it from the mega kneebar, then I can probably do it all.

If I climb the first 20 meters of 8b, it doesn’t make me that tired, but overall for the whole body it is tiring, so the kneebars are important.

After the mega kneebar there are two bad kneebars on the way to crux one, but I can only stay in each for 10 seconds maybe. And then there is a kneebar in between crux one and crux two, which is very important, because if that wasn’t there I think the whole route would be 10a or something. If there were no kneebars at all the route would be absolutely impossible for me!

In the end what I need for Project Hard is brute force bouldering power and the fitness to kind of recover in the kneebar 100% in a very short time.

So I trained accordingly and it seemed to work out, but who knows?

How does it compare to other super hard things you’ve climbed like La Dura Dura?

It’s totally different. I’ve never really climbed anything like this. At crux one there are a couple of really physical intro moves before you even throw your feet above your head [the crux involves climbing feet first]—already 8A+ or 8B bouldering. Really physical. And then it gets really tricky. The hardest part is to turn my feet above my head and then get my toe jam 100% perfectly. If it’s not perfect, when I move into the next drop knee, no matter how strong I feel I can’t readjust the toe jam… it’s hopeless. That’s the main difficulty of crux one. Every move has to be so precise, but at the same time you have to focus on all the other tiny details too.

I’ve tried all the moves so many times and still every try is slightly different. My body position, squeezing slightly harder or soft with my fingers, the toe jam; everything is a bit different every time. It’s exciting and frustrating.

I have to climb fast through crux one, but it’s so hard to be precise at that speed. It’s much more of an issue here on Project Hard than on any other project that I’ve ever tried.

From my own experience, when people give bouldering grades to cruxes on sport routes they often overestimate. But on this climb, I think they’re quite accurate. The kneebars make the climb 9c. They make it possible to do these sick moves in the middle of the route. I never would have thought I could climb such a hard boulder after 25 meters of upside-down climbing. It’s sick!

Ondra on Pitch 14 of the Dawn Wall. Photo: Heinz Zak.

How many days and burns have you put into it so far?

So, up to now, I was mostly just trying crux one. I think I’ve spent seven weeks in total. Usually two days climbing, one day rest. So no more than 35 days of climbing. Last year I probably just wasn’t strong enough, but most of the time I was trying to find the perfect beta anyway.

The thing about a hard project is after a week or two you reach a point where you know the route very well, but from that point on it’s very hard to progress unless you get stronger. I discovered that with La Dura Dura. I thought I would send it in a week or two at one point, but still wasn’t making any new progress a week later. I needed to get a lot stronger just to go a little further on it.

Do you feel like climbing in Yosemite last fall helped you in any way for this project?

They’re very different things. In terms of technique I don’t think it helped for Project Hard, but it taught me about patience.

The Dawn Wall and Project Hard are the two projects that have taken me the most out of my comfort zone.

Ondra in the second crux of “Project Hard.” Photo: Pavel Blažek.

In training for La Dura Dura, you climbed V16. What have you been doing to train for Project Hard?

My training has consisted of a lot of bouldering. Not 100% simulating Project Hard, but setting problems with the same angle and style of climbing. Lots of sidepulls and slopey holds. Cutting loose and turning around with my feet and stuff. Doing a lot of kneebars. Even in the worst kneebars trying to hang for longer—that definitely helped a lot.

I specifically trained my calf muscles and that was a big revelation for me. Because I only ever thought of my core as important for kneebars, but as long as your calf is strong enough, that’s all you need. Then you can hang upside down even in a pretty shitty kneebar, and the whole body is 100% relaxed except for the calf.

So I’ve progressed a ton in the past year. That’s why I’m hopeful that if I can get to the mega kneebar, I won’t fall off after.

How do you stay motivated on something this hard? Do you ever get discouraged?

It’s definitely frustrating sometimes, because it’s not always about how strong I feel but also about these tiny details. Some days I feel super strong but the toe jam or something isn’t perfect and nothing works.

