Great Climbs & Worthy Causes: Rock Climbing in Eastern Europe
Nina and Jeremy’s Big Idea
Beranger, Savoie, France
The choice of vehicle wasn’t simple. It had to be more than a camper van—reliable off-road and in remote parts of the world, and tough enough to transport a climbing wall (yes, you read that right), all of our rock-climbing gear, photography equipment, and oh yeah, also be a small apartment. Through a bit of luck, a lot of networking and some big decisions, on September 1st, 2020 our very own 1991 Unimog, which we immediately named Andrea, made it home to our village in France.
For the last two years, my partner and I had not traveled abroad, for obvious reasons. As an outdoor photographer and a professional climber, Jeremy and I had shaped our lives around our travels and projects, together and individually. This time at home became a kind of incubator for a new, shared vision for our careers and passions. We found that after so many years of building careers in the outdoor industry, we shared a strong desire to evolve our work. We dreamed of combining our professional personal lives and traveling differently, and of working in service to people in the greatest need.
Since early on in my career as a professional climber, I have nursed a passion for humanitarian work. In 2014 I traveled to the Middle East to take part in a project bringing climbers and a mobile climbing wall to communities in crisis areas around Lebanon, Israel and Palestine. The experience was shocking, and it lit a fire in me that has never gone out. I became obsessed with the idea that even a little bit of rock climbing can have a positive impact on people in the most difficult circumstances.
We spent a year outfitting Andrea for adventure. We established an official non-profit in Switzerland, and Jeremy basically became a mechanic to tune up all six metric tonnes of her. We worked with friends, professionals and professional friends to build a removable climbing wall and outfit a beautiful living space. But it was the climbing wall that became our signature addition. We would use this wall to share climbing with anyone, anywhere in the world.
Because Andrea is capable of making almost any overland journey and equipped to support different types of outdoor adventures, it felt like anything was possible. We decided to spend our first season with Andrea exploring rock climbing in Eastern Europe and sharing our spirit with others, particularly children in poor, forgotten and refugee communities. It was important to me that we work as much as possible with the local climbers, ongoing humanitarian missions in the areas and make sure we took time to connect and contribute in a lasting way with everyone we met.
With that in mind, we headed out!
Vulcan is not on any western tourist’s destination list. A cold war-era mining town long abandoned, this area has been forgotten even by some of its closest neighbors. People in Vulcan live in old, usually crumbling buildings, often without running water or electricity. The few jobs they can get are in the fields, picking blueberries and mushrooms. Most people who can manage to leave go to work abroad and send what money they can back home to their families in Vulcan.
And imagine, right in the middle of all of this, a bouldering gym exists. We received an invitation from two strangers, Felipe and Janelle, to join them in a part of the world where no one wants to visit, where they have run an outreach program for the local community since 2015. Nowadays, Fara Limite (“Unlimited”) welcomes more than 150 kids every week, ages 6 to 18, and offers them a safe and fun place to play. The first thing when we arrived on a Monday evening was a climbing session with the older kids. Boy, they showed us how it’s done! I had to push myself to keep up with them!
During the next ten days, Jeremy and I worked with the young climbers of Vulcan in all kinds of ways. We took some of them to a cliff just outside of town to try out their strong bouldering fingers on real rock, and spent three days with a group of the most dedicated young people camping out in the beautiful local wilderness.
What the young people in the Dallas neighborhood, and so many like it all over the region, lack is a way to express themselves and their emotions, negative or positive. Climbing has offered them a fantastic way to do that. There simply aren’t many options when you’re born in Dallas. Climbing has also given the kids here a connection to the world outside, and another potential future for themselves. Some are even traveling for the first time to compete in competitions, and Fara Limité has become one of the strongest youth clubs in Romania.
On our last day, we set up the climbing wall in a grassy square and held a climbing party and competition for the kids. That night we felt so sad to be leaving, but I was certain that our connection to this place was not ending.
But Andrea’s journey was just beginning, and it was time for us to drive south. We set off for Greece with two big projects ahead that had us excited, curious and a little intimidated. These would be more demanding than Jeremy and I could tackle on our own. So we decided to expand Andrea’s crew and bring a few friends on board to help. Thus, a lively crew of friends and volunteers with a variety of skills to offer met up in Greece and joined forces with Andrea.
Cragging with ClimbAID
We parked Andrea at a sport climbing cliff just outside of Athens. We were here to reconnect with my old friends from the ClimbAID association. In 2020, ClimbAID launched a program called Pame Pano! in Athens. Pame Pano! is a project which uses climbing to tackle the many problems faced by refugee youth across the city such as social integration, isolation and confidence.
When I saw the team arrive, I couldn’t believe my eyes. A bunch of super excited and scrambling teenagers with overflowing energy were goofing off in a dozen different languages and ready for an adventure. Once equipped with helmets, harnesses and climbing shoes, the bravest ones started going after routes we had set up. Once the climbing began we saw their energy change—they found calm and focus, little by little, after each route that they climbed.
Before we knew it, the sun was sinking and it was time to go back to camp. We hosted a group meeting around our basecamp with Andrea, giving everyone who took part in the day a chance to reflect and share their feedback. They described our simple day at the cliff as being the best days of their lives. Some of these kids had told us about their harrowing experiences traveling by foot across the mountains, climbing to save themselves during their migration journey. It was so powerful to hear how the experience of rock climbing and playing outdoors in a safe situation and with support and confidence may have helped some of them begin to overcome some of their trauma. This day at the cliff was definitely one of the most memorable of our whole trip.
Joining Forces For Refugees
The final project of our trip brought us to a place I had never imagined—I had no idea what to expect. We were invited to join Vasilika Moon, an Italian humanitarian association, to work with some of the 1500 people living in the Korinthos refugee camp, run by the Greek government.
We spent our first few days helping out with the programs that Vasilika Moon already had going, offering German language classes, art courses and cooking instruction mostly. This was the most difficult moment for me during the trip. Family after family told me their stories, hitting me straight in my gut. I took in everything, and it was overwhelming. What an experience to teach my native language (German) to women from Afghanistan who want to prepare themselves for a peaceful life somewhere safe after their horrific journey from conflict at home. You really never know what you have to offer.
In the evenings our whole team would discuss the incredible emotions we kept inside during the day. I am so grateful we were surrounded by our friends.
As we worked with Vasilika Moon, we spread the word that we would be offering a climbing session over the weekend on Andrea’s wall. On Friday night we set up the wall one last time and I let myself get a bit lost as I set new boulder problems. Ilina set up an art station and Boon, a slackline. On Saturday, a little before noon, people who had signed up during the week began showing up, curious and happy to have something special to do. Once again, Andrea and the pure fun of climbing were an immediate success.
On Sunday everyone was invited back for a more instructive climbing session. Many of the same people came back, and we worked with anyone who was interested in learning how to work a boulder problem little by little. That feeling of trying a sequence so many times and finally succeeding—every climber knows it—and seeing people have it for the first time in this place filled my heart. I can still hear their shouts of victory on the top of our 10-foot wall.
That weekend felt like a huge party. Everyone was climbing, dancing, painting, playing and expressing themselves. It felt so great to be a part of this team, and I felt so much motivation to introduce people to climbing.
Conclusion and Advice
It’s been some months now since that weekend in Korinthos, and I feel ready to review and refine Project Andrea, and to lay the groundwork for our next adventure. For other climbers reading this who are similarly drawn to sharing the spirit of climbing with others in needy communities, at home or even further abroad than we went, I believe that passion and desire are the most necessary ingredients. I know in my heart that there is something about climbing that is very human, and that all of us who try it immediately share. I have seen a tiny bouldering wall in the middle of a parking lot break open smiles on the faces of people who have very few light moments in their lives. If you believe in this too, that is enough. That passion and belief is truly all I’ve ever had driving me.
Here are some tips for climbers and other adventure athletes who want to share the spirit of their sports with others, at home or on a trip of any length:
- Make plans, but stay flexible
- Take time for yourself, or the needs of the world will overwhelm you
- Ask for help and keep your eyes open
- Look out your own window
- Bring your own climbing and camping gear. It’s hard to find outdoor shops as we’re used to in central Europe or the US
**A note about traveling for rock climbing in Eastern Europe**
A rock-climbing adventure to the Balkans and Eastern Europe is possible and fairly easy for any adventurous climber, but in our tumultuous time, it is impossible to offer solid advice about travel restrictions, permits and safety. From the fall of 2021, when our trip took place, to spring 2022 as I write this to whenever you find yourself reading, the protocols for crossing national borders may have changed many times. Remember that you may be moving in and out of the EU, the Schengen and other zones of free movement and rules can change quickly. One thing that never changes, unfortunately, is that there are always people struggling due to forces that are not in their control. There will always be more people to help.
MSR gear we used on the trip:
- Hubba Hubba 2-person tent
- 2 Therm-a-rest® NeoAir® Xlite™ sleeping pads
- 2 Therm-a-rest Hyperion™ sleeping bags (to host people joining the adventure)
- Full set of Windburner® cooking system for outside cooking around Andrea
- Reactor® system stove
- PocketRocket® stove
- Rendezvous™ Sun Shield 200 Shelter to protect us from the sun
- 4 Dromedary™ 10L water storage bags to have extra storage beside our basic water canister
- Guardian® pump water purifier
If you have a project that you think Andrea basecamp could bring a positive impact to, please let us know! We are eager to share our time, energy and materials.
Contact us through Instagram:
See you soon!
- Fara Limite – Instagram: @faralimitesala
- ClimbAID Pame Pano! Project in Athens, Donate to ClimbAID – Instagram: @climbaid
- Vasilika Moon – Instagram: @vasilikamoon