Become a Member

Get access to more than 30 brands, premium video, exclusive content, events, mapping, and more.

Already have an account? Sign In

Become a Member

Get access to more than 30 brands, premium video, exclusive content, events, mapping, and more.

Already have an account? Sign In

Brands

Places

Climb Like a Woman: A Bouldering Festival in the Himalayan Foothills Empowers Indian Women

The Indian climbing community is predominantly male. These women aim to change that.

Get the Full Story for Free

To continue reading this story, and discover more like it, create your free account.

Already have a login?

Sign In

Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness, nutrition, and adventure courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+ Sign up for Outside+ today.

“Climb like a woman means to own it—being a woman—and to say, ‘I am proud to climb like a woman. Yes, I am that badass!’” said Sara Vetteth, 47, a mother of two and an entrepreneur who attended the 2021 all-women’s climbing event Climb Like A Woman (CLAW) with her 13-year-old daughter, Anya. The gathering, now in its third year, was held in Sethan, a tiny hamlet amidst the pine trees of Himachal Pradesh, 12 miles from Manali, India.

CLAW is the country’s biggest all-ladies climbing event, organized by female stalwarts in the Indian climbing community. Its goal is to reduce the gender gap in climbing by providing a secure platform for women to learn the sport and overcome stereotypes. CLAW was founded in 2018 by Gowri Varanashi, who was later joined by four valiant female climbers: Prerna Dangi, Vrinda Bhageria, Lekha Rathinam, and Mel Batson.

In India, the climbing community is primarily composed of men.

“When I started out, I was the only female on outdoor climbing trips,” said Varanashi. “Later on, there were women coming outdoors, but they were only a handful compared to male climbers.”

Varanashi discovered climbing in 2011, and later became the third Indian woman to climb 8a (5.13b), with Samsara in 2019.

Avantika, the youngest participant at CLAW 2021, accompanied by her mother, Monica Senthil Kumar, on the slackline. (Photo: Gayatri Juvekar)

“We need women’s events to enable us,” said Anya. “Women are of different builds compared to men. We need to see someone of the same physique to show us how it is done. Someone who is relatable. Then it is easy to understand, and it’s inspiring.”

Unfortunately, in India, women face prejudice on a daily basis. Daughters are traditionally brought up as inferior to their male counterparts. They are fed the conventional beliefs that women must get married, give birth, and look after their families—not pursue sports or other hobbies outside the home. Some years back, before joining the CLAW team, Batson saw this firsthand when she visited a school in the remote region of Bihar. There, while the boys played in the playground, the girls sat off to the side, chatting. When Batson asked about this disparity, the kids told her, “Don’t you know girls are not supposed to play?” Said Batson, “These young ones were not even aware of their fundamental rights. They didn’t know there are thousands of women competing internationally in all sports. It is unbelievable to see the contrast in one nation. We must change this mindset.”

CLAW founder Gowri Varanashi demonstrating proper footwork and beta decryption. After topping out this boulder, she was scared to jump down, although she wasn’t afraid to show it! In so doing, Varanashi demonstrated that no one should be hesitant to be vulnerable in front of others. (Photo: Gayatri Juvekar)

When women in India, be they in rural areas or cities, try to excel beyond traditional limitations, there are usually more furrowed brows than proud claps. At CLAW, “Many participants tell me, ‘I can’t do this,’ or, ‘My upper body is weak,’ even before trying something. We have a lot of stories in our minds about why we can’t be in sports. Probably that is ingrained while growing up or we have generated those false notions,” said Varanashi. “We can’t really blame anyone, but we have to fight the negativity. With CLAW, we try to break all these hidden reservations.” Varanashi hopes to create independent and confident women through climbing, and to help them rise above the myth of women as the “weaker sex. 

During the CLAW gatherings, women of diverse backgrounds—from cosmopolitan cities to remote towns, and from schoolkids to middle-aged mothers—come together to tackle their “girl-problems” during the five-day event.  Apart from climbing (bouldering only), there are slacklining, yoga, and nature meditation sessions. As the participants spend every moment with each other (with shared rooms and meals), they are exposed to sisterhood like never before. Evenings are spent in heart-to-heart conversations with the mentors, who start discussions on gender disparity in society and in climbing. It is during these colloquies that the attendees face their inner doubts and overcome their misconceptions. 

