Israel's Climbing Uprising

A growing climbing community with relentless psych strives for legitimacy
Avatar:
Author:
Publish date:
Social count:
677
A growing climbing community with relentless psych strives for legitimacy

Read about more international climbing destinations in our November Adventure Travel issue, available now.

Israel Uprising Cover Burr

Inbal Katznelson cuts loose on Alibaba (7b+/5.12c), Fuel Sector, Gita Cliffs, Israel. Photo: Andrew Burr

The sun set about an hour ago. We’re bouldering in the crosshatched headlights of a few cars, laughing, snapping photos, and drinking bombers of Goldstar lager. Trying to eke just a little bit more fun out of our first day of climbing, we’re immersed in a laid-back end-of-day scene at Timna, a small-ish sandstone crag in southern Israel. Right when I think that life couldn’t get any better, I hear a rumble in the distance.

A plume of dust rises over the small hogbacks. A pickup truck is speeding toward us. Fast. The truck’s suspension vibrates and bottoms out; I can hear it rattling from a few hundred yards away. When the compact blue 4x4 reaches us, it skids to a halt, and the driver throws the door open. He has curly black hair in a ponytail, dark beard stubble, and an expression that’s unmistakably pissed off. (If you sacrificed a portion of your life to the show “Lost,” this guy looks just like Sayid.) He yells and gestures wildly at the group. Photographer Andrew Burr and I grab our beers and sidestep into the shadows. We have no idea what’s going on. Udi Grinberg, one of the local climbers who has developed several routes in Timna, yells back vehemently in Hebrew, pumping his fists in the air. 

Israel Uprising Flag Burr

A tattered Israeli flag. Photo: Andrew Burr

If I were witnessing an argument this heated in the U.S., I’d guess the next step would be someone getting punched in the face. Perhaps worse. Others in our group chime in just as forcefully, and it goes back and forth like this for several minutes before ponytail man finally shakes his head in disgust, gets back in his truck, and drives away.

“What the fuck was that about?” I ask, stepping back into the light.

“That was the park ranger,” says Inbal Katznelson, one of the country’s top female climbers, with a sigh. “He says we’re not supposed to climb after sunset.”

“That’s it?!” I ask. “No climbing after dark? That’s an actual rule? What is this, summer camp?” Based on the exchange I witnessed, I thought our moms were going to see us get our heads chopped off on CNN.

“Welcome to Israel,” says Inbal, “where no one understands climbers, especially park rangers. It’s a common pain the ass.”

“I told his excellency we’d finish up soon,” says Udi. “And then I’d be spooning with him in his bed tonight! Anyway, we should go.”

Israel Uprising Night Bouldering

Bouldering by headlamp at Timna. Photo: Andrew Burr

I’ve come to Israel to tour the country’s crags with the president of the Israel Climbers’ Club and coauthor of the first guidebook to climbing that Israel has ever had. Nimrod Nachmias started climbing in 2001. By 2004, he realized the country’s crags needed a guidebook. He thought it would help new climbers get the lay of the land while gelling the burgeoning locals into an actual climbing community. Soon he realized the breadth of such a massive undertaking, especially in a country like Israel. The climbing areas are super varied, and new development or changes in regulations would render his work outdated very quickly, requiring him to revisit a crag multiple times. Then he started a family and an industrial design business, which ground his guidebook progress to a halt. Until 2007, when he met Ran Shadmi, another local climber interested in better beta, who offered to help. The duo finished the book in 2015.

“Ran and I pushed each other slowly to the finish line—print day—which was very rewarding and exciting. We have such love and respect for the local crags and climbing community here,” says Nimrod. “We’ve both climbed all around the world, seen amazing crags, and sometimes had to come and map a tiny, almost funny wall in Israel so our work would be comprehensive. Though there is something more to it when it’s your local, ‘backyard’ climbing area. You respect it.”

Nimrod, an avid Climbing reader, sent me an email in early 2015 about his book’s release, and we began corresponding. To me, his book represented a major foothold in a developing climbing scene, and several months later, a trip was in motion.

