Interview with Folks at BoulderBox

Siddhartha Chattopadhyay
Posted on
September 23, 2020
While the quality of air in Delhi surges to 300, which is beyond emergency levels, the air at BoulderBox flows at 70 and below. That said, Delhi welcomes its first state of the art indoor climbing facility: a multilevel premier climbing center equipped with interesting volumes, flamboyant holds and some of the most advanced air conditioning and filtration systems in the industry.

I got hold of the duo cousins Vrinda and Yadu to know more about the space and the inspiration behind it.

SC: How long have you been climbing/bouldering and where all have you climbed?

Vrinda: 8 years ago. I started climbing in 2011 while in my final year of College in Chicago. It began as just something I’d do if I didn’t get a game of squash at the courts next door, but soon the movement, the problem solving and the community aspect of the sport had me hooked.

Since then I have climbed outdoors in Suru Valley, near Leh, Hampi, and Badami down south in Karnataka, some rocks around Delhi. Tonsai, Thailand. Arco & Valle-del-Orco in Italy. Rocklands, South Africa. Berchtesgaden, near Salzburg. Leonidio & Lagada in Greece. Indoors — Almost everywhere I’ve traveled. I try and make sure I go to the local climbing gym if going outdoors is not a possibility.

Yadu: 10 years. I started sometime in 2009. It was casual at first but it has become more of a passionate hobby through the years. There was a blip between 2012 to 2013 as I had to take an entire year off due to a minor surgery I had on my wrist due to a climbing injury.

Within India, I’ve climbed outdoors in Hampi, Sethan (Manali), Suru Valley, and the various rocks found around Delhi. Internationally, I’ve climbed outdoors all over Europe as well as in the Rocklands (South Africa). My favorite place in Europe is probably Verdon Gorge (France).

SC: What’s the history behind BoulderBox?

Vrinda: The idea developed several years ago when I was climbing regularly in Delhi after having moved back from the US. IMF is the only public place to climb at, at the time, I realized an immediate need for something more inviting for new people to try out the sport. During this while, I was climbing often at the Bouldering wall that Yadu had built at his house. I’d invite a bunch of people that I met while climbing who are now also some of my closest friends. The need for a place to actively participate in something that we all felt so passionately about became obvious. Also, the desire to grow the community and build awareness about a sport as inclusive and life-changing (at least, in my opinion) as climbing were evident.

Yadu: I’ve spent the majority of my climbing life living abroad. Initially, I climbed at my boarding school in the UK as well as other climbing centers in that local region. Coming back to India for holidays meant that I’d have to go to IMF if I wanted to climb. The people were conducive to having a great time but frankly, the facilities were not. After much pestering, I am fortunate my parents relented to my desire to have a bouldering wall built at our house in Delhi. Over time, I have been able to improve this facility by bringing in as many holds as my luggage would allow on my every visit from abroad. Slowly the circle of people who were visiting my place grew and this really demonstrated to me the need for a public climbing center that met with international climbing gyms. Thus, BoulderBox was conceived.

Wall at Home.

I think it is worth mentioning that the majority of credit has to go to Vrinda for actually taking the initiative to find a place for the facility. Initially, I had planned to only be involved part-time as I was keeping one foot in the door that led to moving away from Delhi. But once the project started becoming reality there was no other path I could see giving me contentment.

SC: Who did you engage with as a contractor and why?

Yadu: We got quotes from a plethora of expert wall manufacturers, Walltopia being one them. We even had the designing of the walls and angles by a Walltopia expert. But when it came to actually have the wall built, customs posed a serious hurdle in terms of financials. This led us to explore local options. Through our architect, Aashwin Bhargava, we got in touch with a company called Build Kraft India that do a lot of wood and metal work. Using the wall built at my house as a sample, we did some RnD with them. They built a mock-wall and in the process, we were able to experiment and finalize friction samples, wall structures, and aesthetic finishes.

SC: There are leading lines and other geometrical patterns all across the center. What inspired the design work for BoulderBox?

Yadu: I find it hard to put into words my own personal aesthetic preferences. I can, however, comment on Vrinda’s aesthetic preferences! She is very detail oriented and very much inclined towards symmetry and minimalism.

Yadu climbing the first route set at BoulderBox.

If I had to choose one word to describe her visual inclinations it would be “clean”. This has definitely manifested in the design work for BoulderBox. Furthermore, more often than not we are in agreement about design choices which is great when working together because I know I am very strongly opinionated most of the time.

