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An experience report by Adriana Stöhr, Textile Engineer Textile Safety Products, Climbing Equipment at Mammut.
About four years ago, I traveled solo around parts of the Middle East for the first time. Discovering the rich cultures, delicious food, and meeting the incredibly warm-hearted locals made that journey one of my most cherished adventures so far.
Mammut wanted to give one employee the opportunity to support ClimbAID ↗ on site, experience their work, contribute to the partnership and their mission in Lebanon. When I heard that, I knew I had to apply!
Today marks a week since I arrived at Beirut airport with a suitcase full of medicine (more about daily life in Lebanon in an upcoming post) and climbing gear.
My short time here has already taught me that:
Yes, I can eat my weight in Lebanese food
Finding and getting gasoline for your car can take up to 5 hours
A constant power supply is a luxury that most don’t have here
Driving rules are mere suggestions
Most language apps are useless to learn the local Arabic dialect
Lebanon is a quarter of the size of Switzerland, has a local population of about 4.5 million, yet hosts between 1.5 and 2 m refugees
18 recognized religious groups live side by side throughout the country
ClimbAID’s work here truly has a meaningful impact on both its participants and the local community
and most of all: nothing here can be predicted!
I am excited to have the opportunity to share my passion for climbing with the ClimbAID family. I am looking forward to getting to know them better, as well as finding new ways to support the ClimbAID team over the next three weeks.
So, if you’re equally excited as me to see what I’ll experience in the coming weeks with ClimbAID in Lebanon, tune in for my next weekly update!
See you at the crag,
When visiting a foreign country, one usually has to see or experience certain things or one, so to say, “has not been there”. According to my fellow international volunteers, the rite of passage for Lebanon these days is food poisoning. Since I am committed to truly have an authentic stay, I grabbed myself a good handful of fever and stomach troubles that lasted for most of my second week here… luckily, I brought enough medicine!
Chtoura city center, the commercial center of the Bekaa Valley and home of the ClimbAID house
Unfortunately, food poisoning has become an unpleasant part of many Lebanese people's everyday life. It is one of the many symptoms of the country's current economic crisis. A recent report from the World Bank ranked Lebanon as possibly one of the globally top 3 worst economic crises since the 19th century. The local currency has lost around 90 % of its value since the end of 2019 and the reserves of foreign currencies used to import essential goods like fuel are lacking. The shortage of fuel is not only causing queues at gas stations several kilometers long but also country-wide power shortages due to the dependence of Lebanese power plants on fuel to operate. At our apartment, we are limited to about 5 - 6 hours of power every day. This means that refrigerating food is nearly impossible, causing food to go bad and forcing your stomach to take a hit once in a while.
Another troubling aspect of the crisis is a rise in petty theft that is getting more and more creative. Just the other day, our car got stuck in a manhole exiting the highway in Beirut. Someone had removed the cover to sell the metal. Luckily a friendly local person pulled us out with little effort. Changing a tire has necessarily become a new skill of mine. These are just a few of the many problems that people in Lebanon are forced to deal with daily.
My roommate Raelyn and I prepared for all events – also changing tires
Experiencing these privations contrasts my new workplace even bigger. The ARC, ClimbAID’s permanent climbing wall, is located in the Bekaa Valley, about 50 km inland from Beirut and 20 km from the Syrian border. On the scenic grounds of Arcenciel, a Lebanese NGO, the ARC creates a safe and welcoming environment for young people in the Bekaa. Surrounded by big trees and a green garden space, the colorful arc-shaped climbing wall provides a calming atmosphere for ClimbAIDs many activities. It feels like an oasis shielded from the struggles of the outside world.
But this is just one of the many reasons why ClimbAID’s participants love coming here so much. The ARC is a place for them to unwind and forget their reality – a place where they can meet friends, forget about the uncertainty in their lives and just climb.
One of the things that I have enjoyed most has been helping to get a women's only bouldering group started. The first session took place this week and it was incredible. In total, 8 Syrian and Lebanese girls between the ages of 14 and 18 years participated. During the check-in portion, they said that ClimbAID feels like a second family to them. It’s a safe space where they can feel empowered. The atmosphere was joyful and welcoming, making me feel instantly accepted by the group. It has been inspiring seeing them work hard on their projects and celebrate their accomplishments together. I can’t wait to plan and join in with the coming sessions!
Week 3: The Team and the sessions – a week of many firsts
The days have just flown by and I’m shocked to realize that it’s already my 3rd week in Lebanon.
