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Vulnerability and Strength in Climbing

by Ankita Rajasekharan

I am trying to recollect that particular moment when climbing changed from being play to being a skill. By the football ground near home, there stood a giant rock. It was grey-black and really looked like the bent back of a sitting bear. We called it the Elephant Rock, owing to it’s size I imagine. It had a slightly convex soft slope on the face front. One could quite easily get oneself on to the rock surface from this side but would need to be pulled up by someone already on top of it. Then there was the steep side but with just enough crimps that one could manoeuvre and make it all the way to the elephant’s back! This was a commendable achievement that was met with playful cheer and excitement.

Photo of Elephant rock by Uday Bhaskar, Hyderabad.

I can’t quite recall when I moved from holding my arm out to be pulled up to offering my hand down to pull others up. I don’t recall calling it a ‘problem’ or being given ‘beta’ or saying ‘I sent it!’. What I do recall is spending endless evenings in the shade of the elephant rock when I couldn’t make it up or in this special cranny on top of the rock which was much like a sofa- we of course imagined it to be the inside of our elephant’s ear.

Several years have passed since these evenings with the Elephant Rock among others like the Cucumber Rock, Crocodile Rock and Mushroom Rock. And then I found myself in Hampi recently, with a group of women keen on making climbing accessible and fun for anyone with an interest for it! Yes, C.L.A.W.! I was thrilled and my child self quickly began to categorise the boulders into animal forms! I was given climbing shoes- I didn’t even know such a thing existed- and offered chalk incase my hands got sweaty. I quickly put the shoes on and went for the first boulder that caught my fancy.

It wasn’t even half the size of the Elephant Rock from my childhood. And…..I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t get myself onto the surface of the boulder long enough to even make a second move. I felt shattered. I did not anticipate this at all. I could feel the sting in my eyes from holding back tears. And worse still, inspite of only encouraging support from everyone around me and zero judgement, I sensed the flush of shame in my cheeks. Really, shame?! Yes, I felt shame for not being able to climb a boulder that seemed too simple to even try! Climbing became a skill. And I din’t seem to have it.

Someone suggested I try another boulder and come back to this later. I looked around and chose a boulder that had no one else at it except one of the instructors. You see, I was afraid to have audience again as I failed at this one too. I asked if she would spot me and half-heartedly gave it a go. It wasn’t until the third attempt that I made it up! And guess what worked on the third attempt- I pushed out all those images of how someone else had climbed this boulder a while back and just went at it the way my body could. Everyone that had worked that boulder had used some technique or the other and pulled themselves up. I tried that too with no success. On my third trial, I found a hold, rested my arm and pushed myself up. Encouraged by this success, I went on to try several other boulders over the next few days- some I made up, some I din’t. But every boulder, I spent time exploring and feeling with my body. I shifted my focus to how my body is able to receive the boulder and the other way round too. I learnt what moves my body could make, what it is strong enough to do and which parts and angles of the boulder can hold my weight and which can’t. Climbing was now part skill, but also part play! And that made all the difference.

During those short five days, I learnt plenty about the strength of our mind-chatter and the strength or the lack of it of my physical body. I was most certainly hooked. I wanted now to develop this skill and work with my body to be able to embrace climbing- parts of the skill that I believe rests deep in my muscle memory from all those days when it was simply play. I found myself a climbing gym and 3 weeks into it, lockdown hit! And while I felt agitated by that and afraid I would lose my zeal for it, I also found that being in conversation about climbing will keep that energy alive, even if conversation is through writing. I work now, while home-bound, on strengthening my physical body, on building stamina and endurance of the mind. And I wait eagerly to be able to continue this, knowing of boulders and my body through climbing.


All images ( unless otherwise mentioned) are by Praveen Jayakaran from CLAW 2019, Hampi

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