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Zack Martin Breaking Barriers Grant Kick-starts Climbing School in Rio de Janeiro Favelas

Posted on: December 17th, 2012 by The AAC

By Asa Firestone, AAC

As I jump onto the back of Andrew Lenz’s motorcycle, the Rio de Janeiro traffic morphs from a mechanism of stress and tried patience into an exhilarating game of life and death. He weaves in and out of the anti-lanes that compose Rio’s hectic transit to our destination of Rocinha, the country’s largest slum with roughly 200,000 residents. Entering the complex alleys of the favela I think to myself, “This place is no different than the rest of Brazil.” Then, a boy not much older than 16 walks by with a smile from ear-to-ear and a machine gun around his neck. This is my first time here, and the start to a new direction in my life. We are meeting with a local community figure Rogerio Rodrigues to discuss our idea for a program to utilize rock climbing on the granite domes situated above the community to help the youth of Rocinha rise above the crime, drugs, and prejudice to accomplish their dreams.


Favela stacked against the hillside. Asa Firestone


That was in June 2010, when drug lords still controlled the Rocinha favela. Beginning in the 1950s, immigrants from the northeast Brazil began flooding 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 unwritten agreement of “pay no taxes, receive no services.” 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. 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 is 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 southern favelas near the rich of Rio, leaving the poorer north and west zones in a state like 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 toward a safer future, and they have strong reason to believe that.

My obsession with Brazil started in 2000 when I was a foreign exchange student at a high school in the small guacho town of Santa Maria in Rio Grande do Sul. Since then, I have traveled to Brazil 10 times and climbed all over the country. In 2003, following a semester studying engineering in Southern Brazil, I spent two months climbing and living on the road in 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 picturesque granite peaks that erupt from within its urban sprawl. Rio is a city famous for its beaches, music, and nightlife, and it may also have the best urban climbing in the world.


Rio’s urban climbing. Asa Firestone


I spent my first climbs exploring the famous Pão de Açucar (a.k.a. Sugarloaf Peak). Close to 1,000’ of beautiful granite with beer and a cable car waiting at the summit was hard to beat anywhere. 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), but my local Brazilian climbing buddies told me it was too dangerous due to roving bands of kids with guns. On the slopes of these peaks, massive favelas have spawned from decades of Brazilian social inequalities. 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.

Some of the participants. Asa Firestone


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 the high-end cosmetics company Kiehl’s, which allowed me to return to Rio in 2010. It was on this trip that I met Andrew, a local climbing guide with a similar vision. He is no stranger to the favelas of Rio, having served as the Brazilian Director for Schools Without Borders for five years. He had seen the beaming smiles that his photography program had created on the faces of his students, and also the frustrations of the politics within the favela communities and the destruction of police-gang violence. 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, giving the program an immediate jump-start. 


Learning the ropes. Asa Firestone


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 with 50’ high and 100’ long walls in a government sports complex adjacent to Rocinha.

The kids in action. Asa Firestone


Our current focus is to raise the funds and construct this wall. To help in this effort, we have launched BEYONDgear Inc., a social enterprise that sells lifestyle adventure gear. With 2,000 purchases we will be able to fund the wall. There after, each purchase funds an indoor climbing session for one student and five purchases funds an outdoor excursion. Looking beyond this climbing wall and this specific project, BEYONDgear aspires to use the power of the adventure sport industry to help fund other projects that provide access to adventure sports for at-risk youth.


First time on the rock. Asa Firestone

First time on the rock. Asa Firestone


I want to thank the American Alpine Club for its support of this project through the Zack Martin Breaking Barriers Grant and its integral role in the formation of CEU. This grant is truly a unique program from the AAC and one I will continue to support.


The author, Asa Firestone.

To support the AAC’s Breaking Barriers Grant, direct contributions can be made to the AAC.

To support CEU you can make tax deductible donations through the AAC or visit the following link to make Christmas purchases from BEYONDgear:

Watch this short documentary about the beginnings of BEYONDgear:


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