I won’t lie, Arabic is quite challenging to learn. But I am proud to say I can now introduce myself and throw a couple of random sentences into conversations. Hilariously, my best efforts are often mistaken for real Arabic skills, which always causes the conversations to end with nervous laughter and an apologetic smile on my end. But what do we have hands and feet for anyways if not for communication assistance, am I right!? Luckily, my flat mates Matilda (intern at ClimbAID) and Raelyn (long-term volunteer), both speak quite good Arabic. This makes life in the Bekaa Valley much more manageable. Fun fact, did you know that many Lebanese are bi- or even trilingual? Depending on the area and family background many Lebanese grow up speaking Arabic, French and English.
To my advantage, the ClimbAID team communicates mainly in English. Besides myself, the team on site consists currently of five other people: Charlie, the Lebanese project manager, Yehya from Syria, facilitator, and Elsa, also Lebanese, who’s running sessions as a volunteer and helping with the social media communication. Matilda from Germany and Raelyn from the United States are supporting the local team for 6 and 3 months respectively, bringing with them knowledge of social and NGO work. Moreover, for climbing and route setting sessions, ClimbAID can count on a committed local volunteer team with 15 young women and men.
Each week-old routes are taken down from the climbing wall, holds are cleaned and new routes set. I was very nervous when I was told to set a route for the first time but it ended up being a super fun task and the end result turned out quite well! Nevertheless, I believe the highlight for every team member remains undoubtedly participating in sessions and interacting with the participants.
This week we had a very special occasion! One of the YouCLIMB groups completed their 10-session curriculum. The objective of the YouCLIMB program is to teach the participants teamwork, communication, problem-solving and leadership skills, as well as trust through climbing. The program includes a ton of fun educational games and group discussions about the objectives above. To celebrate their accomplishments and welcome them to the ClimbAID family we had a little ceremony handing out personalized certificates, danced dabke, a typical Levantine folk dance and shared tea and fruits. It was beautiful to see the proud faces and witness how this program had created strong bonds within the group across background or gender. I hope many of them will keep on climbing and might even apply for the ClimbAID volunteer program.
Speaking of climbing, it’s unfortunately already my last weekend with the ClimbAID community I have grown so fond of. Also, Beat, the founder of ClimbAID, just arrived from Switzerland. I’m excited to get to know him better as well! We are all heading out together to our favorite crags around Tannourine and Beit Chlela, about 75 km north of Beirut. It is quite a long drive but the crazy tufa formations and colorful limestone crags make the heart of any climber beat faster.
After 2 days of challenging climbs we are heading back home. It is already dark, but we want to stop at the coast to eat Matilda and Yehya’s homemade apple pie. Beat guides us to his favorite beach close to Batroun. It’s one of the few remaining public beaches, a stretch of rocky cliffs which look perfect for scrambling and jumping off them…. not at night time though. With headlamps equipped we find a slabby spot for our nighttime snack and watch the waves wash around us. This might have just been the most perfect way to end this 3rd week.
Week 4: The last week
I’m still trying to catch my breath while boarding the plane back home, but I made it! Sprinting to catch any means of transportation will apparently always be my best cardio training. But it was worth it: I discovered some beautiful Syrian fabrics in Beirut at the last minute that I just couldn’t leave behind, so I had to challenge my departure time a bit.
On the plane, I found time to look back at my eventful final week in the Bekaa Valley.
This week we were invited not once but twice to an Arabic dinner. And let me tell you, it was a dream! The families of Yehya, our teammate, and Hassan, a ClimbAID participant, went out of their way to prepare delicious, traditional dishes for us. It was overwhelming to experience the warmth we were welcomed with and see how much time and effort was spent hosting us. It was a truly memorable experience, and I can’t wait to recreate some dishes I tried there back at home!
Inevitably, my last day with ClimbAID came. I participated in one last ACADEMY session before leaving for Beirut for a final night out with my dear teammates. The ACADEMY focuses on teaching climbing techniques and proper training methods for participants who aim to progress as climbers. This is also one of the few sessions each week where the team trains actively alongside the participants. The fun warm-up games and bonding with the participants over the challenging tasks were always a blast, and I loved leading the short yoga flows in the end.
After 4 weeks with the project, I genuinely believe that the positive environment and sense of community that ClimbAID fosters positively impacts the participants and brings out the best in me. I was left speechless and tearful when participants came by with flowers, self-made gifts, and letters to wish me farewell on my last day. I came to share my passion for climbing and experienced such kindness and appreciation in return that the only thing to say is thank you for this unforgettable time! I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to meet all these inspiring people and experience the beauties and struggles of life in Lebanon.
Thank you, Mammut and ClimbAID, for this unique opportunity!
I’m looking forward to staying part of the ClimbAID family since I plan to volunteer with ClimbAID in Switzerland in the future.
ClimbAID is an NGO from Switzerland dependent on donations to do their work. If you would like to support the projects, find out more here. ↗