Feb 2000 – Skiing from the Inside.
“Israeli forces have just bombed power stations in Lebanon…are you sure it is safe?” After 17 years of war Lebanon had been experiencing comparative peace and was slowly becoming a tourist destination once more. Or was it? This news was alarming. I was leaving that day for Beirut and a ski tour in the mountains of Lebanon to help Saskia Anley make an ‘ethno-travel documentary’. Any adventure into mountains and away from civilisation involves an element of uncertainty and potential danger. Our combined experience of survival skills did not include entering a potential war zone. An escalation of Israeli-Lebanese hostility wasn’t in the script.
“Don’t worry, we’ll be fine, we have a permit to film from the Ministry of Tourism and can get maps from the Ministry of Defence.” I wasn’t as confident as I sounded. However, our contact in Beirut, Bassam Turk of Sport Evasion, had reassured us that ‘everything was operating normally’. We would find out what ‘normally’ meant in due course.
John Falkiner, an Australian mountain guide, would lead the group of skiers. Free heel skier, Kasha Rigby, Extremer skier Hilaree Nelson and Snowboarder Victoria Jamieson. We were planning to visit Mzaar (ex Faraya-Mzaar), the premier ski area, and ski tour north, spending a night out on the mountain, to Afqa. Bassam had arranged a bus to meet us there to take us to the resorts of Laqlouq and The Cedars, giving us a chance to recharge camera batteries and stock up on fresh local food. We would then go for the main objective – an ascent of the massive escarpment and the highest mountain in the region, Qornet es Saouda, 3083m, bivouac out for a couple of nights and effectively go from the Maronite Christian west, over the massif to the Shiite Muslim Beqaa valley in the east.
It was a shock to see how 16 years of war had wrecked Beirut. On my first visit in 1971 the capital was the thriving sybaritic Paris of the Middle East, a fascinating mix of East and West, attracting the rich and famous and with its Swiss style banking secrecy, probably the infamous too. Today in the notorious ‘green line’ area, any surviving building bears the scars of fierce battles. The once elegant and bustling main square, the Place des Martyrs, is now a massive reconstruction site. Archaeologists are delighted by this opportunity at last to confirm Beirut’s Phoenician past. These Phoenician roots seem to be a lifeline in the identity and self-image of the Maronite Christian community. “I am a Phoenician, not an Arab,” claimed Joseph, a thirty year old whose empty right sleeve was stark evidence of his sacrifice. The heart might have been ripped out of the capital but not out of the Lebanese. One might expect an embittered attitude rather than the cheerful, gracious and hospitable way in which we were welcomed and treated throughout our stay. Perhaps it is this Phoenician heritage of mariners, travellers and traders that runs in the veins of the modern Lebanese. Twenty million Lebanese are settled and prospering around the world and a mere 3.7 million inhabit Lebanon itself.
Understanding the war and who was doing what to whom and why (including foul play behind the scenes by bigger and richer world players) is hard. It doesn’t take much imagination to realise that it might be politically and economically advantageous to fight a war in someone else’s back yard. It is not just about milk and honey, plentiful water is both a blessing and a curse. Lebanon has lots of it and surrounding Syria and Israel don’t.
Outside the Ministry of Defence, an extraordinary 5000 ton concrete monument containing Soviet T-55 tanks and weaponry, created by French artist Armand Fernandez, looms menacingly. This monument entitled Espoir de Paix (Hope of Peace) is dedicated to Peace in Lebanon. We were permitted to film and photograph the structure only after the armed guards had moved away. Under no circumstances were we permitted to film any military personnel, check points or weaponry.
Ushered into the Map Office, a plain clothed elderly gentleman was the model of helpfulness. Proudly laying out different scale maps of the areas we wanted to explore, he talked passionately in French about his love of maps – and would we be so kind as to send him some Swiss maps which he considered the crème de la crème. We made our selection and were told we could, with pleasure, collect them in 20 days’ time. We were stunned, argument was futile, even with the blessing of the Ministry of Tourism and a film permit we could not cut through the Military red tape to have these crucial maps. According to British Army sources, the undulating terrain, cliff bands and wadis were a navigational nightmare.
I caught John’s eye, we were silently agreeing a last ditch solution. He placed his compass on the map and quickly took some bearings quietly repeating altitude heights. I scribbled down his seemingly casual mutterings. The Map Professor was twitching nervously, glancing to see if the military personnel had noticed what we were doing. “Monsieur”, I said,” we would be delighted to send you the Swiss maps if we survive this adventure.”
The Mzaar resort (ex-Faraya), 2000m in the Jebel Sannine, is only 45mins from Beirut and is the most developed ski resort in the region. Popular with skiers and snowboarders from Jordan, Syria, Dubai and Saudi Arabia its 15 lifts have an uplift capacity of 6000. The Ministry of Tourism had traded some future footage for two nights in the recently opened 5* Intercontinental Hotel. An incongruous bunch of backpack toting guests, disgorging equipment and sharing out supplies of food, camera and safety equipment, each carrying about 16 kilos. Full Mountain Equipment – sleeping bag, bivouac bag, down jacket, goretex clothing and adhesive skins to stick to the base of our skis to enable us to walk uphill.
