A BBC Radio 4 feature recently focussed on Palestine's first indoor climbing wall - Wadi Climbing - in Ramallah. The Palestinian occupied territories boast a landscape well-suited to adventure and exploration, yet its situation as a zone of continuing conflict would appear to render this association incongruous.
Since the Knife Intifada of 2015, tension with Israel and the resultant violence has increased. Lack of mobility for local people causes problems: areas falling under Israeli restrictions and designations as military or nature zones limits access to the outdoors, an issue of particular concern for young Palestinians unable to explore their local environment.
Moving to the area in 2013 after studying in Jordan, US climbers and students Timothy Bruns and Will Harris recognised the limited opportunities for local people to exploit the region's nature. Timothy and Will used their knowledge as climbing instructors and began scoping out the area as a potential location for a climbing wall, bolting and developing three climbing areas near Ramallah and providing introductory climbing courses in the meantime. Generous donations of gear were enthusiastically provided by US climbing walls and their courses took flight.
Through meticulous research they sought the opinions of local people to ensure that an indoor wall was in their best interests of the community as a self-sustaining, inclusive social space which also presented opportunities for employment. Swapping wire gates and concrete walls for plywood panels, resin holds and mats, the bouldering-only centre Wadi Climbing was unveiled in March this year and has since introduced thousands of Palestinians to climbing.
I asked Timothy some questions about the story so far...
How did you first decide to use climbing as a means of helping people in the West Bank to join together and explore the region?
We first had the idea to develop climbing in Palestine while doing an exchange semester in Jordan in 2013. We travelled around the region a lot to climb during that time and nobody had developed climbing in the Palestinian areas of the West Bank.
Did you face any difficulties or tension in setting up the climbing areas?
The Israeli climbers have already been developing climbing areas near illegal settlements in the West Bank for years. We wanted to develop the first climbing sites in political areas A and B, which are designated as being under Palestinian control after the 1993 Oslo accords. The difficulty is that only roughly 33% of the West Bank is under Palestinian control and therefore finding sites to climb in those areas was slightly difficult at first. Eventually we were able to locate some suitable cliffs near Ramallah and we started to bolt in the Fall of 2014.
How did Palestinian people respond to climbing and was there some apprehension about travelling out of the cities to climb in such a fractured landscape?
We’ve taken over 1600 people on outdoor climbing trips and people tend to love it! Usually, for people to have the opportunity to try sports like rock climbing they have to travel abroad, so it's special to have opportunities so close to Ramallah. The view of the landscape and distances has been somewhat distorted by the occupation. There is a perception that traveling to certain areas at certain times is dangerous because in the past that has been the case. That said, all three of the cliffs that we have developed are within 15 minutes of Ramallah and are super accessible for people here.
Is participation fairly balanced between genders and age groups?
Generally about 45% of our participants are female. We tend to attract all ages as well.
How did you go about raising funds for the climbing wall?
We raised money from individuals and organisations in the States. We also have a partnership with a fitness club in Ramallah.
You have had some Bedouin people trying out climbing. What did they make of it?
Some of the local Bedouin guys from Ein Qiniya village showed up at the cliff on the first day that we started bolting. We’ve become good friends since then and have helped them acquire their own climbing gear so that they can climb at their local cliff whenever they want!
I read that Nina Caprez was involved in some way - what was her role?
Nina was invited by the Israeli climbing club to go to a festival in an Israeli settlement in the West Bank. Once at the festival, she heard about the growing Palestinian climbing community and reached out. She climbed for a day at one of the sites that we developed.
In a previous interview you mention your desire to "reconcile reality with perceptions." What do you find Western people's perception of the West Bank to be and what have your experiences taught you?
I think that there are a lot of different perceptions about this place and many of them are negative. I would encourage people (especially climbers) to come check it out for themselves and to form their own opinion!
Why do you think climbing has been so successful as an activity to introduce to the area? What benefits does it bring and why do people enjoy it?
Climbing is inherently cathartic. When you are climbing, you have to be ultra-focussed and in the moment. I think people enjoy it here because it's an escape but also for all the same reasons that climbers in the UK or the US enjoy it. Most importantly, it's fun!
Have your developed areas attracted many foreign climbers? Which areas would you recommend to visiting people?
The climbing community here is comprised of locals and foreigners. The foreigners tend to be climbers who are posted in Ramallah for work: journalists, NGO-workers etc. We also get a number of tourists who want to experience climbing during their trip! I would suggest that visitors check out Yabrud. It is a fun limestone cliff, close to Ramallah with over 50 routes. The ideal seasons are fall, winter and spring. The summer is a little hot!
With so many people being introduced to climbing over the years in the West Bank, what are your hopes and aims for the future?
I would love to come back to Ramallah in five years to find an even bigger and more established climbing community.
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