Lebanon’s rock-climb­ing re­nais­sance

7 minute read

Among the terraced olive groves of northern Lebanon, a young man with sharp features and a shaved head ties a rope onto a harness around his hips. Nareg is quiet, pensive, rehearsing in his mind the movements his body is about to grapple with under stress.


A couple of local boys from the largely Maronite Christian town of Tannourine watch silently among the spring wildflowers and rocky contours below the cliff. Nareg checks the knot on his harness one last time, his girlfriend Tracy securing the other end of the rope, and then begins to climb.

Rock climbing, a sport rapidly gaining popularity in Lebanon, has its own local heritage associated with the cliffs of Tannourine.

Over half a century ago, Georges Massoud, from the town itself, gripped the sharp slate grey limestone with his hands and bare feet. He free-soloed the cliffs just to the right of where Nareg is climbing today, without a rope, to set quail traps on thin rock ledges.

Below, his stone home is still nestled between the cliffs and St. Jacob Hermitage. Locals say it's the oldest continually inhabited house in Lebanon, potentially for over 500 years. Both his wife and son thought he was crazy for traversing the cliffs. But today, a climbing route here bears George's name, a memorial to an early maverick by a generation of young Lebanese climbers.

Nareg dances upwards, seemingly weightless, while 30 other climbers - Lebanese and foreigners alike - pair off for their own climbs.

For Lebanon’s circle of climbers, the reasons why they climb are multifaceted. But one thing they all share in common is a loving devotion to this tightly-knit and diverse community.


Lebanon’s mountainous geography makes it suitable for rock climbing, itself one of the world’s fastest-growing sports.

Its development in Lebanon, locals say, was prompted by the presence of French and Italian militaries, who established climbing areas to train the Lebanese military in the 1990s. But as early as 1968, a Lebanese mountaineer named Fadi Baroudy bolted, or constructed, Lebanon’s first individual sport-climbing routes.

A fallow period for the sport followed between the late 1990s and mid-2000s. A few friends shared routes with one another, but for the dedicated climbers, there was a glass ceiling in the difficulty and number of available routes. Then social media from climbers in the United States and Europe helped spur Lebanon's climbing scene to come into its own over the past 15 years, with routes developing across the country.

The dedicated community is replete with its own cultural eccentricities, big characters, and codes of conduct. There is a purist bent - a dedication to preserving the natural environment and fostering environmental stewardship - as well as prosaic chats about carpooling and shared rental homes in Tannourine, Lebanon's rock-climbing headquarters.

Beirut is the backstage, the critical staging area, as much as Tannourine is the amphitheatre of the sport. With the advent of a critical mass of young climbers in the 2010s, the associated social events like sport movie screenings emerged, often hosted at favourite bars sprinkled across Beirut’s Ashrafieh and Hamra neighbourhoods.

At one of the two climbing gyms in Beirut, known as Bold, a crowd of climbers train during Lebanon’s winter rainy season. Tuesday and Thursday evenings are especially popular social hours, mixing foreign aid workers, locals, and young new recruits.

Eddy Kazzi, a 38-year-old with a broad smile and the compact build of a pro wrestler, sits amongst a group of close friends chatting in front of a training wall called a MoonBoard. He works as the athletics office director for sport sciences at Antonine University on the outskirts of Beirut and is one of the top climbers in Lebanon.

“We used to climb without any issues, as a hobby and as a sport, and now it is our lifestyle, it is our life,” Eddy says, when asked about why he and his friends climb. “When we are not working, we are climbing, when we are on vacation, we travel to climb. It is our life.”

That spirit has served Eddy well, particularly during Lebanon’s economic and political troubles over the past few years.

“During the economic crisis in Lebanon, I lost a lot, a lot of money, all my savings, everything,” Eddy says. “And every time I think about it, I am so glad I have climbing. To have something to escape to. Climbing is a huge part of our lives here.”


Nareg climbed hard as a teenager before taking a long interlude from the sport to explore a more famous dimension of Lebanon.

Beirut’s nightlife, celebrated across the Middle East and Europe, is part of the appeal of Lebanon’s sports-climbing scene, but the distractions can set their own challenges for serious athletes.

“From like 16 until 27, it was a bumpy road along the way. Partying, going out, the whole lot,” says Nareg, grinning.

Today, however, he is back on the training board at Bold, climbing at a level commensurate with some of the best Lebanese climbers. “The past three years, it’s been a way of making good habits and lifestyle,” he says.

Eddy, meanwhile, must balance his love for climbing with his desire to bolt new routes. He has only so much free time, working full time at the university and as a ski instructor on the weekends.

The construction of rock-climbing routes requires a developer to lower themselves with a rope from the top of a cliff, drilling stainless steel pins into the cliff face, which climbers use to secure a rope to while ascending.

At Tannourine, Eddy saw a project that called to him from halfway up a steep mountainside.

