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The ascent of women climbers

  • More women are taking up climbing in India as specialized gyms gain popularity
  • Although the professional climbing scene in India is growing, the number of women who climb can probably be counted on the fingers of one hand

The first CLAW event at Hampi combined climbing with yoga, networking and other activities. Photo: Kopal Goyal
The first CLAW event at Hampi combined climbing with yoga, networking and other activities. Photo: Kopal Goyal

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A girl climbing boulders at south Delhi’s Sanjay Van elicits looks of amazement and admiration from two men standing nearby. Her friend stands right below, arms outstretched, shouting out instructions. As the girl reaches the top, the men cheer. There is a look of respect on their faces.

“Sometimes, the community helps us. But sometimes it is a fight. Sometimes, the guys I looked up to have casually said, ‘Oh, you are not that strong’, ‘you don’t have it in you’, etc. I think a lot of them don’t realize that they need to step out and help us to grow,” says Prerna Dangi, 26, a Delhi-based professional climber.

The professional climbing scene in India, though small, is growing, but the number of women who climb can probably be counted on the fingers of one hand; they lack support and female role models. A few women are trying relentlessly to change this.

Dangi was an athlete in school, and first came across climbing in 2012. She started going on expeditions organized by the Delhi-based Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF), got hooked to the sport and attended the first edition of Climbathon—an alpine climbing camp organized by the IMF at the Bara Shigri glacier in Himachal Pradesh. The IMF itself has a climbing wall on the Delhi campus and organizes expeditions to places like Badami, Hampi, Chhatru and Rishikesh.

After college, in summer 2014, Dangi went for her first international and unguided expedition to Alaska, to climb Denali—the highest mountain in North America—and returned to work as an outdoor instructor and trip leader for adventure tourism companies. This introduced her to the climbers’ network and led to more expeditions. “I wouldn’t have been able to take advantage of these opportunities if I had chosen a life centred around a 9-to-5 job,” she says. She believes the network has also been instrumental in her clinching sponsorship deals for climbing expeditions.

A supportive network can be of great help, as 29-year-old Delhi-based Vrinda Bhageria found out last year. Bhageria, a graphic designer, got interested in climbing while studying in the US. Back in India, she realized that a regular job would not leave her time to follow this new-found passion. She discovered that her cousin, Yadu, was as interested in climbing, and, in December, they opened south Delhi’s newest climbing centre—BoulderBox in Vasant Kunj.

“The biggest challenge was convincing myself that it is something I want to do. Do I see myself doing this 10 years from now? Would I rather run a climbing centre and work towards growing it as a business or go for expeditions? Because it was a lot of investment, time and effort,” says Bhageria.

Designing a climbing gym is different from designing a normal fitness centre—it requires angles and holds, one needs to look at how tall the walls should be, the extent of flat open spaces that should be included in the design, and whether the terrain should be steep or not. A European company had to be brought in to do most of the wall-design along with an Indian architect who had to research climbing walls for the project.

BoulderBox, self-funded by Bhageria and her cousin, is growing in popularity. In the past four months, there have been around 2,400 unique, or first-time, visitors, including about 700 women. Over 70 have enrolled for classes, and there are about 180 day-pass or punch-card holders. BoulderBox is one of the few commercially run places where beginners can learn the tricks of bouldering and climbing without a rope—at 500 for a one-time entry, or 4,500 for a month.

It is now also a space where women climbers in the city can meet. Wednesdays are for Women’s Socials—seven-eight female climbers get together to climb and catch up. There are a few more climbing centres across the country—in Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai, Pune and Leh—but, as is the story everywhere, all of them see more men climbing, and the crew is also generally made up of men just like at BoulderBox (except Bhageria).

Climbing requires upper-body strength and mobility. “Getting into climbing for anyone, other than just the strength, requires them to overcome a certain threshold of pain and discomfort. Take climbing shoes, for example, they are always going to be too tight. If that discomfort overwhelms one, then it is very challenging to enjoy the climb,” says Bhageria.

Non-climbers are not used to the strength these women develop. Dangi remembers instances when she climbed and heard applause from onlookers, while her male climbing partners did not receive such attention. It is alienating in a different sort of way. “We would ideally like to be in an atmosphere which is more positive and welcoming. Especially if someone is climbing for the first time, it can leave a mark,” she says.

US-based environmental educator and climber Gowri Varanashi agrees. She divides her time between New York and Bengaluru. Varanashi, 28, has been climbing in both countries for six years.

“The climbing gym culture is big in the US, while it is just starting in India. Though it is challenging for women to climb there as well, at least the indoor gyms are a great stepping stone for beginners,” she says.

Varanashi was used to being the only woman climber on weekend trips when she started off in India in 2014. There were a few other women when she was climbing, but they were usually competition climbers and would practise only on indoor plastic walls. Outdoors, women would often be left behind because men—even beginners—would have the confidence to try more difficult climbing routes. “Climbers are really friendly and motivating. But they are usually terrible mentors. They are not patient enough to teach beginners. If they have gone out, carried their gear, etc., they are more likely to just try harder problems, and for a beginner it can get intimidating,” she says.

Prerna Dangi (left) and Vrinda Bhageria, climbing the rocks in Sanjay Van. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Prerna Dangi (left) and Vrinda Bhageria, climbing the rocks in Sanjay Van. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

The aim of mentoring and getting more women to try out climbing led her to organize India’s first women’s outdoor climbing event—CLAW, or Climb Like a Woman. The first getaway in Hampi, Karnataka, took place in December and was attended by 30 women—way more than the five-person organizing team had anticipated. Of these, 19 had no experience and had come only because they followed either Dangi or Varanashi on Instagram.

“We had five days of climbing, coaching, mentoring, slacklines, etc. And every day we would have a session on what exactly makes them climb, what they liked about it, what they wished was different. And an overarching thought I received was that they had never tried climbing because they have always been told that it is un-ladylike to climb, crawl up rocks,” says Varanashi.

Women often do feel out of place when trying outdoor sports, explains Bengaluru-based recreational climber Suma Rao, 50. She started climbing as a college student in the 1980s. Often the only woman climbing, she remembers practising on makeshift climbing walls with plyboards in garages. In the next decade, more women started climbing, but they would be training, not doing it for fun.

When Rao had a daughter in 2004, her climbing came to a halt because she could not find partners or spotters whose timings would match with hers. She returned to it three years ago, when her daughter also enrolled for a climbing course.

“Climbing requires constant practice and focus to get better. There is no easy way. Just because I had a long break, I sometimes get jittery and can feel my legs shaking if I am attempting a problem, even if I have done it years before,” says Rao.

Rao and her daughter, now 15, both attended the first CLAW event in Hampi.

For the event, Varanashi had reached out to brands and climbing gyms, who pitched in by supplying material like landing mats, shoes and chalk bags.

“It is encouraging to see brands also wanting to be a part of it. The awareness for fitness among women has grown, and climbing is benefiting from it. There are also many more workshops and classes which introduce beginners to the community. But we need to work together to make it more popular and accessible to everyone,” says Varanashi.

The first steps have been taken. The community is growing. There’s always a climbing partner to count on. And well, there’s always walls and boulders to scale.

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