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The Brazil Project

Thursday, May 25, 2017
Last December, BD Athletes Hazel Findlay, Sonnie Trotter, Brittany Griffith, and Sam Elias traveled to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to join forces with the outreach program Centro Urbana Escalada (CEU). The goal was to help local kids in need by taking them climbing. As you’ll see in this powerful film, the simple act of going cragging with mentors proved to be a life-changing experience for everyone involved.

Video: Dominic Gill; Words: Hazel Findlay; Images: Dominic Gill, Sonnie Trotter, Sam Elias, Hazel Findlay

At 2 a.m. the gunshots from the nearby favela sliced through my travel-fatigue, reminding me where I was. So it’s real, I thought, it’s not just what they say.

A few hours earlier, a nice guy named Andrew with an even nicer beard was waiting for me at the international airport of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. I arrived a day before the other BD athletes and my first taste of Rio was a night drive through the gritty neighbourhoods (hence the gunshots) and steep, winding streets to Andrew’s house.

Why were a bunch of BD athletes in Rio de Janeiro in December—one of the hottest and wettest months of the year?

We were there to help out the Centro Urbana Escalada (CEU). CEU is an outreach program that takes kids from Rocinha favela (one of Rio’s largest favelas) climbing on their local crags.

It was the brainchild of Andrew Lenz and it was inspired by pure logic and personal experience. Andrew had been working for 10 years in social outreach programs with kids. At this time, he was also learning to climb himself and he was very aware of how much the process of learning to climb was changing him individually. He was using so many tools to effect positive change in adolescent kids in Rio, so why not use climbing? If you have ever been to Rio, it makes even more sense; the city is cradled in a basket of rock. The boundaries of the Favelas are outlined by granite walls, and the kids can be at the crag after a short walk from home. No need for a car, which they can’t afford, or unnecessary time taken from their school life. 


CEU started out as a one-man-show with no real structure or formal face. Andrew would simply go to the Rocinha, find kids and take them climbing. On the surface CEU is now a fully functioning social program with many volunteers and a space/small gym within Rocinha. Under the surface CEU not only provides access to climbing as a recreational pursuit, but also provides a real arm of support in the kids’ lives.

A story that embodies this the most is that of Caio. When I was introduced to Caio, I was struck by what appeared to be a calmly confident and intelligent young man. On the rock you can see he’s more than that; he’s a very talented athlete. I was surprised to hear that this was not always Caio. When the CEU had found him, he was super shy with almost no self-esteem. Even worse, he hadn’t been to school for three years and had little direction in his life. When he started with CEU, climbing exposed this lack of confidence and he was crippled with a fear of heights. At first he couldn’t even climb easy routes on top rope, but with time, patience and support from Andrew, he flourished. On our first day at the local sport crag we watched the culmination of this progression as Caio redpointed his first 7a+ (5.12a). Andrew gave him a proud hug as he reached the ground and I saw that for him this was an “it’s worth it” moment. Caio not only climbed his first 12a, but he was also back in school with discipline, direction and the confidence to match his success.

After hanging out with the kids for a few days we felt like the trust between us was growing and we wanted to do something special with them. This meant climbing the Sugar Loaf. The Sugar Loaf is the most famous piece of rock in Rio and boasts some great multipitch granite slab climbing. Brittany and I teamed up with my (hopefully secret) favourite kid: Mateus. Mateus wasn’t my favourite because of any climbing prowess, but because of his charm and contagious laugh (not to mention he’d also saved my life from the gangsters when I forgot we weren’t supposed to get our phones out to take photos).


I felt as lucky as ever starting up on the Sugar Loaf with Brittany and Mateus as my team even with the jungle mosquitoes chasing me up the wall. They both followed simultaneously and a lot of the way Brittany climbed alongside Mateus, helping him as she went.

“Remember to look down at your feet more than you look up,” she’d tell him patiently. The route was only graded around 5.9 but it was technical thin granite slab climbing—a style in which power won’t get you anywhere. For someone who was scared of heights, Mateus was doing extremely well.

The statue Christ the Redeemer statue looks right at the Sugar Loaf, making the view from the climb even more “Rio”. Of all the monuments I’ve seen, Christ Redeemer has to be one of the most moving (and I’m not even religious). There is just something about the way he’s perched up there above the city watching, as if judging all that happens below him. I gestured to the statue and asked Mateus in broken Spanish/English/hand-gestures whether he believed in Dios (God). He said yes and returned the question. I said no. We then began a rather philosophical conversation about what/who God is and Mateus talked about the energy of all living things. High up on that route watching the sparkling life of Rio bursting from the seams, I knew what Mateus meant.  

When Mateus got to the top I gave him a hug and I could feel his heart hammering in his chest. I was conscious that actually this had been a huge experience for him and despite the calm outer shell it had been a struggle. I expect these kids have learned from a young age how to be calm despite inner struggle and with Andrew as their guide I’m confident they will be excellent climbers. It was then that I found out this was only Mateus’ fourth month climbing and I couldn’t for the life of me understand how he’d got so good so fast. But our visit to Rio and CEU wasn’t about climbing ability and grades. It was about seeing these kids flourish as people under the guidance of climbing. Climbing puts you there, into all those places that are uncomfortable and it asks you to respond, not react. It asks you to love it, not fight it. It asks you to listen to your intuition, not your ego. These kids were learning as fast as they could that climbing pays you back. If you go to those places that scare you, if you listen to climbing and allow yourself to be guided by it, it will repay you. Climbing opens doors, gives you friends, sends you across continents, through barriers, over obstacles and if you allow it to; you can learn almost everything you need to know from climbing. Most importantly it shows you yourself. Climbing gives you a mirror, and if you keep looking at it, you won’t see the same person twice.


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