Thursday, February 28, 2019

Rock climbing, monkeys, and bottomless buffets in Badami, India

The town of Badami situated adjacent rock cut Hindu temples carved a millennia ago from surrounding sandstone hills.

A distant but loud human voice assails my comatose self…allah u akbar... it calls out and then repeats. Turning over, I try to grasp, and am presently confused. This is not a sound I’m used to hearing at 6 am in the morning. Dreaming, am I? Go away. I tightly press the brick hard motel pillow against my ears. It grows faint and eventually recedes. Just a few mins hence I hear bells ringing…clang, clang! There is no ’snooze’ button that I can find and the sounds will not go away. What, is this now? I groggily sit upright and see Mohit, my roommate and trip partner look dazily look back at me from the adjacent bed. It kind of hits both of us at the same time. We just got roused by the muezzin call to prayer, quickly followed by puja bells from a nearby Hindu temple. We must indeed be in India.

Paige Classen making the FFA of Ganesha, 14a, the route that has recently brought new attention to Badami. Photo credit: Jon Glassberg
Tucked away, in a corner of the Southern state of Karnataka, we are in Badami, a forgotten little town, known for ancient Indian rock temples, and amongst rock worshippers, for high quality single pitch sandstone sport climbing. Even here in this dusty corner of a vast country India’s secular roots feel strong, with both Hindu and Muslim faiths in vibrant co-existence. We fight the instinct to go back to sleep as the room fills up with light as the sun makes a lazy appearance.

One day we found the road blocked by a large group of women protesting some local government policy. India is a democracy and proudly so

I had been mulling a trip to climb in Badami since 2008 when I first visited Hampi, its more famous neighbor next door for some world class bouldering (highly recommended as well!). Badami knocked on my senses again when I saw a spectacular video of Gerome Pouvreau’s ascent of Ganesha. A visit to India was already taking shape with a family wedding in the horizon this January. Mohit’s invite to join a trip to Badami occurring just a couple of weeks prior was a perfect opportunity to throw some adventure and enrich an already long commute across the seas. 

Tea is to be found everywhere in India, and is relatively safe to drink as the boiling process kills harmful microbes.
A few hours later, fed by a satisfying breakfast of idlis and bottomless chai, we find ourselves at the Ganesha Plateau area. Situated on a vast plateau overlooking the main town, there are endless sandstone bluffs with only a few of the cliffs bolted so far. We are led by Ravi, a talented local climber and our guide for the day. Rounding a few corners we find ourselves in a serene gully with 50–100 foot vertical to slightly overhanging walls on both sides. Identifying a few warmups, we get our gear sorted and slowly start limbering up a few 5.9–5.10 graded routes behind, and in front of us. Though we’ve been up for a while, it’s barely 9 am, the air is still cool and we opt to climb on the sunnier wall before heat from the rising sun will force us to seeking coolness in the shade. I’m glad that the intro routes are on the easier side of the scale. I did not sleep well and also am recovering from jet lag and long travel. My body still feels on California time (13.5 hours behind India), and it has taken multiple flights, taxis, and tuk tuk rides to finally make it here. A few routes in towards mid-day we break to snack on grapes and papaya, and I find the travel fatigue receding and I start to relax into my present self.

Warmups underway at Ganesha Plateau crag
Next, we turn our attention to some harder routes on the right-facing wall as our muscles start to loosen and we start finding our rhythm. Without an updated guidebook handy we are glad to have routes and grades pointed out to us. The website The Crag does have a topo for the area but it is not always accurate as it relies on visiting climbers to update, Wikipedia style. The lack of comprehensive data adds to this feeling of adventure, which is sometimes lacking in other more popular climbing destinations that have been ’tamed’ with lavish guidebooks and the ubiquity of information online. At many of these places you can select and plot out your climbs well in advance, and even garner enough beta (knowledge of specific sequences on climbs) for possible flash attempts on famous routes. Case in point, the ‘Age of Ondra’ climbing movie, where pro climber Adam Ondra, finds routes of his target grade at destinations in Europe and Canada, deciphers beta from online resources, and practices the sequences without setting foot on the route. Holy rock climbing!
Back to the now. Shaped and compressed by the elements over the millennia, we find the rock to be reliably robust, and the climbing movement to be fun and reminiscent of Red Rocks and the New River Gorge to me. I adore tick-tacky problem solving through crimps, pinches and slopers on vertical to gently overhanging terrain. Not the style I’m the best but still my favorite. Feeling good after ticking off a number of routes, while admittedly failing on a couple of bouldery ones, we feel we’ve just enough left for one more, and Ravi has just the right suggestion for me. Right around the corner we are guided to a prominent face with two pretty lines of weakness illuminated by ochres hues of the fading sun. French Indian Masala at 12c is too hard for me today, but a few feet over is La vie est Belle (or Life is Beautiful). Quite easier at the grade at 11a/b, but not a slam-dunk, with delicate face and a tricky roof move to surmount before the anchors. A five star route! I’m relieved to successfully clip the chains to end a fine first day of climbing. The sun is now almost below the horizon and I take in one last view for the day around the majestic beauty of the hills, the foliage and the undulating valleys that also inspired one of the famous site locations of Sholay, the cult Bollywood classic from many many moons ago. We pack up our gear and slowly begin the walk back to town. I’ve a chance to reflect…ahh, back in India, and practicing my favorite activity in the land I grew up in. This is going to be a great, no, a fantastic trip.