That’s just part of the game though! I like it all. The moves are amazing. It’s such unique movement for real rock. Everytime I try it, I’m still blown away—it’s absolutely crazy that any of it actually works.

When did you first bolt Project Hard and when did you first try it?

So the line was actually started by Laurent Laporte—he came in 2011. The part of the cave which is really steep, there were no routes at all at that time. There were a couple old routes, maybe ten, from the 90s, but they were all on the far left side, which is only slightly overhanging.

Project Hard was the first route in the really steep area, but Laurent stopped bolting right near crux one because he thought it would be impossible. I finished bolting the whole line to the current anchors in 2013.

I tried it for a couple of days in 2013. I couldn’t do all the moves then. It looked hard, but possible. But at that time, I didn’t think I had the ability to do it. So I gave it a rest and finally came back to it last year.

The decision last year was whether to try Project Hard or Project Big, probably both 9c’s. But Project Big at that moment seemed more intimidating. Since Project Hard was mainly about the first crux, I was hoping I could maybe find some slightly easier beta—which I did, but it’s still very, very hard…

Project Big has multiple hard boulders stacked on top of each other. One day I’d love to do that climb as well. Then I’ll be happy with the cave.

There are still two other projects also, not as impressive as Project Hard or Project Big. But at the same time, I don’t want to spend my whole life in one climbing area, no matter how impressive it is.

Ondra on the Dawn Wall: Photo: Pavel Blažek.

When people think of Hanshelleren Cave, they almost certainly think of you, the same way that people associate Chris Sharma with Oliana, and Tommy Caldwell with El Capitan. What is it about the cave that keeps you coming back?

In terms of style, the cave isn’t that unique. What’s unique is the rock it has. Most of the caves in the world that are of a similar size are limestone. And mostly, they’re really chossy.

To give an example, most of the boulderers who are used to climbing on really nice rock in Rocklands [South Africa] or Red Rock [Las Vegas, USA], when they want to get into sport climbing, they go to Spain, places like Oliana or Santa Linya. And they’re horrified by how much bad rock there is and how much glue is on the wall keeping the holds up. If you take the bouldery sequences from those routes in Spain, they don’t necessarily compare to the world’s best boulder problems. The routes are nice and flow well, but in terms of the beauty of the moves, it’s rare to find something that blows your mind.

But in Flatanger, it’s absolutely amazing. The movement of the problems in the middle of the routes—if you took them and put them on boulders in Rocklands, they would still be absolute classics.

What I like most in climbing is the beauty of the moves. For me, the beauty of the moves is even more important than the beauty of the line. And I’m totally amazed by the beauty of the moves here in Flatanger.

How much longer do you have in Flatanger this summer?

I don’t really have any deadline, but we’ll probably leave around the beginning of August. At the moment, since I’m feeling sick, there’s not much chance I’ll send it this trip.

I’ll definitely come back this fall. The question is how much time out of the whole season I want to sacrifice just to Project Hard. Spending all the available time that I have here would maybe put too much pressure on me, so I’ll have to see.

So do you think you’ll be able to do it this season? Next?

I’m hoping I can get it this season, but if I don’t get it hopefully next season. And if not that then the next next season! I’ve already given it so much that I definitely want to get it done. But with these hard projects, you don’t really know how much extra work it warrants until you’re really, really close to sending. I’m hoping it’ll be soon.

Ondra climbing the last pitch of the Dawn Wall. Photo: Heinz Zak.

Feature Image: Ondra on Project Hard. Photo: Pavel Blažek.

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Climbers

Aug 16, 2018

New Kids on the Bloc: Boulderers in India

Is this the bouldering revolution we’ve all been waiting for? The first generation of Indian climbing bums leads the charge. Here are a few of their stories.

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This story was originally published in print, in the Summer 2014 issue of The Outdoor Journal, you can subscribe here.

It was a mildly overcast evening on December 15th, 2013. A pleasant breeze blew across the ancient granite formations of India’s bouldering mecca, Hampi – perfect conditions to attempt The Diamond, a superb 8a sloper arête.

