My love for climbing has led me to the limestone karsts of China, Laos, Thailand and southern England, the sandstone cliffs of Taiwan, and the basalt ridges in Scotland, but no rock has been more special to me than the sheer granite boulders of Hampi, South India. Here’s a love note of my time in Hampi with the rocks.
Mecca For a Reason
A foremost travel destination for foreigners and Indians alike, Hampi is my version of time travelling in real time through 5000-year-old ruins, scattered villages, seas of green paddy, monkeys ruling palm-tree-kingdoms, river crossings across the Tungabadra and panaromic sun-kissed landscapes that extend over the horizon. And as if that isn’t enough to keep me happy, it has endless boulder problems to last me a lifetime.
Hampi is one of the largest natural bouldering sites in the world. My friends and I explored every climbing style from overhanging surfaces to positive arêtes to impressive cracks. I found clambering up to the expansive plateaus where huge rocks balance in seemingly precarious positions to be so unreal, that it is impossible to believe no human has arranged it that way.
The rising and setting sun over the expanse of rocks amidst what was once an ancient civilization is simply meditative. And it’s not just me who thinks so. Climbing legend Chris Sharma’s trailer ‘Pilgrimage’ is a tribute to it being a place of worship for climbers worldwide.
The Mattress Men and Women
Between November to February, on the ‘other side’ of the river (called Virupapur Gadde), during early morning or late afternoon, I joined a staggered procession of people carrying mattress-like backpacks. We trudge across the paddy fields, our destination guiding us like a trance, and eventually disappear around a corner marked by a distant boulder.
No, this is not a daily sleepover party. These are the climbers of Hampi heading to the rocks with their shoes, chalk and crash pads (the mattress-like backpack) in tow to attempt new routes, re-attempt difficult routes that they have set as projects, and maybe to occasionally steal some shut eye on those comfortable and nap-worthy mattresses, during the baking afternoons.
I have easily met climbers at the Goan corner, a cosy bunch of shacks run by a friendly couple, within a stone’s throw distance from the prime bouldering spots. For solo travellers on a serious budget, they even have a ‘terrace’ area where you can sleep outdoors. I rent my crash pad here (Rs. 100 for a day).
If you are a novice without previous experience and have not befriended any climbers, I recommend hiring a local guide to show you some basic techniques. It is also a spectacle to watch these guides, with their calloused fingers (and often feet), conquer some really tough climbs in their own playground.
The Golden Way
I have made use of the definitive guidebook, ‘Golden Boulders’, published in 2014 by two foreign climbers who have been frequenting Hampi since the early 90s. It contains nearly all identified routes. The routes are graded in the Fountainebleu (French) system, which uses numbers (from 1 to 8), letters (from a to c) and plus signs to denote level of difficulty. For instance, 6a+ is easier than 8b. Beginners should attempt routes in the range of 5.
The book outlines climbing areas (e.g. Rishmukh plateau), the names and illustrations of boulders (e.g. Little Cave) and the topos (drawn routes). You can get your hands on the guidebook online or at one of the two climbing shops in the market. These shops also provide shoes and chalk for rent (approximately Rs. 300 for a day) as well as guiding services (Rs. 500 for a half-day session).
Safety is No Joke
Bouldering is a high-intensity sport where the safety of climbers is predominantly in their own hands, with no external aid. I am no stranger to climbing injuries and minor breaks and sprains are rampant in this sport. The good news is that most are preventable.
First, I practice my ‘onsight’ capabilities. I study, mime and anticipate the moves from the ground, imagining my body on the rock reaching for the positive holds. Second, I never boulder without a partner. Your partner must ‘spot’ you: they must stand ready with outstretched arms, but not right under you, to support your lower back and break any potential crash landing. Finally, I always use a crash pad and let my partner adjust it strategically during the climb to ensure a safe landing.
People often pay less regard to the correct ways to come down a boulder. Some routes are ‘top-out’, where you can simply walk off the top to reach the ground. For others, you have to ‘down climb’ i.e. clamber down using handholds and foot holds. I get my partner to readjust the crash pad and down-climb the easiest route on the boulder.
Climb Climb Rest
Resting is an important part of my schedule. I find that two climbing days and one rest day is the way to go. I’ve experienced stiffness of shoulder, back muscles and triceps if I don’t stretch daily. Rest days give the torn skin on my fingers time to heal and keep me climbing stronger.
In Hampi, I unwind by doing suryanamaskars on the boulders at sunrise, going for a swim in the Tungabadra, a motorbike ride across the dam or catching an outdoor movie screening under the stars.
I also intersperse a tiny amount of training on my rest days. Slacklining is a common workout done by climbers. This involves placing a taut band between two anchor points above the ground, and using core strength and balance to walk on it. Hanging off fingerboards helps to strengthen your finger grip. But, often the best training is simply to return to the rocks with a relaxed frame of mind and climb harder.