Bouldering in Hampi India
The luck of finding the perfect line leads to a fall from grace.
Bouldering in Hampi, India, you find your perfect line. A single boulder, angular and monolithic, claws skyward and crowds into the blue. It is high and a bit scary. It’s morning, so the air is crisp and cool enough to boulder in the sun, and this line ignites with crimson and gold, a collage of the sunrise painted on the rock face. The line is known by your mind, but it is a mystery to your body. You stand below, miming the moves, match crimp to a great sidepull, ratchet the feet higher and lunge out right and once again on small, positive edges. Reset and lunge twice more, past what seems a lifetime of smooth granite to that final jug, a rest, before the six-foot runnel leads you to the perfectly level rooftop of your perfectly dreamy climb.
This is the line before me now, and with 94 hours left in Hampi, the line on which I will break my leg.
NO GUIDEBOOKS ALLOWED
The wind whistles across the Rishimun Plateau, a rolling plain of granite shelves absolutely infested with enormous golden-orange boulders. The distant banana plantations sway and croon to the south, while to our north the landscape erupts lime green on every side, rice paddies tiding in symmetry with the breeze. Women draped in embroidered red, yellow and purple saris mill across the dirt and mud scaffolding bisecting the paddies, carrying banana loads or ancient farming equipment, or drying clothing balanced on their heads, impervious to the wind and our prying eyes.
This agricultural tapestry, however exotic and romantic, cannot be climbed, and so we proceed to the Cosmic Cave area, huddling around a new project, our hands dusted white and screaming with granite torture, mouths slack as we survey the beautiful right-leaning arete above.
This is the hold? asks Alon, a mischievous Israeli climber roaming the Indian subcontinent, fingering the business end of a hideous open-hand pinch.
That’s the hold, Travis says, shrugging, disappointed himself.
That one? Alon screeches, his head tilted in indignation, left hand poking the smooth granite like a Neanderthal toying with a Rubik’s Cube.
Yup, that’s it.
Ooohhhh, Jesus, Alon whispers, dropping his hand and taking two steps back, looking stunned and dazed. Jesus? Why do I say Jesus? I’m Jewish!
When he asks for the guidebook, hoping to confirm the stout grade of this personal testpiece, we all start laughing. We destroyed the guidebook days ago.
THE END OF THE RAINBOW
In the heart of the state of Karnataka, near the eastern border of Andhra Pradesh, south of Delhi, south from Mumbai and the breathtaking dichotomy of global economic progress and miserable, heart-rending poverty, lies the small village of Hampi. Long ago, travelers, emissaries, traders and pilgrims from all corners of the globe referred to Hampi as Vijayanagara, City of Victory, the famed, exceptionally wealthy and most powerful of all of South India’s kingdoms.
Tucked onto the banks of the meandering Tungabhadra River, shouldered to the south by temple-pocked Matanga Hill and the north by Anjenadri Hill, Hampi explodes outward in a stellar constellation of pristine granite boulders, rent by millions of years of exposure and erosion, for as far as the eye can reach in every direction. From this vast granite acreage, kings and their subjects harvested the foundations of magnificent temples, royal centers and religious sites, now offering both the tourist and pilgrim a living history of a kingdom lost and an intimate panorama of Hindu worship, especially those gods associated with the heroic exploits outlined in the Ramayana. For the visiting climber, the sprawl of the surrounding area is no less magical. Hampi’s golden boulders, stacked and heaped upon themselves, are the metaphorical end of the rainbow.
Our group of climbers, numbering somewhere between six and nine throughout the month-long trip, has also come here from all corners of the earth. Some of us will write, some of us will photograph, and some of us will study native Ayurvedic techniques or volunteer at the local grade school. All of us have come, however, to find that bit of wilderness, that bit of freedom and adventure somehow lost to the Westerner, slowly whittled out of our daily existence by life’s more mundane constrictions. Hampi, we will find, offers it all in spades, in wild and sometimes manic but always beautiful indifference.
LITTLE CAVE, BIG HAMPI
Three hundred feet below us, huddled beneath the umbra of palm trees, four women clap and whoop, raising their hands and waving happily. My friend Merrick and I have just roared, grunted and slapped our way up a chunky little line, which has hogged most of our morning. I put my palms together in a gesture of peace and friendship; I’ve never felt this good.
