The Climbing Catalyst

How an international donor has given the sport of rock climbing in Lebanon a chance to prove itself as a tool for community development

George Emil is in high demand these days. Ever since he began creating rock climbs on the limestone walls towering over the idyllic Lebanese village, Tannourine, the locals are trying to hire him for his wall-scaling skills.

“When I first came to Tannourine to climb, the people here immediately thought I was out for gold,” he says. “They were surprised to learn that I’m just here to climb the rocks because it’s fun.”

Climbing on rocks is as much a part of Tannourine as olive orchards and the local aperitif arak. Many centuries before, Christian faithful and their families moved from the valley floor to the caves high on the walls to stay safe from marauding invaders. The ruins of the St. Jacob’s hermitage suggest ancient inhabitants used wooden ladders and ropes to access the cavern.

The Massoud house is seen at the base of the cliff

The Massoud house is seen on the terraces below the cave home to the hermitage.

Even as recent as twenty years ago you might have seen an old man traipsing high above the village on the limestone walls. This local legend, Massoud—who lived for more than 100 years—set innovative bird traps on the wall’s ledges, moving gracefully, stepping on tiny ledges and gripping polished holds. His family’s presence in Tannourine is documented over 500 years, and local legend will have you believe theirs is the oldest standing house in Lebanon.

The history, geography, temperate climate and Lebanese hospitality make Tannourine the perfect destination for tourism. An ancient Roman aqueduct runs through the middle of an orchard where almond blossoms pop in vibrant colors for just a few weeks every March. Still, Tannourine has to compete with hundreds of villages offering similar combinations of perfection. Tourists visiting the famous Cedars of Lebanon Reserve on Mount Lebanon pass through Tannourine and depending on the time of day and cravings they might stop or drive through.

Tannourine could target a different type of tourist and at the same time promote economic development. George Emil and his climbing partner, Wilbur Nazarian, have the idea to do just that through rock climbing. Emil’s grandfather was born in a nearby village and Nazarian’s grandfather lived and died in Beirut. Both have a deep connection with Lebanese culture and sport, making them ideal to lead the charge to create Lebanon’s most meaningful rock climbing destination to date.

George Emil pinching a tufa (courtesy Simon Madden)

George Emil pinching a tufa (courtesy Simon Madden)

“The quality of climbing in Tannourine is on par with famous European climbing destinations. The rock is stellar, the features are unique, and climbers can easily spend a week or longer trying over a hundred climbs,” explains 43-year old Nazarian, a California native who grew up around places like Yosemite and Smith Rock back before rock climbing became so common in the American West. “Rock climbing nowadays is popular enough to drive the development of the local economy.”

Indeed, towns and villages located in countries like Thailand, Morocco and Greece, have turned rock climbing into big earners. The Mediterranean’s crown jewel for vacation climbing, the Greek island of Kalymnos, gets thousands of visitors each year. As Beirut becomes a reliable destination and sheds an ignorant stereotype of being unsafe, Lebanon could attract the same destination climbers going to Kalymnos. The size of New Jersey, Lebanon is more than just Tannourine. Dozens of valleys lined with promising limestone walls could keep climbers exploring for years.

Create a Non-Profit and Call it RAD

The Rock Climbing Association for Development (RAD) is the brainchild of Nazarian and his wife. Several years ago, the couple headed to Armenia to put on a climbing festival as an attempt to show off the unexplored rock Armenia might have to offer. On the way, Nazarian stopped over in Lebanon, happened to drive through Tannourine and never left.

Their fledgling non-profit searched for donors and came upon a USAID funded project in 2015. With the help of Tannourine’s Mayor, RAD received a grant worth $100,000, marking perhaps the first time in history the US Government funds rock climbing as a tool for nation building. RAD, George Emil and a list of visiting climbers have all cleaned and set over 130 pitches of climbing on the walls around Tannourine.

The USAID program known as Lebanon Industry Value Chain Development falls under President Obama’s Feed the Future initiative, and that has some people shaking their heads about how clearing brush and setting up rock climbs would lead to improved food systems. However through an analysis of the rural economy, USAID determined that Beirut-based families are as much a part of the rock climbing phenomon as the international climbers. And that when Lebanese tourists come on a weekend, they always sit down for a bite to eat; so much of the Lebanese culture revolves around cuisine.