Israel Uprising Food Burr

Celebrating with fresh fruit and bad wine back at camp after a day of climbing. Photo: Andrew Burr

My first question for Nimrod when we arrive at the Tel Aviv airport is, “So, how do you pronounce your name?” I mean, Nimrod is a funny name, right? Burr and I are obviously jerks because we’d been giggling about it for months during our planning that a “nimrod” would be taking us around Israel.

Nimrod (“Neem-rode”), who was vaguely aware of his name’s slang English meaning, chuckled, told me of its holy roots (Nimrod was the great grandson of Noah), and to just call him “Nimmy.” He warned us of our packed itinerary.

“We’re going to kick your asses, man!” he says, smiling widely.

Our seven-day schedule would take us to darn near every corner of the New Jersey–size country, from the far southern sliver between Egypt and Jordan to the northeast wedge bordering Lebanon and Syria. We’d hit the ground running in the south end of the country and not stop until we boarded our Turkish Airlines flight home.

Timna

Israel Uprising Sport Burr

Udi Grinberg tests his crack technique on Metamorphosis (7b/5.12b), Prisms Area, Timna. Photo: Andrew Burr

After the ranger confrontation, we pack up the crashpads and drive to where we’ll be camping, a stone-walled and thatched-roof building in Timna’s campground. No reason to lure the angry ponytail back or get ourselves kicked out of the park. This sandstone cliff-and-pillar area is reminiscent of southern Utah, but smaller, more Dr. Seussian, and more spread out. Unlike southern Utah, most of the routes are bolted.

Human activity here dates back 6,000 years, and the area is supposedly home to the world’s first copper mine. For climbers, though, Timna’s history dates back to 2006 when the park’s manager at the time decided he’d be willing to explore developing the park as a climbing destination, and he allowed a few climbers to put up routes. The sandstone was also an ideal location for the Israel Climbers’ Club to experiment with glue-in bolts.

Today, there are 25 sport routes, 11 trad lines, and approximately 60 boulder problems. Not a lifetime’s worth of climbing to be sure, but perfect for a few road trips. A couple years ago, there was a changing of the guard, and the park’s new administration isn’t as open-minded about development. They forbid further bolting. Climbing is not even listed as an activity on the park’s website, but it should be. There’s camping, hiking, mountain biking, pedal boating the manmade lake, and—most ironically—guided night tours. While writing this story, I contacted the park service several times to ask them about their point of view and plans for rock climbing, but in typical bureaucratic fashion, I got bounced around endlessly, and as my deadline loomed, I still had no official statement from the parks regarding rock climbing in Israel. My take is that they allow climbing in some spots but not others, and that can change without much warning or logic. It is not a total ban on climbing—you can still climb here, but there are walls with a ton of potential that cannot be developed and a lot of silly rules.

The climbing in Timna is good—we climb grainy flakes, pockets, and cracks in the excellent Prisms area and techy slab in the Cave sector—and the surrounding windswept geography makes you feel like you’re out on the edge of the planet. The capacity for more amazing lines, while certainly not infinite, is clearly huge, particularly for bouldering. Nimmy says that a lot of stuff that looks good from afar is choss, but the bouldering is nearly endless. In his book, he calls it “one of the most exceptional climbing sites in Israel today. It will surely leave a mark on you—both with good climbing memories and raw skin!”

Israel Uprising Timna Sport

Ayelet Klein finds her footing on Leaning Boulder (7b/5.12b) at Timna. Photo: Andrew Burr

At camp, we light the Hanukiah (it’s the fifth day of Hanukkah), feast on roasted cauliflower with tahini and grilled meats, and crack into some of the worst wine I’ve ever had.

“If you haven’t noticed, this isn’t France,” says Rony Olivia, a school teacher and fun-loving climber’s climber who often jokes about loving pizza as much as climbing.

