06 Mar 2017 17:15 IST

On a steep climbing curve

Despite the colossal mountain range in our backyard, adventure sports is yet to take off in India

We all have that friend who is determined to make you jealous with social media posts from a recent trip to a remote part of the country, maybe somewhere up in the Himalayas, while you are stuck in an office cubicle. Why do they do it, you ask, all the while wondering why you can’t.

Last week, the Indian Mountaineering Foundation hosted the Mountain Film Festival in Delhi, showcasing films shot in various parts of the vast Indian Himalayas.

The theme was broad and included a wide variety of adventure sports ranging from rock climbing and kayaking to paragliding.

Thirty-three films — some of them short, four-minute capsules, others feature-length documentaries — screened over two days captivated the audience with the breathtaking views they showcased.

Despite having a colossal mountain range in our backyard, and a five lakh sq km area spread across 10 States suited for adventure sports, winter or even adventure sports have failed to catch the fancy of the average Indian. It reflects in India’s representation at Winter Olympics as well; in 2014, three athletes participated in the Sochi Games. However, if the festival was any indication, there is plenty of interest, and more people are warming up to an adventurous travel itinerary.

A research conducted by travel company Expedia in 2014 listed India as the fourth most vacation-deprived country in the world. The struggle for work-life balance has proved a bane for people keen to travel.

“Freedom of movement and the increasing frustration of living in a concrete jungle are certainly reasons why I go to the mountains, or go mountain biking in the Himalayas,” says Vishal Singh Yadav, founder of Elementi Living, an interior design company based in Gurugram. Singh, a former model who has also lived in Italy, believes India is on the cusp of making it big in adventure sports. He, along with friends, recently biked from Shimla to Manali via Spiti, covering 525 km in a week and crossing passes at over 4,000m elevation. More enthusiasts such as Singh have been exploring adventure sports seriously. Some give up quickly due to its challenging nature.

However, the filmmakers were pleasantly surprised by the interest the festival generated. “Festivals like this are a big help in spreading awareness about adventure sports and the diversity that the Indian Himalayas offer,” says Anuj Khurana, co-founder of 4Play, a video channel serving extreme sports. Khurana’s short film Bawli Booch won the award for the most creative mountain film at the festival.

Khurana had brought as many as seven short films to the festival, and is thrilled by the feedback. “I got to introduce each of my films and interact with the audience at length. That helped me understand what people like about adventure films and how they perceive it.”

Lack of “education and awareness”, Khurana says, remains the industry’s biggest bugbear. “We have a huge mass of mountains and favourable weather conditions — snow for winter sports, water for other sports. But the challenge remains education, and, of course, money. The government doesn’t consider adventure sports mainstream enough, and hence there aren’t enough facilities. And when there isn’t enough support, how can an athlete excel or manage to arrange the finance?”

Gaurav Jani, whose film One Crazy Ride was screened at the festival, agrees more such festivals will encourage people to take up adventure sports. Jani, who has been touring on motorcycles since 2001 before starting his own travel company, Ride of my Life, says teething issues persist. “Safety is a big challenge, especially when an accident happens. People do not understand why we do what we do. I don’t understand why satellite phones are still not allowed on expeditions in remote areas. I guess once more people and the government understand adventure, things will change.”

Percy Fernandez, founder of Mountain Adventures, an outdoor travel organisation, says, “A lot has changed, there is an information swell. A lot of people genuinely want to travel to the mountains and spend time.”

Fernandez, who has organised mountaineering trips in India and Nepal, was also the expedition photographer for the 2013 NCC Everest Expedition led by Colonel Satish Sharma. There is a huge gulf, he says, between how India and China go about adventure sports. “India is still trapped in its myriad shenanigans when it comes to doing business. I used to consult for a firm in Hong Kong and worked in China as well. Firstly, the infrastructure is visible. Secondly, the services are supreme. Everything is structured and laid out, the way it ought to be.”

He asserts there is a push in the right direction for adventure sports in India. “The Indian Himalayas is mesmerising. It pains me that we still haven’t been able to attract travellers from around the world. Infrastructure is a big hurdle. However, the number of people travelling to the mountains has increased in the past five years. A concerted effort at tracking adventure travel in India vis-a-vis what’s happening around the world should be our immediate focus.”

Going by the response the festival generated, the winds of change are surely blowing.

(Tanmoy Mookherjee is a Delhi-based sports writer. The article first appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine.)

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