A Hampi New Year

You could say I was looking for something different. This year I didn’t want some drunken New Year party topped with poppers and horns blown after a boisterous countdown. On this holiday away from home I didn’t want to waste away hours soaking in the sun on an overpopulated beach. After a rough several months I wanted to finish off the year amongst stunning scenery and an eclectic gathering of rock climbers literally from around the world.

Only semi-sleeping for 15 hours on the “semi-sleeper” luxury Volvo A/C overnight bus, I stumble through the touristy main road of Hampi past towering ancient temples down to the river and wait for the small motorboat to ferry my friend, Vinay, and myself across to the more peaceful side.

Goan Corner Guest house is surrounded by rice and fields and palm trees but only a five minute walk to the impressively chaotic granite boulder fields. Grass roofed huts encircle a relaxed open-air cafe serving everything from traditional Indian cuisine to falafels and Israeli dishes.

Nishit and Shyam greet us as we enter the compound. I have been climbing with these local climbers in the mountains outside of Mumbai for the last few months. They are powerful and dedicated climbers, some driving over two hours every weekend to train on newly discovered bouldering problems and classic sport routes. Everyone is excited to be in Hampi, made famous by Chris Sharma, Nate Gold, and Katie Brown.

The vast granite boulder fields provide endless possible routes; you could realistically spend a lifetime climbing here. Anyone who finds themselves standing on the Rishimukh Plateau looking over countless boulders of varying sizes, some balanced unnaturally on top of others, naturally wonders how the landscape possibly got to be this way. Neither of the two common explanations satisfies my wonder. The scientific account says the world’s oldest mountains eroded over millions of years leaving only individual boulders remaining. The Hindu myth says two gods threw pieces of the mountains at each other in a fight over a woman. Somehow the mythical account seems more logical.

The heat during the day keeps everyone sitting in the shade of the cafe or resting in a hammock by their grass roofed huts. Around 4pm groups start to venture towards the rocks carrying their shoes and crash mats confident they will flash the new route someone just told them about. As the sun disappears from the Rishimukh Plateau Shyam Sanap from Mumbai sends a reachy V5 boulder problem with only two big moves that requires great balance. Mangesh Takarkhede, also from Mumbai, sticks The Shield, a challenging route with a cramped start and a dynamic throw to a crimp finishing with a moderate top out.

Unnamed V5 on the Rishimukh Platea. Climber: Mangesh Takarkhede
ISO 400, 1/80, f/2.8, 16mm 

More Photos and Story after the Break! –>

Climber: Shyam Sanap
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Climber: Amirut
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Mangesh working on The Shield V4
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The Rishimukh Plateau lit beautifully by the almost full moon.
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Nishit gives us the answer to life.
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Nishit having an after midnight climb on the Heart Boulder.
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The sun wakes me from my sleep on the terrace of The Goan Corner on New Year’s Eve and I make my way to the boulders shining with the morning light. I wander around just taking in the scenery, glad to be out of Mumbai for a while. I hear climbing noises coming from behind a nearby boulder; a group from Australia and Finland has found a climbable route encroached by large bushes. Every boulder provides a possible climb, many waiting to have a first ascent.

The beautiful morning light on Rishimukh overlooking palm trees and rice patties.
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ISO 100, 1/60, f/8, 16mm

Another view of Rishimukh
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ISO 200, 1/125, f/8, 16mm

On the Rishimukh Plateau several groups of boulderers progress from one boulder to another. Oyvind Blaker and Eirik Thorsrud from Norway send a couple of problems on The Shield boulder, and Tomi Lindroos from Finland and Petter Kattstrom from Sweden work on the Classic Crack, a V3 crack in a small dihedral.