Today has been the one you dream about when flying overseas for a bouldering trip to Asia. The crew has been on an absolute rampage, sending nearly every line we scope and busting our tips like masochists on those that seem remotely possible. From lowball huck fests to heel-hooking traverses to shadowed, bat-plagued cave routes, we’ve been tearing our favorite cave area up and down. We have no sponsors and no itinerary, no damn 8a.nu scorecards and no V12 tick lists. This trip, especially today, has been about adventure, and from run-ins with aggravated King Cobras to shifty monkeys, these particular boulders are our gateway to equanimity, to head-space unhindered. Since chucking the guidebook, we’ve come to call this cluster of nine or 10 leaning boulders the Little Cave Area. Our crew features climbers of six months and those of 15 years, those who crave the flow and those who want to growl, and these golden-brown monsters lend us a bit of everything.
The Little Cave Area is a microcosm of what Hampi means to the visiting climber. Among these few crystal-sharp blocks this afternoon, we have topped out on almost 15 different problems, ranging from long warm-ups on perfect stone to horrifying highballs where an out-of-control fall could send you spinning and doomed into a 40-foot abyss.
But more than this, more than anything, the Little Cave Area feels like ours, despite likely prior development; it feels like our own discovery. This is Hampi’s gift, a feeling of wildness not tamed, but harnessed for a short time and then set free, a dream not deferred but passed on and retold by the next crew.
BREAKING BONES AT THE HANUMAN MONKEY TEMPLE
Ninety-six slim hours remain before our crew is scheduled to head across the globe and to new destinations, scattering from Korea to Colorado. The rear end of a month-long climbing excursion in paradise lies at our sandaled feet, and, as with any road trip, the last week with the boulders is the time to push the limits, both mentally and physically. Wake earlier, rally the projects, go higher than your mother would ever recommend, send every beautiful line hidden atop every granite plateau, employing every bit of style and power you’ve gleaned from all your time spent on rock, ever. Climb with purpose and grace, because when that plane lands, it’s back to the office, back to the rent and car payment, back to washing behind the damn ears.
All of this races through my head as a brief bus ride spirits us to the foot of the monkey temple, Hanuman’s awesome mansion. Over 600 granite steps lead to one of Hampi’s architectural jewels, a white granite temple complex tucked among the boulders high atop a hill, a Hindu place of worship and pilgrimage, though controlled with Mafioso diligence by hundreds of monkeys darting in and out of the cavernous rocks.
The temple, however, will have to wait. We’re off to explore the slightly pitched granite plain below, home to a forest of boulders, many seemingly unspoiled, all new to us.
And here, alone and stolid, is my singular line, defiantly rising skyward above the surrounding blocks of sun-seared granite. All these weeks in Hampi, all those busted tips and maniacal yawps and line after line of blameless stone, and only now do I see it. Has it been waiting for me?
I tear myself away from the boulder and begin a half-hearted warm-up session, unconsciously gazing over my shoulder at the route, almost always mid-topout on every chill line, all refusing to retain my focus. On their own, these moderates would launch me into a head-spinning froth, but my mind is blazing in the most basic sense, a psychosomatic preparation charging through me with absolutely no mindfulness of the physical problems I’m readying myself on. Halfway through the opening crescendo of another warm-up, I leap from midway up a slabby incline and charge off to my destiny.
After a handful of attempts, a good deal of sussing for anything loose or chossy, and a serious debate over our one pad placement, I am standing next to Travis, both of us staring affectionately at the line.
Dude, I whisper, if this thing goes, it’ll be the crown jewel of my bouldering trip. I have very seldom felt this urge, a soul-consuming desire to stand on top of a rock, just once, on this day, in this perfect heaven of bouldering. I can taste the rock, my fingers are at home on these holds; it’s all I want.
I chalk my hands as if putting on winter mittens and look back past my spotters toward two grinning goat shepherds who have squatted nearby to watch the crazed American scale this rock he’s been fondling and mewling over for the past 20 minutes. They bobble their heads and wiggle their arms skyward, goading me for a show. I wonder what they’re chirping about to each other, if they’d like to see me triumphant and hooting after an entirely harmonious send, or lumped in a ball of failure, stewing and cursing and acting altogether inharmonious. Either way, these thoughts being cockamamie gibberish, I suppose this is the green light I’ve been waiting for. I nod at the goat-men, nod at myself, nod at the rock and my spotters, and I’m off.
After 12 feet of climbing, my mind a hollow pot receiving each new move, each shallow divot and biting sidepull, I’m shaking out on a deep crimping rail, my eyes focused on a bulbous pinch three feet above and to the left, the final strenuous move. I set my feet, swing out and lunge for the hold, snagging it with perfect mindless simplicity. One move left. I cut my feet, reset them, draw my right hand slowly over to match on the exit hold, and in that moment the unthinkable happens.