SC: Are the walls representative of your passion for climbing in any way?

Yadu: The walls and their design were influenced by our individual experiences of climbing. Much of the process was determined by trying to make the best use of the limited space that we had. Then trying to fit a wide variety of angles onto the wall meant it was often a matter of playing jigsaw trying to accommodate desired features into the various spaces. Furthermore, we tried to ensure that all our angels were somewhat beginner friendly because an advanced climber can handle any terrain but a beginner climber definitely cannot. Even now I am of the opinion that we have a little too much overhang at the center. I understand what I have written has been about primarily about practicals and that is because the passion lies in the details. Ensuring that the friction is even in all places, that some angles are tweaked to maintain the pleasing visual of the walls, and many other minute details fit with the whole.

Vrinda: The design of the climbing walls has evolved significantly over the last few years. This evolution to a more minimal approach when it comes to angle variations informed our design decision. It went through several iterations. Initially, the architect, Aashwin Bhargava and I tried our hand at designing a climbing wall with all the knowledge we had gained by speaking to route-setters and gym owners outside of India. However, keeping in mind the large investment that was going into the construction of the gym, we decided to go ahead with a professional wall making company such as Walltopia for the actual design of the climbing wall. Aashwin, having no previous knowledge of climbing, had a huge role to play in studying the angles of climbing walls, the kind of climbing they allow for, assuring variation with the limited space we had and also maximizing climbing surface as far as possible.

SC. Do you think that architecture and design influence the social dynamics of how climbers engage with each other?

Yadu: Architecture most definitely influences social dynamics. Conscious decisions have to be taken to determine the flow of movement around a climbing wall or any other space for that matter. For example, seating spaces around a climbing wall ensure resting climbers have somewhere to wait and having a dedicated spot encourages people to converse with one another. Furthermore, the orientation of the seating can promote spectating or even disengaging completely. At BoulderBox, we especially had hard foam installed on the exposed edge of our crash mats towards the walkway on each floor along with a narrow bench on the walkways which allow for both possibilities mentioned above.

The design also influences social dynamics but its role can often be more difficult to predict and/or pinpoint. The positioning of signage around the center along with its visibility and boldness can make the difference between a user asking at the reception for directions to the toilet and finding them independently.

SC. Where did the holds come from? Were you guys particular about the selection process?

Yadu: The holds have been imported from several European hold shaping companies. We selected our grips from leading brands such as Kilter, Flat Holds, Cheeta, Agripps, IBEX, etc. Many of these holds are used in the climbing world cup circuits while others are fantastic ergonomically or at mimicking rock.

Holds on the walls at BoulderBox.

We went through hundreds of hold catalogs and chose hold companies where we liked the ergonomic and visual shapes of the holds. The hold selection process was very long and arduous but extremely rewarding having finally set climbs at the center using our selected holds. The whole process was highly dependent on our decision to have climbs at the center graded by colored tags and not having single color circuits of boulder problems of a single difficulty. This meant we started by choosing hold colors and then tried to pick a wide variety of grip types in that color for climbs for all difficulties. Furthermore, in order for climbs to be visually pleasing, I believe it is important to use holds of a similar visual language together. Thus we made sure that each color set was visually similar. For example, yellow holds are all geometric whereas green holds are all textured with natural lines embedded in the shapes.

SC: There’s a recurring pattern that I have noticed with beginners. By beginners, I want to address two kinds of people. a) Those who aren’t physically active but are inclined to give it a shot. b) Those who have given it a shot but were unable to continue for some reason or other. Also, one of the fundamental problems that I think deters beginners from pursuing this sport is based on either shared beliefs or misconception spread through the pop culture. Id’ further break it down to two points:

Fear-based: This essentially means that they are either misinformed and are therefore inclined to associate this sport with lunacy, which is not to suggest that there aren’t any potential risks or hazards involved with the sport.

Vrinda: I think the idea of lunacy is derived from several who are ill-informed or less informed on the various levels at which the sport can be practiced. Of-course climbing comes with an inherent risk of injury as do many other sports. However, upon having practiced it for some time, those risks can be severely mitigated to the level that one seems comfortable dealing with. Climbing helps with risk assessment and allows one to make decisions based on their skill level, comfort level and willingness to push their limits to a degree that can be considered “safe”.

Community Engagement: I think fostering community engagement is a key determinant in ensuring growth and confidence, which is what I personally feel lacks in this space for beginners. What do you guys have to say on this and how does BoulderBox aim to address this issue?