“Well, fuck France anyway!” I say as we toast. “So, aside from the wine, what’s the best thing about being a climber in Israel?”

“Year-round climbing” is the most common answer. The climate is mainly arid, and lows in the winter hover around 50°F to 60°F. Summer can get stifling, but there is enough variety that you could easily drive a couple hours to escape the heat at a higher elevation or in the shade.

But my favorite answer comes from Inbal: “The outdoor climbers are like one big family. Well, maybe not that big. You know every face at the crag, and when someone clips the chains on his project, within days everybody will know about it, even without media coverage. There is also a lack of ego and the extra-competitive vibe you see from many visiting climbers. It’s pretty calm and supportive. We like sharing beta, coffee, and belayers.”

This is a quality that I can feel even after one day of climbing with this crew. I’ve been lucky enough to travel to all 50 states and more than a dozen countries to climb or adventure, and this easy and warm environment is unrivaled.

The World's Lowest Route and a Call to Prayer

Israel Uprising City Burr

Dome of the Rock inside the Old City of Jerusalem. Photo: Andrew Burr

We look at the map, eyeballing tomorrow’s long drive from Timna to Jerusalem, which passes the Dead Sea. This gives Burr an idea: “Is there any climbing nearby? Those’d be the lowest elevation rock routes in the world, right? That’s a cool tick!”

With that, we plan to hit Tmarim, a nondescript creekbed leading to a cliff we finally reach at dusk. We speed-hike past boulders—the main destination for most climbers visiting this area—to reach the Waterfall Area, a collection of a little more than half a dozen trad and sport routes on rock that after a good rain is hidden beneath a waterfall. We set up on the lowest route, an unnamed 5+ (about 5.9, Israel uses the French grading system) sport route covered in powder-fine dust, probably because it gets climbed next to never. We each enjoy a casual send at more than 1,000 feet below sea level. Suck it, Everest. Afterward we amble back to Turkish coffee, bread, and a campfire by the roadside.

Israel Uprising Sea Burr

The author enjoys a Dead Sea tradition. Photo: Andrew Burr

The next day we wake up to rain in Jerusalem, so we alter plans to do tourist stuff. We beeline to buy a newspaper and float in the Dead Sea (this is apparently a thing, to float in the Dead Sea upright enough to read the paper). It’s overcast and windy, and we are the only idiots on the beach, right next to “the lowest bar in the world,” which is not far from what appear to be barracks with bullet holes in the walls. We strip down to our skivvies, and Nimmy shakes his head, bemused. We snap touristy pics and head back to Jerusalem to meet up with Gili Tenne, Inna Bakutin, and Valeri Kremer, local climbers who have planned to meet us, to wander Old City, the location of some of the most holy sites in the world.

We visit the Western Wall, the Temple Mount, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. I’ve never seen people having such serious, rapt religious experiences. I’ve also never seen more guns. There are multiple security checkpoints as well as police and military, all carrying machine guns. I mention this to Inna.

“Oh, is that scary?” she asks, somewhat surprised. “When we see guns we know we are safe.” What a mindfuck. When I see lots of guns, I change the channel. We Americans love our guns, but for the most part, we don’t have a multitude of weapons like this out in public view. But there had been a recent string of stabbings in Old City (yes, stabbings: Muslim on Jew with subsequent Jew on Muslim retaliation), and there was increased military presence. Regardless of one’s perceptions of guns or religious persuasion, it was a tense atmosphere. For me, a resident of the happy, homogenized Boulder Bubble, but also for my Jewish companions. Initially they were going to exit when Burr and I decided to enter the Muslim quarter to view the Temple Mount, but then they realized they may never be safer than with two white Americans and joined us for a hurried walk-through.

Israel Uprising Local House

"Guns equal safety," according to Israelis. Photo: Andrew Burr

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and his empty tomb (whoa!). Outside the main entrance, I sat in somewhat of a daze. I was raised going to church every Sunday for my entire childhood, and watching other travelers make their pilgrimage while shedding tears was moving. If you believed with all your heart that a great holy man experienced terrible pain and death itself so that you would never have to, and you could touch the very rock he died upon or light a candle outside his tomb, wouldn’t that be one of the most amazing moments of your life?