Lebanon is barely larger than half the size of Wales with a spectacular limestone escarpment running parallel to the narrow coastal plain. This diverse geography generates its greatest asset, water, and the fertile Beqaa valley. Its people are similarly diverse, there is no definite ethnic unity and there are seventeen legally recognised religions. This is the biblical land of milk and honey with a rich cultural heritage and extraordinary vitality.
After a couple of hours we were well away from the resort and on our first compass bearing. It was wonderful to be rhythmically moving, crossing the undulating terrain and heading into an unknown, unfamiliar landscape. By late afternoon clouds had appeared and we found some protection from a rocky overhang and settled into our bivouac bags for the night. Waking in the morning to light snow and limited visibility, we walked up and along the ridge, knowing that to our left was an escarpment that dropped six hundred metres to the valley below. We were cautious, stopping frequently to allow the visibility to improve and give us a glimpse of the wind sculpted cornices that formed along the undulations of the ridge. We stopped to have a rest, disappointed that we had not yet found the wadi descent, and considered retreating, when a gap in the clouds allowed a quick view. We quickly removed our skins, and began skiing down a gully, descending the snow filled riverbed and through a gorge towards the orchards below. Snow eventually gave way to grass and we began to walk towards the valley floor.
A flock of goats and a goatherd wearing a keffieh looked up in alarm, we smiled, “ahlan wa sahlan”, he relaxed, smiling in return. We were soon on our way to the Cedars and the Northern part of the range.
The resort of the Cedars above the Maronite Christian stronghold of the Kadisha valley and the town of Bcharre, is famous for an ancient copse of trees that survived the Phoenician boat building frenzy and Egyptian demand for the wood for sarcophagi. Bcharre’s most famous citizen was the poet, artist and philosopher Khalil Gibran (1883-1931). He believed in the underlying unity of all religions and the need to merge the Sufi Muslim tradition with the Christian mystical heritage. Through his writing and painting he affirmed principles of universal love, true fraternity, unity and peaceful coexistence for the foundation of a new world order. His message is even more appropriate today.
It was snowing and time was running out. We had to try to make some headway with our ascent of Qornet es Saouda, 3083m. We were prepared for two nights out, had food for 3 days and were dressed for bad weather. We decided to risk it. After 700 metres of zero visibility we broke out of the cloud into blue sky, sunshine … and high wind. We were delighted to be able to see. As we climbed higher and higher, the wind increased steadily, it felt as if we were in the jet stream. The spindrift masking visibility and sneaking into any crack. Crossing wind carved `sastrugi` that catches the ski tips, is a silent individual struggle in the unrelenting roaring of the wind. At last the summit was in sight, we removed our skis off to stagger over the rubble-strewn slope for the last 200 metres. One step forward and two involuntary staggers sideways. During strong gusts we would crouch, braced against the force of heaven’s breath. On the summit, we hugged in silence and looked at the clouds westward hiding the Mediterranean below, no view but we’ve made it. As I crouched with my back to the wind something catches my eye. There were scores of bullet cases scattered about.
With only an hour of daylight remaining we head down towards the Beqaa valley. Protected by a huge ancient juniper tree, we dug in for the night. I awoke at 3.00am and looked about. The wind has died, the stars are out and I can see across the Beqaa valley to the Anti-Lebanon Range of mountains and the border with Syria. There are dozens of flashing lights of aircraft moving in the sky and wonder ‘had they seen our fire blazing earlier on? Were the Hizbolla watching us too?’ In such a peaceful, deserted place it seems bizarre to be only 40 kms from such nocturnal activity. The next morning we came across huge paw prints in the snow – we weren’t alone after all.
The ski descent down miles of snaking riverbeds eventually ended and we continued for 10 kms on foot before reaching orchards in bloom and small farms. An elderly Shiite Muslim beckoned us into his home where we sipped coffee beside a blazing fire with his extended family. They were obviously delighted to meet us – proof that foreigners once again feel safe in their country. And indeed we did. Politely declining an offer of to be the old man’s second wife we pressed on, keen to pay our respects to Lebanese food and wine and celebrate capturing some wonderful images on video and safe return from a snowy world.
(A version of this article was previously published in the British Geographical Magazine)
(Saskia Anley’s video Ski Nomads – Lebanon. Footage shown on Game For It – National Geographic Channel 2002)
Thanks to/Shoukran:- Middle Eastern Airlines (Mr Douw), Bassam and Eva Turk; No Fear; Chady Janho, Fouad, Jamil Rayes, Rania Abou Chacra, Faraya Mzaar SAL/ Christian Rizk; Intercontinental Mzaar Hotel; Hotel Palmyra/Nicolas Saliba; Hotel Berkeley, Beirut; Carlos Fenianos; Hotel Nirvana, Laqlouq; Hotel La Cabane, Cedars; . Rolf Hunziker (great camp food!) Wine: 1997 Les Breteches du Château, Kefraya, Bekka Valley. 1993 Château Musar
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