Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Climbing to make a difference in Mexićo

Rory Smith and myself take a sketchy late night walk to the top of the neighbourhood, Independencia.
I’ve often wondered whether climbing could have a positive and effective impact on world issues. I’m not sure how effective it could be on large scale topics, such as creating a lasting world peace, bringing an end to world poverty or ensuring that everyone is given their basic human rights as these are vast problems that require the collective unity of nations to make a stand. But what I do know, is that climbing can make a difference to people on a global scale.

One of my good friends and personal heroes, John Ellison, proves this with every ounce of his existence and his work with Climbers Against Cancer (CAC) which he formed in 2011 to raise money and awareness for cancer research. CAC in its short existence has raised more than $350,000 and united the climbing community by demonstrating that we can make a difference together, but that we need someone to lead the way.

With John’s inspiration branded firmly into our minds, in March 2014, Tiffany Hensley and myself, Gareth Leah headed down to Monterrey Mexico after hearing about huge potential for new rock climbing and a program called Escalando Fronteras (Climbing Borders) who use climbing as a medium to bring an end to the recruitment of child soldiers into the drug cartels of Monterrey. 

Such a project struck a chord with myself. Born and raised in the small industrial town of Ellesmere Port in the UK, I had a misspent youth that lacked both ambition and direction. When I discovered climbing in my early 20’s, it changed my whole perspective of the world. I had found something which filled the void in my life, bringing with it the direction I so desperately needed. I wondered that if climbing could do this for me, could it possibly do the same for these youth?

With so much poverty, many of the youth look to drugs as an entertainment.
Speaking with the program organiser Rory Smith, a smart and worldly guy in his late 20’s who’s passion for his project emanates through every conversation, he welcomed our idea to help and we quickly set about creating Project Wall-E with two distinct goals.

First, our goal is to help Escalando Fronteras by volunteering our time to the program and teaching the kids new skills, develop new routes in the nearby neighbourhood (enabling them to climb locally in their free time), and provide climbing gear through sponsor donations. 

Secondly, we will develop climbing in Monterrey on a larger scale and collaborate on a guidebook to help bring eco tourism to the recovering city with the desired effect that the climbing area will, in time, bring money to the impoverished areas and offer the kids an alternative way to earn money outside of Mexico’s dangerous drug trade.

The intimidating entrance to the neighbourhood of Independencia
Especially motivating is that the whole concept would not be possible without the help of like-minded and conscientious companies who also believe in making a difference by sharing something we love.

We left for Mexico early November. If you would like to know more about Project Wall-E, Escalando Fronteras or Climbing in Mexico by following the hyperlinks.

Make your next year count, make it meaningful, make a difference!

Monday, December 1, 2014

Climbing beyond cartels

Visiting the slums of Lomas Modelo in Monterrey
In April 2014, my life was in complete chaos. I was going through a divorce, I felt that I had given in to a life of mediocracy, and I suddenly found a strong desire to put a meaning to my life outside "making money". You could say I was going through a mid (early) life crisis.

Having decided that morning to take the first flight of JFK to well, anywhere, I found myself in Phoenix Arizona with no plans and no direction. Having been invited by a friend to go Monterrey, Mexico some weeks earlier, I made a quick phone call and took next available flight to California where I then hitch hiked to the coast to meet up.

Leaving the airport, I slung my duffel over my shoulder and stood alongside the highway in the blistering heat, thumb up and deep in thought. What was I doing here? Where was I going? What should I do with my life? Have I become satisfied with mediocracy? It didn't take long to catch a ride and I was able to quickly make my way to the meet up point where I hope to find my friend (Tiffany Hensley) and her giant white sprinter named Wall-E.

Meeting up, we spent a day talking about my current situation and discussing how we would make our way down to Mexico. Before we left New York, I had spent some time scouring government website, blogs and travel forums to find all the information I could about current affairs in Monterrey. Many of the people I spoke to about the area knew very little information other than It was "sketch balls". Hearing this repeated by many people made us nervous to travel down, but after having a brief phone call to hostel owner Ramon Narvaez, we decided there was little risk if we took the proper precautions and were soon on the road.

Ramon Narvaez taking a well earned rest from the kids

We arrived in Monterrey a couple of days later and experienced no problems on the way down. The large number of armed police and military we saw along the road brought a strange sense of security after reading about so many horror stories about kidnappings and road blocks by drug cartels.

Pulling up to the hostel Aguacate, we were greeted by the cheerful Mexican owner and his entourage of dogs. After a quick tour of the place, we hit the road with Ramon and his pack of dogs, heading to Parque La Huasteca where we had heard about unbound potential for new development. What we found was incredible!

Entering Parque La Huasteca, Credit: Tiffany Hensley
As we approached the canyon, we were silent in awe. The giant limestone walls rose steeply out the riverbed like spear heads for more than 1000ft. While we rolled through, Ramon informed me about a guidebook he had written to the area, but that it had become quickly outdated due to the speed at which it was being developed. I was instantly fascinated by the news. I could see the opportunity to this place held for rock climbing and pondered how I could find a way to be here.

Returning back to the Aguacate, I discussed with my friend the potential I saw for bringing eco-tourism to the park. She agreed there was a lot that could be done here and then proceeded to tell me about a program called Escalando Fronteras that was utilising the climbing area as a way to educate "at risk youth" about the world outside the slums and the opportunities they have.

Some of the founders of Escalando Fronteras
The pieces came together. I knew immediately how I could fulfil my life's crisis and at the same time, be immersed in everything I loved. I began putting together a project plan with these ideas in mind with the hope that I could present it to sponsors at the winter Outdoor Retailer (OR) show in Utah. Tiffany also had a vision to go back to Mexico to work with the kids and so we teamed up to maximise our efforts naming our plan "Project Wall-E" after here van.

That August, we went to OR in Salt Lake City and were blown away to find so many like minded companies that saw the potential to do good we did. We talked to hundreds of people and spent tens of hours walking the show floor but leaving OR, we were still unsure if we had done enough to make this a reality.

The kids of Escalando Fronteras
By the end of September 2014, after months of follow ups and phone calls, we had succeeded to gaining enough support to carry out the project and we began putting the wheels in motion to head south.

Now in November, we have arrived in Mexico and our work has only just begun. One of the programs goals for this year is to raise funding so that they can build an accessible climbing gym for the kids as an alternative way to spend their free time. You can check out their Indiegogo campaign and donate using the link below:

This is one of the biggest challenges that I have ever undertaken in my life. To try re-invigorate the national park into a booming tourist economy that will allow these children to carve out their own futures, outside the slums. If you would like to know more about Project Wall-E, Escalando Fronteras or Climbing in Huasteca , you can get more information here:


A huge thank you to our sponsors who without their support we would not be able to make this possible.
ClimbTech, Hanchor, Mad Rock Climbing, DMM Climbing, MAXIM ropes, Nite Ize, Voltaic Solutions and Justins Nut Butter.