Mohit executing the final sequences of another nice line 
Badami is a small town with one paved road that connects it from one end to the other. Like many Indian towns of similar stature, the bus stand is the center of the action. It’s a 20 min walk to the crag and we settle into the patio at Golden Caves for a cool down beer with a side of egg bhurji (eggs pan-fried with spices and veggies) Gripping a cold bottle of beer is the best recovery for battle weary hands, take my word! For our first night we opt to head back to our hotel for dinner, The Badami Heritage Resort about 1.5 kms, and a 5 min tuk tuk ride. While the name is an exaggeration, I’d recommend it for a quiet and comfortable place to stay. Next morning we wake up rested and relieved to have slept away from the loud sounds of our previous night. Opening the window shades we find a delightful view of a radiant rock wall across from the hotel, fueling our anticipation for the day.

Tucking into thalis (Hindi word for a platter of food) end of day. The price? A joke at 1 USD per person with unlimited portions.

Cooling the engines with the the mandatory aprés-climb beer. (when in India drink Kingfisher!

A short tuk tuk ride and a breezy walk finds us at the Temple Crag, named aptly after a famous Hindu temple in its environs. On the way we stop by to gawk at Ganesha, the proud line mentioned above, as well as another couple of projects that may clock in at 14c or so. Awe-struck by these futuristic lines we make our way to the main area and immediately see a dozen or so climbers, and ropes and gear hanging off various routes tightly bunched together. This is a scene that’d be familiar at any crag in the world and we immediately feel at home. We sample some of the warm ups, and I feel inspired to try the Pillar Route, 12c, a striking line that squeezes a blunt arete with a wild looking dyno at the very top. The route is so named that if one top- ropes the line, and comes unglued off the wall early in the route, one may gently smack and hug a stone carved pillar directly behind! Amusing! Fortunately I was on lead, and while I did fall multiple times trying to ‘work’ this route, I avoided any pillar hugging thankfully. While I’m quite out of bouldering shape (or, I suck!), and expectantly fell at the ending dyno move, I did have a lot of fun trying the route. As the grades get harder, I’d say 5.12 and over, the climbing style of the area does get quite bouldery, with powerful cruxes between good rests. However with over 200 currently bolted routes, and a life-time of potential for more, there are still plenty to do at the moderate end of the scale, where general endurance and technique will get you to the top. As the trip wore on, I found myself getting fitter and trying some of the harder lines. No cigar on any notable ones, but plenty of motivation found to train and be battle-worthy on my next trip!

A classic arete route (forgot the name) at Temple Crag. Likely 5.10c-ish
The author taking flight from the Pillar Route. The dyno at the end is hard!
Like in Hampi, Tonsai in Thailand and some of the other climbing spots in Asia, monkeys are everywhere in Badami, including the climbing cliffs. Here however the simians were more aggressive than their brethren elsewhere. We faced constant harassment at the crags and had to band together to guard our belongings as these starving critters followed us with a hawk’s eye, and devised every creative ruse to steal our bags (with the possibility of food inside). We heard that over the past few decades many forests around the original village of Badami had been rapidly replaced with housing and industry, and consequently many of the monkey populations had been forcibly exiled to hideouts in dark rocky recesses around the hills, and their proud diet picking fruit and berries had been replaced with foraging for food scraps. As humanity expands, our physical footprint sadly encroaches on previously wild spaces. As climbers we were inadvertent witness to this dark side of progress.

This family of monkeys apparently lives in the cave right behind them in this photos. This was at Ganesha Plateau.

Ravi powering his way towards an early ascent on a likely mid 5.12 route at Ganesha Plateau
We were in Badami just after the new year and apparently just missed a large group of climbers on their way out. Fortunately we made friends with another small and friendly group from New Zealand, US, Europe and of course India. It was fun to discover new restaurants together (and the best dosas around!), do some customary sight seeing, and of course chill and talk more climbing on rest days. While I love the sport and pushing myself on beautiful rock walls, it’s meeting other passionate climbers and the resulting camaraderie that I cherish almost as deeply. You’ve to be a little crazy to find the ’the most difficult way up’ on rock walls in strange lands, and so we are happy to find others who understand us. 🙂

Another beautiful part of traveling for climbing is interacting with the local climbing community and connecting with their life and experiences. This is especially true for ‘under the radar’ areas where the sport hasn’t quite exploded as yet. Many years ago I found an authentic scene in Vinales, Cuba, and now I, found one here. It’s life-affirming to find shared love with the locals.

Ravi, our informal guide during this trip was just another local village kid looking at a bleak future of blue collar work in an impoverished part of the world when climbing found him. With donated shoes and a harness, he, and a few others like him, show visiting climbers around the area and earn a little money to support their climbing habit and feed their family. His unaffected demeanor, humility, and psyche for life is infectious, and it was a treat to spend time with him and ask him to climb with us even after we had learnt our way around the crags. By western (and even Indian urban) standards the guiding fee is a total bargain, as are the other costs of staying in Badami, where meals are just a couple of dollars, and adequate rooms just a few more. Being your typically self-reliant climber, I don’t normally hire a guide but was quite glad of one here, for I learnt so much about the place, its history and the local culture, in a land particularly special to me given my Indian roots.  

One of the strong local guys focused on the next step of a bouldery sequence. Definitely the land of power moves.

At the end of a short but memorable eight day stay I found myself leaving with a special relationship. I’ll remember Badami beyond just the rock, the routes, and the enormous thalis (food platters with typically unlimited helpings) we quaffed at the end of each day!