Indian climbers were pushing harder grades than the normally dominant European visitors.

Ajij Shaikh, a stick-thin, withdrawn young man was alone nearby, composing himself. He’d come excruciatingly close to completing it, but had repeatedly failed at the crux. He stood up to return to the problem. Taking off his shirt, he revealed shred upon shred of lean brown muscle. Ajij pulled on a pair of borrowed climbing shoes, took a few breaths and sat down to try again. I stood behind, ready to spot him should he fall.

“My dream was to become a doctor. But you have to study a lot; it was too difficult on us financially, so I had to give that up…”, Ajij Sheikh (pictured here) explains how his education got the axe. Here on an unknown 7c+ in Singhad Fort, bolted by Ranjit Shinde; Pune, Maharashtra. PHOTO: Sharad Chandra

This time he flowed through the traverse. A slightly different heel-hook and mantle pushed him through the crux. When Ajij topped out, he became the first Indian to send an 8a graded boulder problem. Within the next two months, Sandeep Kumar Maity and Vikas ‘Jerry’ Kumar would follow with more 8a sends.

The 2013-14 climbing season in Hampi, of which I was a part, was the first one ever where Indian climbers were pushing harder grades than the normally dominant European visitors. Here in India, with an extremely nascent mainstream climbing culture, this heralds the emergence of our first generation of climbing bums – individuals willing to forsake everything for the sole purpose of climbing hard and exploring their potential.

But where did this begin?

He comes back into town either for rations or to watch a cricket match

My starting point was Paul ‘Pil’ Lockey, a forty-five year old British juggler and climber from a trad background who’s established the largest volume of bouldering in two of India’s biggest areas – Hampi and Himachal Pradesh. Normally ‘Pillu’, as he’s known by Hampi’s locals, stays in caves while developing bouldering areas. He comes back into town either for rations or to watch a cricket match. Our conversations would happen during those windows.

When in the 7th grade at the Sant Tukaram Nagar Primary School, Ajij thought of dropping out – severe poverty had plunged him into a depression and made education seem pointless. Under a mentor, Vivek Sable, he started competing nationally and representing Maharashtra. His exposure to people and places outside his home (pictured here) in Pimprii, Pune kept him motivated. Photo: Sharad Chandra.

“I was looking down…and there was this wolf, just standing there!” he laughed, while telling me about his experience after topping out one of Hampi’s most revered problems, Kundalini Rising.  “It’s so hard to find a new three-star 7a problem in England…but here in India, there’s so much potential.” His Indian obsession began with a postcard of Hampi he received in 1992, from Jerry Moffat, Kurt Albert, Johnny Dawes and Bob Pritchard who were exploring its potential at the time. “It was just boulders…for miles…I couldn’t pass on this” he laughs, recalling how near-ridiculous Hampi’s unexplored potential seemed to him then.

In 1993, he visited for the first time with his then girlfriend. The first problem he opened was Cosmic Crimp (6b+), a near-30-foot highball. “I had to on-sight it, and there were no crashpads at the time” he recalls, explaining how bouldering developed into a real and separate discipline in climbing only in the late 90s. Since ‘93 he’s visited every year, staying months at a time.

When in the 7th grade at the Sant Tukaram Nagar Primary School, Ajij thought of dropping out – severe poverty had plunged him into a depression and made education seem pointless. Under a mentor, Vivek Sable, he started competing nationally and representing Maharashtra. His exposure to people and places outside his home (pictured here) in Pimprii, Pune kept him motivated. Photo: Sharad Chandra.

