Just wanted to share some pictures and the adventure a Mumbai climber Ajit and I had when we went climbing the famous Duke’s Nose near Lonavla, Maharashtra, India, in a single day. The story here is not really about the climb itself as it was not very difficult, but the nearly 20-hour round-trip was really where the adventure lay for me!
Here's a link to my pictures on Picasa. Make sure to read the captions.
In the old days, I’ve heard, the adventure was getting to the climb and back without dying. In the west, we are accustomed to driving on mostly nice roads, even if they are gravel, with adequately marked trail heads, and sometimes, composting toilets at 13,000’! Here in the east, let alone the lack of good climbing routes, the adventure is still in getting there and back safely. Of course, my local climbing friends reading this must think I am a sissy; actually, I think they already call me a sissy when I’m not around; come to think of it, even when I am around! I would consider Duke’s Nose relatively tame on the adventure scale, the climb as well as the travel to and fro, but here is the adventure from a western-influenced neophyte Indian, with some minimal local communication skills.
In 2008, I had gone on a rock climbing trip to Badami with a bunch of climbers from Mumbai. I was returning by myself on an overnight bus when I saw this very fantastic looking rock formation from the highway just outside Khandala. There were three breaks in the cliffs and the buttress looked quite amazing even from so far away. I was pretty excited to find out from my Mumbai climbing friends that Duke’s Nose even had at least one multi-pitch sport route up it. Also, people (and I don’t say climbers) rappel the top section regularly. After five years of comings and goings to Mumbai, this year I decided that if I was going to get some climbing in, I had better take advantage of the 2.5 sqft of wall available near where I was staying in South Mumbai. Podar College in Matunga hosts a wall constructed by the Girivihar Club and the college’s outdoor club. Climbers hit this miniscule wall Monday through Saturday evenings, and there have even been a competition or two hosted here. Although small, it’s a powerful workout due to its steep angle and these Mumbai boulderers are very strong! This time in Mumbai, I even met several of them who have been hitting the many pinnacles in the Sahyadris outside of Mumbai. One of whom was Ajit. He is an exceptionally strong climber as well as he had already climbed the top section of Duke’s a couple of times.
The plan was for four of us climb it in two teams on Sunday, starting the night before on a train, which arrived at some ungodly hour after midnight. We would either sleep on the station’s platform overnight or take an auto (small three-wheeler) to the village of Khurwande and sleep on the ground, starting up early. Valuing sleep is high on my list, and sleeping well the night before climbing is essential to success the next day, so I was not too eager to do it half asleep. First, the other team dropped out due to work travel commitments, which left just Ajit and me to coordinate. Then, Ajit found out that a team of seven from Pune would be climbing there on Sunday as well; not good. The reason for an early start was quickly becoming essential and the low-sleep options appeared preferable. Another option was to climb it all in one day on Saturday, leaving early from Mumbai, and hopefully starting the climb by 10am. Since I had experience with alpine starts and climbing light and quickly, we decided this was our best bet. I hashed out the gear list and the style we would climb in, and Ajit provided all the logistics information concerning getting there and back; well sort of!
On Friday night, I ended up going to the larger-than-life Bollywood movie-rendition of Romeo & Juliet: Ram-Leela. My US–based buddies might find this with subtitles on Netflix; it’s quite something! I got to sleep just before midnight, and due to all the excitement, it was quite a restless night before my 4 AM alarm. Heck, we might as well have slept in the village! I took a taxi to the Chhatrapati Shivaji (CST) train terminal at 4:45 AM. Ajit must’ve left much earlier from his home as he had to take a couple of trains just to get to CST. He and I got on the Indrayani Express to Pune at 5:40 AM, with him having already bought the tickets at an earlier station, where the lines were much shorter even at this ungodly hour. The Indrayani is considered a long-distance-local train, which most people travel on a daily basis for work. The trip to Pune probably takes 3.5 hours, and we would reach Lonavla in about 2.5 hours. We got into a Second Class General carriage and found middle seats on wooden benches across from each other with just enough room for our legs between us. Of course, this seemed quite comfortable until more and more people started to board the train at each station along the way. Soon, there were people sitting on the floor in the aisle, as well as one or two people between our legs, and all the way to the doors! People, people everywhere, not a place to move... Under my seat was a bag, so I couldn’t really put my legs under there. And, for most of the trip there was a man standing between our legs. There wasn’t even any room to maneuver myself to take a picture of this bizarre situation! We would move our feet so each of us could be in a different position for a short period of time. Getting to the toilet would have been impossible, even if we had wanted to risk it; or if one actually existed!? Occasionally, there is some heated argument between people who feel they own the whole carriage, but at some point everybody settles down and there is a lull in all movement; more due to the fact that there is no place to move, rather than the rhythmic clackety-clack of the trains wheels. The smell of sweat becomes the odor du jour and you suddenly start to enjoy the experience! Both of us actually slept intermittently and I felt much better by the time the train came around the bend just before Lonavla station, where we got the first glimpse of our quarry. The Duke’s Nose was previously, and probably still locally known as Nagphani, which means the Cobra’s Hood, but better represents the Duke of Wellington’s proboscis!