My exit hold explodes off the rock, detached and heavy and totally objectionable in my hand, pitching me into a wild, twisting downward mess of flailing arms and legs. My spotters, at that moment bent over and moving the pad left to where the lunge should have taken me, get only one hand on my back as I crash into the ground, one foot on the pad and safe, the other smashing with a twist and snap onto the granite earth.
Prostrate and slithering, I’m squinting through the pain into the cloudless sky, still holding the fissured pinch in my left hand, wondering what the hell happened. I stand up and fall down, trying not to curse and failing miserably, then stand up and fall again. As I rave about broken holds and broken bones and the broken chasm standing between my swelling leg and the granite world now taunting my foul words, the shepherds stand quickly, and say, Oh oh oh, bad luck, baba!
BAD LUCK HOSPITAL
Climbing rocks so dangerous, the doctor says, his head bobbling, hands shuffling invisible cards deep inside his gray slacks’ pockets. He looks tired, even exhausted, but he’s tap danced around my bloated leg and X-ray results for long enough. You have bad luck, I think.
Yeah, so I’ve heard, I mumble, my mind shoveling dopamine onto the rising flames of an anxiety attack. But what’s the prognosis?
Well, it does not look good. You have a broken leg. Head still bobbling, hands still shuffling cards.
I look at my friend Travis, slumped next to me and looking suitably crestfallen. I knew it, man, I knew it, I whisper. Travis purses his lips and I purse my lips and the doctor shuffles his invisible cards.
Somewhere in the dimly lit vestibule of this grimy third-world hospital, a nurse plucks the television from a bleating Bollywood song to an Indian sit-com, which I can neither fathom nor appreciate, and for this moment, all hope is lost.
HOMEWARD BOUND: AT THE GUNTIKAL TRAIN STATION, SOMEWHERE BETWEEN HAPI AND MUMBAI
What the hell! The train’s going! Though I have now surrendered almost all recognizable human function, I look up through the fog of mental collapse, leaning dangerously ahead of my crutches onto my one good leg. Paul is all fluttering arms and bursts of foul English, a gentle bird suddenly perverted with fury. Kyler, our stoic photographer, shuffles from one foot to the other, observing this mad creature’s habits, tinkering with the notion of snapping a couple photos for posterity’s sake. This ancient train, awash in humanity, has indeed begun chuffing along.
Here in the tight aisle stand maybe 20 Indian men, drunk and belligerent with curiosity; three beefy, rigid, khaki-clad police officers; and the three of us: soiled, unshowered and basically indecent climbers, one of whom now ponders the effects of a berserker attack with thrashing crutches and stout leg cast. The air outside is humid and thick on this October night, which basically means it’s stinking hot and altogether unpleasant standing squeezed shoulder to shoulder.
We have caused some small cataclysm by falsely claiming seats on this particular Mumbai-bound train. My broken leg is barking like a crazed dog and thoughts of amputation strangle my cognitive capacity, though I know this to be nonsensical.
Traveling for six days on an unmendd and cleaved tibia, through the Indian hinterland in stuttering rickshaws and lurching cabs, from which I will continue overseas for two days in Korea, then finally to the States Have stranger things happened? Damn right they have. I’m screwed.
The mustachioed, barrel-chestedead cop spreads his thick arms like a horrific and flightless beast, nods at the men who have our seats, now cross-armed and triumphant, and begins shuffling us toward the exit. His heft collides into me, wobbling my crutches, and I am reminded of any number of unfortunate incidents shared with hulking bouncers. Once again, it seems, my friends and I are the corrupted and bellicose ruffians around whom this nasty affair has ballooned.
Go! he barks down the aisle, and all of us decide this to be the best course of action. GO!
We pinball our way through the maw, wide-eyed Indians still asking us what our seat numbers are, where we are from, what are our names. No time, my good fellows! I think, as the train continues, picking up speed. Must be off!
The brawny cop corrals us to the end of the cabin, where we see the doorway yawning open and the ground zipping by in a dark blur. Paul, beside himself with disbelief, bellows to the cop, asking how he could throw a man on crutches out of a moving train.
For God’s sake, man, can’t you see he has a broken leg? What sort of brutish bastard would allow such an atrocity, what type of apathetic scoundrel would huck a wounded tourist from a moving train, lurching along at almost 15 mph?
Our man blinks, bear hugs me across the chest, enclosing my breadth with disturbing ease, closes his eyes and roars, You go, now!
Kyler replaces Jesus’ middle name with an F-bomb and leaps from the train, the night instantly swallowing him and his indecorous verbiage. Paul, next in line and radiant in his sullen majesty, flings himself into the dark, but does not disappear for long. After a moment, he reappears like a grungy phoenix. He catches my heaved crutches and braces for the world’s first spot of a Yankee climber with a broken leg jumping from a moving train in the middle of the Indian night.
