Jan 2002 – A Memorable Journey by Marc Harik
“Early in the morning, before sunrise, three fishermen set off for the peak of Mount Hermon with their Master. Peter was the most talkative, but James was quiet and John, his brother, was listening carefully […] The four men continued their journey up to the peak of Mount Hermon. As they reached the top, the view below them was wonderful; they saw the island of Cyprus in the Mediterranean on the horizon. Mount Carmel and the bay of Akka started to appear through the fog, and they could see the mountains of Ebal and Gerizim (Deut 11:29) and the temple of Jerusalem, the deep valleys of the rivers of Yarmouk and Jabbout (Gen 32:22). The hills of Amman and the city of Damascus in the oasis of Barada surrounded by the desert […] The Almighty had spoken. No one could do anything against God’s inspiration. There on Mount Hermon He made one of the most significant announcements in the history of humanity. Heaven had been truly opened on Mount Hermon.”
Selected citations from the Holy Bible. Evangelists Mark and Matthew, Luke the Greek physician and Saint Peter.
Saturday January 12th, 2002, at 11:00am, we arrive to the village square of Rachaya El-Wadi. Philippe was driving; Catherine and I were sinking in the Polo’s seats, covered with our equipment, backpacks, and sleeping bags. In between the crowd of villagers, we recognized Mahdi El-Fayek, a local shepherd, who offered to accommodate us in a small room in the Faqaa Valley, at the foot of Mount Hermon. Everybody in the village square was staring at us. They were puzzled to see three strangers in ‘funny’ clothes, just standing there, waving their hands towards the mountain. Some of them were even astonished by the long plates and poles attached on the roof of the car: they had never seen skis before.
Minutes later, we were on the road again, crossing the busy village of Rachaya, with Mahdi guiding us. Everything was buried under a meter of snow fallen the week before. The picturesque setting was beyond description. We felt transported in time, looking at those villagers still living in the nineteenth century. We then took a narrow sinuous road following the contour lines of the valley’s side in direction of the Faqaa farms. It took us more than an hour to cross the six kilometers to our destination, following an old Civil Defense truck opening the way in front of us.
Around 1:00pm, we were standing in front of a small structure that resembled to a room. It was a small white cube with blue windows. It consisted of a 3×3 meters room, with a big wood furnace in the middle. A small kitchen and bathroom were annexed to the squarish space. The interior was very simple, three old sofas and a small closet were lined up on the walls. Outside, it was all white. A few dogs were wandering around, smelling our gear and stuff.
Half an hour later, we were all equipped and ready to start a small reconnaissance hike. We were at 1100 meters altitude, and if we wanted to make it to the summit on the next day, we would have to leave before sunrise. Hence, we needed to mark a trail for us to follow on the next morning. We started walking, with our skis tracing two parallel lines in the more or less heavy snow. We made sure we followed the same track for it to be well defined and visible the next morning, in the darkness. After crossing successive flat fields, scattered with olive trees, we started climbing upwards. An hour later, we were at 1500 meters altitude, overlooking the Faqaa farms and the Jabal El-Gharbi. The view was wonderful; all we could see was dipped in a thick white cover. After a small break, we started the descent and fifteen minutes later, we were at the point from where we started; it was a good exercise.
As we approached Mahdi’s room, we were surprised to see a bunch of cars and more than twenty villagers waiting for us. One of them was even video taping our arrival. We felt as if half the village was there to cheer the heroes who will attempt the unthinkable: Hike Mount Hermon in winter with more than five meters of snow covering its valleys. We were welcomed by the mayor of the village, and were taken to our room, where a huge feast awaited us. The children gathered around us and stared at that equipment they have never seen before. We talked, ate and discussed about the possibilities of turning someday Mount Hermon into a ski destination. It was just the best meal I had in years; the people of Rachaya are so hospitable and warmhearted. Around 6:00pm, and before the roads started to freeze, everybody left, and we started preparing ourselves to go to bed. At 8:00pm, we were all snoring.
All through the night, we were awakened many times by the sound of hyenas and dogs. Mount Hermon is still probably, the biggest wild and natural area in Lebanon. Wolves, hyenas, and wild boars still wander the area freely. Towards dawn, a deep silence reigned over the valley. It was shattered by the beep of our alarm watches. It was 4:00am, time to wake up.
We started preparing ourselves, packing food and water and the precious Red Bulls; wearing many layers of sweaters for it was freezing cold outside. At 5:30am, we were all set and ready to go. With enthusiasm, we started the hike, following yesterday’s traces lit by our headlights; three tiny light dots, in the immenseness of the Faqaa Valley. We really felt small in the darkness around us.
Foot by foot, we pushed the skis forward, with the seal skins more or less biting on the frozen snow. At this point, the most important thing is to engage in a stable rhythm which is made easier in the dark. In fact, you can only see your skis, what makes concentrating on the pace less difficult. We stopped for small breaks at regular intervals, otherwise, the more you break off and the more you’ll want to take additional time outs. We carried on, rising through the long corridor with the sun slowly rising from behind the mountain. The summits of the Western mountain range were already drenched with sunrays and were glowing in their golden tint. The Beqaa Valley, in the shadow of the mountains, was still sleeping in the morning mist. What a wonderful feeling, being suspended between two worlds, so close, yet so different.
We continued our journey towards the summit of Mount Hermon. The higher we went, the more we needed to take breaks and the more the breaks became unbearable due to the freezing wind. In fact, we could not stop for more than five minutes at a time; otherwise, the wind-chill would freeze us to death. At 2700 meters altitude, we were at the limit. Exhausted, both mind and body! We gather our remaining energy to make the final summit push. There, we faced a choice between a shorter route, crossing a landmine field, and a longer one going around it. Confident of the three meters thick snow cover, we crossed the field, adding some thrill to our ascent of the Great Hermon.
And here it was, the UNDOF Observation Station , re-sculpted by wind and ice, waiting to receive us in the warmth of the Austrian Battalion stationed there, to watch the war going on in the region. We met some of the officers living up there. We chatted a bit, ate and rested: the six hours journey was finally over, and a wonderful descent was waiting for us.
The view from up there was unbelievable. Everything was white; for a second, we thought we were in the North Pole. From Damascus to the Golan Heights, and from the Cedars and the North Beqaa to the South passing by the Karaon Lake, everything shined under the thick snow cover. After enjoying the exceptional 360 degrees panoramic view and taking some pictures, we prepared ourselves to start the descent. We removed skins and adaptors, tightened our boots, and plunged into the run of a lifetime.
The never ending valleys were covered by a thick cover of fresh snow. Although the surface was a bit hard, it broke under the weight of our skis, revealing an exquisitely soft powder. For more than an hour, we traced the mountain with three crisscrossed outlines; more than 1700 meters of vertical drop that could be summed up by one word: Exhilarating!
Many would call ski-mountaineering an irrational activity that borders on madness: Climbing for six hours and facing huge risks to ski down one run! I would say no sport on Earth gives so much emotions and extraordinary feelings. The sense of freedom that one experiences in the mountain instills a greater awareness of himself.
We weigh risks daily. Some are worth taking, others are not. Still, the risk of not living one’s dreams seems far more frightening than falling seracs or howling winds […] dreams, passions, the desire for adventures pull me around the globe and govern my life.” Kasha Rigby.
Skiers: Catherine Perret, Philippe Perret, Marc Harik
Photos: Philippe Perret
Accommodation: Mahdi El-Fayek (03-963378)
Many thanks for Mahdi El-Fayek and the people of Rachaya El-Wadi for their precious help and hospitality.