For more pictures and media from Badami and other rad places visit me at on Instagram.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Sierras are a natural home

A decade in California and I'm firmly in love with the Sierras - this place will be home for good. The granite expanses of the Sierras and the climbing here has been a cultivated love, taking a few years to seed, grow and mature. Moving to CA and leaving the phenomenal sport climbing in the East Coast, especially the New River Gorge was hard but as somebody once wisely remarked love the one you are with. 

I've just returned from an extended weekend in Tuolumne, a vast granite playground in the upper reaches of Yosemite that is only accessible in summer as it's snowed in the majority of the remainder of the year. Our second day resulted in an aborted mission to climb the direct route on Eichorn Pinnacle. We found three parties at the base of the climb, amounting to maybe two or more additional hours of waiting before we could begin on the climb. Silently cursing our friends who had suggested this climb as an 'unsung' classic, we decided to retreat and check our luck on Cathedral Peak, another popular climb next door. That climb was twice as busy! Middle of a hot day, and low on water we retreated and slogged the hike back to the road and spent the rest of the day relaxing at Tenaya Beach, a beautiful expanse of golden soft sand right by one of the prettiest roadside lakes you'll ever dip your toes in. I was surprised at how content I felt as I laid out drying from a dip in the clear waters, the hot sun on my face and a cold IPA in hand. I had actually enjoyed a day of hiking sans climbing. This place is indeed that beautiful that it doesn't really matter what you choose to do. The next few days we were smarter about our choices of climbing routes and did some nice lines around the domes and even checked out a stellar sport climbing crag as well. Highlights were the Regular Route on Fairview at 5.9, the Direct North Face, 5.10B on Lembert, South Crack (with the splitter 5.9 start), and of course flailing on the spectacular and hard sport clips at Tioga Crag.

Home in San Francisco now and fervently hoping that I can get another trip back there before the season turns. But then again proper Yosemite season begins shortly after and my palms are already sweating in the excitement.

Soaking in sun early morning on Tioga Pass as we prepare for the Regular Route on Fairview.

Gearing up and scouting it out. 

Somewhere in the middle of the Regular Route on Fairview

Comfy belay ledges on warm cloudless days. Did not suck. 
Heading up to Eichorn. Little did we know of the crowds that awaited. But the hike was gorgeous!

Scenes at camp and friends. I met Per in Colombia in 2012, in China in 2013 and then again outside the bathroom at the campground. Us climbers hang tight.
Sunset at 9K
Morning scene at camp. 
Tenaya beach - it's at 8000 feet!
Cathedral Peak in the distance. 
Shoeing up for the climb. 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Looking back: Top trip experiences

I returned from travels Thanksgiving 2013. A year has passed. I’m reminiscing with some of my top trip experiences:

  1. Getu Valley and The Great Arch. A couple of dreams realized. Experienced an amazing setting - a remote locale nestled high up in the karst caves in Guizhou (China), in a climbing-driven stay that lasted a month. A tiny village of a few hundred people, many of whom had not seen foreigners until a few years ago - and not any Indians until me I suppose! The climbing was surreal, esp at the jaw-dropping Great Arch. I also achieved some climbs in the 5.13 sport climbing grade, a goal I had set out at the beginning of the year. Beautiful friendships were formed while sharing those dusty but cozy home-stays, playing with the local kids. quaffing those endless bowls of noodle soups, ending with the 10 cent mysterious ice-cream bars, and of course the amazing, long, physical limestone lines. What more could I ask for? 
  2. The Green Climber's Home in Thakhek, Lao. A hidden climber's camp deep in the jungles outside Thakhek, Lao, I had not originally known about when I began my trip. Run by the lovely Tanja and Ueli, two climbers from Germany who stopped by while on a tourney around Asia and somehow never left. A climbing trip to a new exotic place would by itself be a satisfying synopsis, it would however omit some of the more enduring moments - evening moonlit runs on the jungle trails to a secret lake culminating in skinny-dips with friends,  hair-raising Beer Lao-fueled stories exchanged over late night campfires, tasty Laotian Som Tam, mango-sticky rice and ground pork salads made by our lovely local chefs, and esp the paternal care extended by our lovely hosts that makes this a cherished memory I cannot wait to relive.
  3. Returning to Thailand. This was my 3rd trip to Thailand to climb and 4th trip overall. This trip felt different since past trips had been quick breaks from work while this was just the beginning of my year off. Best moments were kicking back with cold beers sinking deep into sore muscles and feeling content after a full day of pulling on the limestone as we took in the sunset over the placid waters of the Andaman sea. I also loved visiting the Northern city of Chiang Mai. The highlights included a weekend trip with Marie to Chiang Dao, a beautiful mountain 2 hours outside the city. 
  4. Going exploring in the forests outside Arugam Bay and finding large herds of wild elephants. A particular evening stands out where in our greed to photograph a big bull up close and personal, we invoked his ire and almost got charged. It could have gotten ugly.
  5. Solo morning surf sessions at Peanut Farm (a surf break outside Arugam Bay) while was putting my Sri Lankan surf apprenticeship :) I would be the only person the entire morning on a world class right-hand point break. I would arrive around 7 am. Surf, eat, nap, surf some more until my arms felt ready to fall off. I had a few sessions like these before the masses also discovered that the sands had shifted enough for this beautiful wave to start working again for the season. I also credit Peanut Farm with teaching me how to surf. I spent many sessions there, fumbling a lot, taking off at times, finally reaching a point where after countless visits I knew the wave better than most and would sometimes catch up to twenty waves during a single session in the water!
  6. Going swimming early season at Okanda. The little village feels like the end of the world. It's an hour-long rickety moto ride from Arugam Bay. Early season meant that the wave wasn't breaking yet and there were no other tourists. Marie and I went swimming in this picture perfect deserted beach and spent the day frolicking. A quintessentially perfect rest day. 
  7. Saving Ollie after a near-fatal motorcycle accident on the Sri Lankan highways. Not a pleasant experience but I am fortunate to have been allowed the opportunity and glad that I was there to assist and escort Ollie through Sri Lanka's chaotic but caring medical care system. 
  8. Taking my parents for a safari to Kumana national park in the East Coast of Sri Lanka. It was a treat to have my Dad, well versed with the natural world, and particularly encyclopedic about birds of the Indian sub-continent. come alive with glee, as he educated the rest of us on the fascinating creatures that we spotted. It was humbling yet joyful to be back learning from my parents, and a soothing reminder that I can always look to them for inspiration and scholarship. It was so nice to have my parents visit me during my travels and get a taste of the backpacker / surfer lifestyle. They took everything in their stride in such good spirit. Staying with me at the simple cottages by the beach; making muesli breakfasts together; going for languid walks down the village; they were such a good sport. Thanks for stopping by Mom and Dad
  9. With some free time in Delhi as I recovered from minor eye surgery at the end of the trip I found a music school to teach me the basics of the dholak, a classical Indian percussion instrument. It also provided me a first-hand glimpse where hidden underneath the polluted skies and ugly classism, there are beautiful art forms that this historic city can still offer, if you just know where to look. 

