BEYONDgear and the Centro de Escalada Urbana Climbing School in the favelas (slums) of Rio de Janeira
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Climbing on the ‘Two Brothers’ Peak above the favelas (slums) of Rio
It is June, 2010. As I jump onto the back of Andrew’s motorcycle, the Rio de Janeiro traffic morphs from a mechanism of stress and tried patience into an exhilarating game of life and death. I am immediately intrigued and terrified by Andrew’s courage as he weaves in and out of the anti-lanes that compose Rio’s hectic transit. We arrive at our destination, Rocinha: a slum of roughly 200,000 residents of which some refer to as the largest single slum in Brazil. We are meeting with a local community figure to discuss our idea for a program to utilize rock climbing on the granite domes situated just above the Rocinha community to help the at risk youth who reside there. It is the first time we entered Rocinha and the start to a new direction in my life. Based on our own positive experiences with the sport, we believe that climbing can provide the passion needed for some of the favela youth to rise above the crime, drugs, and prejudice to overcome the barriers to their dreams.
As Andrew and I enter the favela, I think to myself, “this place is no different than the rest of Brazil” then a boy who could not be much older than 16 walks by with a smile from ear to ear and a machine gun around his neck and I realize the reality of violence that is so prevalent in this world. Rocinha seems to function, void of police yes, but small businesses are present, electricity, plumbing & other infrastructure exists. There is even a Bob’s fast food chain and a bank within the community. There is a code of law here, however strange and wild it appears.
A section of the Rocinha Favela with the towering wall of Dois Irmaos Maior above
Andrew Lenz is a local climbing guide in Rio. I met him in 2010 through a friend who mentioned that we both held a similar vision: to leverage the natural climbing resources of Rio to help at-risk kids in the favelas (slums). Upon meeting Andrew in person, I immediately knew I found a partner. Shortly there after, we joined up to begin formulating our dream: a program that would take the youth of Rocinha off the streets and into their own backyard of spectacular climbing. My new partner was no stranger to the favelas of Rio. Having created a successful photography program as the Brazil Director for the international NGO, Schools Without Borders, Andrew had seen the beaming smiles that photography brought to the faces of his students. He had also seen the frustrations of the politics within the favela communities and the destruction of police-gang violence. In just the favelas of Rio, some 6,000 young people ages 10 to 18 serve as “soldiers” in drug militias, according to a report by British anthropologist Luke Dowdney.
The Favelas of Rio
A small section of the Rocinha Favela
That was in 2010, when drug lords still controlled the Rocinha favela. In November of 2011, a raid involving more than 3,000 security officers ousted Rocinha’s infamous “Friends of Friends” gang and jailed their kingpin, Nem. Beginning in the 1950’s, a flood of immigrants from the Northeast of Brazil began to settle in Rio de Janeiro looking for work. They inhabited the unsettled hillsides close to the city. Rocinha became the largest of these settlements. Traditionally, favelas have operated under the “pay no taxes receive no services” unwritten agreement. Today, due to global pressure from hosting the Olympics and World Cup and because some of the best real estate in all of South America are located in favelas, the Brazilian government is attempting to take back these neighborhoods from the mega-gangs and with more success than most expected. The clean up efforts by the government are concentrated in favelas near the rich, South part of Rio, leaving the poorer North and West zones in a state of the wild-west. As gang members are displaced, they continue to migrate to the North Zone, away from the city center in the South, making Rio more and more segregated. Despite the unfortunate effects of such an effort, most Brazilians are highly supportive and see these efforts as a necessary step towards a safer future, and they have strong reason to believe that.
The Start of a Program
Student with CEU, climbing on Pão de Açucar in Rio
My obsession with Brazil, especially Rio de Janeiro, spans back to the year 2000, when I was a foreign exchange student during high school in a small Brazilian Guacho town. Since then, I have traveled to Brazil 10 times, explored the best climbing throughout the largest country in South America, and together with Andrew, created a program that will change the way kids from the slums of Rio interact with the mountains just above their community.
