September 2018. The rickety rickshaw maneuvered its way through a narrow street in one of the oldest and most crowded areas of Delhi. But it was still early in the morning and the shopping and business rush hadn’t started. The rickshaw hit a small crowd and I noticed a child walking on a tightrope with a steel plate for footwear. In the background religious music blared while an older man solicited donations for the miraculous spectacle that God had enabled.
In my Rs 4500 ($60) a month climbing gym in South Delhi, as well as in American climbing circles, this activity is known as slacklining . Given how I struggle with the simple act of standing up on a slack-line in a highly controlled environment of a gym, this kid was outstanding. The rope was sketchily tied to two pillars balancing each other. If he fell, he would hit hard concrete and injure himself. My anxieties for his safety were mixed with a strong feeling of self-inadequacy.
I was first introduced to climbing in India in the context of mountaineering; but I adopted it as a routine activity in the US. When I moved back from the States, I found myself desperately clinging to the activity even though it was shockingly expensive and a lot less convenient in Delhi. While my day to day cost of living is less than a fifth of what it was in the US, my gym costs almost the same (about $10 lesser in India). This however isn’t unique to climbing gyms; all gyms are expensive. In a third world country fitness is a luxury and you pay first world prices for it (whether or not you draw a first world salary).
Often foreigners visiting India are struck by the jarring inequality coexisting in the same space-time. While they can’t fathom it, locals are inured to it. But seeing this child tightrope walking reminded me afresh of the absurdity of class inequities globally present but locally apparent. On one extreme is the figure of a man like Dean Potter (one remembers a particular image of him grinning mischievously before base jumping off a rock). Even with the destitution that climbing brought him, the ability to walk away from the aspects of life that he disagreed with, without fearing for his daily safety was a luxury. On the other was this child whose daily survival depended on impressing enough people with his skill. I doubt that this child viewed slacklining as a borderline spiritual activity. It was a necessity- money is what bought him his safety. Safety of shelter, food, clean water…
This inequity runs all the way up to the highest pinnacles in the world. And sometimes it clashes in ugly ways, as it did in the much publicized brawl between European climbers and Sherpas on Everest in 2013.
At fifteen, on a school trip to a camp organized by Nehru Institute of Mountaineering, I saw the most dense star filled sky I had ever seen. It had been an exhausting, feet crushing, uphill climb to the campsite. But on that two day stay, sleeping on a stone slab, staring at the night sky, I decided I would take up mountaineering if only to see skies like these. Three years later I took a month long introductory mountaineering course. I remember cold, rain, snow, crowded dorms, singing, some ropes, an accident while bouldering and some tears. There were some vistas but scant time to take it in. There was a lot of grit. At the end of the course I had the grade needed to proceed to the advanced course, and I thought I would come back to that course in another year but I never did. Psychologically, the course left me diffident about my ability to take on many aspects of mountaineering (of course, a big part of this is personal). To reference my favorite animation series (Avatar, The Last AirBender), the course was led by Earth Benders. But there’s something in the mountains for people of all elements. The course however left me thinking that the high vistas in the mountains weren’t meant for people like me.
Seven years later, on the prodding of my housemate in the US, I tried the climbing gym in my university town. After the mountaineering course I was convinced that I was a bad climber. So I started my gym climbs awkwardly, apologetic for my falls, avoiding crowded spots and times. Soon enough though, climbing became an escape from a hectic and social grad school life. It also reminded me of the capacity of my physical body in an otherwise cerebral existence. With time I started noticing and simply enjoying the movement of climbing. As I discovered all the weird things that my body could do, I began to look back at the grit of the mountaineering course with disdain. Screw method and processes. There was enough of it in everything else I was doing. Every time people told me how climbing ‘should be’ I would mentally mute them. Fortunately, perhaps for cultural reasons, unsolicited advice in the gyms I was frequenting in the US was rare.
Possibly because of my ‘anarchic’ approach to climbing, I got better, only very slowly. One time after I complained to my housemate about the pace of my progress, she asked me in true Yoda style, ‘Why do you climb?’
What she was getting to was that if climbing is something I was doing for fun, why did I care about the pace of progress? But hedonism even in its mildest form has been a struggle for me. I still struggle to absorb the tenet- it is OK to not be good at something if you’re having fun doing it.
I was forced to confront the thrust of method head on again when I moved back to India. A trainer in Delhi told me to place my hands in a particular way to make the climb more efficient. Another contrived a route with no hand matching so that there was precisely one way left to do the climb. This was an exercise to build planning. I am grateful for this kind of free expert advice that in the US would have come through a paid class. But climbers come in all flavors and I am the introverted kinds that enjoys the puzzle solving aspect of climbing. Someone telling me how to do the climb can take away from the joy of discovering a solution. In most other aspects of my life I don’t have the luxury of time for slow discovery.
Not to say that I haven’t found myself some rituals with climbing. Over time, I have discovered that certain tendons hurt after climbing- they are overused and must be balanced with other exercises. That warm up can really affect one’s climbing performance. But all these rituals make sense to me now. I perhaps wouldn’t have internalized their significance if it had been handed down as instruction when I just started climbing; and didn’t understand the problems they aim to address.