Eirik Thorsrud of Norway working on a problem on the Shield Boulder
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Oyvind Blaker also of Norway getting ready to stick the classic face of The Shield.
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The topout
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Petter Kattstrom of Sweden working Harry’s Traverse
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Tomi Lindroos of Finland works on Classic Crack on the Shield Boulder V2
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Petter Kattstrom of Sweden on an unnamed highball on the Rishimukh Plateau.
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I feel a bit ADD when bouldering compared with my usual sport climbing. I’m not stuck to one route or wall for long periods of time and not even paired with one climbing partner. I act like a vagabond, wandering from boulder to boulder to see what everyone else is climbing. I see a group in the distance climbing near Cosmic Caves and I follow my urge to see what they are climbing. Lan Yao of Canada works on Classic arete on the Cosmic Friktion boulder, an overhung V6 arete with a difficult sit start, and she and Stephen from Norway work on Cosmic Friktion, sliding off the balancy slab V5. Shyam Sanap strolls up and climbs Cosmic Friktion like a ladder to the frustration of the others and joins Pete Marriott from the UK projecting an unnamed problem just opposite at the Cosmic Caves. The overhung start on the picturesque boulder has great holds, but after moving your feet you must either make a big throw to sharp arete to the left or to small crimp directly above the start, neither being easier than the other. The move to reach from either the arete to the crimp or the crimp to the arete pulls your feet off and sends both Shyam and Pete swinging uncontrollably off the route. By the lack of chalk marks you know no one has reached any higher recently. By noon it is too hot to be in the sun and everyone meanders back to the Goan Corner.

Lan Yao working on her project, Classic Arete on the Cosmic Friktion boulder.
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Pete Marriott of the UK grabs a sharp crimp on an unnamed route at the Cosmic Caves
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A large group gathers at Cosmic Caves for the afternoon climb. The fading sun casts a beautiful orange glow across all the boulders on the landscape. A few more people work on the unnamed problem but no one seems to be able to advance from the second move. As dusk moves in everyone meanders through the “caves”, spaces between the balanced rocks. On the east side Kevin from Canada sends Japanese Samurai, and Pranesh T from Bangalore sends a highball route just to the right that gave Katie Brown problems when she was here. The light is all but gone and he pulls himself over a slopy top out with nonexistent holds that he has previously fallen from three separate times, but this time out of fear or pure adrenaline he pushes through. With merely the full moon lighting the path at only 6:30pm we make our way back to the guesthouse.

The view from Cosmic Caves of Rishimukh just before sundown
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Click on image to see larger
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Adi wearing his “New Year’s Tights” to climb a route opposite Cosmic Friktion
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The Goan Corner provides a buffet for New Years Eve, and everyone gathers in a large circle around a campfire. Excited voices chattering in a multitude of languages mix with the sounds of the night. Climbers and travelers from all over the world talk about the day’s climbs, past memories from the last year, and hopes for the future. Pranesh T entertains the crowd by spinning his flaming poi poi giving all of the shutterbugs a chance to play with long shutter speeds and moving light.

Angie from Canada shows off her skills in Poi Poi on New Year’s Eve

Pranesh continued to impress the crowd with his flexibility while using Poi Poi

Tensions are high as the countdown till 12:00am, January 1st, 2010 starts. I set my camera up on the Rishismukh Plateau and wait for the fireworks to start going off above (and around) me that several of the climbers had pooled their money to buy. I unknowingly set up next to part of the display and am blinded by a blaze of fifteen foot high sparklers set off only a few feet in front of me. The night is bright with the light of the full moon; bright enough you can walk with no help from additional lights, but the rockets exploding over my head light up the boulders even more. I get pelted with debree from some of the large blasts. The finale finishes with an impressive series of sixty rockets from a single box and two of the largest rockets soaring hundreds of feet before creating spectacular colored chandeliers.

