Amid a tiered olive valley in the West Bank village of Ein Qiniya north of Ramallah, a group of 20 rock climbers strapped with ropes, harnesses and plenty of water hiked their way through the thorny dry scrub.
“We’re nearly there,” a sweaty Tyler Myers shouted, the manager of Wadi Climbing, the first and only rock climbing business in Palestine. “The hard part hasn’t even begun,” he joked.
As the group trudged on, a band of limestone cliffs became visible along the edge of the valley. Bedouins from Ein Qiniya were at the base, setting up ropes on the bluff.
Five years ago organized rock climbing in Palestine was non-existent. Then two young American climbing enthusiasts, Tim Bruns and Will Harris, began developing rock climbing sites around Ramallah, eventually galvanizing the climbing community by opening up Palestine’s first indoor climbing gym.
“There was nothing set up here, to begin with, nothing at all,” Myers told Mondoweiss, explaining how the two co-founders were struck by the lack of recreational activities in Palestine. They “saw that climbing had already taken off in Jordan, but in Palestine, there was just nothing in that field and they could see the potential.”
With the help of NGO funding and donations from climbing gyms in Colorado, they began bolting Palestine onto the rock climbing map. By the end of 2014, they were taking introductory outdoor trips, and to date, have introduced over 2,500 people to the sport.
A 33-year-old Jerusalemite, Inas Radaydeh, who went on one of the first climbing trips with Wadi, has seen first-hand how the Palestinian climbing community has grown.
“As the community grew, many of us began to join in with bolting the new routes,” Radaydeh told Mondoweiss, explaining that a bolt is an anchor drilled in the rock used for climbing. “Many foreigners, and locals, they really made it happen. And now we see so many people enjoying it.”
Since its founding, Wadi Climbing has bolted 170 new sport climbing routes around the West Bank. Radaydeh explained the creation of all the routes was made possible by locals and international helpers.
Meeting new people is one of the best things Radaydeh sees in climbing. Not only to meet other Palestinians, but also drawing international visitors.
“It’s really nice because when internationals come here to live with us, they know about our stories, they begin to learn about the occupation and they feel our pain,” Radaydeh explained.
“And they actually start to see the Palestinian-Israeli conflict from a different perspective. It’s really helpful to feel the support from internationals, it’s good to know we have that.”
Climbing also provides a release for many Palestinians whose reality of living under Israeli military occupation often creates frustration and anger.
Radaydeh explained how she turned to rock climbing as a distraction when the Gaza War broke out. “I wanted to distract myself because it was actually so frustrating and so overwhelming to hear this news all the time and you feel like you can’t do anything to help them.”
“I wanted to get rid of this negativity, so I turned to rock climbing. And now, if I’m upset, I feel [rock climbing] is the shelter, this is the space, this is my comfort zone,” Radaydeh said.
A consensus amongst many climbers is that much of the stunning landscape around rural Palestine remains unexplored. Between climbs, local from Ramallah Momen Naeem, 27, sat down with Mondoweiss and explained how many of the areas around Ramallah wouldn’t be explored unless there was climbing.
“You know there are beautiful areas around Ramallah, but we would not go there if we didn’t climb,” Momen said. “It makes people love the land, especially when you organize trips with nice people around you, makes you love this place more.”
A fractured political landscape has contributed to the lack of recreational activities. With 60 percent of the West Bank in Area C where Israel has full civil and security control, rarely are permits granted for Palestinian building of any sort. As a result of these limitations, many of Wadi’s climbing spots have been developed in areas A and B, under full or part of the Palestinian Authority‘s jurisdiction.
Wadi has also taken rock climbing to refugee camps around the West Bank during the school summer break. One hot, sunny Wednesday in July Myers and two volunteers set up a mobile climbing wall at the Palestine Child Centre in the Shu’fat refugee camp for their summer activities.
Kids aged from seven to fifteen crowded around, excitedly trying to be the first ones to put on a harness and attempt to climb the 30-foot wall.
“It’s fantastic,” Myers said laughing. “We have to fight them away from the wall and force them into lines because everyone just wants to climb.”
Located on the outskirts of Jerusalem, Shu’fat was established in 1965 with approximately 12,500 Palestinian refugees as registered living in the camp. However, UNRWA estimates that the actual number of residents in the camp is around 24,000 packed into under .1 square mile. It is the only Palestinian refugee camp on the Jerusalem side of the separation barrier. The camp itself is completely enclosed by a combination of a wall, fencing and a checkpoint.
Activity Coordinator for the Palestine Child Centre, Hmouda Hmoud, 23, who was born in the camp said due to overpopulation and lack of activities for kids, growing up in the camp meant life was difficult.
“[Shu’fat is] a hard place to live in. It’s crowded and there is a lot of violence,” he said. “There’s a lot of crowds, a lot of gangs, a lot of guns. It is violence all the way.”
Hmoud started working at the center to provide kids with activities like climbing, which he said distracts them from the violence in the camp. “For a Palestinian child, these centers are the only safe spot for the kids to play.”
Myers explained that funding for recreational activities is not a priority for refugee camps like Shu’fat, so these summer activities give kids something to do when there is no school.
“The camp can barely figure out how to get rid of trash and keep the plumbing going, so recreational activities aren’t too high up on the list. I feel like if they get new opportunities to do activities like [climbing], everyone wants to give it a try.”
The next step for Wadi will be the release of Palestine’s first rock climbing guide, a crowdfunded initiative which is due to be published by the end of this year. The guide will detail all of the rock climbing routes in the West Bank. Myers is hopeful it will break down any preconceived notions that Palestine is dangerous to visit.
A guide book, he said, “will change a lot of people’s attitudes towards Palestine, and just get more tourism here in general, which is a big factor,” explaining that the guide will hopefully lead to a more sustainable climbing community.
Eventually, Wadi’s goal is to grow into a self-sustaining business which will be passed onto local management. “I’d rather help locals get really good at climbing and see them stick with it,” Myers said. “Not only are they here long term but at some point, I want to see them teaching and taking over when eventually I have to leave. We need people who will be here forever.”
Updated: July 30, 2019 11:50 a.m. This article incorrectly stated Wadi Climbing received funding from the Palestinian Investment Fund, or PIF. PIF committed funding in 2016 but never made a disbursement.