“I have climbed Mount-Everest twenty-one times but I wouldn’t wish this for anybody.”
-Opening line of Loved by All a documentary on Napelese Sherpa Apa.
I discovered during the mountaineering course that for many, mountaineering is a vocation, a desperate source of income for day to day maintenance. Locals make money on expeditions for tourists and amateurs, or by supporting other climbers/mountaineers in their expeditions. The choice to define my pace of learning, that I have desperately sought in climbing, is a luxury. It isn’t a surprise that big wall climbing as an activity emerged out of mountaineering and gained prominence after the second world war- in an era of relative peace. Mountaineering does have some obvious utilitarian benefits- history is replete with wars fought in mountains and passes. Many of the tools used in mountaineering and now climbing can be traced to war related developments. Mountaineering also promises access to places that can only be reached by foot. Climbing on the other hand is carried out with the specific goal of pushing physical and mental performance. It is similar to sports in that the rules and structures are contrived, but distinct in the risk involved. For people struggling for basic necessities, it would be an especially odd (but possible) choice.
Even with some of the tallest mountains, I doubt big wall climbing could have emerged out of India. The mental freedom that one needs to enjoy and excel at an activity like that can be in short supply when one is confronting destitution. But as India gets richer, one sees a heartening trend of more people taking on adventure sports, finding both sustenance and joy in it.
On a recent trek in the Himalayas I had ample time to exchange notes with a local guide. He had recently completed the introductory mountaineering course that I had taken many years ago. Since we both spoke a different dialect of Hindi, it took us some time to fully understand what the other person was saying. So as I spoke of my disdain for the needless grittiness of the course, he spoke about the grit with pride. And then realized much later that I didn’t share his sentiment. At the end of our four day trek, he did honor me with the comment that he felt I was strong enough to lead treks myself and that I should think about leaving my job and building a career with tourism in the mountains (wouldn’t that be the dream). It was very encouraging to hear this comment coming from a local male.
It struck me that it wasn’t grit that got me to that stage. In fact, grit almost took me away from it. While many are motivated by grit, it doesn’t drive everyone. My first impulse to climb mountains came from a starry night sky. The strength to walk the distance we did in the mountains has been a very slow and irregular journey, spanning nearly a decade. I’ve bumped up my skill and strength when I’ve felt like it, often not doing anything with it for a year. I’ve often also stumbled and embarrassed myself (miserably, if I may add) in learning these skills. And it has all been for the solitude and serenity of the mountains.
Adventure sport documentaries always glorify grit. It is understandable why- these activities often land you in a miserable spot, physically and mentally, and you need to find some hidden inner motivation to push through it. My grouse is that starting with grit can turn away many who would eventually find it, but aren’t motivated by it. There are so many other motivations for pursuing these activities- the joy of moving, the rarefied cool air on altitudes, the intriguing physics of playing with natural elements…
I realize that such narrativizing makes me the kind of outdoors person that the dirtbag folks roll their eyes at. But here’s where I have to remind myself of my housemate’s Yoda words- “Why do you climb?” And then remember my authentic answer to that question, and not muddle it with other people’s answer to that question.
There are some who exalt grit and use adventure/extreme activities to actualize it. There are some like Apa Sherpa and the kid on the tightrope who find courage for these activities early in life. One group needs grit to confront the exigencies of life. The other seeks it, often at the edge of death, to explore the potency of life force.
I fall in neither of these groups.
Through my slow journey up and down mountains, I’ve realized that it is more important for me that people have a conscious relationship with nature, than have a specific kind of relationship. Outdoor activities like hiking, climbing, kayaking, surfing are means to explore that relationship. Grit adds color to that relationship. But sometimes, especially when it it is perceived as a prerequisite, grit comes in the way of it.
For a person like me to get into outdoor activities like climbing or tight rope walking, it has to be pursued as a leisure activity with minimal burden of performance. Given the risk and equipment involved, pursuing them at leisure requires money. In India, the monetary cost is still out of reach for a majority of the population. It is no surprise then, that climbing facilities and outdoor schools are limited in India (though surely growing). It is also no surprise, that in the smaller community in India, it is common to be climbing/hiking/kayaking next to very gritty (and talented) adventurers. I am only glad that I have found my ground besides any specific love or interest in grit.
I am sure there are others like me, who could discover joy and potentially excellence in these activities, if introduced to them in a certain way. It pains me to accept that money affects a person’s likelihood of slithering past the onslaught of grit that is far too common, and perhaps even inevitable, in a resource constrained environment.
It also feels irreverent to call for more safe, leisurely spaces of adventure/outdoor space, when for a large group of people this exploration is a job they can’t escape. For Apa Sherpa, or the kid on the tightrope, there is no romanticism in these high consequence activities. Grit is a survival skill.
But perhaps as more people are able to afford the luxury of safe exploration, the returns to risk for those who pursue these activities as jobs will increase, providing enough choices for a subsequent generation to pick alternate vocations. Perhaps, some in that generation will discover the fierce grit that aims to conquer, and some will discover joy in quiet solitude and starry skies. But I hope everyone finds some reason to dance in nature’s playground.
 There is a technical difference between tight rope walking and slack-lining but it isn’t critical here.