Rock-solid role models: How women are mastering art of climbing | Bengaluru News – Times of India

Bengaluru: One last try, Prateeksha Arun said to herself as she began climbing a vertical rock face, part of an extremely difficult route called Samsara, in the blistering afternoon heat of Badami, Bagalkot district. She faltered in the final stretch, an outcome she faced again in subsequent attempts. Months later, she completed the route in one go, ticking off a challenge that had, as she puts it, haunted her in sleep.
The 22-year-old Bengalurean represents a growing community of women who are showing great skill, mental strength, and dedication in one of the toughest outdoor activities that have an uneasy relationship with gravity.
Prateeksha is a national-level sport climber who hopes to compete in the Olympics. She was 10 when she was introduced to the art of intense focus and precise movements, and she has spent an untold number of hours fine-tuning her technique. “In a way, I got exposure even earlier, when I was a toddler. My father used to climb outdoors in the 1990s and he would take me and my mother to Turahalli,” she says.
Her interest gradually acquired a serious purpose. “When I was younger, I would train and compete with no professional goals. I did it purely for the joy it brought me. As I grew up, my goals changed, and with that came new physical and mental challenges. I love what I do, so the exhaustion is worth it,” says Prateeksha, who is studying architecture. “Once you start loving a sport, things appear more like goals than challenges.”
Prateeksha enjoys bouldering in Hampi, and such pursuits have shaped the past 10 years of her life, providing constant motivation. There’s nothing that athletes dread more than injuries. “They are always frustrating as you need time to recover. But they are part of the game and you must know how to deal with them,” she says.
Visualising a climb is crucial in this context. “I look at the route, piece the moves together in my head and memorise them. This helps me reduce mistakes, conserve energy, and improve the chances of a smooth climb,” she says. “If I don’t finish it, I won’t be at peace. There’s a running joke among climbers. We often say: ‘One last try.’ In reality, there will be a hundred more attempts before that final one.”
Does she ever doubt herself? “Something I have heard many times is: “Isn’t climbing a male-dominated sport? Girls don’t have upper body strength, no?’ I’m happy to say that’s not true. Rock climbing is getting more attention and thanks to initiatives like CLAW [Climb Like A Woman], which is led by Gowri Varanashi, Lekha Ratthinam and Prerna, more women are joining the activity,” she says.
Lekha says CLAW seeks to encourage and support women. “Over the past year, many women have completed some classic hard routes even though training facilities were shut for a bit. It’s inspiring. I, too, reached my personal best in bouldering early last year,” she says. “Three years ago, I used to see mostly competition climbers. The trend has changed, and you see women with no plans of competing training as hard as the former.”
A close friend, Ria Andrews, introduced Lekha to climbing in 2017. “I became addicted to it quickly, and I started training to keep up with other climbers, which helped me become stronger. I began loving the process of problem-solving and learning new techniques,” she says.
Lekha, who works as a marketing manager at agricultural firm Pubert India, challenges herself by attempting one difficult clamber after another. “Once I pick a project, I work on building the necessary strength and endurance and then go back to finish it. I am filled with emotions when I top out or clip the anchor. It’s difficult to explain the feeling; you have to experience it,” she says.
She believes a lot needs to be done to help the overall climbing community grow. “There are always access issues in outdoor climbing. It’s a never-ending process to get permission. When we get the permission in some cases, it’s just in words, and not on paper. There were times when my friends and I had to explain to the police that climbing is a sport. They thought we were doing something illegal and asked us to visit the nearest police station to justify our presence. Then there are places where quarrying is a problem,” she says.
Badami, Hampi, Avathi, Deverabetta, and Sethan (Himachal) are some of her favourite destinations. “I respect the effort people put into developing areas and setting up new lines. The work makes things easier for others,” she says.
Priyanka Lal, a lawyer with experience in human rights law, started climbing professionally over three years ago. She has a simple yet effective motto: don’t give up. “Climbing is very liberating. I grew up scrambling up trees, walls, and almost anything scalable around me. The outdoors is my home and fondest teacher,” she says. “The activity came very naturally to me. When I was younger, I entered a district-level competition at Kanteerava without much technical knowledge, but still completed the event as a finalist.”
Priyanka lost touch with her passion before returning to it at the age of 27. She ranks a clamber in Varlakonda as one of her most memorable moments. “I was fully zoned in — it felt like I was a part of the rock. That’s always the idea,” she says. “I experience a mix of emotions during a climb. I feel strong, frustrated, content, peaceful, angry, grateful, and aware; sometimes all at once. But the feeling when you finish a route, the entire process, in fact, is incredible.”
Athletes often find a deeper meaning in their pursuit, seeing it as a playbook or an emotional guide for life. “Climbing helps build confidence and enhances your problem-solving and social skills and ability to deal with failure, making you resilient,” says Priyanka. “Reaching a plateau can be frustrating. But it’s a sign that you need to move up to the next level.”
Anjana Chhabria, co-founder and CEO of Realm Fight Club, a martial arts studio in Koramangala, says her passion is her work and she considers herself a student for life. “Currently, I am training to become a strength and conditioning coach. Another activity that has a special place in my heart is rock climbing. I became fascinated by it three years ago,” she says.
She regards movement as her meditation. “It is much more than just learning how to be physically strong. There are so many aspects of climbing that transfer to my personal and professional life. Planning every move using cracks, crimps, jugs, and other intricate features to ascend rocks and adapting to new situations seem like a reflection of life to me,” she says. Photographer Abhijeet Singh has chronicled some of her trips.
Anjana suffered an accident two months into climbing, but she fought through the pain and doubts to later return to the rugged sites. “I broke my ankle. After two surgeries and rehab, I returned to climbing in January 2020. My ankle is still not 100%, and I continue to work on my rehab,” she says. “The biggest challenge after the mishap was to face my fear of heights and falling. Fears are a part of life, and I am learning how to overcome them.”
Return from injury can take an emotional toll, as Anjana has realised. “I cannot do certain moves or shift my weight to the left leg as it hurts. At times, you question yourself,” she says. “I see other people do a route easily and sometimes, I struggle and have to think of a different way. It’s hard. But I’m grateful for where I’m today, from not being able to stand post-surgery and learning to walk again to being able to climb once more.”
Anjana is glad that young girls are taking a keen interest in sports, from football to mixed martial arts. “Women have this incredible capacity to be role models because we are called upon to do so many varied activities,” she says.
Mitali Poovayya, a neuroscientist and founder of startup Insectifii, took to the sport thanks to CLAW. “Two years ago, I spent four days in Hampi. Some of the best women climbers, who are now my friends, introduced me to the activity. I was drawn to it because it catered to so many dimensions of my personality and lifestyle. I enjoy the physical and mental challenges it brings, and love being part of a community that’s filled with wonderful people,” she says. “The first year, I was on and off as I didn’t have much time. A year ago, I decided to make it a priority and now, I am out climbing every weekend.”
Progress in the early stages can be slow and one may have to shake off mistakes. “It is overwhelming in the beginning. It took me some courage to be bad at it for a while. But removing pressure helped me. For me, it’s important to focus on the fun of moving up a wall or rock, exploring my limits, developing friendships, and enjoying the process of failing. Along the way, something I considered impossible becomes possible. This is a surreal feeling,” she says.
Recently, Mitali completed a gruelling climb in Badami and it marked her transition to a new level. She wants to dispel some flawed notions. “When you see mostly men climbing, you form an idea that your body needs to be a certain way to climb. I felt this way, too. But it’s not true. Through CLAW, I have met amazing women athletes with different body types. I realised that with practice, I can also do it,” she says.

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Sagar Biswas

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