Reaching new heights: Lebanese climbing festival attracts international interest

Nearly 200 people descended on the mountain village of Tannourine al-Tahta earlier this month for SpaceFest, one of the only rock climbing festivals in the Middle East.

Reaching new heights: Lebanese climbing festival attracts international interest

A promotional poster for SpaceFest 2023, hosted by local climbing brand ClimberSpace. (Courtesy: ClimberSpace)

It’s a sweltering August day in Tannourine al-Tahta, North Lebanon.

In the Olive Grove, a rock climbing sector located in the mountain village, the sun cooks the rock and sweat pours off the foreheads of more than 100 climbers.

These rock climbers — amateurs and long-time athletes alike — are gathered for SpaceFest 2023, the summer festival hosted by the local Lebanese rock climbing brand, ClimberSpace.

“When I started climbing in 2012, the community was so small,” says Georges Issa, a co-founder of ClimberSpace and festival organizer. “When my brothers started in 2018, it started growing exponentially. We believe it’s going to grow more and more.”

ClimberSpace was founded by three Lebanese brothers — Georges, Jad and Elias Issa. Most of the participants in this year’s SpaceFest are Lebanese, but there are also climbers from Jordan, Egypt, France, Norway, the United States and Mexico.

Organizers say the number of participants also doubled from last year’s SpaceFest, underscoring the rising popularity of the sport in Lebanon.

ClimberSpace co-founder Jad Issa (far left) helps leading an Intro to Climbing course during SpaceFest 2023. (Credit: Laura Karam/ClimberSpace)

“When I got here and we were going into the hills, I saw Tannourine surrounded by these huge rocks and thought, ‘This is paradise,’” says Mayela Ruvalcaba, who traveled all the way from Guadalajara, Mexico, just to climb in Lebanon.

Ruvalcaba, who has been climbing for 22 years, says she was originally planning a climbing holiday in Europe but changed her mind after she met Elias through Instagram.

Though she had never previously considered climbing in the Middle East, Elias’ descriptions and photos of Tannourine convinced her to buy a plane ticket.

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“Elias was really open and made me feel comfortable. He said, ‘This is me, this is my family, this is what I do. Let me know what I can do,’” recounts Mayela. Elias even met her at the airport.

Later that afternoon, Mayela takes first place in the women’s category for a speed climb of Aywa — 35 meters of gorgeous Lebanese limestone and one of the most classic routes in Tannourine.

All around the packed Olive Grove, climbers are competing to ascend as many routes as possible. They retrieve colored tags from the top of each route to prove completion of their climbs, but also find time to teach the basics of safety and technique to beginners.

ClimberSpace co-founder Jad Issa climbing in Tannourine al-Tahta. (Credit: Laura Karam/ClimberSpace)

Anders Schive Hoel, who has been climbing consistently for nearly two years, traveled from Olso to participate in SpaceFest. He tells L’Orient Today he never considered Lebanon a climbing destination until his friend, who happens to work with Georges, suggested attending SpaceFest.

“The only information you have [in Norway] about the Middle East is informed by the media, but once you know someone from there, it’s easier,” Schive Hoel tells L’Orient Today during the festival.

“It’s super important they do stuff like this,” he adds of ClimberSpace and the organization of SpaceFest. “You need a reason to go [to Lebanon].”

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The ClimberSpace team understands the challenge they’re up against. They know Lebanon is home to natural rock walls that easily rival the globally famed climbing destinations of Greece, Mallorca or the south of France. The problem is that most of the international climbing community doesn’t know they’re here.

Last year, ClimberSpace partnered with climbers in Egypt to take SpaceFest international. In October 2022, an Egyptian climber Bilal Abdusalam generously agreed to host SpaceFest near his farm on the Gulf of Aqaba.

In October 2022, SpaceFest was held near Dahab, Egypt. (Credit: Laura Karam/ClimberSpace)

ClimberSpace hopes to eventually establish additional partnerships with climbing organizations throughout the Middle East to promote the region’s climbing potential. This year, though, SpaceFest returned home to Lebanon.

“We want to use ClimberSpace as a vessel to make Lebanon a world-class climbing destination,” explains Georges. “It’s one place in the world that’s misunderstood, and our job is to change that.”

A symbiotic relationship

When the Issa brothers founded ClimberSpace in 2020, their initial vision was relatively narrow: to resole climbing shoes. The brothers were frustrated that, every time their specialty shoes needed repairs, they needed to be sent out to Europe at a steep expense.

The brothers built their own resoling machinery and, operating out of their parents’ house, began offering Lebanese climbers a local — and more affordable — option for shoe repair.

Things took off from there, says Georges. “We wanted to do something to promote local people, local climbing and local culture.”

Soon, ClimberSpace began developing its own merchandise, launched Lebanon’s only climbing academy specifically for children and, of course, became the organizational force behind SpaceFest.

