Earlier this year we committed €1 million through our Explore Fund to support the companies, organisations, communities and individuals that make exploration possible. One of those organisations is Urban Uprising, which uses rock climbing as a tool to elevate and inspire disadvantaged young people. To find out more, we sat down with Ben Campbell, programme manager at Urban Uprising.
With the explosion of urban climbing gyms in recent years, climbing – once a sport enjoyed by a select few – has garnered a whole new set of fans. Coupled with the growing development of bouldering – rope- and harness-free climbing – there are now more urban gym-based climbers than ever. And people are finding that climbing is more than just a sport; it’s a way of life.
Climbing teaches us how to work together, to develop trust, to overcome fear. It brings us balance and resilience. It helps us understand when to push and when to back off. It’s for these reasons that Scottish-based non-profit organisation, Urban Uprising, wanted to bring climbing to disadvantaged children and young people.
“Climbing is a tool to develop life skills, things like building confidence, resilience and more obviously physical health, which is tied to mental health,” explains Ben. “I personally feel that climbing is one of the best tools for personal development.”
TASTE. CLIMB. REPEAT.
Through its team of trustees and volunteers it runs three levels of ‘engagement’ through its programmes: Taste, Climb, Repeat.
As the name suggests, Taste, is an introductory taster session to get a feel for what climbing or, more specifically in this case, bouldering actually is.
The next stage is Climb. This is where volunteer instructors work together with young people to put the meat on the bones and nurture a lasting relationship with climbing.
Over the length of the 10-week course, students develop skills and qualities around three different themes: physical, things like stamina, strength and coordination; social, such as trusting and supporting one another, communicating with and having empathy for each other; and personal, where qualities like reflection, resilience, confidence and problem solving begin to emerge.
And finally weekly drop-in Repeat sessions allow a love for climbing to blossom, with participants able to develop physical, social and personal skills in a safe, respectful and fun environment.
“They develop climbing skills – that’s what pulls people in. But it’s not really the most important aspect,” says Ben. “Instead it’s the connecting and the personal development that comes through climbing. One of the most debilitating things in life is the fear of failure. It’s a barrier to so many things. Climbing is all about failure. You are failing more than you’re succeeding, so it teaches how to deal with failure in other aspects of life and that’s a really important part of resilience.”
THE NEW NORMAL
Covid-19 has put this resilience to the test. Never could we have foreseen the extent of its impact across the planet. In the UK, like virtually every other country, lockdowns meant climbing gyms closed and Urban Uprising was no longer able to be the lifeline of positivity to those that had come to rely on it.
It did its best to adapt. Thanks to the internet it was able to keep in touch and continue some forms of training and support with many of its participants. But, due to ever-present inequality, many of the young people Urban Uprising works with had limited or no access to computers or lacked sufficient download data capacity. And, of course, no virtual Zoom calls can ever replace the unique feeling of chalked hands on climbing holds. Without climbing, being isolated from its release, mental and physical health suffered.
The other issue was funding. Coronavirus restrictions crimped the ways Urban Uprising could fundraise. And seeing as this organisation can only run through donations, it faced tough questions about its future.
Through support from the Explore Fund, Urban Uprising was able to get itself back on its feet and ready for the reopening of gyms post-lockdown.
“This funding means we can continue to run our Repeat programme and keep the relationship going between volunteers and young people and continue to build that trust.”
TOGETHER WE’RE BETTER
There is a strong sense of community around climbing. It has this amazing ability to unite because though we are all at different levels, we all face the same challenges. We all feel sweat bead in our palms as we watch someone reach the crux. We all feel the butterflies in our stomachs when someone takes a fall. We all share in the joy when someone tops out on a grade they’ve never succeeded at before. There is a sense of belonging. It’s something that we as human beings don’t just need; we crave.
“A sense of community is something that’s very important for our mental health and it’s one of the fundamental things we all need to feel human. Climbing can set you up on a trajectory that might not have happened without the connection of the climbing community.”
Ben remembers one young participant in particular. Her learning difficulties and anxiety meant that she struggled in social situations. It took her three weeks just to put her hands and feet on the holds. But she persevered. She kept turning up. After 10 weeks she’d graduated to around one metre up the wall. To a casual onlooker, this might look insignificant, but to her it was a huge step. The fear she had to overcome, not just in climbing up a vertical wall without a rope but of interacting with others in the group, is something that all of us can relate to. We’re all been scared at some points in our lives. That one metre, mentally, was massive. And that’s what climbing is about: self-development. Turning up, day after day, with the goal of being better than yesterday, all the while being supported by the greater climbing community.
Moving forward, Urban Uprising hopes to provide support to and collaborate with local climbing groups in Aberdeen, Bristol and Cambridge.
The story of Urban Uprising is one of many. Through the extra Covid-19 funding of the Explore Fund we’ve been able to help more than 20 different organisations and groups that make exploration possible. Here are three more of those stories: