There was something about that summer afternoon—the stillness. The crickets were chirping noisily, but the air was still, a repressive stillness that carried a quiet menace.
It was 24 April at one of Karnataka’s most famous tourist sites, Jog Falls. It was hot and the Jog wasn’t at its majestic best—at its prime, four water columns plunge 830ft down, making it India’s second largest plunge waterfall. Still, what appeared to be a trickle from far away was, in fact, a steady stream that caused a constant roar as it crashed into the rocks below. Meanwhile, a blue speck at the foot of the waterfall started making its way up.
The sense of foreboding was because of the unfolding of an insane script, dreadful and yet fascinating, an exhibition of a deadly sport—free solo climbing. The practitioner of this sport is Jyothi Raj, the blue speck.
If rock climbing is a risky sport in popular imagination, free soloists are at its extreme end, for they use no safety equipment. No ropes, no harnesses, nothing to prevent a fall. Alain Robert, “The French Spiderman”, is the most famous of them all, for he has made a career out of climbing the world’s tallest buildings.
Jyothi Raj is probably the only free soloist in India, and he draws admirers across the country. Today, the 25-year-old—who used to work as a labourer on construction sites, and now runs a climbing club, Adventure Indian Monkey Club—is a household name
Born to a poor family in Theni, Tamil Nadu, he ran away from home when he was 7 to Bagalkot in Karnataka. He worked in a sweet shop for five years and then as a domestic help in the fort town of Chitradurga. Accused of stealing money, Jyothi Raj, then 18, decided to end his life at the Chitradurga Fort. He scaled up a boulder and was about to throw himself off when he noticed that people standing below were clapping. They were apparently enthralled by his climb.
The applause told him something—perhaps he was meant to do this. He began to frequent the fort, befriending the monkeys and replicating their stunts. YouTube videos emerged of him performing risky stunts on the walls; foreign media began to interview him. He got famous as “Kothi Raju”—the Monkey King.
This day, Jyothi Raj has decided to scale the Jog for fun. He has scaled it before, but now he will attempt his toughest route—along the water column. “I think I’m the only guy in the world who will solo under the water,” he says. He will have to contend with, among other things, water cascading on his head, crabs, perhaps the odd snake, falling rocks and debris, moss, and of course…the full scale of the 830ft chasm that will punish a single error he makes. Nobody has succeeded in what he has attempted.
In 1997, Sheetal Jain and Dilip Hombaiah attempted a roped climb of the Jog. They failed. “Sheetal fell about 40ft and hurt his ankle,” recalls Hombaiah. “There was a lot of rainwater and we couldn’t get clean rocks. You have to be strong if you have to succeed. You can’t do it if you’re scared.”
“The police often chastise him, but they can’t do much because residents around town treat him like a hero”
Jyothi Raj had a fracture a year ago at the fort. He was halfway up when it rained. The injury took months to heal. This (24 April) is his first climb after that fall.
Jyothi Raj is in the midst of this rocky landscape, wedging his hands and toes in the cracks, hauling himself up under a cascading stream. He tries to traverse from the right to the left. He extends his left arm and leg across. Then, he slips and falls some 20ft right into a cradle amid the rocks. The water column plunges from there, down another 100ft or so.
The next minutes are tense. How can he make it out alive? There is no access to him. The local administration only got to hear of his climb once he’d started out, and the couple of policemen on duty are furious, for they have been receiving calls from higher-ups.
After about 10 minutes, he emerges from behind the water. He gingerly feels the rocks. He is surely hurt. There is no way anyone can climb another 200ft of vertical rock with a damaged leg or hand. The contrast to mainstream sport is stark: There is no dressing room for him to go to, no substitute he can summon, no coach he can ask for advice, no injury time out.
“That was a calculated risk,” he says later, of the fall. “The rock I was holding came off and fell on my head. I never had a doubt I would climb up all the way.” The police often chastise him, but they can’t do much because residents around the town treat him like a hero.
He uses his skills for public good—he is often called to Jog Falls to retrieve bodies of those who have committed suicide. The Jog holds some strange charm for the world-weary. The villagers know he does these stunts for the heck of it, not to make money. He also talks of the need to open a climbing wall in Chitradurga.
“I will keep climbing,” Jyothi Raj states. “I’m not scared. I will climb buildings in Bangalore. I’m doing this to raise awareness of the sport, and to tell the government to construct a climbing wall in Chitradurga. But I don’t want anyone else to take the risks I’m taking.”
National climbing champion M. Shivalinga admits he would never attempt what Jyothi Raj does as a matter of routine. “He’s a natural,” says Shivalinga. “He’s not used to climbing on (competition) walls, so that’s why he isn’t used to sport climbing. His solos are unbelievable. For me, they are impossible to achieve. I wouldn’t want to even try.”
What sets Jyothi Raj apart is his inherent disregard for his own life. “When I climb, I always look for something to cushion my fall, like a tree branch, so I probably won’t die on the smaller climbs,” he says. “But if it’s a major fall, it will be death. I might go missing some day.”
“I have a sense of success or failure,” he says. “If I’m about to fail, I will know. Like the night before the climb, I had a dream. I saw myself returning with a bag full of rocks from Jog Falls. It was a good omen.”
Four months after this episode, in mid-August, Jyothi Raj returned to Jog Falls after being informed of three suspected suicides. He stayed for two days at the waterfall, attempting to access the bodies from above and below. He managed to retrieve two.