A Call to Action : Why aren’t Indians Alpinists?

Karn Kowshik

For me, mountaineering has always been an expression of individuality - to see how far I can go on my own strength. I have no nationalist objectives in terms of planting a flag on a summit, but I do feel my nationalist pride pricked when I realize how far we lag behind as mountaineers.

On the day I completed my Basic Mountaineering Course, I was asked in the closing interview, “What is your goal?” I answered, “I want to be an alpinist!” A stifled laugh went around the room, where all the course instructors sat. Part of the amusement may have been from the fact that I was a below-average trainee. But part of the joke was that Indian climbers much more talented than I, had tried, and failed. The interviewer smiled at me, benevolently, and said, “You have to be very strong to be an alpinist. You have to work much harder.” Then, he said something I have never forgotten. “Indians can’t be alpine climbers.”

The philosophy of the alpine style has less to do with summits, and more to do with how one climbs. In the alpine tradition, there is a great appreciation for climbing fast and light, and a stress on climbing hard, technical routes. There is a disdain for fixing lines, and HAP (High Altitude Porters) support is anathema. This has long been the only way to climb in the mountains of Europe, where alpinism originated. In the Alps, most routes are easily accessed by foot or ski, and one can spend an evening sipping wine in a warm bar, and be on the face of a difficult mountain the next. Mountains also have alpine huts, which climbers can be comfortable in.

The Himalayas, in contrast are massive in scale. It sometimes takes more than a week to establish a base camp, and rarely can one be at the bottom of a climb in a day. While climbing, acclimatization is a significant concern so climbers have no choice but to make repeated forays to acclimatize. Even western climbers have struggled with applying the alpine style to the Himalaya, except of course, for the most legendary climbers.

But, times are changing. All significant summits have been claimed. Mountaineering now is most often about routes rather than summits. Mountaineers too have changed – they place an emphasis on physical ability and technical skill. Training for climbing is now the norm; climbers are pushing the limits of what was once impossible. Recent achievements attest to the fact that the alpine style has reached the Himalaya.

Increasingly, we see bold and imaginative alpine style climbs, and the world’s best mountaineers are all looking at the Indian Himalaya. This year, a Russian team went straight up the North Face of Thalay Sagar – one of the most audacious climbs ever done. Two years ago, an American team climbed the Shark’s Fin of Mt. Meru. People are now climbing 8000 m peaks in less than a day, or climbing them in winter. Every year new and challenging peaks are climbed in the Kishtwar region. Small, light and fast teams are all coming to our Himalaya and doing things once thought impossible.

And, what of us, the Indian mountaineering community? We still organize expeditions relying solely on HAP support and fixed lines. I can think of no recent Indian climb that has attracted international attention. Must we be content to stand on the sidelines as climbers from other countries do what we can only dream of? Is our lot to wait at base camp, watching with awe as western climbers climb boldly, free of the dogma of fixed lines, ascending rock and ice faces that we consider impossible?

Over 40 years ago, in this very Journal, Ashoka Madgavkar had called the Indian mountaineering community to align itself with the world standard – and for him, the way to do this was to look deep within our own collective consciousness, and to use our ‘national genius’. His was a call to bring out the best from our climbers and guides.

Karn Kowshik climbing in the Lingti Nala, Spiti

Karn Kowshik climbing in the Lingti Nala, Spiti. He is belayed from the top by Bharat Bhushan. This year, the duo opened new waterfall ice routes in the Spiti Valley (Nishit Shah)

There have been climbers who answered this call. Harish Kapadia’s expeditions into the unknown are legendary, and the mountaineering world recognizes this. He set the stage by exploring much of this hidden Himalaya. Who amongst us can claim to carry forward a legacy not of exploration but by opening new and hard lines on Indian peaks? In the generation of climbers before mine, there were sparks of brilliance. For instance, climbing with borrowed equipment, Mandip Singh Soin and Charu Sharma climbed Meru North in the alpine style. Yet the Indians of today shy away from any significant rock wall.

Why Ashoka Madgavkar’s call was never answered is a moot point. I believe it is not for lack of will, or lack of ability. I see climbers with prodigal strength and immense bravery, and I know that we stand at par with the best of the world. There are significant barriers to Indian climbers - the most important being financial.

It is not just the mountaineering world that has changed in the past 10 years. India too has changed – an India not content to play second fiddle. We see an emergence of heroes in sports ranging from boxing to badminton. Not just in sports, but also in the world of business, academics and, art, we desire to stake our claim at the highest levels of excellence.

Thus, it bothers me when I hear the refrain, “Indian’s can’t be alpine climbers.”

For me, mountaineering has always been an expression of individuality - to see how far I can go on my own strength. I have no nationalist objectives in terms of planting a flag on a summit, but I do feel my nationalist pride pricked when I realize how far we lag behind as mountaineers.

Some years ago, I set myself the goal of challenging the notion that Indians can’t climb alpine style. Working hard physically, I climbed with western climbers to investigate what Indians lacked. I studied books, videos, and did courses. Attempting peaks only in the alpine style, I failed regularly, and tried repeatedly. I found a partner who had the same vision as me. I worked relentlessly on my technical skills, learning the latest techniques. I invested all my money in the latest, and lightest, climbing gear. I tried to find answers.

This is an attempt to examine why we are unable to compete in the international arena, and what we can do to change this. I do this by making comparisons with the most successful mountaineering traditions including the Americans, the British, the Swiss, the Slovenians and the Japanese.

Our weaknesses

Perceptive Difference : Our approach to mountaineering

Mountaineering is certainly a journey into oneself. But it also needs to be seen as an athletic endeavour. Many Indian climbers see mountaineering as an expression of nationalist pride. On the other hand, alpinists see themselves primarily as athletes. The difference in expression is evident – making how we climb as important as why we climb. The controversy on the Kompressor route on Cerro Torres (South America)1 shows how much emphasis the world mountaineering community places on a clean, ethical style of climbing.

