Badami is a small town located in northern Karnataka, one of the oldest settlements of ancient India. Pulakeshin – the most famous king of the Chalukya empire – decided that Badami would be his capital because the area is protected by rugged sandstone cliffs on three sides. Today, with no empire to protect, these bulging rock faces and steep sandstone towers have transformed into an ideal playing ground for climbers.
“French Indian Masala”, a 20 meter long route, famous for its tiny holds and powerful sequences is a climbing treat for most climbers. On January 19th, 2018, Gowri Varanashi could be seen gripping quarter inch rock holds with her fingers and slowly climbing up the line only to become the first Indian woman to climb a route graded 7b+.
2017 has been a year where top female athletes have been breaking records. Prateeksha Arun from Bangalore became the combined Lead and Bouldering National Champion. Margo Hayes from the USA became the first woman to climb the coveted 9a+ grade, Austrian climber Angela Eiter climbed “La Planta de Shiva” a route graded 9b and was the third person to do so. In 2018, Prerna Dangi went on a frozen waterfall climbing spree and established “THUKPA, HWI7 (under the Dankar monastery)” which may be one of the hardest ice-routes in India. It’s hard not to acknowledge these achievements – especially when our society educates us about apparent differences in the female and male body/mind construction. The athletic side of these feats help break our deep seated gender perceptions that women cannot be as physically capable as men.
One might picture Gowri as a hardcore athlete who has been pursuing the sport of climbing since she was a child. However, she is a wildlife conservationist by profession, and was introduced to climbing by a friend who saw her climb trees.
Each year The American Alpine Club and The North Face open applications for their “Live your Dream Grant”. They seek to fund adventurers who wish to push their individual limits. Gowri applied for the grant and got selected.
“I am most comfortable doing sport climbing, and the closest well-known sport climbing area in Karnataka is Badami. So I asked a few of my close friends to suggest a climb I could pick up as a project and the French Indian Masala came off as a unanimous choice due to its crimpy and steep moves – a type of route I usually love. So I went to Badami for just two days, scouted the route, tried it once on top rope and decided it was the perfect climb to work on” she says.
The holds on the French Indian Masala are so small and far apart, that to an untrained body, climbing the route would seem impossible. Imagine gripping razor edges and dancing a well-choreographed sequence – your mind cannot wander even for a second. If it does, you fall!
However, Gowri didn’t have a hard time figuring out the sequences. “To be honest, I wish I had failed and struggled more on this climb. I went in expecting to struggle a lot and spend days on just one or two moves, but it turned out to be a smooth and easy experience. That only means that I could have, in fact chosen a harder climb to work on. I took time figuring out the first crux, which is at the start of the climb until the first two bolts, but I figured out the sequence on the first session. This took a lot of stress off me and I was confident about the climb. The sequence for the second crux, which is a bulge, or a mini roof, took me at least three sessions to figure out, but once I did, I was able to climb the entire route without resting on top rope, and that made me realize I could just go for the lead. To my surprise I felt good on all the moves and sequences, so I led it clean in my first attempt”.
Being a climber involves a lot more than just swinging between holds and having an athletic body, it’s a drive for experience, where every new adventure makes us more aware of who we really are, our strengths and weaknesses. The climbing community in India is small, and even smaller is the number of females who practice the sport. Gowri’s ascent may not stand at par with some of the other female international climbing achievements but for the Indian climbing community, her ascent is a breakthrough in terms of vision and capability and will encourage other females to push their limits.
I am amused to learn that Gowri wanted to attempt the route to push her own personal limits, not because she wanted to break any record. And in wanting so, she was able to successfully ascend something so remarkable. It would be interesting to watch her undertake even more ambitious climbs in the future.
Author: Aditya Pande
A climber hailing from a quaint hill town of Kumaon, Uttaranchal. Focused towards staying healthy and efficient, in the mountains and in the cities.