Read This: Why Women Can Climb as Hard as Men

Dangi, a CLAW instructor and mountain guide with a decade of experience in the sport, believes that facilitating such conversations leads to a multifold revelation. She said, “When we asked, ‘Why do all-girl groups feel different?’, one girl mentioned how male players would never pass the ball to her while playing basketball. They assumed that since she was a girl, she would be weak. I had faced the same biases in my early climbing days. Likewise, a number of participants share their experiences, and we cater to them …  as a group.”

Sonam Gogia showing off her arms in a sleeveless top, which she had been scared to wear prior to the event. Surrounded by other women climbers, she felt the confidence to be herself. (Photo: Gayatri Juvekar)

“I refrained from wearing sleeveless tops because people around me would make me conscious about my big arms,” said Sonam Gogia, an event participant and a new climber. “But I finally wore a sleeveless top on the last day of the event. These girls became my cheerleaders.” Ria Andrews, another participant, said, “My parents tell me to find a ‘women-friendly’ sport where I won’t get tanned or scratched. I feel this burden every time. But with the female affinity, I could climb freely.”

Tejaswini Gowda, another attendant, spoke about overcoming her timidity. She said, “You hear about these senior climbers and watch them in the gym crush hard climbs. I used to get intimidated when Gowri, Prerna, or other strong climbers were around. I always felt I could never be their friend, that I am not strong enough. But now I know I can hang out with them; they are normal like me. It is liberating and also inspiring when they climb with me.”

Participants practicing yoga on a cloudy morning. (Photo: Gayatri Juvekar)

CLAW provides a space for women to be themselves, to fall without judgement, rise with the support of fellow members, resolve self-doubt, and become stronger. Said Vetteth of the 2021 festival, “We all were novice climbers, starting at the same level with no presumptions. We could be ourselves, wear whatever we wanted. That is why CLAW was best for my daughter, too. In her savage teen days, she could witness not-so-mean girls.”

Read more about Himalayan Bouldering: Bouldering Under the Roof of the World

For 2021, after two successful meetups in 2018 and 2019 in Hampi (a village in Karnataka, featured in the bouldering film Pilgrimage, with Chris Sharma), the organizers expanded their scope to the Himalayas, whose foothills are littered with boulders. Their motivation was twofold: First, to promote India’s mind-blowing climbing potential. And second, says Gowri, to show participants that “by travelling alone to remote locations in the mountains, they are already becoming self-reliant.”

Janaki Chaudhary, spotted by Deepa Bhatt, tries hard as she traverses an unnamed, mossy bloc in Sethan. (Photo: Gayatri Juvekar)

Of my own time at CLAW in 2021, I learned one way to be empowered is to be yourself. On the first day of the event, Varanashi was demonstrating how to find the holds on a technical problem, a 12-foot-tall boulder with a mantel topout and no feasible downclimb—the only option was to jump. The moment Varanashi topped out, she realized her predicament. She panicked and refrained from coming down. Terrified to jump, she was being vulnerable in front of beginners—neither embarrassed to be herself nor scared of judgement. The participants helped calm her down and readied her landing. Varanashi trusted her spotters, took the leap, and landed safely on three stacked crashpads. 

This moment at CLAW, along with many others, sowed the seeds of confidence in the participants—to be themselves and to be empowered.

All of the CLAW 2021 participants posing on the last day of the event. Sunil Bodh (far left, standing) is a Sethan local who welcomed the crew to his heavenly hometown. (Photo: Gayatri Juvekar)

Climb Like A Woman (CLAW) began in 2018 to reduce the gender gap in the Indian climbing community by welcoming women. It’s the brainchild of Gowri Varanashi, a veteran climber and an outdoor expert. Other crew members include Prerna Dangi, pro climber and mountain guide; Vrinda Bhageria, climber and co-founder of Boulder Box climbing gym in Delhi; Lekha Rathinam, climber and marketing manager; and Mel Batson, a climber, highliner, and movement coach. CLAW has been held in Hampi, in 2018 and 2019, and Sethan, in 2021. Visit climblikeawoman.com for more information.

*

Nutan Shinde-Pawar is a climber, hiker, and freelance writer. She’s also a social-media manager for adventure companies and explorers.