“We believe in the transformative power of climbing,” says Georges. “It’s changed us in a lot of ways and we want to share that.”

In an effort to extend an invitation to climbers and non-climbers alike, this year’s SpaceFest included two nights of camping in Tannourine, a guided hike through the nearby Cedars Reserve, sailing lessons in Batroun and, naturally, plenty of rock climbing.

Scenes from the bouldering competition at Paul's Haven during SpaceFest 2023. (Credit: Laura Karam/ClimberSpace)

More than 200 tickets were sold for this year’s event. But the most exciting part for festival organizers? Approximately half of these participants were first-time climbers.

“The climbing community needs to grow in order to become sustainable,” explains Georges. “By growing the community, we are helping the local community and local businesses, in places like Tannourine, to grow as well … We can protect our nature and our climbing spots because people will see climbing as a contributor to the local economy.”

The economic benefits of climbing can already be felt throughout Tannourine, where nearly all of the village’s handful of vacant houses are rented out by climbers each summer. At least one local dekenneh (market) sells local brands of chalk and climbing tape on the shelves next to the usual Nescafé Gold.

Behind the counter at the local dekenneh of Imm Adel in Tannourine al-Tahta, climbing tape and chalk is sold next to the usual staples. (Credit: Hallie Mellendorf/L'Orient Today)

“The people [of Tannourine] need to prosper, and the only thing they have is tourism,” says Mounir Torbey, the former mayor of Tannourine municipality who oversaw the early development of the climbing site back in 2015. “We have a lot of natural potential.”

A ‘Mecca’ for climbers

Tannourine al-Tahta holds a special place in the hearts of Lebanon’s existing climbing community. The area is now home to over 140 routes of all difficulties, plus an additional 60 routes in the nearby sectors of Tannourine al-Fawqa and Beit Chlela.

“The climbing scene in Lebanon is still in its infancy,” says Sami Sbaiti, who has been climbing for four years and now keeps a house in Tannourine.

“The vast majority of Lebanese still have a variety of misconceptions whenever the topic of climbing is brought up,” Sami continues. “Hosting such a well-balanced climbing event where both absolute beginners and crushers can participate is a great stepping stone in the development of the sport in Lebanon.”

Many outsiders still perceive climbing as a dangerous sport. This is why ClimberSpace emphasizes safety to improve the sport’s accessibility, as well as dialogue with the Tannourine municipality to help further their existing climbing initiatives.

Georges’ hope is that, as the climbing community grows, it will be able to give back more and more to its host communities. In addition to bringing money into an otherwise stagnant local economy, an empowered community of climbers can also help clean and maintain the mountains, or shield the area from overdevelopment.

“We believe people who are into the outdoors are peaceful human beings, and I guess we need that,” says Georges with a smile.

ClimberSpace co-founder Elias Issa climbing in Tannourine al-Tahta. (Credit: Georges Issa/ClimberSpace)

To accommodate this ever-expanding community, Tannourine municipal project manager Rita Becassini founded Paul’s Haven campsite in 2022. For $10 per night, Paul’s Haven provides a secure camping space, showers, lounge chairs and a clean water spring.

“When I met the climbing community here at Tannourine, we started talking about where they sleep, where they eat, and everything related to their ecosystem,” explains Rita. “I figured out there was a big problem in terms of lodging. Lodging [in Tannourine] was either too expensive or didn’t suit the climber’s needs. So, together, we figured out how to start a campsite.”

Perhaps quite naturally, Paul’s Haven hosted SpaceFest this year. With nearly 200 guests gathered under the campground’s draped fairy lights, the bartenders are busy keeping the beer taps flowing.

“While Paul’s Haven is certainly open to welcoming a diverse range of outdoor enthusiasts … we do hold a special affinity for the climbing community,” adds Rita. “As Paul's Haven becomes synonymous with exceptional climbing opportunities, we aspire to attract climbers from all corners of the globe.”

The ClimberSpace co-founders: Georges, Jad and Elias Issa. (Credit: Laura Karam/ClimberSpace)

By all accounts, Lebanon’s climbing community appears unanimous in its determination to grow.

“The vast majority of Lebanon’s rocky features remain unestablished, unbolted or even unexplored. There’s so much work to be done, and the first step is to spread awareness of what climbing really is as a sport,” Sami tells L’Orient Today.

Even now, new climbing sectors are being developed in lower Tannourine al-Tahta and in Broumana, just east of Beirut.

“Everywhere you turn your face, there is a rock to climb. This could really be a Mecca [for climbing]. It just needs to be developed,” says Mayela.

“They have a lot of work to do.”

It’s a sweltering August day in Tannourine al-Tahta, North Lebanon. In the Olive Grove, a rock climbing sector located in the mountain village, the sun cooks the rock and sweat pours off the foreheads of more than 100 climbers. These rock climbers — amateurs and long-time athletes alike — are gathered for SpaceFest 2023, the summer festival hosted by the local Lebanese rock climbing brand,...