Getting off the train is an adventure in patience and negotiation. One has to slowly make your way to the door (the platform only appears on one side) asking each person in front of you if they are going to alight. If they aren’t, then you exchange positions, squeezing your way past each other. Sounds difficult, but people have been doing this forever and it is just part of the daily local train grind as you approach the station you want to get off on, although backpacks and ropes give it a slightly harder grade! The train was on time and we exited in a wave of humanity at 8:10 AM, as people launched themselves off and others simultaneously forced their way in. Travelers here just don’t consider the fact that there will be more room on the train if passengers are allowed to exit first, but in the end it all happens in disorder and people have enough time to find their 1 sqft of standing or sitting space! The regular local trains only stop at stations for about 45 seconds and in that case you have to use a completely different set of rules for boarding and alighting!
We made our way to the auto stand where we were unable to negotiate past the 150-rupee one way trip to the base village of Khurwande. It took us under 20 mins to get there and after a few minutes of gear shuffling, we were on our way up the hill. An easy 20-30 minute hike took us to a spot across the descent gully on the same level as a large ledge on the Nose. The Nose is probably about 1,000’ high with a wide ledge about 300’ from the top with about 500’ of climbable rock below it. We had our breakfast, all the while watching a couple of rappellers making their way down the upper gully. There were no other climbers in sight, so we did not hurry. The plan was to carry one small backpack with food and water, leaving the second pack at the ledge where we would have lunch and rest before tackling the upper, much more technical section. We donned our gear and put all the food into one pack as we were afraid of the monkeys getting at the second pack while we climbed. We made our way to the ledge and eventually to the middle of the climb where the rappellers were. They appeared to be IT folks (of course) from Pune and we only met one of them while we secured the backpack to the wall. We then descended the lower gully to where the route starts. It took us nearly an hour to get down as there were two very short rappels and Ajit had to learn how to do this with a Gri-Gri and without a second belay device. He was a fast learner, soaking up all the new information, including how to belay correctly. At the bottom, Ajit said that since he had already climbed the top part of the route and the chances of me returning were slim, he was completely fine with me leading the whole route and learning the nuances of multi-pitch climbing as we did in the west. This was great as I had not climbed outside in a year, and if he was willing to carry the bag, I was all for it! At this point, I must say that he carried the bag on the WHOLE route, including my shoes, which helped me tremendously!
We started climbing the bottom half about 11:20 AM. The first bolt was over 30 feet up over loose rock and grass, also known as scree in India! Each rainy season the grass grows in cracks all over the wall, and in the dryer season, the dirt is hard and the grass stiff and slippery with ample thorns and loose stuff all around. Situations like these probably prompted climbers to come up with the old adage “the leader never falls!” The bolts were 10-20 feet or more apart. Sometimes, it was hard to see the bolts as the route wound it’s way left and right through the overgrowth. You had to make sure that each step was very deliberate. A fall would’ve been disastrous with the leader bouncing off the many ledges on this low grade route, which I determined was about 5.7 and maybe slightly harder in the last pitch of this lower section. Although it was around five pitches, we did it in three in about as many hours. Being my first time out and feeling like it was free soloing I slowed down considerably. Ajit followed at an excellent pace and he was quite surprised how quickly we switched at the belay station. He had mentioned that most of the time they climbed fast, but spent a lot of time with anchors and switching gear and managing ropes. He was happy to learn how to use a cordelette in the anchor system, get comfortable hanging from it, and how to manage the rope efficiently during belaying.
We rested at the ledge for about 30 mins eating a small lunch. It was approaching 3pm and we only had about 3.5 hours of light left. We realized that we would not have enough time to return for the second pack, so I decided to climb the upper section with it. We moved as much of what was in there into the pack and we continued on. The upper pitches are what most people climb as the rock is clean and mostly vertical. This was also done in three pitches, although four would’ve been ideal for better communication. The first two pitches are in the 5.9+ range, while the crux pitch was an over hanging crack, which is well bolted and usually executed using a powerful lay-back. Unfortunately, I had to pull on the bolts to get through this. I felt had several things against me. I was pretty tired from climbing the 700 feet below for the past six hours, the whole route below required extreme concentration and a high amount of full body tensioning as one negotiated the loose stuff throughout, it was my first first day climbing outside in a year, lack of sleep, and only a few days of bouldering under my belt in the previous weeks. Anyway, enough excuses. The route was maybe hard 5.10d/5.11-. I’m hoping it will go much better the next time! After the crux, there is a section which appeared to have no protection for close to 15’ with delicate foot work in a dish. I had no idea how I was going to get through this without killing myself! Although the fall was clean over the roofy section, my feet were very tired and I did not feel like I had good purchase with them. After hang-dogging below this section, I decided to try to find holds in the overgrown crack in the middle. To my amazement and relief, I found one old and one new piton bashed into this section! The next bolt was still 6-8 feet away, but it went uneventfully.