Vrinda:  In my experience climbing is one of the few sports where I have always seen support for beginners and new people wanting to enter. In Delhi, as well, the climbing community was very supportive when I was just a beginner. Their methods may have been harsh, but the support was always present. More experienced climbers would always reach out and help with training methodologies or beta for a particular route or anything else. I think what truly lacked was a physical space where personal growth for all levels of climbers was encouraged. At BoulderBox, we hope to be able to convince people to quit the mindset of “I’m not strong enough to climb” or “I lack upper body strength” and inculcate the sense of “Climbing is for everyone”.

Delhi climbing community having a day out in Sanjay Van.

Yadu: Full disclaimer, my perspective on the issue is significantly less informed in comparison to that of Vrinda as she has spent more time than me engaging with the climbing community in India. While I agree with her that the community is extremely supportive and often it is more a lack of accessible facilities that hinders a beginner from pursuing the sport, I also feel there is often an unconscious pseudo-elitist culture present which can be a hindrance. I think this comes down to the fact that the climbing community in Delhi is still in its nascent stages. This means the ratio of beginners to ‘hardcore’ climbers is not as wide as in a developed community. From the outside then it can look like climbing requires one to be either extremely fit or extremely disciplined with training. Neither of which is true, especially for the beginner just looking to have a good time and excelling at a reasonable pace. A further example of this is the lack of explicit beginner friendly climbs being set at climbing gyms around Delhi. I myself was guilty of this at home where my own family never tried climbing for years because I did not bother explicitly setting enough beginner climbs for them to get engaged in the sport. This is something we are actively hoping to address at BoulderBox as well as holding daily induction courses that beginners can attend to learn more about the sport.

A further point, there is an active community of outdoor climbers in Delhi for rope and

bouldering who are trying to encourage more people to participate. The increase in awareness will definitely melt away some of the preconceived notions people have about the sport.

SC: Do you think addressing the two points above will help beginners pursue this sport more consciously and confidently? Or is there more to it than meets the eye?

“Climbing requires persistence, it’s like learning a new language but with your body. One has to build upon the vocabulary of movement that they can then execute without even thinking about it.”

Vrinda: I think the above two will surely help beginners. At the same time, I think people need to become more comfortable with the idea of ‘Failing’ and with the idea of ‘Playing’. I’ll explain what I mean by failing here. Climbing requires persistence, it’s like learning a new language but with your body. One has to build upon the vocabulary of movement that they can then execute without even thinking about it. To be able to do so, it comes with patience and with the acceptance of failure. Often a move on a wall requires a 100 attempts before you have one successful attempt. Understanding this key idea of failure followed by success may go against the current world of instant gratification, but often is a more rewarding process in the end. By playing, I mean being creative and trying new things, sometimes knowing that it may not make any sense at all. All of this teaches our mind and body to explore things and build upon our bank of movement.

As a community, encouraging people through this initial process of hesitation is what will help us bring about more climbers.

Climbers at BoulderBox after a talk by Said Belhaj.

Yadu: I think if we succeed in addressing the fear/risk notion of climbing while also making the community more beginner oriented it will undoubtedly lead to more people pursuing the sport whether consciously, unconsciously, confidently or timidly! The real challenge is to figure out how we address these problems effectively. One further challenge was highlighted above by Vrinda and I believe there are many more as well. Building awareness for climbing is not easy. Often people can have two polar views of “Oh this is a sport for kids” and “Oh I’m too unfit for this sport”.

SC: Based on your takeaway from the entire process, what do you have to say to an aspiring future climbing facility owner?

Yadu: So much would depend on the type of facility they want to open. One thing I would definitely recommend is to find a good local carpenter and not to be afraid to get things made in-house. It’s often cheaper, quicker, and can be made to your personal specifications. Just needs a little (or a lot!) supervision through the process.

Also as the community grows, so do the possibilities! In Sheffield in the UK, they have an exclusive climbing center that only has severely overhanging training boards that cater primarily to top end climbers. That kind of ‘training temple’ just would not work in Delhi right now but who knows what’s possible in a few years time. We actually have a friend who spent some time in Delhi exploring this exact idea.

SC: It’s not rare to spot design flaws in India, be it a spoon, a boiling pan or even the ceilings & floors in different places. Could you share some common design flaws that you may have noticed at different commercial climbing facilities or the ones that centers are likely to make?