“Did you come across any Indian climbers in Hampi, back in the 90s?” I asked Pil. “A few…mostly from Bangalore…but it wasn’t too crowded until 2004” he said, referring to the climbing tourism boom Hampi experienced after the release of Pilgrimage, a movie documenting Chris Sharma’s climbs in the area. Yet somehow Himachal’s star visits didn’t have quite the same effect. Fred Nicole and Bernd Zangerl, two of the most pivotal figures in bouldering history, visited and established classics such as “Nicole’s Problem”, a 7c+ overhanging arête in Solang, which I was working recently. This lack of interest perplexes Pil, who feels Himachal is superior to Hampi. “I first came there in 2002, from the Rocklands (South Africa), looking for something to climb during the summer…” he recalls. With other travelling climbers, Pil and Harry developed bouldering in Manali, Chhatru, Chota Dara and the boulder fields between Lahaul and Spiti.

Where were the Indians then? I turned to Mohit “Mo” Oberoi for answers. A veteran climber from Delhi and the founder of Adventure 18, one of the first outdoor gear stores in the country, Mo “was hanging around the crags of Delhi – Dhauj, DamDama, Old Rocks and PBG.” When he came down south in 1986 to climb Savandurga (a 1200-foot high monolith showcased in The Outdoor Journal Issue 01) he met Dinesh Kaigonhalli, another figure well known in Bangalore’s circles. Along with many other now-forgotten names, they put up big wall and sport routes across the country.

And Mo wasn’t at today’s warm up levels either – back in 1994, he was climbing E7 (7c+) trad routes. Neither was Indian bouldering stagnant – by the early 2000’s, areas like Turuhalli near Bangalore had plenty of classics, put up Indians who’re mostly in their 40s now. So what happened then? Why hasn’t anyone else heard of them, and why has the Indian climbing growth curve been so slow?

“Rocks, rocks, rocks!” yells Mo, who represents the old guard of English-speaking, public school educated climbing enthusiasts. He says that the younger generation of climbers got too wrapped up in competition climbing, spending little to no time on natural rock. Since my generation is finally working on outdoor projects again, grade progression is finally visible, he says.

But why was this generation ignoring natural rock in favour of competitions?

Sandeep dropped school because he saw no point in wasting his efforts or his parents’ scant resources. He started working as an outdoor instructor for Rs.250 a day. 90o Arete, a 7a problem in Hampi. Photo: Vinay Potdar.

It’s the economy, stupid.

Mo’s generation and the Himalayan Club lot came from a wildly different socio-economic strata than the post 90’s climbers. The later young guns came from socially conservative, poor backgrounds, unlike their predecessors. Their families often expected and required financial support from their children. Competitive climbing did not require the resources that outdoor climbing did, while offering the promise of returns via cash prizes of up to Rs. 20,000. It simply became the more viable option for those with climbing skills. As for the other upper-class kids from the 90s? Well, they just left the country to live and climb abroad.

I’m fairly sure climbing came to mean different things to the two generations – high slinging, adventurous pursuit to one, and escapism from grim class realities for the other. This is also reflected in this new generation’s interest in bouldering, literally the freest form of climbing – vs. expensive “trad” and alpine climbing.

India is the world’s third largest economy today, by purchasing power parity

Finally, the nail in the coffin was a total lack of climbing gear, media, support or indoor infrastructure. India doesn’t have the kind of gyms available across Europe and North America. When I started climbing, about four years ago, we were practicing bouldering on the lower panels of a lead wall. Campus boards, fingerboards, sling trainers and the general equipment and knowledge used for performance training aren’t largely available even today. But why?

Photo: Vinay Potdar

Sponsor me, please?

India is the world’s third largest economy today, by purchasing power parity. It’s a huge potential market for big outdoor gear companies… or isn’t it? While writing this article I emailed several outdoor brands in the US and Europe. Many just didn’t reply. Brooke Sandahl, VP of Metolius, did. “We sponsor a number of athletes who gain exposure for us. Many athletes are sponsored with our distributors on a country-by-country basis. In North America, we are partnering with many non-profit organizations that promote climbing” he said,  explaining how they support the climbing community. The problem, it appeared, was that international brands wanted to work with distributors in India, and local distributors weren’t (and still aren’t) willing to risk investing in a nascent sport or culture; and the little they do is a miniscule drop in the ocean.