But it wasn’t for me. I feel more moved and connected to the universe in the mountains. Gazing at the toothy arc of the Cirque of the Towers from camp or touching the summit of the Matterhorn are sacred experiences to me, and surrounded by all of this dogma and devotion, I find myself fixating on how my own idea of what is holy fits into the grand scheme of things.

Nimmy breaks the spell when he points out the music from the loudspeakers. “Right now, Shannon, we are in a Jewish City, sitting outside a Christian church, listening to a Muslim call to prayer.”

I shake my head and ask, “How could this tiny piece of real estate be the most holy place for so many religions? And if we can all love these inanimate things so much, why can’t we love each other?”

“You mean the Muslims haven’t figured that out yet?” Nimmy jokes.

“Ha, yeah, I know as much about what Muslims have figured out as I do about what Christians have figured out. What I do know is that climbing is the ultimate escape here. I think being a climber in Israel is more important than being a climber elsewhere,” I say. It’s a wild and important act that equalizes religion and race.

Israel Uprising Wailing Wall

The Western Wall, also called the Wailing Wall as a reference to Jews weeping at the site over destroyed temples. Photo: Andrew Burr

We continue on the topic of finite, highly prized land that evening over hummus and beer. “Israel, being a very small and packed country, makes everything very precious. Every single spot is under someone’s authority, making access issues almost neverending,” says Nimmy. “In fact, all of the big and high-quality cliffs we have are designated within nature reserve areas. As far as the National Park Authority is concerned, any activity which is done off designated and marked walking trails is damaging to nature. Responsibility for the safety of the visitors and other legal and insurance matters don’t make the situation any easier for us outdoor people asking to enjoy nature. On top of that, recreational outdoor activity—and really any spare-time activity—is a pretty new idea in Israel.

“I want to be optimistic and think that this complex issue is based on old thinking and that time will do its thing, that the authorities will have no option but to catch up and give us some slack. With climbing becoming an Olympic sport now, maybe we’ll be considered more legit.”

“That’s almost a Valley Uprising–type battle,” I say.

“There are lots of similarities here to all that Yosemite shit,” Nimmy says.

“We must be able to develop routes,” Gili Tenne chimes in. Gili is a prolific developer and total soul climber (and he recently took over as president of the climbing club). He tells me a story of a climber who spent four years working to redpoint a 7c (5.12d) that Gili had bolted. “This is why we must be able to develop, because a route can become someone’s dream and change their life.”

Nezer Cave

Israel Uprising Inbal Burr

Inbal Katznelson enjoys the steep Madness (8b/5.13d) in the Nezer Cave. Photo: Andrew Burr

Northern Israel is a dreamy landscape with rugged rolling hills covered in small evergreens. It also has the hardest climbing in the country in the subterranean Nezer Cave. Its climbing potential wasn’t realized until 2005, but it was kept secret from authorities for years, until efforts from pioneering locals and the Israel Climbers’ Club managed to get access approval in 2012. The country’s first 8a/5.13b, Blue Bear, and 8c/5.14b, Matrix, are here, and both received first ascents by Ofer Blutrich, Israel’s best rock climber. Alex Honnold once visited Israel after climbing in Jordan and spent two weeks climbing at Nezer before moving on to Ein Fara. Nezer regulars are very proud of this fact.

From the approach, we can’t see much other than the Lebanon border. Eventually, the tops of fig trees come into view at eye level. These trees are growing from within the cave; we angle toward them to make our way down into the dark, dusty hole.