Thursday, October 24, 2013

An Ayurveda Escape

Ground herbs to be used for medicines. 
The vice-grip clenches down on my funny-bone and I can't help but exhale a little yelp. The grip doesn't relent but tightens further as if goaded on by my guttural feedback, and now begins to move up and down my thigh squeezing with increased rigor. I'm pinioned between two masseuses who are bent on identifying and decoupling knots and other abnormalities they find around my body. I'm compressed, kneaded, pulled and manipulated with skilled hands as they methodically scour my entire body. There's nary a stitch of clothing on me and there's little that they miss. While the session on my upper back and traps was excruciating, the one on my thighs is singularly tormenting. I'm tickled (it's my funny-bone after all), and squirming in agony, all at the same time. As a grown man, my little cries feel embarrassing. Chakrapani, one of the masseuses, assures me that my reactions are quite normal. I'm hardly comforted and plead with them to slow down. This is after all my first day at the Ayurveda center and I'm supposed to last for the next two weeks. Soon the discomfort recedes making way for deeper sensations of tranquility and well-being. The depth of which I probably couldn't experience had I not been subjected to the suffering first. How did I end up here? I was on a surf discovery mission after all.
After lapping up the Cyclone Phailin-borne swell in the the ancient and exotic, if mucky, beach town of Mahabalipurm, we had made our way to Pondicherry, an erstwhile French colony that was reputed for culinary excellence, both for an avantè garde blend of French and Indian, as well as exquisite traditional Tamil Nadu fare. In particular I was on the hunt for the best thali - a bottomless platter of fragrant curries, pickles, and stir-fried vegetables served with papadam, rice and/or roti that is usually served at lunchtime. We found an excellent one at Surguru's, and for about 2 USDs we gorged ourselves silly. With the eye of a fussy grandma, the servers hover around tables persistently refilling empty bowls, forcing me to err on the side of gluttony. I personally ate enough for lunch that dinner was a moot point that day. We also found good bakeries for breakfast and eclectic street food to cap off evening walks in the Pondicherry promenade. We also explored Auro-beach and visited a surf-school run by two friendly Auroville-raised Spaniards. It slowly dawned on me that I needed a break from surfing on account of open skin wounds that refused to heal with daily and prolonged exposure to aquatic elements. While being a general tourist can be fun on occasion and there were plenty of promising sights in South India, i was looking for something profound and longer-lasting. I reverted to the notion of calling on to a cleansing / nature care facility, an idea that I had entertained at the beginning of my travels last year. It felt like it's time had finally come. I was close to Kerala, the center of Ayurveda - an alternative system of healing based on the belief that health and wellness depend on a delicate balance between the mind, body, and spirit. The primary focus of Ayurvedic medicine is to promote good health, rather than fight disease. I wasn't suffering from any serious malady and felt that an Ayurveda escape would be sublime to align and reset my systems from the past year of sports and travel induced gluttony.
The left at Auroville
Another couple of days of research and planning, and voila, i found myself at Matt India Ayurveda, deep in the heart of rural Kerala, in the village of Turavur, and on the banks of the famed Keralan backwaters. Without the hazards of modern telecom it would certainly feel like a place that time forgot. The facility itself is organized more like a hospital than a retreat and they take patient care rather seriously. They have space for many more, but refuse to take more than a dozen patients at a time. In fact there were only four others when I arrived here mid-October. It is still Monsoon here which is apparently also the ideal time for Ayurvedic treatment. The herbs used in the medicines are in bloom, and the moist air promotes healing. The Keralan rainstorms are awe-inspiring certainly. It's poured almost every day of the past week that I have been here and the thunderclap is loud enough to be startling. 
The Matt India campus
The backwaters right behind the center.
Getting a tour

