Hampi: Crimps, Chants & Chai
We set out for Hampi, a small town 350 km north of our current home base of Bangalore, not only for the world-famous temples, but for a little taste of the ‘dirtbag’ climbing lifestyle that Trixie and I had been craving. It was one of the most anticipated destinations of our India trip—the only plan was to climb for as many consecutive days as our bodies (and fingers) would allow. After ten pre-dawn alarms, plenty of sends (successful climbs), and countless falls, scrapes, and cups of milky chai later, we both agreed that the boulder fields of Hampi have a magical quality that must be experienced first-hand.
As seems to be a common thread in our Indian adventures, the trip got off to a rocky start. We initially missed our sleeper bus to Hampi. As we were getting ready to take a rickshaw home, we were bailed out by some luck and kindness. The driver of the bus that had replaced ours called ‘our’ driver and convinced him to wait a few kilometres down the road. A rickshaw was flagged for us and we managed to catch up to the bus as it was pulling away. Relieved, we piled onboard and climbed up to our purple-velour curtained bunk just comfy enough to make the bumpy, eight-hour ride to Hampi tolerable. We drifted off to the lullabies of Indian bus travel: a constant barrage of musical horn blasts and the murmur of a Bollywood film emanating from the bunk below.
Bleary-eyed but eager to make the most of the day with our new German friends Dennis and Alex (Bangalore-based weekend warriors we met at the climbing gym), we hopped off the bus. At 6am, Hospet—the town that serves as the springboard to the more serene Hampi—was already bustling. We hired a driver to take us on a whirlwind tour of the ancient temples that dot the area. Even by car, this is a feat. Hampi, the jewel of the once powerful Hindu Vijayanagara empire, grew to be the second largest medieval-era city before it was ransacked by Muslim armies in the 16th century. Its extensive temple network is spread over 41 square km—a series of ruins that include the remnants of forts, royal palaces, markets, elephant stables and parade grounds. We decided to take our time in a handful of spots rather than rush to see them all.
Of the many temples we meandered through, the sprawling ruins of Achyutaraya were the most interesting to explore. However, the most quintessentially Indian scene occurred at Virupaksha. We followed the sound of traditional drumming, strangely accompanied by jazz saxophone, to a 7th century temple that remains the focal point for worship in Hampi. Inside, a small wedding ceremony was underway. Beneath an ancient mandapa (roofed worship area), a vibrantly dressed bride and groom purified themselves with the smoke of incense as a throng of family members sang and danced around them. Noting our curiosity, an older man beckoned us closer, held out a bowl of saffron-coloured rice, and encouraged us to take some. While we showered the newlyweds with handfuls of rice, the temple elephant rumbled past (headed for its morning bath in the river), and a monkey ran away with one of the ceremonial food platters, causing a stir amongst the procession.
That evening we checked into the Goan Corner, a climber hangout offering accommodation ranging from mosquito-net covered mattresses on the roof (~$5) to simple thatched bungalows (~$17). Skirting the true dirtbag lifestyle—we later met an interesting guy named Jon who, by spending a few days sleeping up in the boulders on his crashpad with a towel for a blanket, epitomized this ethos—we opted for a bungalow with a hammock and garden view.
By 7am the next morning, our climbing party had doubled; German Dennis No. 2, this one deceivingly fresh-faced, had appeared from thin air and ‘recruited’ us to join him and Konstantin, the world’s most tanned Swede. We strapped on four crash-pads and hiked into the boulders. As the sun rose higher, Hampi’s landscape was revealed. It is otherworldly—endless, rolling hills of massive granite boulders stretching as far as the eye can see, punctuated by lush green rice paddies and the sikharas (towers) of Hindu temples. We quickly settled into a morning ritual that went something like this: wake-up around 5:30am, stroll through the rice paddies directly behind the Goan Corner, hike up into the boulders in the darkness towards a climbing area agreed upon by the crew the night before, stretch and loosen-up to Hindu chants reverberating through the valley, and warm-up on some easy boulders as the sun began rising over the prominent Rishimuk spires. After that, one of the many ‘chai boys’ who roam the boulder fields with thermoses of steaming, sweet, milky tea would inevitably find us. Watching the boulders come to life in the cool of the morning with a cup of chai in hand was simple, yet we savoured that part of each day.
The ten days that followed were a blur of climbing, lounging in hammocks, eating tandoor veg platters, and exploring with new friends. Our little climbing crew roamed the central plateau, spoiled for choice. The climbing itself was tough. Prior to this I had only bouldered outdoors once—last summer in Squamish, British Columbia. I’ve been climbing consistently indoors for about a year now, but it’s impossible to compare molded plastic to Hampi’s sharp granite. I found the first couple days to be a steep learning curve, but I slowly adapted to the crimpy, razor-like holds and the commitment it took to endure the sting of the rock. The feeling of topping out over a boulder—especially when you’re rewarded with Hampi’s stunning views—is pure addiction.
I tried my best to keep up with Trixie, but a boulder she would flash (get first time) often took me a solid ten attempts—if I got it at all. Our favourite boulder of the entire trip may have been 'Sandwich Roof', a mushroom-shaped rock perched on the edge of the plateau that provided sweeping views of the rice paddies and temples below. We both sent a fun line on the left side of the boulder (an onlooking monkey bared its teeth at me as I topped out, obviously threatened by my slick climbing), then turned our attention to a harder problem called 'Classic Roof'. Trixie came painfully close to sticking the explosive dyno to the final ledge; she tried over and over again until realizing that she really just needs to grow another inch.
Luckily, the camaraderie we found in Hampi was unbeatable and more than made up for any frustration. Bouldering is about short intense bursts of effort followed by plenty of time lounging on crashpads, cheering on other climbers, bantering, hand-rolling cigarettes (Konstantin), and curating the perfect throwback hip-hop playlist to keep us going (Dennis). Most days it was just the four of us, but one morning a group of twelve from all over the world managed to assemble before sunrise, some bouldering for the very first time.
By 11am you could fry an egg on the boulders. We would retreat back to the Goan for a much-needed cup of coffee, breakfast, and a recap of the morning’s events. After, we found respite from the heat in shady hammocks or by taking dips in the river that wraps around Hampi island (we recommend the crossing near Baba cafe—just watch out for the herds of water buffalo and goats). In the evening, we would make the pilgrimage back up to the boulders for a light climb and an incredible sunset view from the aptly named ‘Sunset Point’. We spent nearly every evening amongst these remnants of granite monoliths that, over millions of years, eroded and crumbled into their current state of precarious and random beauty.
If you get the chance, visit Hampi before everything changes, whether you’re a climber or not! Due in part to its designation as a UNESCO heritage site, the local government is allegedly trying to control tourism by shutting down guesthouses and forcing them to relocate to nearby Hospet. This would be done under the guise of protecting ruins; however, some local business owners say this is simply a government attempt to grab a greater share of the tourist dollar. Either way, this would drastically change the Hampi experience, and not just the climbing aspect. While there, we were lucky enough to ‘play’ (as the locals say) in the Holi festival—an explosion of colour, drumming and dancing that left our clothes and bodies tie-dyed head to toe (weeks later, Trixie’s toes are still pink). I doubt the celebration will be quite the same in the coming years. Local politics aside, Hampi was a dream and we’re already scheming our return—we have some unfinished business to take care of. Fingers shredded, yet content, we set off to our next destination with Andrea and Tyler, our mysterious neighbours at the Goan Corner.