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How India’s sport climber Deepu Mallesh keeps scaling heights against all odds

In 2019, Deepu Mallesh smashed the men’s speed climbing national record for the first time in Sikkim. It didn’t last long; another climber rewrote it at the same competition. But it handed Mallesh the belief that he had the potential to be among the best.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic put him out of action for two years. A sense of listlessness gradually crept in. He didn’t feel the need to train and compete any longer. It wasn’t until August last year that he sensed an inner drive to get back to the sport again. And once he did, it took him little time to set a new benchmark for Indian speed climbing.

Since April this year, Mallesh has broken the national record on three occasions at different IFSC World Cups. In May, he became the first Indian sport climber to go below the six second mark in Jakarta. And last month, he clocked his fastest time of 5.94 seconds in Chamonix.

“I had a false start at the previous competition in Villars, so I started cautiously and picked up pace on the climb. I could have been a lot faster in Chamonix,” says Mallesh, 25.

In the world of sport climbing, speed climbing enjoys the glamour and status of the 100m dash in athletics. Two climbers line-up at the bottom of a 15m wall. At the buzzer, the idea is to storm up the wall as fast as possible.

It’s all over in a flash. The men’s world record stands at 4.90 seconds, set by Indonesia’s Veddriq Leonardo this year. To put it in perspective, that’s the time you would probably take to tie both your shoelaces. But this is also lightyears from Mallesh’s national record. Here’s why.

Speed climbing is about small margins. While storming up the wall, every unusual twitch of the muscle can add to the final time. A marginal delay at the start is likely to cost you the win; a missed hold most certainly spells doom. It is what Mallesh has been trying to master through the little support that he’s garnered from those who believe in his abilities.

All Play

Mallesh started climbing while still at school in Bengaluru. At his first competition, he finished fourth and was handed a consolation prize for his effort. It was enough encouragement for someone who didn’t enjoy the company of books. Climbing continued as an interest and he kept getting better with time. But his progress was cut short by the pandemic.

Mallesh got back on the wall only last year. At the insistence of a few friends, he showed up at the Asian Games trial. He was climbing after a couple of years, but still clocked 6.8 seconds to finish fourth.

“With just a few weeks of training, I was faster than what I had clocked in 2019 when I broke the national record. I realised I could do much better,” he says.

After clocking 6.46 seconds at the World Cup in Jakarta in September 2022, he knew he had to make a genuine attempt at getting back to his best. He quit his job at a climbing gym and increased his training hours under coach, Shiva Linga. Strength and conditioning was added to the routine to aid his progress.

“For the perfect run, you want to hit a flow where the body doesn’t move too much. The more stable you are, the more force you can generate to power up the wall. To cut down on a millisecond, you have to understand where you can get more efficient,” he says.

A speed climbing wall is standardised around the world — the same holds, in the same positions and separated by the same distances on the wall. It’s monotonous when compared to other forms of climbing such as bouldering or lead, which offer a lot of variation. But therein lies the challenge, the mastery of storming vertically with the explosive bursts of a cheetah and the grace of a ballerina, kissing each hold just enough to glide over to the next.

“It’s frustrating at times when you aren’t able to make improvements. You have to keep working on the same move repeatedly until you are satisfied and can pull it off during the entire sequence. It needs a lot of coordination and focus, with every little muscle working for you in sync,” he says.

Breaking Records

When he broke the national record (6.27 seconds) for the first time in Seoul in April, Mallesh was disappointed with the effort, since he had routinely clocked 6.06-6.09 seconds at practice during the previous month. A week later, he travelled to Jakarta for the next World Cup where he focussed on quality runs during training. In competition, he broke the record again after clocking 5.98 seconds.

Breaching the six second mark was celebrated by the climbing community, but made little news outside of it — a world of a difference from how athletic accomplishments have been acknowledged in the recent past. Think Neeraj Chopra’s personal bests or Jyothi Yarraji’s sub-11 seconds in the 100m hurdles, both landmark achievements that have been lauded time and again.

Even for Mallesh, there was little in terms of celebration. Right after that competition, he got back to arranging funds for his next event in the United States. When he fell short, he had little option but to return home and continue training.

It’s been a recurring theme each time he’s looked to compete against the best, banking on the generosity of other climbers or the odd sponsor that steps in at times. For the next World Cup in July, Mallesh had to take a personal loan to just make it to the competition.

“It’s a lot of pressure since I am not a sponsored athlete. I have to keep showing results to get support. And I have to wait until the last minute to know if things will work out and I’ll be able to travel to a competition. It’s stressful, when all you want to focus on is improving on your performance,” Mallesh says.

Chamonix was the zenith of his prowess this year, a remarkable 5.94 seconds that stands as the national record today. It has all been an outcome of a steely resolve to continue chasing excellence and against all odds. Training without touch pads, timers and holds that match international standards are just some of the challenges that he faces on an average day at work.

“The infrastructure in Bengaluru is not suited for an athlete; it’s more for a recreational climber. For starters, we have access to the wall for only three hours each in the morning and evening. I could certainly do with some more time,” he says.

Uncertain of his future prospects, Mallesh’s family has handed him a deadline to pursue competitive climbing. But he continues to dream, looking to make a mark at the World Cup in Wujiang next month and the Olympic qualifiers in November.

“I’ve got a year to see where I can get to, else I’ll have to simply work a job again. I often ask myself why I’m stressing so much for something that doesn’t give me any returns. But I know what I’ve achieved through my hard work and I hope to motivate the next generation to take up climbing seriously,” he says.