Inspiring Stories:
Beat The NGO Founder

This interview with Beat from Switzerland is part a series on real people living nomadic, semi-nomadic and  location-independent lifestyles. Escaping a career in banking, he went on a long trip through South America and Africa. There he was deeply affected by the poverty and misery he encountered. He took the decision to act. Beat founded the NGO ClimbAID to reconcile in a sustainable way his passion for travel and climbing with his drive to give back.

FF: Tell us a little about yourself.

Beat: I originally did an apprenticeship as a banking clerk. I didn’t really like it but I kept working in finance. It paid for my sociology degree at the University of Zurich. After graduation, I was already 30. I didn’t like the idea of an unpaid job as a sociology intern. So I worked for 3 more years in business development at Deutsche Bank.

FF: At some point you had enough. Why?

Beat: A job like that takes more than 100% of your energy. You have to know why you do something that intense. It doesn’t make sense to only do it for money. So I quit. And I went traveling.

FF: Where did you go?

Beat: I bought a ticket to Buenos Aires, took a week of Spanish classes and went straight down to Patagonia. I had already booked something like 10 flights because I also wanted to go to India and Nepal. But I ended up missing all those flights. I stayed in the South of Argentina and Chile, climbing all the time. After South America I went to Mexico, and then Ethiopia.

FF: You enjoyed your trip, yet you felt something wasn’t right?

Beat: While traveling, I realized more and more that I was living in a bubble. As someone who likes the outdoors, you are connecting with nature. But not really with local people. Neither are you contributing much. You spend all your money on flights, transportation, gear. But very little on site.

beat baggenstos climbaid
Photo: Marie-Raphaëlle LeBlond

FF: What affected you the most?

Beat: Take touristic places in South America. They’re nice and clean. Go to the backside and you get robbed. You can be in a very protected place, but all around there is a lot of hardship and crime. In Ethiopia it was even worse. The contrast between being a white tourist and the poverty was too strong to ignore.

FF: When did you decide to act?

Beat: In Ethiopia I asked myself, what do I want to do in the future? I thought that I would love to do some humanitarian projects and keep climbing. So I decided to volunteer instead of continuing my travels. By chance I found an organization in Lebanon and started working with them. I kept climbing on the weekends and started looking into ideas that combine climbing and humanitarian aid.

FF: In Lebanon, your NGO ClimbAID promotes the psychological, social and physical development of vulnerable youth in the Beqaa valley through climbing. And perhaps even more importantly the peaceful co-existence of the different communities of the area. Back in Switzerland, ClimbAID fosters the development and integration of young refugees. How did it all start?

Beat: It was a process. First, there was the idea of the project, not the organization. Then came the need for a structure, an entity, a logo and so on. I went back to Switzerland and founded the association.

FF: But you had a hard time in the beginning?

Beat: I started to contact potential sponsors. I thought it would be super easy to get support from the big brands. I was convinced this was the best idea ever! I got some positive feedback, but no money. Foundations are even more difficult. They want a lot of paperwork documenting all aspects of your activities. In the end I focused on corporate sponsors and individuals. Companies want visibility, images. People want to feel involved, that they have an impact.

FF: What helped you turn the tide?

Beat: When I realized the project might stall, I contacted the local climbing gym where we did the first climbing sessions for young refugees. Like that we were able to build a base in Switzerland. That was the most important turning point. I suddenly went from being alone to having around 20 people helping. For a project like this you need help. You also will get disappointed by some, it’s unavoidable. You need to accept it. Don’t give up and focus on the people who are truly supporting you.

FF: You also rely on help in Lebanon?

Beat: You need to know the environment you are working in. Having local partner organizations and individuals is important for such a small organization. Without them issues like storage space, car registration, bank accounts and other logistical problems become huge obstacles.

climbaid lebanon beqaa beat baggenstos
ClimbAIDs Rolling Rock in action in the Beqaa valley, Lebanon

FF: How do you pay your bills?

Beat: At the very beginning I was mainly relying on my savings. Currently ClimbAID covers my expenses when I’m in Lebanon. I work the rest of the year in an outdoor shop back in Switzerland. I expect ClimbAID to eventually pay me a modest salary.

FF: What are your future plans?

Beat: Hard to say. I will see how far I can take ClimbAID. The first two years very extremely unstable. The future of the project in Lebanon was uncertain. And so was my existence! Now it’s slowly getting better. I want to work towards making the projects more sustainable. And from there, also make my lifestyle more sustainable. And even start new projects.

FF: New projects?

Beat: People all around the world are now asking if we could start one in their country. The last request I heard was from Bangladesh. We need to find a way to replicate what we are doing in Switzerland and Lebanon. Let’s see what’s possible!

FF: What makes you so confident?

Beat: There is a good reason why this project works. You look at climbing. It’s a fairly egoistic leisure pursuit by nature. But I think it’s time to give something back. There is a lot of compassion in the climbing community, but a lack of opportunity. We hope to address that.

FF: Thanks a lot for your inspiring story, Beat!

If you want to read more about the ClimbAID project, check out their website!