The clinic was different than what I imagined. Actually I had no right to expect anything, having no experience, and my knowledge of Ayurveda being next to none. It was not the kind of cleansing getaway popular in the West where they attempt to detoxify you by restricting to an exclusive diet of limited raw foods and juices, and flushing the hell out of your colon with daily enemas. Instead here they nourish with fresh, mouth-watering South Indian food (albeit cooked with minimal fat), herbal juices, and seasonal fruits, but also pummeled you with intense massages, hot oil baths and several other types of focused therapy. I suppose Ayurveda doesn't believe in starvation but instead seeks to bring you in balance with providing clean food complemented by various external ministrations. I had mixed feelings initially as I did entertain the goal of a colonic cleanse, however I realized I could (with some determination) administer my own cleansing diet back home, but wouldn't find this kind of Keralan program anywhere else in the world. 
The verandah outside my room. Daily sunshine!
Half-way into my two week stay, my daily routine is something like this:
6 am: wakeup, exercise and yoga. Hatha style focusing on pranayama
9 am: breakfast with fruit, raw herb juice, South Indian cooked treat (pitta, idli, iddappam etc). 
11-2: treatment time. usually consists of a combination of a deep oil massage, hot oil bath, kiri (massage with herbs in a sponge), sauna with herbal steam. I usually have 2-3 therapists devoted to me. What an indulgence! The doctor peeps in his head with specific instructions for the caregivers.
2:30: Lunch. Usually sprouted lentils, salads, rice/roti, a curry.
7: Dinner, light food. Herbal juice, some veggies and maybe a roti.
10: Bedtime!
The rest of the day i read, go for walks, spend on the Internet etc. Aside from planned trips to Fort Kochi, and walks around the backwaters, there isn't much to recreate with. Just as well as i needed to catch up with my reading and writing.
Every meal freshly made, often with herbs and veggies from the garden outside 

Others currently at the center consist of Renè from Switzerland, Carmela from Brazil, Dennis from Russia and Babubhai, a Gujarati from Mumbai. They are all older than me and came here with grave joint issues and now report remarkable progress. Babubhai for example, couldn't lift his arms above his shoulders, but is now finding breakthroughs during morning yoga. Renè had severe back and neck pain that has receded rapidly. While nothing serious, I have weak knees that abhor running and am hoping that my legs can find some alignment here. With all that pain, they better! I also have chronic sinusitis, the treatment for which begins tomorrow. I expect it will be face massages and jal-neti. 

The Matt India team. Love these guys despite the pain some of them inflicted on me every day :)
I'm quite amazed by this facility though. It's the sort of place that makes you feel good all over. I marvel at the kindness and care lavished by Joy, the director, the massage therapists, and all the way to the kitchen staff. It's evident that they are doing it with love, to help and heal My stay here is very inexpensive. The cost is all-inclusive - accommodations, food, diagnosis, medicine, the treatments, et all. In the US you would have barely afforded a cheap motel at this price. They don't discriminate between foreigners and Indians and make it very reasonable for everybody. Prices aside, they listen to everything you have to say, learn your habits so as to provide better care, and not the least, cook really well! I'm known to be an exacting skeptic, but here I can happily say that I've genuinely felt like family and am so glad that places like this exist. To help others without ulterior motives, and to find joy in your work, is another reinforcing message that I'll take away from Matt India.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Homing in to India - To Where It All Began

Lucky to have a pro photog take this rather grimaceful shot at Peanut Farms one fine day. 
It is quite early and the sun filters through the gaps in my cabana's thatched walls to bathe me in warm light and gently break my spell under Morpheus. Accustomed to early morning wake-ups, my body stirs up slowly but deliberately after another night of restful sleep. This morning feels different. I feel rested but can't seem to follow the habituated motions of leaving my creaky bed, gulping water, and rushing out of my cabana, surf board and wax in hand. Yeah, I'm sore from accumulated fatigue, and the swell is forecasted weak, but frankly, after three months of non-stop surfing in Arugam Bay, I've finally hit a wall. I just cannot muster the effort to jimmy up for another sunrise session today. I have had double surf session days for all of the last week and for most of my time here. I've been remarkably driven and have foregone other plans to spend maximal time in the water. It's been early to bed, early to rise and out of the door most days to try and beat the crowds and make the most of crisp offshore conditions. My surfing that was progressing so well has also plateaued and honestly stagnated the last couple of weeks. When a place and an activity so inherently joyful starts to feel like tedium it is time to switch things up. 
One of the beach dogs had a litter. Unfortunately only these two survived. They are cute eh?
Friends, travel buddies, surfing brahs

It was nearing the end of September and I had completed four months in delightful Sri Lanka but it was time to move on indeed. The call of India was getting strong. In the fourteen years since I moved to the US i have been fortunate to have returned home often, annually and sometimes even bi-annually, but have spent scant time outside my parents' home and the city of Delhi. The call to visit and explore India was strong-to visit familiar as well as uncharted parts, for the amazing cuisine that is resplendent across the footprint, but most of all to visit a country as a native, to be able to talk in Hindi, and to feel pride in the kaleidoscope of wonders that my country has to offer. I was also very keen on discovering surfing possibilities. India has a vast coastline but information on the potentially innumerable breaks is difficult to access There are a few known spots as per Surfline, Stormrider and other resources, as well as blogs and websites that speak to some lovely breaks that are to be found in either coast. The surfing scene is quite nascent in the country and hence precise information is elusive. Brad and Semira were game for the adventure as well. I figured that we would plan a rough itinerary, look for quality surf, keep an open mind and dip ourselves in other adventures to be had around. Tickets from Colombo to Chennai are absurdly cheap - we scored ours for about $55 USD one way to arrive in Chennai October 10th. Conveniently a few of the welll known surf breaks are on the coast right next to Chennai and that would make for an easy gateway for exploration.I was getting really amped as I started devouring media on India online and acquired a Lonely Planet to add to the stoke. 
At the secret watering hole near Arugam Bay

