A left toe-hook jam to secure while reaching for a clumpy knob, past an overhang, with your left hand. That's the point at which Arnaud Petit's classic 'Ultraflash' starts getting interesting. About a decade ago, in Thurhalli, a bouldering area in Bangalore, it was the elite benchmark.
Words were whispered of few who'd done it - Praveen C.M., Narsimha, Pranesh Manchiah. Apparently, one had spent 40+ sessions to put it down. "Ultraflash is power. But the Johnny Dawes arête is delectable'' Nifa (as everyone knows him) had told me. Thing is, movement itself is primal. But 'climbing' is a language and we're learning late. Our often lonely landscape feels like a tax for that late arrival. Like a bad attendance crisis.
It’s a common question - when the borrowing is done, friends dry and goodwill exhausted, can I keep climbing and make some living off it? In the past decade, we've come from bouldering on the flat, bottom panels of a lead wall to plush gyms - coloured routes, campus boards and all. I’d say we’ve done well. From existing largely in the realm of state subject, it has diversified. Knowledge wasn’t everywhere, you collected carefully like albums. I didn’t know Anna Stöhr's training habits or Jorg Verhoven’s 3 month cycle. Or, why I should half crimp on hangs. Clearly, Lattice hadn’t put out their app. Linguistically, it was the equivalent of a tourist hub where stall owners used carefully collected English phrases. But instinct, like gestures, did go places.
However, can I tell these stories if I’m late to the medium? I speak here of magazines, films, social media and other platforms which influence the climbing ethos.
Here, we come to cultural capital. How does a climber look, dress, travel and conduct him/herself? For a long time, that image has been created from a singular perspective. Rightfully so. Narratives come down to a mathematics of majority. There is on social media (correct me if I'm wrong), a regularly expressed sentiment of being unified, by a 'love' for climbing. Okay. But, what gets me is the relative silence, disinterest even, in addressing disproportionate odds of opportunity. On a quick scroll, how often do you see honest posts which acknowledge that homewalls, beastmakers and massive communities are a privilege? There are communities where the desire to climb is high but factors outside the sport itself, like economics, make progress hard. Shoes and holds are barely available, for one. Is there an onus to acknowledge this imbalance? Of course, brands and publications alike will ask (again, rightfully) where the market is. What then of their power to cultivate taste? Has that been completely forgone in favour of 'easy'?
Alongside journalistic diversity, the discussion with a friend was about the 'climbing bum' narrative. We were talking about the climbing lifestyle in India - which I don't think can be reduced to a singular - and the term popped up. Somewhere, there is a resemblance. At least in my experience. Travelling, living lean, nervously managing funds and having grim realities offset by bouldering's joy. Finding a great line and realizing it really can be cathartic. But, then what? Another line. And then?
Luckily, I’ve developed certain skills that I use to work remotely. This allows me to (only just) live. Even so, I’m not the financially savvy sort. But some of my peers have been sold on a dream. They might be at the receiving end of something worse. Let me illustrate this with an example - some years ago, I tried helping a friend secure a sponsorship. The company we reached out to (a giant in the scene) said, subtly, his accomplishments may be relevant but his look...didn’t fit. Are these undercurrents communicated in the we-are-all-one messaging on social media? Or, remember when ‘quit your job and travel the world’ was trending? How does it feel, when you can barely visit the neighbouring state after putting every egg in the climbing basket?
I see this mix of angst and ambition in my peers when they try hard. Their eyes don't speak of freedom alone. Look closely and they usually reveal an angry, confusing mix of driving forces ending in questions.
This is how class plays out in the egalitarian climbing world.
"...So, what's in it for YOU?" I've been asked several times. Why stay in this desolate, abstract field which demands time, effort and offers little financial opportunity? "...Magar, angrez log toh alag hain na?" My passion-first reflexes eventually distilled into a version of these.
I'm afraid of missing the magic. What is that? It’s like a zero point when all the voices and concerns freeze. Everything stops and only the movement matters. Of course, there are moments when I snap back. But when the flow is good, I can collapse into this isolation. It’s meditative. At another level, deeply addictive. Quite drug like, I’d imagine, where you can put anything on the line for another move. For that, I don't have a language.
It's beyond compression arêtes and aesthetics. I want the story and to tell mine. Do something meaningful, internal and lasting beyond current variables. Art, in some way. If this impulse is beyond language, then I have some primal cushioning. But sometimes, I do wonder if magic is for everyone. I’d like to believe it is.