Jyothi Raj, the self-taught rock-climber from Chitradurga, performed another astonishing feat on Saturday, climbing the 830-foot Jog Falls unassisted. The Jog Falls is Karnataka’s prime tourist attraction, featuring four columns of water that barrel down a cliff on to the rocks 830 feet below.
No other climber has attempted the feat. Although he has climbed up the Falls a few times earlier along different routes (he was called thrice to retrieve dead bodies lodged on the rocks), he had never attempted an ascent under the water. In climbing terms, what he did was a ‘free solo’, that is, without the use of any safety equipment. There are a few free-soloists of world acclaim, including the French ‘Spiderman’, Alain Robert. What Jyothi Raj did was a feat that any climber would have been proud of.
More than the technical difficulty of the climb, what was required perhaps was sheer courage, the ability to stay focussed while hanging on exposed rock hundreds of feet high with nothing to cushion a fall. There were times during the three-hour long climb when it looked like he would not make it. The most nerve-wracking of these moments came when he was approximately 600 feet up. Attempting a traverse under the column of water on slippery rock, Jyothi Raj’s grasp slipped and he fell heavily some 20 feet down, disappearing behind the water. There were gasps among the crowd as he failed to reappear for some 20 minutes, but luckily for him, the fall had been broken by a cradle in the rock. After around 20 minutes, he reappeared, daring again to make his way up.
“This was my toughest climb so far, because I was climbing along the water column,” said Jyothi Raj, who required eight stitches for a cut in his head that he sustained during the fall. “This is my eighth climb. I try different routes each time. I wanted to show that Indians are capable of such feats. The fall has not discouraged me; I will climb higher. I will not encourage my students to climb without safety equipment. I do hope we get a sport climbing wall in Chitradurga.”
Many sport climbers disapprove of his stunts, as an accident would cause irreparable damage to him and hurt the image of the still-emerging sport of climbing, but all of them admire his guts. “I’ve watched him for many years. I admire his courage, but his stunts aren’t good for the sport,” said one national champion.
Climbing is a sport, but what Jyothi Raj did on Saturday goes beyond the definition of sport. Sportsmen are addicts to routine; their diets are measured and even the clothing they wear and the equipment they use are products of years of research. Jyothi Raj, on the other hand, ate nothing on the day because he fasts on Saturdays. His shoes aren’t even standard climbing shoes; they’re inexpensive ones with moulded plastic soles bought from the local store. Highly-paid professional sportspeople talk of ‘risk’ or ‘life-and-death’ situations, but nothing they do can compare with what Jyothi Raj did on Saturday. For him, it was a life-or-death issue all the way through; he didn’t have the comfort of a dressing room to retire to after a hard day’s work. He had nothing to gain, really, from the climb — and he was risking everything he had. It takes a special kind of human being to lay it all on the line, and push the meaning of life and death, in the manner he did. For that reason, he is special. “I’ll climb as long as I live,” he said with a smile, even as he was laid out in hospital with eight stitches in his head. A couple of his relatives who’d asked him to call off the climb earlier that day looked on in desperation.