“The first time I saw it, I was like, ‘This is the king line. This is the king line’,” he says in reference to a climbing route that is not only especially hard, requiring powerful movements by a climber, but most importantly possesses an uncommon aesthetic, a singular flow state for a climber’s body similar to a ballet dancer’s choreography.

Eddy’s king line traverses the roof of a massive arching cave set halfway up a mountainside, inaccessible but striking with its dark black and orange rock structures, which are called tufas and are the result of slow mineral deposits from water dripping over the years.

Eddy ultimately decided to call the new project "crawl line", after he had to build a trail to it by himself, clearing away a path, so that other people could access it. “That’s why I called it ‘crawl line’, because I had to crawl through the trees just to find easier access,” he says.


Eddy began climbing in 2004 with a friend before falling in love with the sport. By 2011, he was an active member of the small community of climbers.

“Climbing by itself, it’s not just the sport, it’s everything around climbing that is beautiful,” Eddy says. “Being in nature, meeting people, trusting belayers, doing these adventures and building relationships through a rope.”

Climbing usually requires people to travel to remote, wilderness areas. Not so in Lebanon. More than the abundance of opportunities to climb in this small country, it is the people and their hospitality that make Lebanon’s climbing scene what it is today.

When chatting with a couple of climbers, a cheerful young man, Cyril, with glasses and a Lord of the Rings tattoo in elvish scrawled across his bicep, describes Eddy as “one of the top three hardest climbers in Lebanon” and the “ kind of person who would climb and clean your route for you simply because he’s nice”.

Performing acts of selfless altruism in the community for climbers of lower grades - such as cleaning routes or setting the quick draws, the carbineers that climbers use to attach their rope to the rock – is not culturally expected. It is, however, noticed and celebrated when people take the time to help one another.

Eddy also builds climbing walls in schools and teaches the sport to Lebanese teenagers and university students, with a former pupil competing at the sport’s Asian Cup last year.

He’s observed that young men are often overly confident when they first try climbing. “I see big muscles coming to the class and they say, ‘Yeah, it’s so easy coach, I can go without a rope’,” he says, before explaining that he often gets women to demonstrate climbs to show the men that climbing is more about balance and technique than brute force.

“It’s not just about power, technique, that’s something so beautiful about climbing. Like when you have almost the same level with girls and guys, this is something very special.”

Spend a few evenings at Bold and one has the impression that Lebanon’s climbing community is one big friend group of millennials in their late 30s to mid-30s. But that would overlook some of the most passionate young climbers in Lebanon, an hour’s drive east of Beirut in the Bekaa Valley.

Under a small white tent that enfolds two plywood climbing walls, Gharraa, a 20-year-old Syrian refugee with large brown eyes and wearing a burgundy hijab, heel hooks a climbing hold before hoisting herself upwards.

She is climbing with friends she has made through ClimbAID, an NGO that provides mental health and inclusive community development through rock climbing. Her best friend Salam is also Syrian, Sabine is Lebanese, and Ali, Palestinian. None of them knew each other before joining ClimbAID’s programme.

Close up of a teenage girl in a burgundy hijab and a black jacket
Gharaa at the ecovillage that hosts ClimbAID's indoor gym

Occasionally, ClimbAID, which has a rock-climbing team, packs up in a van and drives to Tannourine and other climbing areas for the day. Eddy watched a recent session and met some of the participants. “They have strong climbers,” he said. “They were being introduced to lead climbing and they are fearless.”

This past August, Eddy got married at Paul’s Haven, under the cliffs of Tannourine not far from where he first met his wife.

Back then, she was struggling to finish a climbing route. He offered to climb it for her and remove the gear. After that, they began climbing together, and he would go on to propose at the top of a multi-pitch, a string of routes strung together,  signing their names and leaving a little picture of the two of them in a small notebook that is kept in a box at the top.

Talking about the future of the sport, Eddy says, “I just hope we keep the spirit between us. Everyone supports everyone. It’s beautiful. When you have something that means something to you, you don’t want to lose this beautiful thing.”

At the end of his project, with a light wind carrying the sound of contended climbers chatting below, Nareg leans back and someone cheers. He exhales deeply and Tracy begins to lower him to the ground.

Nareg is popular at the crag. At Bluearth Lebanon, the outdoor store that Nareg runs with his father Adroushan, he occasionally gives discounts for climbers who cannot afford a harness or other gear.

As the community grows, change is inevitable for Lebanon's climbing scene. Locals are becoming even stronger climbers, more routes are being bolted, and the next generation of Lebanese athletes will compete on the global stage.

But on a local level, Nareg, Eddy and the others believe that the bonds they have nurtured as a climbing community for the past 15 years will be a vital part of the sport’s future in Lebanon. “As long as these guys are still climbing,” Nareg says, “this spirit of stewardship will still be there.”


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