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Training spider-men

A pro climber has taken sport climbing to Badami and Chitradurga in Karnataka, in the hope that local children can participate in the sport and become professional instructors

Praveen C.M. climbing a sandstone outcrop in Badami. Photo: Jyothy Karat
Praveen C.M. climbing a sandstone outcrop in Badami. Photo: Jyothy Karat

Praveen C.M. holds the record of being the longest-defending national champion—14 years in a row—in sport climbing, which involves climbing on man-made walls with harnesses and ropes. He’s also the only summiteer of Mount Zambala, a 5,850m peak in the
Siachen glacier.

When it comes to the sport, Praveen, 32, has always believed that India’s strength lies in its villages, and that if children in rural areas get encouragement and support, they can win accolades internationally.

Sunil Hanagi (left), one of Praveen’s students, climbing a route in the ‘temple area’ in Badami while Praveen conducts a climbing workshop for Karnataka’s department of youth empowerment and sports. Photo: Jyothy Karat

Badami, in Karnataka, has been a go-to place for serious climbers for at least two decades. Bengaluru-based Praveen, who started climbing at the age of 14, first began training there when he was 15. It has a small rock-climbing centre, the General Thimayya National Academy of Adventure, set up by the state government. While climbing workshops for men from rural areas are organized every year, little or no effort is made to develop the region or nurture its climbers in the long term.

Manju Waddar, one of Praveen’s students, training in Badami. Photo: Jyothy Karat

In 2015, Praveen formed a climbing team, SportClimbing India, with five teenagers from Badami’s rural areas. He donated his personal equipment to the team, and tries to upgrade it with his own money. He doesn’t charge the students. “Most of my gear was won in competitions. When I was younger, I couldn’t afford to buy them either. I would work hard to win competitions, so I could also win the gear. Now it’s come full cycle. Whatever this sport gave me, I’m giving back to the sport," says Praveen.

Last year, a climber from Chile sponsored some equipment, and Prana, a US-based clothing company, donated some clothes. All equipment/property is managed by the team, qualified instructors who work as part-time climbing guides in Badami.

Climbers use powder while handling ropes. The skin starts peeling as the rocks cut deep into the hands. But once the soft layers are gone, a new hardened skin takes their place—a layer that’s more resilient to pain. Photo: Jyothy Karat

Sport climbing is a niche sport that’s barely known in India. Rarer still are people or organizations that support and fund climbers. When I met Praveen three years ago, he seemed somewhat jaded by competitions. But he was excited at the idea of setting up India’s first rural climbing team. He believes Badami has the potential to turn into a world-class climbing destination.

Chitradurga was his next area of focus. Although this historical town has a lot of granite boulders, there were no bolted sport routes his students or other climbers could use. So, over two years, 2015 and 2016, Praveen set about changing that. He has also built a bouldering wall at his house in Bengaluru for students to train before competitions.

This bolting route in Chitradurga is considered treacherous. Praveen does it by anchoring himself on the rock face. Photo: Jyothy Karat

Many of them are like 15-year-old Manju Waddar, who comes from a family of nine children and lives in a house about the size of a few telephone booths squeezed together. Manju trained for about a year and a half, till his parents, both of whom work at a local market, needed help. These days, he works as a labourer and goes to school in his free time.

Praveen setting bolted routes in Badami. Photo: Jyothy Karat

This is why the core team remains a small, 10-member one, though Praveen has, so far, trained around 100 students. This year, Arjun M from Chitradurga won two golds and a silver in zonal competitions, and Chea Amelia Ch. Marak from Bengaluru won three bronzes in the 2017 National Climbing Championship.

One of Praveen’s students setting bolts on a rock face in Chitradurga. Photo: Jyothy Karat

These days, Praveen is training too, hoping to compete in the 2020 Olympics, where sport climbing will be introduced. India is yet to form a national team but it’s going to be a tough year. “But, then again, no mountain was climbed in a day," he says with a smile.

One of Praveen’s students setting bolts on a rock face in Chitradurga. Photo: Jyothy Karat

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