I wrench myself from the arms of the policeman, and am surprised to see him, lower lip tucked under his upper mandible, actually disquieted by this whole circus. I have little time for a chin-quivering moment shared with the colossus whose singular charge is to eject me out of a huffing train. Dumping icy water on our intimate kindling, I toss him a roaring Tally ho! and I’m off into the night.
CUSTOMS WITH A CAST
The afternoon sun slowly disappears into the poisonous cloud that engulfs Mumbai, another brilliant sunset dancing in its own irony. At any one time, I am told, some one million domestic fires choke the sky in and around Mumbai, and I am thankful to be sitting in the airport’s customs annex. Kind of. This wheelchair is killing my ass, and because all four wheels are too tiny for me to assist myself, an airport employee stands fussing over my back like an infant’s mother.
How did this happen? a tall, well-manicured policeman demands, standing very erect and very near and pointing his finger at the muddled art project that is my casted leg. His comrades patrol nearby, assault rifles slung over their backs.
I broke my leg rock climbing. In Hampi.
Hampi? When did this happen? he asks, bending down to get a closer look at the cast.
My man, seems like a year ago, I think.
A week ago, at Hanuman Temple. Despite myself, I’m giving too much information and hoping to sound convincing while his impressive intensity demands I must be a filthy liar.
And where did you get this? he asks of my cast.
In a hospital in Hospet. Pretty bad, huh? I say, letting loose a stunted chuckle. He grunts hmph, assesses my ticket and passport again, and finally squares on me.
Show me a receipt, please. A hospital receipt, he says, boring holes through all the truth in my consciousness.
“A receipt? I, uhhh …”
Fumbling through the pack resting on my lap, I turn up the mystery drugs the doctor had given me on my first night at the hospital, wrapped in the crinkled prescription form he had obliged me not to misplace.
I hand him the prescription sheet and he breezily scans it, frowning and losing both his upper and lower lip to the tremendous volume of his black mustache.
This is not a receipt. Do you have a receipt for the leg? For the He obviously doesn’t know the word cast, though I can hardly blame the poor fellow. The rapidly rotting shell of plaster and fabric could hardly be mistaken for a cast.
No. I mean, I don’t have it anymore. Why do I need a receipt? I ask, displaying my undeniable talent for and mostly confirmed status as a Stupid American.
We cannot let you pass without a receipt, sir. We must have it. Or we could take it off. This is how people smuggle in India.
Well, what about sliding me through the X-ray? I suggest, snorting a wholly pitiful laugh. The officer’s face darkens.
OK, let me look again, I say, again shuffling through my pack, grabbing whatever proof I can to confirm my rock-climbing exploits in Hampi.
Here’s my journal. Read it, if you want, it’s every day I was in Hampi, I appeal, shoving my Indian notebook into the officer’s hand. He frowns at the cover, which features a scantily clad Bollywood actress crooning, then opens and shuffles through the pages. He frowns a lot. As he closes my notebook, visibly unimpressed, I find my camera and hand it over.
These are all pictures of us climbing in Hampi. The last pictures should be at the hospital.
My chest is growing tighter. Seconds linger as he flips through my photos with his right hand, my useless meds and journal folded under his left arm.
And then, as if the sunrise has exploded through the pollution of a billion street fires, the officer smiles, hands my stuff back to me, and casually nods to Paul, my noble chair pusher, and me to carry on. This man has most certainly had enough of my stammering lawlessness.
You can understand our concern, he says, seemingly shedding height by the inch. But I believe you, of course. Have a good flight, and I am sorry for the leg. This is bad luck.
The Miriam-Webster Dictionary defines luck as prospering or succeeding, especially through chance or good fortune. So bad luck must, well, be the opposite. I’ve been ruminating lately, crutches still nearby, on all that talk of bad luck in Hampi. Was I really unlucky, like the goat herders said, that one moment crashing into the deck? Was that simply the inauspicious extension of chance?
All the way to India we traveled, searching for magic and enlightenment and adventure. We befriended local shopkeepers and their children, doctors and farmers and tourists; we tangled with the police and god-awful sticker peddlers and their twisted kin, a treacherous rickshaw pilot, all looking for a bit of exotic wisdom. Some have suggested luck is just another form of superstition, and that karma is the universal truth. But alas, I’ve found that some things just happen.
Read more about Rock Climbing in India.
Dave McAllister is currently living, working and climbing in South Korea. He is coming closer to ticking every Asian hospital off his wish list as he continues to suffer new and exotic injuries.