BOULDERING IN INDIA – MEET THE CLIMBERS WHO PUT THE HIMALAYAN VILLAGE OF RAKCHHAM ON THE BOULDERING MAP
Climbing brings people together from all over the world. aDidas Five Ten Athlete Bernd Zangerl has long been a proponent of rock climbing as a way to connect with different countries, cultures and peoples. He has been an integral part of the 5.10 climbing team since 1999. He is one of the most respected climbers in the world, for new and challenging routes, but perhaps even more so, for exploration and construction of bridges with communities that don’t know about climbing. Culture. “Blocking and traveling are an ideal combination,” says Zangerl. “It’s not always about finding the hardest climb, but about exploring new places, learning about new cultures and making friends.”
Zangerl has climbed all over the world, but it was the vast landscapes and sheer rock faces of India that captured his heart. He fell in love with Rakchham, a remote village near the Tibetan border in the Indian Himalayas. While the area is home to towering mountains, it was the thousands of rocks surrounding Rakchham that caught his eye.
The small village sits at around 9,000 feet in the Baspa Valley. It is a tribal village, the Kinnauri people have lived in the valley since 6 BC. “It’s their land,” says Zangerl. “They have sacred places and areas off-limits to outsiders. Climbers can’t forget that we are guests. Climbing tourism can only be sustainable if it has the support of local people and respects their customs.”
Zangerl first visited Rakchham in 2012bbut he quickly realized that talk about the area he had a responsibility to assume. He was no stranger to the block destinations developed by and for climbers: Magic Wood (Switzerland), Silvapark (Austria), Rocklands (South Africa) and Hueco Tanks (USA). All had suffered from overtourism and overexploitation in one way or another, and Zangerl wanted to do good for the villagers of Rakchham.
“I didn’t want to start pass the word on Rakchham until there are locals involved in the climbing and infrastructure in place to protect the area,” says Zangerl. “The pressure to bring tourists and climbers to the ecosystems is huge. I wanted protect this magical place in the Himalayas since the inevitable consequences of over-tourism, in particular human waste and trash. We must remember that in all the places that climbers discover there are people. We must respect them and learn their rules.
At first, Zangerl climbed with the locals and produced sports slideshows for the village school. He climbed with students, teachers and anyone interested. He and Johnny Negi, the son of the mayor of Rakchham, became friends and climbing partners. “The idea of a sustainable climbing space came to mind very early,” said Zangerl. “I was happy to find people who wanted to explore rock climbing as a potential tourist attraction to create jobs in the valley, but also to protect their environment.” Negi says: “As a boy in the mountain village, hiking was everyday life. Going out with friends to the rock fields to play and fetch the berries was a favorite pastime, but little did we know that these rocks would become world class rocks for rock climbing.
Zangerl spent a decade climbing and mapping the rocks (he made around 400 first ascents), but much of his effort has been working on connecting with locals, developing trails, restrooms and, most importantly, , to help form a community of climbers. “I met Bernd in 2018, when I was leaving Rakchham to pursue studies in tourism administration,” recalls Negi. “His base is my family’s hotel, View of the Rupin River. He motivated me to climb as he does for anyone interested in it. Through the combined efforts of Zangerl, Negi and two avid mountaineers from West Bengal, Spandan and Korak Sanyal, the Rakchham Mountaineering Adventure Club was born. There are now around 10 members, enough that Zangerl felt the time was right to let the world know what Rakchham had to offer.
“The climbing community in India is still small, but growing,” says Zangerl. “But now there are gymnasiums in some big cities, and more and more Indians are rock climbing and bouldering. If all goes well, there will be more jobs for the local population. As the village became more familiar with the potential benefits of rock climbing as a tourist objective, they had time to prepare trails, compost toilets, parking and even more rooms to to rent out. “To continue climbing in a sustainable way, we have formed the Rakchham Mountaineering and Adventure Club, a government registered company which will work under the authority of the village. This club will establish general rules and regulations and set up a permit system,” explains Negi. “The aim is to involve local people and help develop the block in a way that is acceptable and positive for villagers young and old. It gives me confidence that I can give something back to my homeland. The village and the RMAC have implemented activity fees for climbers and hikers, the proceeds of which go towards trail maintenance, self-composting toilets and support projects at the school and care station nurses.
Negi, due to lack of opportunities in the village, has spent the last year working in the megacity of Mumbai. “I come from a farming family, we grow buckwheat and apples and have a small hotel in the village,” says Negi. “I have a university degree in tourism administration, but life in India is not as easy as in Western countries. I worked in Mumbai but I dream day and night of returning to Rakchham. Our village is a tribal village, for us to live from climbing is a bit difficult to think. But Bernd’s efforts and RMAC training give I have confidence that we will have a sustainable climbing destination and that I can come home to be part of it.
“The success of this project, of developing a sustainable climbing area, depends on a global community,” says Zangerl.
Bouldering, which requires much less expensive equipment than rope climbing or mountaineering, has proven to be a good choice for a population that historically has not had an excess of spare time or capital. It is also a community activity where climbers work together for encouragement and safety. All we need is a special pair of sticky soles shoes and maybe a chalk bag to help keep fingers sticky. Some climbers carry a boulder pad, which is a collapsible mattress designed to cushion a potential fall. A climbing guide will soon be available on the Rakchham website. Climbers can expect around 60 single-pitch routes and a few multi-pitch options, with a range of grades from 6a to 8c+ as well as plenty of options to explore.
Head over to the adidas Five Ten YouTube channel to watch Rakchham: Bridge Between Worldsa Ray Demski film that traces the evolution of Rakchham’s climbing scene and delves into Bernd Zangerl’s decade-long obsession with the area.