ISO 400, 30″, f/4, 16mm

ISO 400, 30″, f/4, 16mm

Breakfast at the cafe at 8:00am is sparsely populated on New Years Day. In the distance two Norwegians work on the boulder problem called The Goan Corner visible from the cafe, a challenging V8 overhanging arete. I make my daily ritual trek through the rice fields, which at night sound so loudly of bull frogs its deafening, to the Rishimukh Plateau where I meet up with a couple from London. Gerj and Georgina are working on the Toulouse Ka Kallus Boulder, and I warm up on a few easy problems. My skin, not used to Hampi’s wickedly sharp granite features, left a hefty chunk of my right pointer finger’s pad on my first climb of the day, an easy V1. I take them to Cosmic Caves and flash an unnamed V1 route on the boulder to the right of Cosmic Friktion. I see a possible route about five feet to the right of the V1 that has no chalk marks and decide to give it a go. The climb starts with overhung tiny feet and a stretch to two painful crimpy holds. Cautiously move your feet higher and make a big move to a small crimp with your left hand. Once you’ve moved your feet up you can reach a positive pocket and the topout is easy. I failed repeatedly to make the big move to the left crimp. Only when I thought I did not have the strength any more to keep trying did I stick it. I do not think I have ever climbed such painful rock. I would rate it somewhere between V4 and V5.

It’s funny, in most sports I excel in sprinting. In high school track I ran the 100-meter dash and the 110 hurdles; I swam the 50-meter freestyle; I could steal any base in baseball and in soccer I would outgun anyone for a loose ball. But when it comes to climbing, I have always prefered the endurance of sport climbing, though I guess I never gave bouldering a fair chance before Hampi. Here you really have little choice; you either boulder or you highball. Hampi did something to me, pitting my strength, skill and pain tolerance against these short but hyper-intense climbs. I didn’t want to leave. For the first time I was enthralled by bouldering, I couldn’t get enough – if only the skin on my fingers agreed. (Now as I write back in Bombay my fingers have properly calloused over and all I can think about is climbing, but regrettably I won’t be touching another rock for at least two weeks because of a work trip)

The perfect way to reward myself after sending the new route, I join my British friends for a lazy float in the Hampi Lake, about a 20 minute drive from the Goan Corner. We rent inner tubes from the Whispering Rocks Guesthouse and trek up into the hills from their parking lot among hundreds of untouched boulders. Fifteen minutes later I am enjoying the crisp cool water, relief from the sweltering sun. What better way to relax and watch the sun recede from the sky?

Gerj and Georgina, “George”, meet me for breakfast on the January 2nd and we head back to the Rishimukh Plateau. We climb just about every possible route on the Heart boulder including two wonderfully challenging slab routes on east side. Slab is not my forte, but I enjoy the struggle, the technique, and balance it takes to complete such routes. I have to push myself through my weaknesses, a learning experience every time. We move to TV Boulder, which overlooks the river valley full of rice patties and the Goan Corner Guesthouse. On the V3 Classic Face you stand up from solid right hand and right foot holds and stretch to a crimpy left hand. Bump your right hand to a positive undercling and work your feet up. Your left hand crosses to a small crimp and with high feet you make a big move to the jug with your right hand; the topout is straightforward. It all seems so easy when I write it out on paper, but I was having an off day, I couldn’t even climb routes that were easy for me the day before.

Tomi Lindroos invites me to join their group heading to Small Cave for the afternoon session. Above the bend in the road Small Cave is a series of boulders leaning on each other creating passageways between them. Tomi works on an overhung arete that starts with a heel hook, and after you walk your hands up the arete to a knob pull yourself onto the slabby finish. Lan Yao and Rachael, also from Canada, project an interesting unnamed V3/V4 problem inside the cave that finishes through a skylight. On the overhung start, with a high right foot and flagging your left, catch a positive undercling for your right hand and a good crimp for the left. Slap to a crimp on the right arete and, depending on your height, reach to a sharp Gaston crimp on the left. Shorter ones have to add another move to get their feet higher. After the Gaston, either cross with your right or bump up with your left to a jug directly above the Gaston then squeeze through the tight skylight to finish. As the light fades the girls decide to save the problem for another day.

Rachael from Canada stretches before attempting the climb up through the sky light
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Lan Yao sticks the Gaston Crimp on the route through the sky light at Small Cave
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Tomi Lindroos gets set to do an off balance move from the Gaston Crimp to a positive pocket on the Sky Light, as I am going to call it.
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Tomi squeezing through the finish of Sky Light
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A climber enjoying his reward after sending a challenging problem
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After another quick breakfast on January 3rd, I head back to Small Cave to show Gerj and George the great routes there. I try a nice V1/V2 that has a terrifying slash non-existent landing but a satisfying topout and then work on the problem in the cave. I get to the Gaston but am unable to complete the sequence to get the cross with my right. I have to continue working on improving my clumsy footwork, depending less on powering through with my arms.