So, why hasn’t there been any active interest in organizing big events like the Petzl Roc Trip or Kalymnos Climbing Festival? Such events bring a lot of attention to the sport, which is often a first step. “Many of our alpine athletes come to climb incredible peaks. India isn’t well known for other styles of climbing. Hampi for bouldering, I have seen some amazing sport climbing there but a country needs to be proactive if they want this type of event.”

While my peers are crushing hard, they’re still to learn how to use their achievements to promote themselves and the scene. Brooke explains how that’s crucial to obtain sponsorship through Metolius. “Currently, the level needed is mid 5.14 (8c/8c+) for rock and V12 (8a+) for boulder. People who don’t climb super hard but open lots of quality routes, help with national, regional or local access issues, coach a climbing team, write a well-read blog, gets his/her photo in the magazines (thus our products), take lots of good images or make films…can all enjoy some level of sponsorship…from a tee-shirt, to paying an athlete cash and everything in between!”

Sandeep dropped school because he saw no point in wasting his efforts or his parents’ scant resources. He started working as an outdoor instructor for Rs.250 a day. 90o Arete, a 7a problem in Hampi. Photo: Vinay Potdar.

That covers at least eight Indian climbers immediately. Bar one, Tuhin Satarkar (Red Bull), none of them are supported by any international brand. Here are three:

Sandeep Kumar Maity:

After nearly thirty unsuccessful attempts on Ayurveda (7c+), a crimp-to-crimp power sucker at Hampi, Sandeep seemed spent. He put on his shoes for a token ‘last try’, took an impatient breath and went for the take off. He grimaced through every move and finally stuck the last dyno with a violent right leg swing propelling him. When it was done, even he couldn’t figure out where that extra juice had come from. But Sandeep is no stranger to running on empty.

Sandeep was introduced to climbing in 2006 by his sports teacher, Mitra Ghosh, at his school in Delhi. His father was a supervisor at an offset printing press, and his mother a housewife. Five people – his parents, his sisters and him – share a small one-room house. Like many from that section of Indian society, travel was a unattainable dream. His earlier fantasies were more in cricket than an obscure sport like ‘climbing’.

In 2008, after his 10th class Board exams, Sandeep heard about a climbing wall at the Indian Mountaineering Federation (IMF) in South Delhi. With not much else to do, he started going, carrying lunch from home and sharing a pair of Converse sneakers with three others. He speaks gratefully about the people who mentored and even supported him financially – Amit Sharma, Naveen Arya, Norbu Bhutia, Sushil Bera, Nanda Kishore and Manjeet Singh. “I still remember borrowing a pair of La Sportiva Cobras, and winning gold at the 2008 zonals” he recalls.

Sandeep’s family does try to understand his pursuit. Before heading to Manali for the climbing season, I was at his home for three days. One afternoon, I watched Dosage 5, an old climbing flick, with his father who kept bursting into “What the…” reactions of amazement. “Is there a video of you too?” he asked Sandeep, who just smiled and continued watching.

A sign of his confidence was his trip to Europe in 2012, to compete in four bouldering world cup events. He took a loan of Rs. 70,000 rupees to make that happen. The events taught him route-reading, planning and controlling nerves. But he reflects more on his interactions outside, particularly in Millau, S. France. Back home in Delhi, he pulled out a poster and proudly showed it to me – “blue skies, my friend,” signed Dave Graham. That was his full-stop moment – having Dave shake hands and introduce himself.

Sandeep dropped school because he saw no point in wasting his efforts or his parents’ scant resources. He started working as an outdoor instructor for Rs.250 a day. 90o Arete, a 7a problem in Hampi. PHOTO: Vinay Potdar.

Vikas ‘Jerry’ Kumar:

On the day that Vikas sent The Diamond’s sit-start, four others, including me, sent the less difficult stand-start variant (7b). I had fallen off three times after nearly topping out. Vikas told me to use the edge of my palm to push off the last hold, not pinch it. “That’ll make the conversion really easy…” he said. Next attempt, I nailed it.

If Sandeep drains himself, Vikas just doesn’t care enough. He climbs hard, but it’s all play. In many ways, he’s perhaps the ‘purest’ climber of the bunch – never climbed on plastic, never ‘trained’, never competed and literally has no clue about the bureaucratic aspects of the sport.

After Vikas’ family unexpectedly lost a small business in Bangalore, they moved to Hampi. He was forced to quit school and start selling chai. Soon he met Koushik and after a few scrapes they were selling knick-knacks together. Their constant bickering got them nicknamed Tom & Jerry. Their experiment is the Tom & Jerry Climbing Shop in Viruppapur Gaddi, better known as Hampi Island. It rents out crashpads, climbing shoes, rope and other gear. The small shop runs largely on donated material and used shoes from gyms in Europe. “We make about Rs.30,000 ($500) each for the whole season. We save, travel, and then return to open for business” Vikas explains.

Like most of his Indian peers Vikas suffered the 8a mind-block. “That started opening up after I sent Goan Corner (Chris Sharma’s brilliant 7c arête problem)…” he recalls. “Initially, I didn’t think it was possible to send The Diamond; Sandeep and the others were trying it and I just tagged along…when I had a few good attempts and fell off at the last mantle, I knew it was possible.” On the cloudy evening of February 19th, we heard Vikas scream from the boulder. It had happened.

Ajij Shaikh:

Over 35 feet high and without a rope, Ajij was contemplating the next move on Mental Mantle, a hard, scary Hampi boulder problem. “Allez Shaikh…” voices encouraged him from below. He reached for a crimp, stepped up and pulled through. When he topped out the 45 foot behemoth, there was cheering with heaves of relief.

Ajij’s appearance doesn’t always reek of fortitude – stick thin and somewhat withdrawn. But once his shirt comes off for a climb, you see nothing but muscle. We first met at the 2011 national championships in Delhi – I was asked to MC the event – one year after the surprise victory that marked his arrival. Since then he’s become national lead champion three more times.

I was spotting him when he became the first Indian to send The Diamond. The only Indian World Para-Climbing Champion and our good friend, Manikandan Kumar, was capturing his attempt on video. Between tries, he’d walk off, calm himself and rehearse the final move. When it finally came together, there was a delayed elation. “Haath dikhare upar (Let’s see your hands up high!)” Manikandan had to actually ask him to celebrate. Sixteen days later on December 31st, 2013, he sent Sharma’s classic, The Middle Way. You could see the effect yoga had on his climbing – controlled breathing, tremendous body tension and absolute calm during progress.

Over the years, his own success alongside climbing flicks fuelled hope of a ‘climber’s life’ – travelling continuously, sending projects and getting featured in movies while being sponsored. “If I get a sponsor, I’d love to compete regularly on the world cup circuit” he adds. For that, Ajij has much work ahead. He admits that he lacks the knowledge and communication skills to push for sponsorship. He’s now getting offers to work as a senior climbing instructor, but he must learn the skills necessary to push his career ahead.

Looking ahead:

Healthy fights for FAs, collaborative efforts on projects and high levels of psyche to explore new areas are not exclusive to this wave. But we’re perhaps the first bunch willing to do anything to continue climbing – another career or ‘stability’ simply isn’t an option. From living in people’s shops, to living rent-free, to selling off personal belongings to stay on the road – we’ve known poverty, and we don’t care. Some compete, some don’t. This wave is simply a natural evolution on the work of our predecessors.

Maybe our efforts will lead to increased climbing tourism. Maybe this will create decent livelihoods through guiding, guesthouses, rental shops, resoling services and more. Maybe more people will climb, and maybe the (always ineffectual) Indian state departments will help. Maybe that’ll attract big outdoor brands to invest something, anything, in our climbing scene. We’re all hoping. But in the meantime, we’ll keep climbing.

 

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