The Arugam Bay season was ending and we thought we would give ourselves a chance to visit the West and South-West coast of Sri Lanka for a few days before we headed away. My good friends Vikram and Shweta joined us for a few days of traveling around the laid-back and gorgeous seaside towns that are strung like a necklace beneath Colombo and stretch all the way to the Southern tip and the town of Tangalle. In the town of Midigama, we found a cute b&b place right on the beach and possibly my favorite place to stay in my travels so far this year. The surf season hadn't kicked off yet and the town was empty. My room and verandah was right off the beach and I would wake up with the morning light glimmering off the ocean, take many swims through the day, and end with the rolling waves lulling me to slumber. We tried surfing one evening on small waves and choppy seas but Arugam had spoilt us and we threw in the towel pretty quickly . Last evening in Sri Lanka was spent luxuriating at a sea side five start hotel. We ordered mojitos and read in the plush lobby and followed up with a nice dosa dinner. Preparing for South India what else? :)

With Sugi's family in Midigama at my favorite accomodation ever in this trip.
The view from my verandah. The lazy left is breaking right behind the relaxed kingfisher
Galle Fort
The first thing that really hits as you as you leave the Chennai airport are the smells. Growing up in Delhi I don't remember noticing as much, but India is indeed redolent with a variety of odors everywhere. 6:30 in the morning driving out in the cool breeze, we were welcomed by the freshness wafting off the rain drying off from the night before, the aroma of rotis and garlicky onions frying over ghee from the dhabas in the narrow alleyways the taxi had to sometimes squiggle through, and unfortunately the smell of streetside faeces both human and animal. It made for a heady combination. I have faint memories of a Mahabalipuram visit as a kid aeons ago and chose this temple town as the first base of operations given its proximity to Chennai and promise of a surfable swell. Dylan and Moni, an Australian couple whom I met in Arugam and shared the flight to Chennai with, decided to join me for the Mahabs explore. Dylan a lifelong surfer, immediately perked up upon eyeing the wave breaking off the Shore Temple. The right facing wave broke off by the stone walls of the temple into a beautiful hollow shape that promised barrel rides to the expert, and then into a gentler peeling shoulder where the rest of us could play as well. 

I was lucky to score a basic sea-facing room at the Sri Harul Guest House. At Rs 800 a night it was a bit pricier than the other options but you can't put a price on a stunning view, esp of the wave itself as it formed and broke right outside my personal patio and the rising minarets of the Shore Temple just past the rocky point. It's a treat to be able to relax in the room, or the rooftop restaurant, read and chill, observe the waves, and then jump into the water whenever conditions shine. Talking of which, we are lucky to catch this place good. This is nearing the end of the season here but there is a nice swell this weekend due to winds generated by a cyclone off the East coast of India. The wind is offshore all day. So it doesn't even matter when you get in the water. Usually high-tide is better, but today it's been good all day. The main point does get busy but there is also a nice beach break where you can have glassy peaks all to yourself. After the easy point breaks in Arugam, I've 'enjoyed' getting schooled here. Catching waves has been harder, but I'm polishing skills in wave selection and peak-chasing which are critical for similar beach breaks back in San Francisco. The ride here is short but fast and steep. A really quick take-off where you need to angle the board immediately, pump down the line and abruptly bail before the vicious shore break catches up with you. Brownish murky, the water is dirtier indeed though. You cannot see your feet when you are sitting on the board and you leave the water not feeling very clean. Slightly vexing but not a big deal.
Cyclone Phailin delivered and this guy catches a barrel at the Shore Temple point break. The audience in front are not too impressed though.

Mahabalipuram (or Mammallapuram, before it got renamed by the Brits) is a fascinating town. An 8th-century Tamil text describes this place as a Sea Mountain ‘where the ships rode at anchor bent to the point of breaking laden as they were with wealth, big trunked elephants and gems of nine varieties in heaps’. And while this happened centuries ago, the colourful historical past is apparent as one walks down the ancient streets, and from the old temples dating back to the 7th century that portray events of the Mahabharatha. Visiting these sights was a welcome change from the other Asian countries that I've visited in this trip -  for here I could relate to the history and the religious myths, having been fond of them as a child. It's nice to be a tourist in my own country, yes indeed.
I'm watching ya watching me...

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Getu, and Breakthrough to New Levels

A belated post about tripping to Getu Valley, China in April / May 2012. 

The first ascent of Lost In Translation on The Great Arch (courtesy Petzl)
An overview of one of the climbing zones in Getu from the Petzl guide
Rock climbing in Getu was barely an idea when I was planning my trip to climb in Asia this past year. The wonderfully-made video of the Petzl Roc Trip had fired the collective imaginations of the climbing community, of discovering untouched lines on the magnificent limestone of the hidden valleys and caves that remote China had to offer. Last Thanksgiving (end of November 2012) I had my delightful cousins over from SoCal visiting me in San Francisco when one evening found us tired from a day of urban adventures, relaxing at home and looking up stuff to watch on Roku. They had expressed curiosity about rock climbing and I figured that the Petzl video projected from my home theatre would be a great introduction to the wonders of outdoor climbing. I was happy to re-watch and relish the amazement in their young faces as they quizzed me about the sport and then wondered whether I would visit Getu as part of my travels. I had certainly planned to call in on Yanghsuo - the current epicenter of Chinese climbing - but doubted that I would go much farther.