The 30 routes here are long, sequencey, and severely overhanging. I can barely hang on to one of the 6b/5.10c warm-ups, but Inbal unlocks Madness (8b/5.13d) with grace. And Ofer dances up everything in sight. He is one of the main developers at Nezer and has more first ascents here than anyone. He’s also got some big sponsors (Black Diamond, Boreal) and huge aspirations (become the first Israeli to climb 9a/5.14d), and he feels that the park authorities’ illogical stance is holding back his progression. Why should an Israeli climber have to travel to Spain when there are harder routes waiting to be realized right here?

“I want to show the government the financial benefits of climbers coming here [instead of climbing elsewhere],” says Ofer. “Look at Kalymnos. The Greece economy is in bad shape but because of climbing, Kalymnos is still a top tourist destination. Raising the international climbing community’s awareness of Israel should be a good step.”

Gita

The next day, we visit the birthplace of Israeli sport climbing.

“I have special feelings for Gita,” says Inbal. “It offers a variety of styles and grades from long aesthetic 5c’s (5.9) to bouldery and steep 7c-/8a+ (5.12d/5.13c). The Fuel Sector holds some of the most classic routes in the country.”

I can tell she’s at home on this well-featured limestone as she flows up Caffeine (8a/5.13b). Gita, unlike most climbing areas in the country, has been exhausted. Just about everything that could be developed has been. Its 100-plus routes were mostly developed in the early 2000s, but the park authority here only allows climbing in the West sector, not the East (which has more routes). At least officially. People do climb in both sectors, risking the rare fine. We hear the story of how a massive rockfall, really just one van-size rock, broke off and squashed a cow. You can still see leg bones sticking out from under it. And the area was closed for some time because it was deemed unsafe.

Gita would be a popular crag anywhere in America for the good assortment of moderates, valley views, relatively easy approach, and selection of routes to progress through. It’s here that I lead my first 6a/5.10a nearly six months after shoulder surgery. The line may not have looked amazing (tufts of grass grow on parts of it), but it felt great to be back on the sharp end.

Ein Fara

Israel Uprising Desert Burr

Gili Tenne climbs Adi’s Doctorate (6c+/5.11c), the Ventilator Sector in Ein Fara. Photo: Andrew Burr

We save the best for last. In terms of beauty, rock quality, and selection of routes, Ein Fara (also called Ein-Prat) stands alone. There are more than 100 routes, ranging from 5 to 8c (the majority are 6a to 7a). Balancey limestone face climbing with delicate footwork, high-friction crimps, and tiny pockets are the name of the game. You might find a jug or tufa here and there, too. And, though it’s minutes from Jerusalem, just getting here is an adventure.

First, a checkpoint manned by guards with automatic weapons, as we cross into the West Bank. Then a second, though much less intimidating, armed checkpoint to cross into Anatot, an Israeli community inside the West Bank, and finally a third armed checkpoint to enter the park itself. With that many guns, it must be really safe to climb here.

The canyon has a clear stream flowing through it, a peaceful feeling, and a colorful history. One wall, now known as the Monk sector, literally had a monk living in a cave there until 2005. Climbers say he’d invite them to tea sometimes.

Israel Uprising Barbed Wire

Fortification at the Ein Fara crag. Photo: Andrew Burr

Ein Fara is where we climbed and laughed our asses off with full abandon. If Ein Fara were in the U.S., it’d be destination climbing with good rock quality and supremely fun climbing. Below the canyon rim, it’s just sport cragging, friends, and nature. No checkpoints, no racism, no religious tension, no disputes ancient or otherwise, simply climbers supporting each other as they shed the stress of modern life and try to climb a little harder than they did the day before.

The night before our flight back to the states, we have a big dinner at Giddy Hollander’s house. He’s a wealthy Israeli climber who started climbing in the 1980s and still pulls down pretty hard. He and Nimmy suggest that a magazine story about all the banned climbing in Israel would be much longer than the story I’ve come to report. They are laughing, but not joking.

If the National Park Authority granted Israeli climbers access and allowed them to develop routes, Nimmy estimates that Ein Fara alone, already their biggest and best crag, would quadruple in size, readily putting it on the map as one of the world’s great sport crags.