Technical Differences – Skills and Training

The leading alpinists of the world have always seen rock climbing as the formative, basic skill of high-end mountaineering. On the other hand, we see load carrying ability and walking endurance as the essential skill. Even now – after the American team climbed a near featureless Shark’s Fin on Meru, Indian rock climbers are looked down as second cousins. I can count on one hand how many world class training walls we have in India. On the other hand, I can count how many world class bolted rock-climbing sites we have.

The need for high end rock climbing is simple : in the high Himalaya, if you want to travel fast and light, you need to take the most direct route to the summit, where you will definitely encounter steep rock. To climb a 6 A rock face at 5000 m, one needs to climb a 7A traditional route at sea level, and to do this, one needs to climbs a 7 c or 8 a sport climbing route. We only have two or three bolted routes of this level in India.

Karn Kowshik belaying Bharat Bhushan up a new route in the Spiti Valley, named Baby Steps.

Karn Kowshik belaying Bharat Bhushan up a new route in the Spiti Valley, named Baby Steps. Ice climbing is an essential part of the alpinist’s armoury, and both climbers regularly spend winter climbing in Spiti (Nishit Shah)

To become better alpinists, we must place a renewed emphasis on rock-climbing.


One cannot become the world’s best without training for it. This is made clear by the American climber Steve House – described by Reinhold Messner as the most significant mountaineer of our time – in his book Training for the New Alpinism. He outlines a scientific and structured approach to training for alpine climbing. In this book, personal reasons for climbing are kept aside – every mountaineer feels the call – that it is a spiritual pursuit for us all is a given. But to attain those spiritual heights, we must approach it like a science, and train exactly those strengths that are needed. We need to set ourselves high physical standards and follow a scientific approach to training.

Equipment and Finances

Alpinism has a pricey entry fee. Today’s equipment uses cutting edge technology, and is extremely expensive. A complete kit, with light ropes, clothing and tools, could cost anywhere between Rupees two to three lakhs. Perhaps this is why we see Indian mountaineers wearing ill-fitting clothing and carrying ice axes manufactured more than 20 years ago. This is a significant barrier to alpinism, which only the most privileged few can afford.

To bring Indian alpinism to the world standard, we must remove inherent privileges as enablers to alpinism. Even in 1969, Madgavkar had made the same argument, and suggested that the latest climbing equipment be made available to Indian climbers in places like Darjeeling, Gangtok, Joshimath, Manali or Sonamarg. Unfortunately, the latest equipment is still not even available at the IMF stores in New Delhi.

Once this barrier is overcome, actual expeditions become cheaper, as there is no need to hire HAPs, and alpine style expeditions are typically much faster than siege-style climbs.

Our strengths

Our primary strength is, of course, an unparalleled access to the Indian Himalaya. In terms of area, we have more than either Nepal or Pakistan, and we also have the highest number of unclimbed peaks. Western climbers who attempt peaks here must, for logistical reasons, focus on only one objective every year. They do get around this, but the same rules do not apply to us. We must use this to our advantage, and make it our mission to climb as many unclimbed peaks as possible.

Secondly, I see the prodigal strength of the mountain people as a great reservoir. Our focus on stamina and load carrying ability is a great base to build on – technical skills are much easier to obtain! Physical prowess has never been our problem.

The way forward

To move forward, I propose two avenues that we must all travel simultaneously.

The first is the training and formation of a core group of mountain guides. These guides can come from mountain communities in Uttarkhand, Ladakh, Himachal and Sikkim. They should be trained and certified according to the standards set for mountain guides by the IFMGA and UIAA. This will ensure that local mountain peoples are the first to benefit.

In countries with an established mountain guide heritage, it is mountain guides that push the limits and set the standards.

The second proposal is to set a national objective to climb the unclimbed peaks in the Indian Himalaya. This will ensure livelihoods of people currently working in the field, as this does not negate commercial expeditions that depend on Sherpa and fixed-line support.

Mt. Latu Dhura in the Kumaon Himalaya

Bharat Bhushan struggles up the steep, soft face of Mt. Latu Dhura in the Kumaon Himalaya. Along with Karn Kowshik, this is Bharat’s second attempt on the peak - the team was turned back from the summit ridge by bad snow conditions (Karn Kowshik)

I will end this article with a quote that I could not dare to make. It was stated in 1969 by Madgavkar, who said, “The present pernicious and utterly demeaning system of subsidized expeditions must be condemned and abandoned, for it is contrary to our traditions and it has failed to develop either climbers or guides.”

A young Indian alpinist reflects on all that is necessary to make alpine style climbing a reality in India.

About the Author

KARN KOWSHIK is a journalist turned mountaineer. He guides treks and climbs for a living, and climbs only in the alpine style. He is based out of Bhimtal, Uttarakhand.



  1. Cerro Torre is in Patagonia, located on the border between Argentina and Chile. After Cesare Maestri’s claim to the first ascent of Cerro Torre in 1959 was met with disbelief and incredulity, he returned to the face in 1970 to prove he could reach the top. But he did so at the expense of the mountain – using up to 400 bolts, a bolt ladder, and a compressor-powered drill. Maestri’s approach to the face thus sparked one of the most infamous debates in the mountaineering world. Is the point reaching the top at any expense, or is it to prove one’s skill, grit, and perseverance, as an alpinist would argue? The face continued to court controversy and spark debate until David Lama’s 2012 ascent. With bolts being removed and reinserted, and film crews and foreigners laying claim to the face, the Cerro Torre captures, both physically and symbolically, divergent approaches to climbing.


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