The prospect to visit Getu started to take real shape once I met other climbers on the road who were indeed enticed by the same and had already started collecting beta on the logistics of the journey. Once the Yangshuo weather started deteriorating my excitement for Getu started perking up. With nothing to lose, and armed with travel beta and enough snacks to fill a hungry schoolroom, Tim and I started off for the remote village of Getu He, high up in the Ziyun river mountains in the Guizhou  province. In the middle of the journey we ran into four other climbers and teamed up over the length of two buses and one final bumpy van ride that would bring us to our quiet (and quaint) destination. Arriving in the cool breeze of the setting sun, high up in the hills, the place immediately felt a world apart from the hustle bustle of busy Yangshuo. The village of Getu He is a strip of small two-three storey ramshackle structures over a 250 meter stretch of the road that had barely seen any foreigners until the Petzl athletes showed up a couple of years ago. There were kids playing outside their homes - some of which doubled up as home stays for us climbers - and a couple of shops which sold basic provisions. The famous arch was faintly visible from the distance. Tim and I ambled up to the base of the arch and shared a silent moment of awe and gratitude as we thought about the forces of nature that created this stunning formation and the first people climbers to discover and fathom it's climbing potential. 

The Great Arch at dusk
Tourist boats at the Lower Arch on the Getu river flowing through
As climbers we were the only tourists in this small village. For some reason it did not feel that strange to have 15-20 foreigners who barely spoke any of the local language interacting on close quarters with the locals, most of whom had not set foot outside their province and did not understand a lick of English. Tim and I found a room to share and for about 5 USD each we had our own beds and a private bathroom with a hot shower. The room was crying for a scrubbing and and the shower had to be held up so it wouldn't collapse but it was cheap and there weren't many choices.

We gathered in one of the few restaurants for dinner with the rest of the motley crew of climbers. One of the singular delights of the climbing world, that I'll never tire off, is meeting old friends everywhere. Let me see if I can remember some of the names (it's been a few months!) - Tim, Ben, Kenny, Carolina, Nat and Nick, the three Slovaks, Doug, Keren, Vang and both the Erics. The food - rice, noodles, and different kinds of stir-fried veggies - was fresh and tasty. Grub that would eventually fatigue, in the four weeks that I'd ultimately spend in Getu. But I definitely didn't tire of the 50 cent beer. Not a huge drinker, I do enjoy the occassional frothie at the end of a climbing day and it was literally cheaper than bottled water.

The beautiful Pusayan crag

The endless steps lead to...
....the inside of the Great Arch. A little like Jurassic Park once you start wandering. (for scale look at the guy walking on the right side)
The next day early morning, we headed out to explore Fish Crag that is described in the Petzl Guide as 'the crag that every climber wishes they had in their backyard. Spectacular, bulletproof yellow limestone lined with blue striations, sculpted to perfection ...'. On the way we stopped to warm up at 'Left of Red', a wall with more intermediate grades in the 6a-6c range. The rock felt sharp, but not chossy or friable. After two quick warmups we made our way over to Fish Crag. We didn't actually started climbing on this sun-facing crag till mid-day but lucked out as it stayed cloudy and breezy all day and temps were just perfect for crimping and high-stepping on the slight rigidities on the just past vertical stone. The climbing was technical and though-provoking, forcing smart and precise movement. While I was fairly tired from the long bus rides of the day before I did put a good effort in that day and came out with one of my best onsights ever - Le GĂ©nĂ©ral Arrive Ă  Pied par la Chine 7b. A 30 meter long climb, it traverses through small cruxes and half-decent rests never quite letting up. I forced myself to be patient and optimise any recovery points and didn't get excited until I had safely clipped the chains. There was barely any chalk on the route and I climbed hanging quick draws .Pleased with the effort. I also tried Corazon De Melao another beautiful 7b+, doing all the moves but didn't get a 2nd try to red point. The end of the day Eric in his smooth effortless style cruised up a slabby 7b and suggested that I try as well. I should have known better. I was exhausted at this point and 12b slabs are not quite my niche. Unable to muster up the strength and gumption to make a scary move a few meters above the bolt I took a quasi-intentional fall, tumbling maybe 5-7 meters down, and yelled as I whipped. Hit my ankle on the wall as I stopped but nothing too serious. I was too shaken to try the move again and Eric gamely offered to go up the route, again, to get the quick draws down. What a guy. My hero for sure. In fact Eric is one of the most elegant climbers I've ever seen. He makes climbing look effortless and graceful like a ballerina. He reads the route beautifully, climbs fast without any wasted effort or movement, and commits completely to every move. In fact he reads sequences so well, his onsights look better executed than red point tries by most climbers! Completely drained I made the long walk back to the hotel, early dinner and early to bed.

Fooling around at Fish Crag. Endless unexplored rock behind us. 

Around Getu He. Karts hills and rice paddies.

