20 Years After Sharma Made It Popular, How Has Hampi Changed?
Chris Sharma, Katie Brown, and Nate Gold put Hampi on the map for Westerners in 2003. Now local climbers are developing climbs and climbing-adjacent businesses. But there are headwinds.
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Jerry Vikram was 14 when he got his first pair of climbing shoes. They were secondhand Five Tens, a gift from Spanish climbers touring the small village of Hampi in the south Indian state of Karnataka.
Thinking they were pretty nice, Vikram “wore them on the two-kilometer walk home,” he remembers, laughing. “That’s how little idea I had about climbing.” But his mother was appalled that he had accepted someone else’s used garments—“it’s bad karma in Indian culture,” he explains—and threw the shoes away.
It was nonetheless an epiphanic moment in young Vikram’s life.
This was back in 2009, when rock climbing had not yet caught on for most locals, despite the region’s developing reputation for world-class bouldering. Growing up in a village like Hampi, an official UNESCO heritage site, Vikram had been naturally active, his backyard a veritable paradise for scrambling, parkouring, and exploration. Throughout his childhood, he had watched a steady stream of foreigners, mainly from Europe and North America, flock by the thousands to Hampi to visit the temples and ruins of the 14th century Vijayanagara Empire. But he couldn’t fail to notice that some of the visitors were a bit different—and that they spent most of their visits doing what he himself often did: playing around on and among the boulders. Westerners had begun bouldering in Hampi in the 1980s, but their numbers increased drastically after the 2003 Big Up Productions film Pilgrimage, featuring Chris Sharma, Katie Brown, and Nate Gold, thrust Hampi onto the general climbing populatio’s radar. Yet it was only when he met those Spanish climbers, who gave him the shoes, that Vikram gave real bouldering a shot.
Within three or four months of climbing, Vikram was hooked. All he wanted to do was go climbing. “I couldn’t focus on other stuff, so I started showing other people to these climbing areas, taking them out,” he says. He could hardly believe that he’d been surrounded by these boulders his whole life but was only now able to see them with a climber’s eye: “How come I didn’t know this was my sport for so many years?”
He didn’t know it at the time, but Vikram would soon become the embodiment of a significant change in Indian climbing: the rise of the local crusher. While the first waves of climbing development were driven by western visitors and overseen by an amused but unengaged local population, the last decade has seen the rise of a small but dedicated homegrown scene, led by locals like Vikram who are spearheading route development while building climbing-adjacent business infrastructure.
Last December, I took a bus to Hampi—a wearisome nine-hour ride from Bangalore. And when we crossed the Tungabhadra River, and I caught my first glimpse of the boulder field, I was floored. The boulders were everywhere, rose-colored in the setting sun, ranging from impressive highballs to cute parties of rounded sandstone. It’s a place that (year-round heat aside) is just so obviously designed for climbers.
I stayed that night—and for the entirety of my too-short stay—at Wanderlust hotel, a designated climber spot where Vikram and his crew frequently stop for beers in the evenings. Here I met Mani Mahesh, another prominent Hampi climber, who was putting the finishing touches on his new guesthouse Soul Monkey, which opened in late December 2022, catering to long-term, climbing-oriented stays. Mahesh has a big beard and a warm, energizing presence; he’s easy to talk to, relaxed, quick to share stories about his hallucinogenic adventures. He caught the climbing bug back in 2008, when he was thirteen. Some of his friends’s fathers were climbers, and they gave him a pair of shoes—acting on the premonition that Hampi was going to make it big as a climbing destination and that he, by becoming a climber, could build a life around it.
He took to bouldering fast, loving the movement, but when he tried to take friends out, it didn’t stick for most of them. “Even today there are only around seven or eight local [Hampi] climbers,” he said. “And back then, only 30-40 climbers in all of India. But now there are at least thousands.”
Mahesh believes that the sport’s elusiveness amongst Indian nationals comes from a dearth of resources (even now, shoes and crash pads are mostly hauled in from abroad by visiting climbers) and lack of exposure: Climbing simply wasn’t advertised as a sport in India for a couple of decades, long after Chris Sharma and Katie Brown popularized Hampi for Western audiences. (Fun fact: Mahesh was in Pilgrimage, too. “I made it into one of the scenes with the local kids.”)
The next morning Vikram took me toproping in an area fittingly called Jerry’s Backyard since the crag lies just behind the home he shares with his wife. When Vikram first scoped it several years ago, he’d been shocked to stumble upon a single anchor bolt, likely bolted in the 1990s. He’s since bolted a handful of lines––his zeal limited only by his inconsistent access to gear.
After climbing, Vikram and I chatted in the room above his climbing and guiding shop, Golden Boulders. As he somewhat distractedly ate his lunch, using some roti to scoop up a dish of curry and occasionally quieting to smoke a quick cigarette, he told me that work and climbing have long been interlinked for him. Vikram had been working since age nine, selling books and chai, renting out his motorbike––anything to bring in cash—but in 2011, two years after being given his first shoes, he joined up with Tom Koushik, another local climbing prodigy, and did something new: He opened up Hampi’s first climbing store. They called it Fontainebleau, after the famous French bouldering mecca, but people preferred to call it the Tom and Jerry Climbing Shop, which is what ended up sticking. “We had four pairs of shoes to rent and two crashpads, and we called that our shop,” Vikram chuckled.
