NEW DELHI, India — Every weekend, 30-year-old Vaibhav Mehta — India's first full-fledged professional climber — hits the rocks outside Mumbai, keeping himself fit for more difficult route-setting expeditions on unexplored cliff faces. But over the past few years leading up to his sponsorship deal with France's Petzl, Mehta has noticed a curious phenomenon.
"On the weekends, the crags around Bombay are filled with climbers," Mehta said. "This is something new. Apart from serious climbers, a lot more hobbyists are coming up."
Across India, athletes tell the same story. Indians aren't crunchy and they aren't known for fitness — as the pot bellies and litter on the roads will attest. But a quiet boom in adventure travel and extreme sports is nevertheless underway. This new part-time interest is thanks to rising incomes, new emphasis in Bollywood and on TV, returnees from the West and a new corporate culture spawned by the outsourcing business.
Already, the number of weekend warriors taking up sports like rock climbing, whitewater rafting, mountain biking and trail running is beginning to translate into a big business opportunity. Adventure sports-themed travel companies have mushroomed across the country, Outward Bound-style leadership programs are growing steadily, and equipment manufacturers say sales have increased by as much as five times over the past five years.
"Disposable incomes have increased, and there's more awareness about adventure," said Major S.K. "Micky" Yadav, who owns an outfitter called Wanderlust Travels. "They go to Dubai, and they see dune buggies. They go to Thailand and they see bungee jumping, and they want to try that here."
That means today participation in adventure sports is snowballing, as the new interest sparks an increase in investment, generating improved infrastructure and better access to equipment — which in turn puts more focus on the emerging sports.
According to Avinash Kamath, who heads Avi Industries, the company has increased its product range 20 times over the past decade, and now offers some 400 different types of equipment for trekking and mountaineering. In recent years India has added more than 20 indoor rock climbing gyms, scattered from metropolitan cities like Bangalore, Chennai, New Delhi and Mumbia to smaller suburbs and towns like Gwalior, Pune and Thane.
Homegrown pioneers like the Petzl-sponsored Mehta are mapping new climbing routes, blazing new trails and testing "first descents" down raging Himalayan rapids. And hardcore enthusiasts-turned-professionals are adding and promoting new competitive events — taking advantage of India's diverse topography — virtually every year.
In rock climbing, for instance, Girivihar, a Mumbai-based adventure club, has seen its annual rock climbing competition grow from a handful of local climbers to close to 100 participants from all over India over the past eight years. And long-distance cycling, trail running and "extreme" events like the Great Tibetan Marathon — run at an altitude of 3,500 meters (11,500 ft) have witnessed a similar boom. The eight-day, 1,000-kilometer (620-mile) Tour of Nilgiris bicycle race, for instance, started with 40 athletes in 2008; this year it will feature 100 riders — and there's a wait list of 380.
Similarly, after holding its first 100-mile ultramarathon in Delhi this year, Globeracers has lined up four new races to add to its Himalayan Xtreme and Thar Desert Storm events — in which competitors run 100 miles or more over several consecutive days.
"Events like these have a huge Indian participation and foreigners are a minority here," said Kavitha Kanaparthi, who heads Globeracers and is also involved in organizing the 400-kilometer (250-mile) MTB India bicycle race. "If you look at the number of mountain bike brands making their debut in India this year, one would realize potential of this market. In the last two years, one can easily say that participation has grown over 150 percent in each event."
With seven major mountain ranges (including the majestic Himalayas), half a dozen mighty rivers and thousands of acres of jungle, India certainly has the terrain for challenging outdoor activities. But there's a lot more to the growth of adventure sports than an accident of geography.
Keen to exploit the potential for adventure tourism and to nurture future leaders, the government has over the past several years removed restrictions on trekking routes, opened an unprecedented number of Himalayan peaks to climbers and launched promotional programs like the Rajiv Gandhi Adventure Scheme — which sponsors 10-day adventure camps where young people can learn rock climbing, river rafting and other outdoor sports.
At the same time, corporations and elite schools have embraced Outward Bound-style leadership programs to build confidence and team spirit, says Pranav Kukreti, marketing director of Treks 'n' Rapids.
"First, there are more and more adventure tour operators in the market," said Col. (Rtd). Ravinder Nath, director of the Indian Mountaineering Federation. "Second, the government is supporting more and more projects on adventure tourism. And thirdly, there is a general awakening among the youth that we can do this."
Not all of those youths are all that young. Many afficionados and even top competitors like Vivek Radhakrishnan — who runs an upmarket furniture design shop in Bangalore as well as the city's best amateur cycling team — are in their 30s and 40s. And there's a surprising number of women among the new athletes, partly because better organization has made lonely sports safer, said Malvika Jain, a long-distance cyclist.
Rajesh Kalra is a typical example. A journalist with India's Times Group, he started Pedalyatris, a Gurgaon-based cycling group, after he'd crossed 40 — and he still cycles 30 to 40 kilometers (18 to 25 miles) a day, longer on weekends. And he says that the group's 150-odd members run the gamut from teenagers to 50-something executives.
"Everybody is involved in full-time jobs," Kalra said. "They come from different professions, some are with multinationals, there are doctors, engineers, software guys, CEOs, CFOs, all kinds of people."