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Updated: January 29, 2011 19:15 IST

Leh meets gravity

Shyam G. Menon
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Workout options: Simulated climbing gym. Photo: Paul Noronha.
The Hindu Workout options: Simulated climbing gym. Photo: Paul Noronha.

Gravit, an unconventional climbing gym set up by young Vaibhav Mehta is set to attract tourists to Leh.

On the second floor of a building on Fort Road in Leh, a local curiosity has been on for some time now. `Gravit' is the name of a cafe, part that and part climbing gym. It is promoted by Vaibhav Mehta, a young rock climber from Mumbai who is also as yet the only Indian to be supported by Petzl, among the world's leading manufacturers of climbing equipment. That makes him part of a team travelling worldwide to climb. October was his first such overseas trip climbing with the likes of Dave Graham, Daniel Woods, Michael Fuselier and Tony Lamiche in Mexico.

Planning for long

I first met Vaibhav at the foot of a modestly high rock face inside Mumbai's Sanjay Gandhi National Park, where he and friends were obsessing with a climbing route aptly called – Finger Crisis. Soon an icon of sorts in the local circuit, Vaibhav was part of a group of young climbing addicts who brought sport climbing to the city. It was a new dimension to Mumbai. The shift to sport climbing attracted youth as this version of climbing was more urban and suited to competition format. Vaibhav and his friends featured at the national sport climbing championship, ranking within the top ten. To his credit Vaibhav found opportunities to climb abroad; did his route setter's course and served that role at regional and national climbing competitions in India. At the 2006 Asia Cup, he was assistant route setter. Plans for a climbing gym had been on for a long time. The trajectory in occupation contrasted family backdrop. He hailed from a middle class business family running a shop selling luggage at Dadar, for the last couple of generations. What however beckoned was climbing and his family eventually gave in to that urge.

Following his marriage to Lydia, who is French, the couple shifted to Leh. While Lydia worked for a NGO, Vaibhav, now speaking fluent French, worked as a trekking guide with French tourists. Slowly, the gym that hadn't happened in Mumbai took shape. Technical know-how wasn't a problem. Vaibhav had been among core brains organising a national level open climbing competition in Mumbai. Short of funds, the climbing walls were always home made. Over several years, the home-made solutions became good enough for acceptance by even foreign climbers participating in the event. In Leh, where steel slotted angles were hard to come by, the wall's framework was made from wood. The facade was plywood and the climbing holds, imported. Vaibhav's wall sported 17 climbing routes at start. By its second month, it was 25. In terms of climbing difficulty the hardest route was a `7c'. There were plenty of fives and sixes to get hooked.

Although 2010 was a mixed tourist season in Leh, Vaibhav claimed interest in Gravit was slowly building up. A few local people had used the wall. Some walked in for a look while I was there. The situation was actually odd. The small town ringed by high mountains and home to a hardy mountain people, had several mountaineers who have climbed the high Himalaya. The local regiment, Ladakh Scouts, had been instrumental in military operations at high altitude like the stand-off on the Siachen Glacier. That's where the disparity with Vaibhav's sport began. Ladakhis had so far looked at high mountains and climbed them.

Indoor gym

Living at a high altitude, working as mountain guides and sometimes tackling mountains as part of army, for them, the larger feature dominated. Mountain meant something large and solid. And climbing was an activity done on that scale. Vaibhav's climbing – spanning bouldering to sport climbing – was not about bulky mountains or altitude. It entailed focussed climbing problems that were at times no more than a string of half a dozen moves. But those moves would be gymnastic and terribly difficult. Needless to say, the local reaction I gauged ranged from puzzlement to hurt pride. “What climbing is this?” the owner of a large adventure company asked. He knew sport climbing and bouldering very well but couldn't fathom the addiction. How could terribly difficult moves on artificial wall or natural boulder obsess the human mind when miles of altitude, snow and ice sprawled all around?

Despite the prevalence in mountaineering, Leh lacked a climbing club. It had plenty of rock faces, yet rock climbing (which is thoroughly different from rappelling) was rarely mentioned as adventure sport on the menu. Among the many getting fitted out for trekking, mountaineering, rafting, cycling and motorcycling in that small town – the typical crag hopper, the sort with nothing for climbing equipment save chalk bag, rock shoes and crashad, was hard to find. In contrast, cities like Mumbai, Pune, Bangalore, Kolkata and Delh have many climbing clubs. Darjeeling and Manipur have also maintained strong presence in rock climbing. Somewhere in that expanse of high mountains, snow and ice, Leh overlooked its possibilities on rock. Vaibhav who explored rock climbing in the area had noticed several climbing lines in the sixes and sevens. `` I am sure there are harder ones,'' he said. Meanwhile, efforts were afoot within the local community in Leh to start a climbing club. While Ladakh catches up on a sport it overlooked and decides how to respond, the best bet for Vaibhav would probably be foreign tourists who are no strangers to climbing gyms. He was constructing a website for Gravit. He would love to think the gym was the world's highest; a favourite adjective in Leh. But then as everyone cautioned, there is Bolivia.

(The author is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai)

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