Tucked between the Mediterranean Sea, Syria and Israel, Lebanon exists in a disparate climate of unrest and agricultural serenity. Despite tension between Christian, Shiite and Sunni followers, climbers have retreated to the limestone Tannourine cliffs, which overlook rocky hillsides and the village of Tannourine. The most famous local climb, Avaatara (5.14d), which was established by David Lama in 2015, snakes up the steep interior of a sinkhole alongside Baatara Gorge Waterfall.
Climbing in Lebanon exists in spite of years of struggle. Fifteen years ago, tensions between Hezbollah (a Shiite political party recognized by the U.S. as a terrorist group) and Sunni groups resulted in an assassination of a Lebanese Prime minister, more war in the ensuing years and political gridlock leading to economic instability. Today, Lebanon houses more than 1.5 million refugees, the highest number of refugees per capita. Lebanon struggles to preserve infrastructure and services for both refugees and local inhabitants. Due to the ongoing tension, climbing in Tannourine is at times inaccessible.
ClimbAID, a Swiss non-profit organization founded in 2016 to bring climbing to vulnerable youth worldwide, has since been roaming Lebanese streets by way of a VW van. The van, dubbed the “Rolling Rock,” is refurbished with colorful climbing walls, holds and volumes, and houses sets of padding, shoes and chalk. The Rolling Rock travels the Beqaa Valley of Lebanon to give refugee children the opportunity to climb, slackline and learn about the environment.
In late October, 2019, World Cup climbers Katherine Choong and Mathilde Becerra joined ClimbAID in Lebanon to help route set a local competition for refugee children. Gym Climber caught up with Choong to learn about what they did.
How long were you in Lebanon?
Mathilde Becerra and I went to Lebanon for six days. We landed in Beirut at the heart of a revolutionary movement of the Lebanese community. Life seemed to have temporarily stopped. The streets were deserted, the shops and schools closed. Only the Arabic songs resonated in this calm. Only the revolutionary signs and tags suggested that a revolution was underway. Despite a population in which 18 different religious communities live side by side, every day at the end of the day, the people, taken by an outpouring of solidarity, went to the streets to demonstrate in a non-violent way all together against the government. Even if I cannot claim to have grasped the full scope of the conflict, I felt many emotions in the eyes of the demonstrators, a desire for revolution but also for love, joy and hope.
The demonstrators had blocked many roads but after a few short detours, we managed to leave Beirut by car the next day to head towards the Bekaa Valley and join Beat Baggenstos [the founder of ClimbAID] and the other volunteers of ClimbAID.
What was your schedule like while you were there?
The goal of the week was to help organize a boulder competition, an event for which the young Lebanese and Syrian people (who regularly attended ClimbAID’s climbing sessions) had trained hard. They had been looking forward to it for weeks.
Due to the demonstrations, it was unfortunately neither possible to go with the Rolling Rock to meet the young climbers in the refugee camps, nor to go to the beautiful cliffs of Tannourine. But between two route setting sessions, Beat and Mohammad Hamoud, our interpreter, took us to a Syrian refugee camp where some of the regular comp attendees were living.
Outside, children played barefoot with bits of metal and tires on a ground full of debris. Some huts were made of fabric and sheet metal. I had chills in my back just imagining spending a winter in such conditions. The people have limited access to water and electricity, and Mohammad explained that in case of heavy rain, the tents were at risk for flooding.
We took off our shoes and entered one of the tents, invited by a family that offered us tea. We asked teenagers if they would participate in the competition. While the boys responded positively, the girls explained that they had reached the age of marriage and that it was no longer appropriate to participate in this type of event or even in the ClimbAID training sessions reserved for women. They were 14 to 16 years old. Mohammad also explained that these young people had been in school the previous year but, unfortunately, there was no longer any room for them.
Was the competition you set at a pre-existing gym, or did ClimbAid construct a wall?
ClimbAID had built a fixed structure at the beginning of the summer leading up to our trip. It’s a very small structure, but it has motivated them a lot! On the day of the competition, more than 40 young Lebanese and Syrian athletes arrived at dawn. The young people helped us to finish setting up the tables and chairs to welcome the rest of the participants. Very expressive and touching, the teens came to meet us to tell us how happy they were. They were very interested in our experiences and asked us many questions about how to become stronger.
After everyone warmed up together, the competition started. It was very well organized. The competitors took turns rushing with remarkable energy into the 15 or so boulders that we had prepared. No cries of rage nor tears. Everyone gave everything they had to climb their best but without ever getting angry or frustrated. And as soon as the opportunity presented itself, the young people would start singing and dancing. Several times during the day, the very generous participants offered me some apples, dates and delicious cakes.
Best part of the trip?
Usually when I’m on a climbing trip, it’s all about me, whether it is to perform on a particular route or to discover a country. The idea this time was to be able to share my experience and passion for climbing with young people who could not benefit from the privileges I had when I grew up.
In the end, I know that my action in Lebanon was very modest and that these young people brought me much more than what I gave them. I realized how much these teenagers look like us. They are young people who are curious to learn, who are full of joy and who have a lot of dreams in their heads.
How can other people help?
Make a donation at climbaid.org/donate/ and follow @climbaid
Feature image: The ClimbAID team of volunteers puts on the first of three sessions for the kids from Beyond Riches Academy using the Rolling Rock mobile climbing wall. By Jameson Schultz