BNABIL, Mount Lebanon — Jad El Khoury squints at a large flake of rock resting atop one of the many limestone boulders scattered throughout the hillside.
“It’s safer to remove that,” he says, taking a drag on his cigarette.
“We don’t want anyone to pull loose a big rock and die,” he adds with a low chuckle.
He circles back to a clearing in the brush, where more than a dozen volunteers are passing around gardening gloves and pruning shears. From a pile of tools on the ground, he picks up a crowbar.
Jad is one of the biggest names in Lebanon’s rock climbing community. He’s personally bolted several climbing routes throughout the country, cowrote Lebanon’s first climbing guidebook, and, along with fellow climber Patrick Habib, cofounded Sit Start— a local organization that’s working to popularize bouldering in the country.
Today, Jad, 34, and Patrick, 27, are showing volunteers how to turn this wild bouldering field into a destination for climbers.
This particular field is called Old Town Blocks, named for the undated stone ruins that interweave the boulders. As they work, volunteers discover discarded fragments of ancient pottery mixed in with the rocks.
What is bouldering?
There are many recognized subcategories within the sport of rock climbing, but the three most popular are trad climbing, sport climbing and bouldering.
Trad (“traditional”) climbing is when the climber places their own gear to protect against falls, and removes the gear when their passage is complete. By contrast, sport climbers rely on anchors and bolts that are permanently fixed in the rock. Both styles of climbing require a harness and a rope.
Bouldering doesn’t use a rope. Routes are typically short — just a few meters — and climbed over a crash pad to protect falling climbers from injury. Sit Start gets its name from the sitting position that commonly begins bouldering routes.
Whereas trad climbing and sport climbing emphasize endurance, bouldering tends to emphasize brute strength.
Lebanon is already home to a growing community of sport climbers. In 2021, Jad and fellow professional climber George Emil released Lebanon’s first sport climbing guidebook, which details more than 370 routes in 16 locations throughout the country, many of which they bolted themselves.
Now it’s bouldering’s turn.
Jad and Patrick founded Sit Start in August 2022 with the release of their branded YABO crash pad— the first to be locally produced in Lebanon.
The two friends have been bouldering together for years but wanted to make the sport widely available to Lebanon’s climbing community. They started last year by developing the country’s first established bouldering field in Beit Mery, about half an hour outside of Beirut.
Old Town Blocks will be Lebanon’s second field.
To determine whether Old Town Blocks had enough climbing potential, Patrick says he and Jad spent more than four months waking up before sunrise to climb the boulders in the then-wild field.
“We would wake up at 4 a.m., be there by 6 a.m., [climb] until 8:30 a.m. … to be able to be in our offices at 10 a.m.,” Patrick says with a laugh. “We’re very dedicated to each other. We don’t session without each other.”
Jad and Patrick took on the task of mapping the routes, grading them according to difficulty, and charting the topography of the hillside.
When it came to actually developing the site — given its large size and the sheer amount of brush that needed to be cleared — they realized they needed extra help.
“When we first planned this field, we didn’t count on volunteers. We thought we’d do it all ourselves,” says Patrick, smiling at the helpers around him. “Then we thought we’d see if the shabab [young people] wanted to help, and the shabab answered the call.”
Stewardship and conservation
There are dozens of naturally occurring boulder fields throughout the country, but they often fall on private land and can be difficult to access through the overgrown brush.
This is where Sit Start comes in.
Jad and Patrick first needed to get permission from St. Mikhael’s Church in Bnabil, which owns the land containing Old Town Blocks. Obtaining permission to use private land can be tricky, Patrick explains.
“Most people have no idea what bouldering is,” he says.
Landowners can sometimes hope to profit off the collaboration, or are suspicious that Sit Start will make money off the use of their land, Patrick explains. He and Jad organized multiple meetings with St. Mikhael’s priests and the municipality to explain that Sit Start is not for profit.
In the case of Old Town Blocks, they got lucky.
“Once the priests understood the project, they became very excited about it,” says Patrick.
In developing Old Town Blocks, Sit Start promises to keep the field free of garbage. The climbing community tends to be highly environmentally conscious, but Sit Start takes it one step further by emphasizing land stewardship and conservation.
Stewardship and conservation, Jad explains, can entail trail opening, trail building, trimming trees, maintaining walls and even building staircases when necessary.
Volunteers are careful to keep to the trail so as not to disturb the surrounding ecosystem. By establishing a single trail through the field, future climbers are less likely to erode or disturb the existing ecosystem, Patrick explains.
“We always accommodate the wildlife,” adds Jad. “We are not the residents.”
What emerges is a symbiotic relationship between the climbers, the township, and the land. The hope is that the bouldering field will bring young people to the township, boosting the local economy. At the same time, the land will remain free of garbage or debris and wildlife will be protected.
The climbers, of course, gain a new playground.
‘The future is looking bright’
“There’s so much here,” says volunteer Anthony Chamoun as he stands in the middle of Old Town Blocks, eyeing the surrounding boulders.
“Before we used to find these random rocks, we didn’t even have [crash] pads,” says fellow volunteer Adel Khneisser with a laugh. The two have both been climbing in Lebanon for years and have watched the sport develop locally.
“We used to try to mess around by spotting ourselves,” adds Adel. “Like, if we fell down, we just fell on our friend or some camping mattresses.”
Throughout the day, volunteers remove smaller rocks from the bases of the boulders, especially protruding rocks that could cause severe injury if a climber were to fall.
Safety is one of Sit Start’s central pillars. By developing this field, Sit Start not only offers climbers new challenges but also significantly reduces their risk of injury.
“Year by year, even monthly, we’re seeing new routes being set … the climbing community getting bigger and the locals getting stronger,” says Anthony. “The future is looking bright for the scene in Lebanon.”
Jad and Patrick have already climbed all of the boulders in Old Town Blocks and rated the routes according to difficulty. All but one, that is.
“Hell Razor,” says Patrick.
Named for the Motörhead song that was playing in the background when Jad climbed its main route, Hell Razor is the gnarliest boulder in the field. The boulder is large enough to contain multiple routes, but the main line has been giving the crew some trouble.
Jad already “sent” the stand start — which, in climber slang, means he finished the route in one go from a standing position — but hasn’t yet managed the route’s sit start.
Patrick is just the opposite. He unlocked the sit start, but says he’s waiting to grow 2cm taller before he can finish the whole route.
“It’s been one hell of a fight,” says Patrick. “The main line has been a closed project for Jad and me throughout the years, but I think we might [soon] be opening it to the public.”
The Sit Start founders say they have scouted a dozen other wild bouldering fields throughout the country. Hopefully, with a little time and more willing volunteers, additional fields will soon be established.
“Once you develop a field, people are more enticed and excited to try the sport because there’s an infrastructure,” says Adel. “For me, to contribute to the building or the advancement of the bouldering sector in Lebanon [is] an honor.”
Sit Start’s goal is to eventually release a guidebook, much like the one released for sport climbing. They also hope to host their next outdoor bouldering event – Yalla Nbalder — at Old Town Blocks later this year.
But for today, with their work mostly done, it’s time for play.
Volunteers drop their tools and pull climbing shoes out of their backpacks. A crashpad is placed at the base of one of the freshly-developed boulders.