Vrinda: I think what creates a great climbing space is a good balance of climbing areas to non-climbing areas. Social engagement is a large part of climbing and the community that it creates. One thing that was brought to our attention while designing the centre by Tonde Katiyo, one of the leading route setters globally, is that while you do want to maximize climbing surface you also want to leave open areas for people to sit and observe other climbers and enjoy the learning and the interaction that viewing brings about. It’s a difficult balance to strike, but surely something relevant to keep in mind.

SC: On a scale of 1 to 10, how important do you think it is for owners of climbing centers from this era to be actively involved in the sport?

Vrinda: 8/10. I think it is extremely important for gym owners to be actively involved in the sport as it is ever evolving. To understand the nuances in design and construction of a center built for a very specific purpose one has to be fully engaged to realize the details that will go into making a place seamless and successful.

Yadu: For the owner themselves to be involved in climbing means nothing if they are not actively managing the project. However, I do think it’s important for whoever is leading the project to be actively involved in the sport (8/10).

SC: It seems like you have been very careful in hand-picking the BoulderBox staff, could you tell me a little bit about them?

Vrinda: I think Yadu and I can both agree that while choosing the BoulderBox staff our main criteria was not to get a strong climber on board but to get an empathetic one.

Rahul Ranjan is from Dehradun and has recently moved to Delhi for this. He has been a good friend for several years. We started climbing around the same time, trained together often while he lived in Delhi. He comes with a plethora of experience having been fully immersed in the sport ever since he started climbing 8 years ago. With recent experience in setting at gyms outside of the country, he also helped us get our route-setting processes in place. He’s also just a great guy and excellent with kids. Rahul’s routes generally always have some technique teaching intention behind it.

Viraj Sose is from Pune, also moved to Delhi for this. Viraj is an extremely obsessive and passionate climber. He is the prime example of never giving up. Viraj tries endlessly until he succeeds. With a background in Microbiology, he is also super technical about things. His problems often have hidden beta and complex sequences. Viraj is the resident volume maker at BoulderBox!

Viraj Sose climbing Channa Puri (6c) in Suru Valley, Ladakh by Arvin.

Varun Mishra is a climber from Delhi. He’s been traveling up north and climbing outdoors quite a bit in the recent past. While an unassuming presence at the gym he has forearms and biceps bigger than Popeye’s and crushes problems like a beast! I’m yet to decode the pattern in his route-setting, but they’re all definitely enjoyable and pose a good challenge to a climber at any level.

SC: There are a few others including myself who believe this to be the golden age of climbing in India? What do you guys think?

Vrinda: I’m not sure about the term golden age. But I definitely foresee immense potential in the sport indoor and outdoor going forward. I also think that our culture is evolving and so is the general mindset of people. With the ever-increasing monotony in our lives, everyone seems to be looking out for unique experiences. BoulderBox certainly offers that if not a complete change in one’s lifestyle geared towards fitness and mindfulness.

The current climbing community all over the country is also largely segregated in various ways. There are pockets of climbers all over the country with often minimal interaction among them. I think if everyone makes an effort to work towards a singular goal of promoting climbing as a sport, we can potentially see a ‘Golden Age’ in climbing in India.

Yadu: If by “Golden Age” in India you mean climbing is more accessible than ever before and that more people are climbing than ever before then I agree with you. I also, however, see this continuing to be true in India for the foreseeable future and thus think labeling the present as the “Golden Age” to be somewhat meaningless.

SC: There’s one question that seems to have evaded my mind in the beginning. It’s an important one since it revolves around the idea of fostering community engagement. Given the current price structure and the fact that it’s likely to change here shortly, it’s fair to say that a vast majority of climbers and those from the young demographic will find themselves disengaged. The common characteristics among the disenfranchised demographic are related to price. How does Boulderbox seek to be more inclusive and overcome this hurdle?

Yadu: Firstly, I think it is worth mentioning that given the lack of data on climbing center pricing available in India we are going to be monitoring our response and make modifications accordingly.

Secondly, as a business, we have to ensure that we are fair to all our customers and we charge them in accordance with that. This, in turn, means not negotiating prices on an individual basis and inevitably also means that there will be a subset of the community that will find our price point too prohibitive.

Keeping these points in mind, we plan to release more complex pricing structures in a few weeks which will help students as well as others. There are many possibilities and we are actively trying to figure out how we can incorporate them. As for the details, I do not think this is the place to discuss incomplete ideas.

Posted on
September 23, 2020
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Siddhartha Chattopadhyay