HUNDREDS of feet above the bustling “favelas” of Rio de Janeiro, a climber carefully pads up a blank sweep of granite, concentrating on the precise placement of hands and feet.
Edinburgh-based airline pilot Stuart Green had climbed many of the rockfaces that surround the Brazilian metropolis, but it was his encounter with US-born climbing instructor Andrew Lenz on the famous Corcovado mountain that changed his perception of the city below and led to him setting up a charity, Urban Uprising, to help children escape the dangers of the streets by learning to climb – a vision that is now set to help children in Scotland too.
“The climbing is stunning and is all over the city but it’s only accessible to a few people. It’s a very underdeveloped sport there,” Green said.
Climbing in Rio is unique: slabs of perfect granite above a colourful setting with the sound of police helicopters and barking dogs punctuating the bustle of the streets. But the act of ascending the rock also involves a journey of personal development.
The children, Green noticed, seemed to walk an inch taller after completing a climb, ensuring they kept away from the temptations of the crime-ridden streets of Rocinha, Rio’s biggest favela.
Rocinha was only “pacified” a little over two years ago when armed police drove out the drug gangs, and the criminals are fighting a constant battle to regain control.
Young teenagers are prime recruiting targets, and rock climbing provided a “hook” to take them away from that world. The backgrounds of the children taking part in the courses are varied, but they all have something to gain from the activity.
“At the end of the session they are almost glowing with pride,” Green says. “A lot don’t get to the top, but we have ways of encouraging them. Sometimes they do, and they have never seen their own city from that angle before.
“It’s an innovative and engaging way of getting these kids into a safe group of friends where they can learn and have good role models.”
The children’s club needed climbing equipment that was readily available in Scotland, so Green started running collection points at climbing walls for donated shoes, helmets and ropes.
Calling on his friends, Green recruited magazine journalist Matt Ray and his cousin Tom Ray, an IT specialist at cloud computing firm Cloudreach, to set up a charity to raise money for the climbing school. They decided on a remit that will allow the set-up to raise money for groups around the world – Edinburgh and London are already in their sights.
Urban Uprising, launched last month, has quickly won support from the Scottish climbing community, as well as gaining corporate backing. Already it is looking beyond its goals in Rocinha to what it can achieve elsewhere, not just using rock climbing but other so-called extreme sports that have the potential to develop young characters.
In Brazil, Urban Uprising is already supporting a teaching programme, providing youngsters with life skills and in some cases encouraging them into work as instructors or guides themselves.