Above: Starting up the unclimbed spire with the 1,000-foot high Savandurga in the distance.
On our climbing trip to norther India in July/August 2019, we met Mohit Oberi, who did many of the early first ascents around Bangalore (also known as Bengaluru) in south-central India. Mohit raved about the quality of climbing and almost unlimited potential for new routes around Bangalore. Mohit connected us with his friend, Dinesh Kaigonhalli ("Dini"), a climbing who lives in Bangalore and owns the Indian outdoor gear company, Wildcraft. As we researched visting Bangalore, i also made contact with Sohan Pavuluri, the area guidbook author.
Given encouragement from Mohit, Dini and Sohan, Donette and I decided to visit the Bangalore area during the prime climbing time, December. As we were flying from California to India on Thanksgiving Day, we got emails from Mohit and Sohan that some local Bangalore climbers had just been stopped by Indian Forest Service officials while climbing. The climbers were ordered off the rock and all of their climbing gear was seized. As we were already enroute, there was little we could do but continue to Bangalore and hope we would get to climb somewhere.
When we arrived, we met with Dini, Sohan and another local climber, Pranesh Manchiah (“Prani”). Prani and Dini had both worked for the National Outdoor Leadership School (“NOLS”) and thus had experiences similar to Donette’s from her time with Outward Bound. They told us the Forest Service was declaring the cliffs on the land they manage as off limits to climbing. Since the seizure of the gear just days before, the Bangalore climbing community had been trying to work their way up the Forest Service chain of command to discuss the legitimacy of climbing, but no real progress had yet been made.
Mohit had arranged for us to stay at a beautiful farm just outside of Ramanagara, a city about an hour south of Bangalore. We rented an SUV and with white knuckles, drove to the farm on December 1st. The following day, Dini and Prani were kind enough to drive us around and show us a dozen or so non-forest climbing areas. We also visited a silk worm farm in a small village.
Above: Dinesh, Pranesh and Donette examining the Bangalore area guidebook
Above: women sorting silk worm cocoons in a small village near Ramanagara.
As we stopped at each climbing locale, Prani and Dini recounted various first ascents and told of their encounters with leopards and sloth bears. While sloth bears may sound slow and unproblematic, the source of all true knowledge, Wikipedia, paints a different picture: “...Sloth bears are one of the most aggressive extant bears and, due to large human populations often closely surrounding reserves that hold bears, aggressive encounters and attacks are unfortunately relatively frequent. Going on raw numbers, this is the species of bear that most regularly attacks humans. A single Indian district seems to report a roughly equal number of fatalities for humans each year from sloth bears as do the entire circumpolar range of brown [grizzly] bears...” We did some additional reading about other potential hazards (rarely a good idea) and found the Ramanagara area was also home to cobras, elephants and tigers.
December is indeed a perfect time to visit the cliffs around Bangalore. The vegetation is lush and green, with many plants flowering. Butterflies are flittering everywhere and birds are happily chirping. This all sounds wonderful, until you start bushwhacking through waist high grass in an area known for cobras... Luckily, we didn’t encounter any, but every time we entered the brush, we thought about cobras, bears and leopards (oh my). As we tried to approach one cliff that held an area classic, we found ourselves crawling through dense brush. Under a huge boulder, was a circular depression in the dirt – later confirmed by Sohan as a place where a sloth bear had recently been sleeping.
Over the course of our trip, we climbed at eight different areas, repeating classic routes and establishing five new climbs (we also ate a ton of fantastic Indian food). One weekend we attended the annual Bangalore climbing festival, known as “the Romp.” This event was organized by Sohan and held at a cliff north of Bangalore called Varlakonda. This fantastic crag currently has dozens of routes and potential for a hundred more. On Donette’s birthday, we completed a new route at Varlakonda with Jayanthi (“Jay”) Kuru-Utumpala, who in 2016, became the first citizen of Sri Lanka to stand atop Mount Everest.
Above: Gearing up with Jay from Sri Lanka below Varlakonda. Photo by Praveen Jayakaran.
While driving around with Dini and Prani on our orientation day, we saw an unclimbed 150- foot-high free-standing rock formation. A couple days later, we returned to the area with Prani to check out the cliff up close. We spoke with the owner of a big greenhouse operation in front of the rock and he said it was not forest land and okay to climb. A few days later, Donette and I returned, intending to climb the spire. As we were parking, we met a farmer tending his field below the rock (and adjacent to the greenhouses) who spoke English. We told him we wanted to climb the rock. He confirmed it was okay and told us how to approach.
We started climbing and in short order, some local villagers showed up to watch. Everyone seemed happy and we showed them gear, offered snacks and joked around. As I got back down (but still had rope and gear to the top of the spire), a police officer arrived. He wasn't in uniform, but had a meter-long riot baton as a symbol of authority. The officer demanded to see our governmental permission letter allowing us to rock climb. When I said we didn’t have a letter, he said we must immediately come to the police station with him. I told him this wasn't forest land, that two different local landowners had said it was okay to climb and that climbing had occurred in the area since the 1970s, but none of that mattered.
Eventually I got Dini on the phone, who talked to the officer and convinced him that a permission letter was not needed to rock climb in India. The result was we just needed to leave so the officer could save face in front of the villagers. While Donette was setting up a rappel to get off the spire, one of the older villagers, who I had shown gear to and shared snacks with, told me that he was the owner of the rock. He was there the whole time the police officer was there. I asked the man if it was okay to climb and he said yes. With a smile, he offered his hand and we shook. When Donette got down, he wanted his picture taken with us and told us we were the first people ever to attain the top of the rock. He was happy we had reached the summit and curious about what was up there.
When we got to our car, a reporter wanted to take our picture and the policeman was in the photo, all smiles. At the very end, the officer asked Donette for a "gift." Using her best elementary school principal demeanor, she told the officer that giving gifts to police was wrong and he should be ashamed. He gave a weak smile and left.
On our final day in Bangalore, we attended the Asian Youth Climbing Championship. This event was attended by climbing teams from 13 Asian countries. We sat with Prani and watched the speed climbing finals. Four Indians ultimately won awards – a proud day for Indian climbing.
During our visit we learned there is a vibrant climbing community in Bangalore and they have a lot of work ahead of them to secure climbing access for the future. We hope to someday return and share additional adventures with our wonderful Indian friends.
Above: Some of the Romp participants below Varlakonda. Photo by Praveen Jayakaran.