BEIRUT: Elie Diab grunted with exertion, the muscles in his arms standing out as he hung from both hands, straining to lift his left foot up to shoulder level in order to place his heel on a small, blue knob of plastic protruding from an otherwise sheer wall. Once in position, he levered his body upward, chest glued to the wall as he reached higher for a distant handhold, eliciting a round of applause from an audience of climbers, family and friends. Lebanon is an idyllic country for rock climbers. The plethora of mountains, sea cliffs and sinkholes offers endless potential routes for enthusiasts of all levels, the temperate climate provides ample opportunity for outdoor sports throughout most of the year, and the scenery is stunning. It wasn’t until a few years ago, however, that climbing began to attract a Lebanese following.
These days, locals are increasingly discovering the appeal of the extreme sport, which pits human against rock in a process that is as much mental as physical. A small but thriving community has solidified over the past few years, says Elie Abou Tayeh, a founding member of the Lebanese Climbing Association, who started climbing eight years ago.
“I recall when I first started climbing we were a handful of people doing this sport,” he says. “Now as I go and climb outdoors I see new faces every time, so the sport is growing. We’re working on this as an association: getting new blood into the sport, organizing competition and events to attract new people.”
The Lebanese Climbing Association was founded just over a year ago, Abou Tayeh explains. A nonprofit NGO, the association organizes regular events that gather the country’s enthusiasts together, such a climbing-themed film nights, competitions and days out.
The Sunday before Christmas, the association organized an indoor competition at U Rock, a comprehensive indoor climbing gym in Jdeideh. A crowd of around 40 participants and spectators gathered to catch up, take part or simply observe as competitors of all ages scaled the color-coded walls. The relaxed atmosphere of the event, at which total beginners competed alongside veterans, emphasized the camaraderie among the growing climbing community.
Diab, whose expert ascent of the challenging overhang ensured his place as the winner of the men’s advanced competition, says he began climbing four years ago, attracted by the mental and physical challenge and the fact that it’s a sport he has learned to excel at even though he suffers from asthma.
“I want to spread the climbing culture around Lebanon,” he says, adding that although some people believe the sport is dangerous, beginners should not be put off. “It’s perfectly safe,” he promises, “and we’re always happy to give a hand and help out. It’s a nice community and everybody’s very helpful.”
Jad Bou Chebl had been climbing for several years, both outdoors and at an indoor gym in Aintoura, when the facility closed last year. Determined that climbers would not be deprived of an indoor space to improve their technique, he teamed up with Jean Kreiker to open U Rock in July 2012. The gym boasts two challenging overhangs, making it a suitable place for advanced climbers to train, as well as a number of routes suitable for beginner and intermediate climbers. Bou Chebl and Kreiker also provide climbing instruction, from teaching newcomers how to safely use the equipment to showing more advanced climbers how to rope themselves for climbing outdoors.
Since U Rock opened, Bou Chebl says, he has noticed that an increasing number of women are taking up the sport. Sunday’s competition was attended by as many women as men, he says, pointing to an increasingly diverse band of climbing converts. A weekend trip to Amchit organized by Rock Climbing Lebanon last month was attended by over 100 climbers, a first in a country where the sport is still finding its feet.
Abou Tayeh and Diab agree that the best spots for outdoor climbing in Lebanon are at Amchit and Tannourine, where the abundance of routes means that there are ascents suited to all levels. Bou Chebl, meanwhile, prefers deep-water soloing, a practice in which climbers ascend without any ropes, using the sea to break their fall. There are two suitable spots in Lebanon, he says, located in Batroun and in Shekka.
Bou Chebl, who – like most of Lebanon’s climbers – is always happy to see new people taking up the sport, says that he’d love to see some of his climbing heroes visit Lebanon.
“I’d like one day to maybe host two or three of the greatest climbers in the world,” he says. “Maybe Chris Sharma, Adam Ondra [or] Sasha DiGiulian ... I would like to host them for the climbing community. It would be a motivation for them, seeing their stars in Lebanon.”