I soon came around a corner to an anchor. Assessing the situation, it seemed like a better idea to continue without stopping due to the diminishing light. I put a long sling on the anchor, which allowed the rope to run cleanly past the corner. I could see 2-3 bolts and figured there were more above. I was wrong, or I was completely off route! The last 50’ of the route were climbed without any protection in some funky sections with many slopers in dish-like formations, incredible rope-drag, and no way to communicate with Ajit! Needless to say, I was pretty relieved when I got to the top. At this point Ajit and I had to communicate with just the rope. He had already learned that once I got up to and set up the anchor, I would pull the rope up and he would be good to go. Well, these things take much longer to accept when you can’t communicate and the sun was going down fast! Due to the heavy pack and just plain fatigue, he also had trouble on the overhang. While hanging, he could not unweight the rope to release from the quickdraw and we couldn’t communicate either. His English is not very good and my Hindi is worse and the wind was not helping us at all! He eventually figured it out using his daisy-chain and was soon at the summit letting me know that I had missed all the bolts in the upper section! It was 6:05 PM when he topped out. It had taken us 6:45 hours to do the whole 800’ of Duke’s Nose In a Day! Not bad for a first, half onsite attempt! Next time, I intend to do just the upper section ... clean!
The next part of our adventure was getting home. By the time we started descending, it was pitch dark with a full moon. I have no idea how it all works out, but I seem to have a lot of these fantastically setup night descents! We used our headlamps to make our way down in about 40 mins. We got to Khurwande around 7:10 PM, which as luck would have it, was 10 mins after the last transport leaves for Lonavla! There is no bus service to town, so large private jeeps ply back and forth all day like shared taxis, with each person paying no more than 10 rupees each way. There was no sign of a jeep, but there were several young men moving around on motorcycles; a motorbike gang, maybe?! We thought we could convince a couple of them to give us rides back to town, but to no avail. After about 30 mins a couple of these jeeps returned to the village for the night. They had no intention of another trip, but a local adventure guide convinced him to take us to the station for 100 rupees each! In India, as in other third-world countries, money always talks! Next stop was dinner. Ajit had Chicken Biryani (spicy chicken cooked in colored rice) and I had the mild veggie version. Wow, mild meant there was only one chopped green chilli! It was so spicy (for me) that I had to order yogurt to douse the flames. My western friends, remember this on your next trip! And, my Mumbai buddies can stop rolling on the ground!
By the time we reached the station, it was already 8:30 PM, we had no tickets, and just our luck (again!) as we watched a train pulling out towards Mumbai! It’s all about timing. We should’ve gotten take out, as at this hour trains are very infrequent. We got our tickets and settled on the platform for Mumbai-bound trains as our train was not due for over an hour. But, within a few minutes, there was an announcement and people started running first one way to get to another platform and then back again to ours. A train suddenly pulled up and we pushed our way into the closest carriage; what luck. Who’d have known that we just got onto the Secunderabad Express, which had already been delayed for 16 or more hours, meaning this train was supposed to have arrived in Mumbai 16 hours ago! The people on board looked like zombies; they were flat out exhausted. We were again in Second Class – General, but this time on a long distance train, which meant you had a ticket, but no assigned (or real) seat and this one even had bunks. There were hundreds of people in a carriage meant for 78. There were two or five or six people on each bunk and two on each seat by the aisle. And again the aisles were full or people, some even sleeping on the floor from sheer desperation and fatigue. I stood in the same spot with other people’s feet between mine for the first 2.5 hours of the journey back till we reached Kalyan when about 80% of the people just disappeared! When a train is delayed more than a few hours, the railroad basically gives up on trying to get it home on time. Any time a train running on time catches up to it on the same line, the delayed train is moved off the line and the on-time train zooms by. This happened to us several times delaying us even further. At some point though, the train picked up some serious speed and didn’t let up till it reached Dadar station which was only a few stations from home. We actually got to sit/lie down for a few minutes before we got off 3.5 hours later. I took a taxi home finding out about the extra four-rupee-after-midnight tariff! I was home in 15 mins and asleep before 1 AM. My round-trip door-to-door was nearly 20 hours, but I’m sure Ajit’s must've taken longer as he had to make his way to CST and back home from Dadar using several trains and some. Needless to say, I slept till about 3 PM the next day!
Again, the adventure for me wasn't just the climb, but the personal effort added to the omnipresent inefficiency, dirt, noise, smell, dogs, the sheer number of people, and the sometimes entertaining characters you encounter on these trips. It is an overload of everyone of your senses for hours on end. Duke What’s amazing is that people here, including several of my climbing friends, do this every day as they plow back and forth to work; sometimes two-four hours each way on these trains. I'm lucky as I tend to make fast friends, as people find me a bit of an oddity and I'm chatty! Although basically Indian, I have lighter skin and my local countrymen usually start talking to my friends first. Once I respond in my somewhat broken Hindi, they are taken aback and the conversations start. The little kids are usually intrigued at what I offer them in food and the youngsters are interested in learning about what we do with our fancy climbing equipment. Of course, everyone wants to know about America and whether we can find them a job there; actually, all the taxi drivers think they can drive taxis in America ... no problem! Must be watching way too much Hollywood!
Until next time ...