But don’t wait for that to happen. Think of how crags with access issues open up in the U.S. Often it’s money—buying the land will eliminate access issues pretty quickly. But otherwise it’s a combination of a passionate local champion, responsible and ethical development, environmental standards, and a healthy quorum of climbers demonstrating why an area is so special.

And Israel’s crags are so, so special. Go now. The climbing community there deserves an uprising.

Israel Climbing Beta

Getting There and Transportation

Fly to Tel Aviv Ben Gurion International Airport and rent a car to get to remote crags. Luckily, Israel is small. It takes about six hours to cross the country north to south, and 1.5 hours east to west.

When to go

Any time except the hot summer (June to August). February through May features dry, moderate temps, and “most days you can climb shirtless in the shade,” Ofer Blutrich, professional climber and Israeli native, says.

Where to stay

“You can camp outdoors, anywhere near a crag, no problem. Free camping is legal,” Blutrich says. Alternatively, rent a flat (try Airbnb) in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, or Haifi, or stay at a hostel through the Israel Youth Hostel Association. Israeli climbers also love hosting visitors, so contact public Facebook groups (Climbing in Israel, Rock Climbing Israel, etc.) beforehand for a place to crash, a ride, a partner, or just a local guide.

Where to climb

Ein Fara and Gita are the largest and most popular climbing spots. “A beautiful canyon with water springs” 30 minutes outside of Jerusalem, Ein Fara offers “bright, vertical limestone walls, and over 70 very good routes, of all grades,” according to the Israel Climbers’ Club (ICC). It’s perfect for winter climbing. You can swim in the pools, so bring a swimsuit. Ein Fara is in a nature preserve that opens at 8 a.m. and closes at 5 p.m. Must-try routes include: Modern Times (5.10a), Northern Winds (5.11a), and Russian in Space (5.11d). In the north, 40 minutes from Haifa, Gita boasts more than 100 routes from 5.8 to 5.13 split between two areas (Gita East and Gita West). Must-try Gita routes include: Walkabout (5.9), Superfuel (5.11d), and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (5.13c). If you’re a cave lover, Blutrich recommends checking out another northern crag, Nezer Cave, but be ready for steep grades: 5.13s and 5.14s.

What and where to eat

Hummus, falafel, and shawarma are the staples and can be found on every street corner. “Food is amazing in Israel. Everything is really good. It’s a haven for vegans, too,” Blutrich says. He also recommends trying a sweet cheese pastry dessert called kanafeh. In Tel Aviv, the Jaffe area’s flea market has plentiful cafés and pubs. In Jerusalem, visit the lively Machane Yehuda market for hundreds of vendors and restaurants. Remember that there is no public transportation on Saturdays, and stores are also closed for the Sabbath.

Best rest day

“From Ein Fara, a trip to the Dead Sea and Jehuda desert is fun and beautiful, and only an hour away,” Bultrich says. “Close to Gita crags, you can easily visit the Galilee Heights area with its canyons and small villages.” Visit the Mediterranean beaches near Haifa and Tel Aviv, or Haifa’s UNESCO Baha’i gardens and the Old City of Jerusalem. 

Remember to bring

Rain is rare and temperatures are warm year-round, so shorts, flip-flops, and a swimsuit are mandatory.

Insider tips

Israelis are friendly, and most speak English. Never hesitate to say hello or ask for help. Also, they are “very, very direct,” according to Blutrich. “They will ask you personal questions the minute after you meet. This is the norm. You can act the same. “Climbers must respect the fragility of the access situation and act accordingly,” Blutrich says. The Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA) prohibits rock climbing on nature preserves. Most of the country’s climbing is in those areas. As a result, existing crags are either out of the jurisdiction or fly under the radar of the INPA. “Stay cool, be apologetic and go where you want to go (unless very specifically and officially told not to),” the ICC advises. “As a tourist, the worst thing that can happen is that a ranger will ask you to leave.” 

Read about more international climbing destinations in our November Adventure Travel issue, available now.