The idea to use climbing in the favelas began in 2003, during a semester abroad studying engineering in Southern Brazil. After the end of my internship, I spent two months climbing around Brazil living on the road out of a small VW Gol, which was stolen two days before returning to the States. While in Rio de Janeiro, I was blown away by the legendary granite that erupts from within its urban sprawl. I discovered that while Rio is a city famous for its beaches, music, thongs and nightlife, it may also have the best urban climbing in the world. The granite peaks of Rio, picturesquely positioned between tropical beaches and towering buildings, create the city’s unique beauty. On the slopes of these peaks, massive favelas have spawned from decades of Brazilian social inequalities. Unfortunately, the obvious and real danger of crime and violence associated with the favelas has acted as a natural deterrent for most climbers when they consider visiting the granite routes of the Rio.
I spent my first climbs exploring the famous Pão de Açucar (Sugarloaf Peak). Close to 1,000 feet of beautiful granite with beer and a cable car waiting at the summit was hard to beat anywhere. But after a few climbs, I was ready to try something more epic. I was naturally attracted to the beautiful peaks at the end of the crowded Ipanema-Leblon beach, the Dois Irmãos (Two Brothers Peaks). Asking some of my local Brazilian climbing buddies, they told me it was too dangerous due to roving bands of kids with guns. Frustrated that I could not climb a beautiful peak due to crime, I decided to investigate a solution. I realized that the local resource for climbing presented a unique opportunity for kids from the slums of Rio to replace the risks of drugs, violence, and gangs, with the healthier risks of rock climbing and adventure. Once this idea set in, there was no turning back. I applied unsuccessfully for a Zack Martin Breaking Barriers grant in 2003 and 2009. Despite my failure to gain support for the project, I never lost sight. The idea to use the climbing around Rio to help kids from the slums just made too much sense.
Students and instructors appreciating the outdoors in Rio
After receiving a Young Explorers Award from National Geographic in 2008 to attempt a first ascent on a remote Amazonian peak, things started to fall in place. Nat Geo set me up with a sponsorship from Kiehl’s (a high-end cosmetics company) which allowed me to return to Rio in 2010. It was on this trip that I met Andrew and we teamed up to start the Centro de Escalada Urbana (CEU). ‘CEU’ translates from Portuguese to symbolically mean ‘sky’. In 2011, we were awarded the Zack Martin Breaking Barriers Grant from the American Alpine Club, and the program was immediately jump-started.
CEU’s mission is to create an opportunity for kids from the slums of Rio to have access to outdoor sports, in essence, to use adventure for good. CEU currently works with a group of 15 students to develop rock climbing skills and introduce them to outdoor adventure, education, and leadership. CEU has partnered with the Rocinha Surf School, SUDERJ (the government arm of Rio in charge of sports), as well as Petzl, Black Diamond, and some American climbing wall design firms to develop a state of the art climbing gym in a community center adjacent to the Rocinha Favela.
Andrew showing off some climbing gear to a group of students at the Rocinha Surf School
Back in 2011, I attempted to build a climbing wall in Rocinha with the help of a few friends. This ended in frustration mostly due to governmental bureaucracy. After painful meetings and much administrative run around, CEU has secured a beautiful space in a government sports complex just across from Rocinha. This space has 50 foot high walls and runs 100 feet long. It is the prefect location for a top quality, professional climbing wall. A wall like this would provide much needed publicity for CEU as well as an ideal and safe location for teaching climbing to all skill levels.
A proposed rendition of the Rocinha climbing wall
After my experiences in Brazil, I knew I wanted to cultivate the concept of using adventure for good. My thoughts needed a physical manifestation that would allow for a scalable method to fund our project in Rio and beyond. My ideas grew wings spawned by the social enterprise movement so vibrant today and BEYONDgear Inc. was born.
BEYONDgear Inc. is a social enterprise that sells lifestyle adventure gear. For ever dollar of profit earned, BEYONDgear gives a dollar to projects that use adventure for good, beginning with CEU’s climbing wall in Rio. By creating a brand of adventure gear that allows adventure enthusiasts to participate in sharing their positive experiences in the outdoors with kids who would never have that opportunity otherwise, we can generate an entire movement to use adventure for good. In my mind, BEYONDgear goes beyond violence, beyond bureaucracy, and beyond climbing, giving at-risk kids the opportunity to get beyond psyched!