Three Israeli girls I met at the lake want me to show them how to climb in the afternoon. They find discarded climbing shoes with holes in the toes to wear and follow me up the trail to the plateau. I show them the basics on easy boulder and they continually ask for more challenging routes. Each one excels in a different way: Tzolia with sheer power, Joelle with dancer’s grace and natural ability, and Saria with amazing flexibility. Tzolia with determination attacks the slab on the Heart Boulder, loving the challenge despite repeatedly failing. Several strong climbers gather around and try the problem, many not used to working on such minute balancy moves. Starting with a high right foot and a crimp left handhold slowly stand up using only friction holds with your right hand. Match your left foot to hand and with your weight into the wall and no hand holds to speak of, stand on your left foot and grab the peak. Accepting the fact that they need a decent pair of shoes and more experience, the girls move on to another project.

Cake Man, a local with a large golf-sized tumor on his face that wanders among the boulder fields carrying a cloth bag containing a variety of newspaper wrapped ‘cakes’ and saying “I am Cake Man. I have banana cakes, coconut cakes, chocolate cakes, everything cakes, special cakes. Do you want some cakes?”, comes to offer the girls his baked goods and decides to show them how to climb the problem they are working on. At small caves two days before he had claimed he was a good climber; said he climbed this climb and that climb without shoes. I have to say I didn’t believe him. With quite a bit of skill he showed the girls how to smear your feet on no holds, only using the rough wall to get weight off your hands. I became a believer in Cake Man, though I never did try one of his cakes.

I bought a train ticket for the afternoon of January 4th from a station called Hubli, so I have to leave Hampi around 9:30am to get there in time. I wake up early so I can get in some last minute climbs. I do not want to go from this beautiful place; I never tire of looking at the incredible scenery. Every time I turn away from concentrating on a climb it takes my breath away (I am used to climbing in forested areas where the only good view is from the top of the climb). I love the climbing community, such a positive group always pushing everyone to better themselves unlike the competiveness of most other sports. I am inspired being around such excellent climbers from around the world and mingling with other climbing photographers. I love the climbing; it awakens a part of me I’ve been missing for a while. There are not many things that can convince me to put down my camera, but here in Hampi, despite the incredible possibilities of photographs, I realized I wanted to climb more than photograph. And so it goes, the eternal struggle of a climbing photographer.

Tzolia meets me at breakfast and we head back to the plateau. I make my way to TV Boulder after some warm up climbs. Despite having good beta on the moves my left hand will not stick to the small crimp after the cross long enough to get my feet up. I try repeatedly to make a dynamic move to the jug but my finger refuse to wrap over the lip. My fingers, and the skin involved, are done for now. Time to head home.

Jumping off the local bus at the Hospet bus depot I ask the nearest conductor for an express bus to Hubli and he directs me to the bus that is already pulling out. I find a seat in the back and settle in for the “three hour” trip. I expect to get to Hubli around 2pm, take my lunch and catch my train at 3:15pm. At two I ask the conductor when we’ll arrive in Hubli. “Two hours.” WHAT? You told me this was the express bus! I take my seat visibly upset, passengers turning around to stare at me. Great. I’m going to be stuck in Hubli. The bus driver seems to pick up speed and drive more aggressively and I see a sign, “Hubli 19km” at 2:50pm. Alright…we might make it. I drag my bags off of the bus at 3:15 and run (as much as you can with a full trekking backpack and a camera bag) to the platform, trailed by several schoolboys. Ahh the train is late. I settle into a seat on the platform with some egg biryani and breathe while the boys ask me questions and request American coins.

I somehow love getting back to my apartment, even though I didn’t want to leave Hampi now I am here and can relax. But my apartment collects an insane amount of dirt on everything when I am not there moving around and using fans. I swept my floors only a little over a week ago, but the visible layer of dirt is on everything. This is why everyone hires someone else to clean their floors.

4 thoughts on “A Hampi New Year”

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