For Emil, it’s a dream come true. He receives a small salary to go out everyday and set routes on superb limestone. He is one of Lebanon’s top climbers and a founding member of the organization, Rock Climbing Lebanon. He started climbing on a small crag on the coast almost ten years ago, went on to help develop a crag with more than 20 routes in the village of Amchit, and now Tannourine.

The crag in Amchit.

The crag in Amchit, less than an hour from Beirut.

“We have a handful of climbers in the mountains of Lebanon developing new routes. Development is slow because they don’t have the funds, but new routes are going up every year,” he says. Tannourine is the country’s first crag with a high density of climbs, however the climbing community has been around for quite some time.

The organic process of route growth in a developing country depends on a variety of people and actions. According to the rock and location, a local climber or a foreign-local usually gets the ball rolling, drilling several climbs to satisfy an urgent need to have climbing nearby. If the quality of rock is high, the next phase brings some adventurous climbers who may have some funding for bolts but somehow wrangle free room and board in return. Once in a while, the real-deal sponsored climbers provide gear and time to drill a really difficult climb or two. Their sponsors get a video, which is splashed around the Internet, and the idea of that country as a destination gains momentum. Perhaps, then a large company like Petzl or Black Diamond sponsors a rock-trip drawing passionate climbers willing to put in the time to put up a slew of climbs of all grades.

Tannourine is different. The NGO-donor approach has given more people from Tannourine access to income, and while Nazarian guards the project as if it were his child, the people of Tannourine are allowed a platform to provide input on how to shape the future of their recreation magnet.

Nazarian on the classic 'Bi-Polar Forever'

Wilbur Nazarian on the classic ‘Bipolar Forever’ in upper Tannourine

“We want the community to invest their sweat,” says Nazarian. “They need to feel like it’s theirs.” To date, more than a dozen of villagers have helped clear trail and carry equipment. Even the Mayor is doing his part. When RAD first started placing routes back in 2012, he backed them financially. Since then, he too has witnessed changes.

“Before the climbing, our restaurants were never full on the weekends. Now, in the high season, we are always full. People come to climb and to see the beauty of the valley. I believed in this project since the beginning,” says the Mayor Mounri Torbey.

Preparing for the Dirtbag Army

Adel Doumit saw the potential early on, and last year he built an addition to his home to offer lodging. Hopeful for the future, his family then bought one of the local grocery stores.

“Climbers are not typical tourists. They come for multiple days and they spend most of their money on lodging, food, beer and local products. They don’t climb every day which means they will go to the Cedars Reserve, the beach or visit our churches,” explains Doumit, who also opened a brick-oven kiosk offering mankouche, a hot Lebanese wrap and ideal climber’s food.

Doumit used to be in the army and then he was a taxi driver. His parents were teachers in the local school, and his family is intrinsically connected to the village. Since opening the guesthouse in April 2015, he has put up climbers more than 30 nights, at an average of $30 per night.

However with the sunshine, comes the rain. Shortly after RAD received funding to develop the sport, the Mayor’s brother purchased the land at the base of Tannourine’s main cliff known as the ‘Olive Grove’ right next to the old Massoud house.

Contractors have already begun land surveys and will begin construction on the sixty room four-star hotel any day. Rumored a $3.5 million investment, RAD’s funding pales in comparison. The Mayor assured RAD and the Lebanese climbing community that the routes will never be closed to the public.

The unregulated development of the coastline north of Beirut might provide a glimpse of what is coming to Tannourine. The new hotel will do many things to the local economy and could even send ripples of demand down the valley to vegetable and olive farmers. Perhaps most of all, the hotel may act as an anchor for the next generation to remain in their hometown. One thing is sure, when that hotel has consumed and changed the essence of Tannourine, Lebanese climbers will continue the hunt for the best climbing Lebanon has to offer.

Links to climbing shorts and films about this sport in Lebanon.

David Lama climbs the first ascent of Avaatara (5.14d) in the Baatara Gorge near Tannourine, Lebanon on June 18th, 2015.

David Lama and Redbull climb the first ascent of Avaatara (5.14d) in the Baatara Gorge near Tannourine, Lebanon. See the much talked about short film here.

Film produced by RAD.