Feb 2007 – Lebanon: Playground of the Middle East
That is usually the response I get when I tell people about my ski weekend in Lebanon. Yes, Lebanon is in the Middle East, but the fact is that it is a mountainous country that boasts a couple of world-class ski areas that will entertain even the most experienced skiers. Mzaar (ex Faraya-Mzaar) is the gem of the burgeoning Lebanese ski area, with the most lifts and best terrain. While not the equivalent of most areas you will find in the US or Europe, Mzaar still has a unique feel that will impress even the most hardened skier.
Mzaar is just a 1-hour drive from Beirut, making it a perfectly reasonable day trip if you have a car, and it is its location that makes it so spectacular. In late January in Beirut it is perfectly possible to be walking on the coast of the Mediterranean in a T-shirt, but just 1 hour and almost 3,000 meters later, you are on a snow-covered peak that looks like it belongs more in Switzerland than Lebanon.
If you are like me, you most likely didn’t come to Lebanon with the specific idea of going for a ski and thus did not bring your own equipment. This is nothing to worry about, however, because the Lebanese realize that most people don’t come to Lebanon to ski and therefore they make the rental of all necessary ski equipment not only possible but extremely easy. Along the road to Faraya you will come across numerous ski shops where you can not only rent skis, boots, and poles, but snow pants, jackets, helmets, goggles, hats, and gloves as well. Surprisingly, the quality of the equipment is quite good. Unsurprisingly, the shops farthest from the mountain may offer the best prices, but you may end up on 5- to 6-year-old skis. My suggestion is that you just rent from the rental shop at the base lodge of the Mzaar Mountain. It may be the most expensive place around, but their equipment and selection is the best, plus it is the most convenient. Even though their prices may be the highest, they are nothing compared with what you will find in the US or Europe. You can rent a whole ski outfit (skis, boots, poles, gloves, pants, jacket, and goggles) for just $20/day.
Once you have obtained all your equipment, an access pass to the four peaks of Mzaar will cost you $25, still making it cheaper than a day out at most resorts in the US or Europe. The mountain itself is one unlike any others I have skied before. Although the mountain itself is almost 3,000 meters tall, snow only falls on the top 800 meters, meaning that the actual vertical ski terrain is not comparable to the US, but what it lacks in height, it makes up for in area with 12 full lifts. There are also no trees on top of the mountain and no real marked runs, which means that you are free to ski where you want, and if you are an advanced skier like I am, you may find yourself doing a bit of hiking off trail to get to the real steep and challenging runs. The snow is not the sort of powder that you will find in Utah or Colorado, rather it is more similar to the kind of finely packed snow you will find in the mountains of Vermont, making the skiing in Lebanon perfect for lovers of technical skiing.
It is obvious that the mountain is more tailored to beginners, and beginners or intermediate skiers will find the mountains highly entertaining, but for the advanced skier, there may be some effort involved. Still, though, I consider myself a very advanced skier and I was able to find things that challenged me a bit, I just had to search for them. Because this is Lebanon, the skiing is not nearly as regulated as in the US or Europe – you are basically free to do what you want. Thus, I found some of the best trails on the mountain just by taking a brief hike to various precipices scattered on the mountain that would satisfy my lust for verticality and speed.
While the skiing itself overall is not on par with anything I have skied in Europe or the US, there is one thing that will make Mzaar stand out over all other mountains in my mind and that is the views. From the top of how many other mountains in the world can you stare down at the Mediterranean Sea? The fact that you can stand there in the biting wind on the highest peak of Mzaar, hiding from the cold in your winter jacket and peer down at the Beirut Peninsula jutting out majestically into the Mediterranean, makes Mzaar a ski experience unlike any other and a must for a ski bums who happen to pass through Lebanon. Plus, you get to go home and tell all your friends at home how you went skiing in Lebanon and dispel all their beliefs about the Middle East being a barren desert.