Humble though it was, this was a critical step for Hampi. Sensing that climbing tourism could provide a serious economic boost to Hampi’s locals, who are otherwise dependent on things like subsistence farming and rickshaw driving for income, Vikram and Koushik began trying to educate their local community about the sport and the importance of sustaining new route development. They worked to convince Hampi villagers not to break up boulders to sell as building materials––to instead recognize their intrinsic value.
“Once you ruin the boulders, you’ll never get them back,” said Vikram. But to convince people that that matters, you first “have to convince them that they can bring in money through tourism.”
They also wanted to encourage locals to learn more about climbing and other outdoors-adjacent jobs, hoping to expand the area’s limited career options. “A rickshaw guy might take people out for climbing or trekking, but he doesn’t know anything technical or have the gear,” Vikram explained. “Locals know the names of different places, but need some training to become competent guides.”
At the same time, Vikram was still climbing, still training, still trying to make it as an athlete. In 2014 he sent his first V11, The Diamond Sit—an accomplishment that put him in rare company in the Indian climbing world. He showed me an article called “New Kids on the Bloc: Boulderers in India,” by Dhillan Chandramowli, published in the 2014 summer issue of The Outdoor Journal, in which he was identified as one of three of India’s up-and-coming climbers. The story celebrates the rise of scrappy champions like Ajij Shaikh, who in 2013 became the first Indian to send a V11 boulder, and Tuhin Satarkar, the first Indian to redpoint the country’s hardest sport route, Ganesh, 5.14a. Chandramowli also notes that for the first time in the region’s history, “Indian climbers were pushing harder grades than the normally dominant European visitors.”
But the story also acknowledes that because of the minimal outdoor gear market in India, these climbers had no sponsorship attention or modern training facilities. “There was no climbing scene here even though we were climbing V11s,” Vikram told me.
They felt unseen by the international climbing world.
So Vikram was going all out all the time, taking clients out to the boulderfields and then returning at night to session on his own projects. And for a while he loved it. “I realized that there isn’t anything better than being outdoors, being in nature, connecting with it,” he said. “It’s not just climbing. Nature’s what keeps me happy.”
Yet he also felt like his entire life depended on climbing well and often. He took a mountaineering course in the Himalayan, getting experience at high altitudes and becoming a NOLS-certified Wilderness First Responder. He tried to find some sort of sponsor, to figure out a more sustainable way to keep climbing while making enough money to live. Because it didn’t take long for him to see how challenging it was to simultaneously train seriously and work full time as a guide. For several years, Vikram managed to climb at night with lights after taking clients out all day, but he eventually started burning out. Injuries began springing up. He realized that something was going to have to change—and with his livelihood so connected to the guiding business, the only thing that could change were his athletic ambitions.
In 2019, Vikram and Koushik parted ways amicably to pursue separate ventures. Vikram established the Golden Boulders Adventure and Climbing Shop, which rents out crash pads and shoes but also offers guided climbing, aiming to reconnect children and adults with nature. He estimates that 800 clients pass through each year.
Golden Boulders also boasts one of the only proper coffee shops on its side of Hampi, and it has the vibes of a real climber pad––black and white analog photos and polaroids of clients and friends decorate the walls, books by Jean-Paul Sartre and Langston Hughes line a shelf, people laze about before and after climbs.
Yet the heart of Vikram’s business lies in its community focus; he aims to introduce as many locals as he can to climbing and climbing-adjacent livelihoods while also working to convince conservation branches of the government that the outdoors has value—that nature preserves shouldn’t be sealed off and inaccessible to recreators and local communities.
He’s employed eight interns since opening the shop—three of whom have opened their own climbing businesses in Hampi. And in 2018, he launched the Golden Boulders Hampi Climbing Festival––a 10-day event that takes place each January and aims to help the local community become more involved in climbing and route development. The festival was canceled due to the pandemic in 2021 and 2022, but in 2023 it merged with the Festival of Hampi, a cultural event that includes lots of music and classical Indian dance. The merger expanded the climbing festival’s reach into the non-climbing community and gave climber participants the opportunity to climb near the Virupaksha and Hampi Temple––areas prohibited to bouldering during other times of the year.
In 2021, he managed to persuade the local governmental branch of the India Tourism Development Corporation to fund a workshop in Hampi specifically designed to train locals how to interact with and guide foreign tourists attracted to the region’s outdoor adventures and climbing. “36 people showed up and became certified––seven of them were women,” Vikram said, adding that this is a big deal for a remote, conservative village like Hampi, where women are still often expected to marry young, run the house, and have kids. It’s time, he said, for Hampi’s women to be able to “come out of the house and do something new.”
That same year, he convinced a tourism development officer to climb with him, hoping that by showing him what the sport is actually like would help the government see why it should minimize official impediments to climbing. The official loved it.
But to make room for this productivity, Vikram has had to relax his personal climbing goals. “It’s a little disappointing when things don’t turn out the way you wanted,” he told me. “I didn’t know I wanted to be a professional climber. I was so motivated in every direction. But things were so shit when it came to finances.”
Still, it’s not all bad. “I want to climb, but I also have to climb,” he said. “I’m glad this is part of my life, that my job involves something I love.”