by Deepa Bhat
I've been climbing for a while now, mostly with guys, great guys who've only pushed me up and are the reason I continue climbing. I'm not moved by grades so much, not the adrenaline rush (that most people presume about climbers), I'm moved by climbing and it's people. That's how I've managed to stick around.
In all this time, there's just one demeaning incident that comes to my mind, when I've heard a chauvinistic comment in this bro'd out world of climbing . I'd completed a route which everyone was struggling on when one of the guys(who hadn't completed it and it was his first time climbing) remarked that I was pulled up because girls sure can't climb rock. As if to prove his point(and strength), he did a handstand against a rock. I didn't say anything. Just went and did the route again, less struggle this time, propelled by rage and love, to a lot of cheering from the instructors and other course mates. That shut him up for the rest of the month. Although I'd validated my presence there, I felt strangely alienated . I'm no badass..I Just wanted to climb.
Amidst those perfect climbing bodies and watching strong climbers breeze up tough routes, it's easy to feel like an outsider, like an imposter. I am simultaneously curious as to what the route feels like to my fingers, body and balance. But then I am also reluctant, either shameful, for feeling incapable or guilty, for hogging time on a route way above my paygrade. And man or woman, many start off like this. Most drop out because it's "not their thing". But I feel it's mostly because they didn't somehow find an enabling community. Nobody wants to climb in isolation. Because it's not the rock or gravity you're trying to win against, it's mostly yourself. And most of the time we don't have that positive dialogue going on in our minds. Rather it's just the improbabilities and our lack that we end up focusing on. I know, I have mostly negative chatter...
It helps loads to try cancel that chatter and also helps when someone else is shouting down that negative voice, even though that voice is your own. A good bunch of peeps around helps, always.
Every year, I make a resolution to climb more regularly and every year I spectacularly fail at keeping up with the resolution. The 2019-20 climbing season started with a bang; a trip to Hampi with CLAW. I'd been following most of the founders on social media for a while now. What impressed me more than their strength, abilities and achievements, was their attitude and ever since their first year of the event, I've wanted to join them at CLAW.
Though I've never felt like "another" in this male dominated world of climbing, CLAW was a different experience. It was everything I love about climbing, and more. It wasn't a call for fraternity or colluding to form a women's group, but more of a safe space for women to learn, and be mentored while at the same time not condemning men who were in many ways a part of CLAW too. There was no preceptor and it wasn't just a cool climbing fest. There were various activities like slacklining, swimming, yoga, nature meditation etc and a lot of story sharing over amazing meals courtesy Hampi restaurants. And it didn't end at Hampi event, the support continues even after. It was also incredible to get a goodie bag as a participant and have tents and crashpads arranged. The excitement wasn't just because of the goodies but more to see so many small and big businesses acknowledging CLAW stepping up to be a part of it.
The mentors(because that's what they are) easily toggled between being instructional and giving out vibes of their love for climbing, experience sharing and hearing out our stories and thoughts. During the day, they were guiding us, supporting us on the rock and otherwise, even though they were right next to some of their aspirational routes, routes they were itching to get up on, yet they never left the CLAW group to go on their own endeavours. They reserved their own climbing during the evenings or when everyone else was busy resting and chilling. CLAW and it's participants were constantly on their mind. It's not easy to not scratch that itch. It's not easy to be patient and attentive when you have not enough time and a field full of boulder problems. And yet, there were no impatient glances of withering contempt. For the participants, everything seemed to be within reach on that sharp Hampi granite.
Women are generally perceptive and also traumatic about their body image. Many have ascertained the perfect body type to pursue or excel in any sports endeavour is "not my " body type. Well I surely wake up and feel the same way. As women, we do carry a lot of baggage up the rock within us; beginning with how women are not physically as strong as men, the judgement imposed on our body structures, unrealistic societal and family perceptions and expectations plus limitations. But then we see this little crystal jutting out that seems to hold all this weight or a sharp ledge that's tearing our skin and we're suddenly lighter and more healed. So many compulsions and systems that want us to stay on the ground yet we continue moving up.
I've been a noob and have stepped back so many times because I felt shy or intimidated. It was amazing to see all the women try to shed those layers, right from day one, which was possible only because of the supportive vibe that the mentors at CLAW created. It's something not so easy to pull off as everyone's not friends yet. I honestly wasn't expecting this. I thought there'd be sure to be drifters. Not everyone can fall in love with climbing.
Of course such attempts are always celebrated. But never more than now. Instead of pulling people down, building them up. Instead of making others blindly up their game, making their effort feel valid and worthy, especially in their own eyes, regardless of their skill level. I think that is an achievement and the result of a beautiful collective effort by beautiful, strong women. Everyone felt strong, whether they climbed a 5a or a 6c. And everyone fell in love with the rock, and climbing.
In two years, CLAW has managed to pull women outdoors, into what is seen as men's pursuits. They are contributing to building an enthusiastic and supportive community that inspires and pushes women and men, to push their limits through climbing. I'd like to quote a friend in summing up what I felt about the mentors at CLAW; why the legacy of climbing and outdoors they're sharing will grow....
"They have a purity of purpose. There is that gratitude present in each one and that more than anything else; grades, workouts , regularity, is what makes one a climber and an outdoors person."
Photos by Vikram Kattoju, Sahil Khandwala, Nick Russel and various other fellow climbers.
Official CLAW 2019 images by Praveen Jayakran