Over the next few days I'd sample the climbing at most of the crags around. The weather was gorgeous, cool, and mostly sunny all around. Not dissimilar to early fall weather on the US east coast. Manna from heaven after the endless rain and wetness we got in Yangshuo. So glad that I had decided to come. My favorite crags were Banyang's Cave and The Great Arch. Banyang is your typical sport crag. Long overhung routes with grades all the way up to 8b. The Great Arch is of course the crowning jewel of the region - a spectacular arch that is rightfully one of the many wonders of the natural world. Full of exotic flora and fauna, it features climbing on interesting scoop like features. Grades of the established routes go all the way up to 9a, including Dani Andrada's visionary multi-pitch Corazon De Ensueno 8c, a striking line over the steepest part of the cathedra. Fortunately its also host to easier climbs for us mere mortals. I had a proud flash / onsight of a Dani Andrada 7a+ the first day there. Not a hard grade but featuring a scary crux with movement on crappy features sideways from the bolt. Admittedly I did want to take at one point but couldn't as I was too far from the quickdraw so kept plodding on and soon found myself at the chains. I had lately been having issues with pushing myself on committing moves and this one satisfying. Towards the end of the day I spotted the route that I'd dedicate the next week to. Autochtono 7c+ is 25 meter climb on gently overhanging rock on upside down scoops the whole way up.  The movement had me in knots and I barely got up the route moving from draw to draw and taking some long falls at the end. It was like learning to climb all over again. A very frustrating end of the day experience but also surprisingly psyched to have found a worthy adversary of a route of the 7c+ / 5.13a grade. I had been looking for a project of this difficulty and realised that while the beta was emphatically cryptic, none of the moves would be impossible. So I decided to commit to this route and found myself returning to it 4 days in a row. The next few burns were frustrating still as my thick skull couldn't seem to unlock the sequences easily enough. Just as important as the grade was the sheer uniqueness of the climb. I felt that here was an opportunity to try something hard, unique, and beautiful in a place as wondrous as the Great Arch of Getu. By the 5th attempt I had finally sussed out all the moves, and learnt of the crucial knee bar that would be vital to obtain that small rest before the final crux. I was now linking the routes and feeling better with every burn. Tim got psyched on the route as well and I had now a steady partner to work on the route. Progress was coming quick and after a day of rest Tim and I were back on the project after a quick warm up. I was relishing the route enough and surprisingly did not feel the pressure to send. Redpointing was just a matter of time. First try that day I found myself at the knee bar with plenty of energy to spare and soon found myself cruising the final crux (but not without a loud exhalatory yell to ensure I made the move) and then quickly after was pulling in rope for the precarious clip to the anchors, balanced between a siippery fat right hand pinch and a smeary left foot. The route done I let out a small whoop but also felt an immediate tinge of sadness. My relationship with this beautiful thing was over now. I was barely pumped from the effort and felt good when Tim remarked that I looked smooth and fluent through the climb. He tied in right after me and egged by that bit of peer pressure went on to red point as well. Team send. Did a couple of other climbs and went back to camp. Extra ice cream to celebrate my first 5.13a. I had come close to doing this grade before so it was more relief than anything else to have succeeded. 

Some folks had started leaving Getu for onward travels but fortunately fresh muscles arrived in the shape of Hagen, Sabrina, Juri and Dan. I had climbed with all of them previously in Yangshuo, and Dan and I had spent time together in Thakhek, Lao as well. Before Tim left, he and I had started trying another classic 7c+ called Loco De Noodles ( or Crazy from Noodles, a name that I could well identify with after 3 weeks of a noodle-centric diet) at Banyang Cave. A very different kind of route and a more typical sport route. All power endurance with a knee-bar assisted crux. I was having trouble committing at the crux that was high above the bolt and required more gumption than I was giving. The falls were long but safe. And daresay both of us logged some air time. It always seems to take me longer to figure out the right combination of precision and daring when trying difficult routes. Maybe because I haven't projected much in the last few years I forget that facing moves at your limit requires that 'try hard' attitude. No pain no gain right? Anyway as it always magically happens the moves got progressively easier and I found that in about 4 tries I was linking the routes with two falls / takes. Tim sent the route in another couple of tries and left Getu to enjoy the freebies at the Le Ye climbing festival. I lost my steady ally in Tim but found Dan to accompany me to Banyang so he could window-shop some of the other stiffer routes. Dan, is mutantly strong, humble and patient, and about as solid a partner as one can hope for. I sent the route the 2nd try of the day. Another 13a in the bag. Sweet! Dan worked on sending harder stuff and he and I left satisfied. But not before a crazy rainstorm almost got us lost as we were making our way in the dark. We were groping our way down rice paddies, falling and sliding the entire way back. Finally made it back to camp and that hot shower was not underserved. I did not complain about the staple rice and stir-fry meal that night. Returned to Banyang a couple days later to try another route, a 8a (13B) that I felt I could have sent with better beta and a bit more effort. Not meant to be as by that time I had spent about 4 weeks in Getu and was physically and mentally spent. A charming little town with sensational climbing, it does lack for other diversions. A city kid, I need stimulation of many sorts and realized that it was time to move on. Fully satisfied, I left back for Yangshuo and hoped for dry weather to get back on some of the unfinished projects I had left behind.

Tim busted a flapper while working Loco De Noodles. Came back to send next day though!
Delicious string beans
Smoked tofu, a local specialty
Dan's pretty kicked up on this upcoming morsel of food (you don't wanna know what!)
One of the better things to have come out of the Getu trip was developing a habit of morning yoga. Inspired by Eric's pre-breakfast practice, I began utilizing my morning time with some asanas and found that my body started responding well. In fact after about 45 minutes of yoga my body was quite warmed up  and allowed me to be stronger and limber at the crag. Breakfast tasted much better too! Thank goodness of all the time that I've put into yoga whereas I can jumpstart a basic practice without a teacher. Thank you Eric for the inspiration!