Beirut, Lebanon – Lebanon is only a stone’s throw away from my home, a mere 100
miles across the Med. It should therefore come as no surprise that, throughout
my life, stories from my neighboring country have been featured daily in the
news: War, fighting, killing, and despair. Waves of people trying to escape
the massacre, arriving via boats of all shapes and sizes on our eastern coasts,
were a regular phenomenon. Hardly the place to consider for skiing, let alone
Then suddenly the war ceased. Beirut was no longer the battle
capital of the world. It now became a city trying to find its lost identity,
in a nation still dizzy from years and years of bloodshed. As time went on,
it became possible to start thinking about what was a short while ago unthinkable:
a trip to Lebanon, to explore its post-war awakening, and who knows, maybe
a trip to its mountains. Lebanon is well known for its wonderful sweets, maybe
the sweets extend to include a skiing run or two.
The itch to go became suddenly much, much stronger, when my
friend and skiing mentor, Jay Silveira forwarded to me a 1996 Powder Magazine
article entitled, “The Ashes of Lebanon.” I now knew it was only a matter
of time. Les Anthony’s exotic experiences seemed to prove me right – we get
snow here on Cyprus, enough to operate a ski resort at 6000 feet, but in Lebanon
the mountains reach 10,000 feet – and they receive the very same storms. Translation:
snow, and lots of it. I started to stare eastward, with a fresh air of expectation.
My only problem: after everything they had seen and experienced, none of my
friends were willing to trek with me to the Promised Land of snow. The decision
was made: I had to go alone.
Things started to happen early last year. Through my employment
I ended up with a free round-trip ticket, Larnaca-Beirut-Larnaca, that had
to be used though before January 31. I booked myself for the weekend of the
29th through the 31st of January, which would give me a full day’s skiing
in Lebanon (unfortunately, due to work commitments I was unable to stay longer).
Using that magical tool known as “Internet” I soon discovered a very promising
website: www.SKILEB.com. Within days
I was in contact with webmaster Ronald Sayegh, who made absolutely sure that
I was updated in all respects of Lebanese skiing. With his help I decided
to go to Faraya-Mzaar, the biggest and most developed of Lebanon’s resorts.
My friend Elena of Varianos Travel, and old comrade from the Nicosia Ski Club,
took care of all hotel and taxi bookings. Having often been to Lebanon for
skiing herself, and having organized skiing trips to Faraya many times before,
she insisted that after I went, I would want to go again the next weekend.
I must admit I shook my head in slight disbelief. I can now gladly say that
she was right and I was wrong.
Time passed quickly. The Zero Day was coming up quickly, but
suddenly disaster struck: I started getting the flu. By Friday, January 29,
I was in very bad shape. My girlfriend drove me to the airport Friday afternoon
“I am very worried – are you sure you can go in your condition? It would be
better to stay – there will be another chance,” she kept saying.
I replied, “I am going. I am going even if I have just to see
the mountains from a hotel window.” I’m not sure if it was the flu’s fever,
or snow fever that spoke on my behalf.
I soon found myself boarding the Middle East Airlines Airbus
A321 bound for Beirut. I was the only one with skis among 170 passengers,
and my job as an air traffic controller meant that I could get the jump seat
in the cockpit. About 15 minutes into the 25-minute flight, I could easily
see the haze hiding the Lebanese coast. While descending into Beirut, however,
I could see mountains above the haze layer. Big, roundish mountains, clearly
defined, that glistened in various shades of pure white. “What are these mountains?”
I asked Captain Gaby. “Faraya – the place you will ski tomorrow,” he replied.
I immediately knew that going on the trip was the correct decision.
Beirut Airport was certainly a symbol of resurrection with a
brand-new terminal, new hangars, and new construction everywhere. I perceived
this as a good sign about the skiing waiting for me the next day – if I survived
my flu. By the time I got out of the airport it was dark. I expected that
within a short time I would rest in my hotel. No way! The hotel driver picking
me up from the airport advised of “two, maybe three hours to the hotel.” I
started wondering – wasn’t Faraya only 30 miles from Beirut? The less said
about Lebanese driving, both in Beirut and on the mountain roads, the better.
I fully appreciated Ronald’s advice not to rent a car.
Two and a half-hours later we arrived at Ouyoune-El Simane,
the small village at Faraya’s base. I would stay at Auberges Swisse, a small
but very cozy hotel. I could see lots of snow, but my condition was terrible.
I felt more dead than alive. I had high fever, I was sweating, and I was trembling
like a fish on a hook. Mr. Berge, the very friendly hotel manager, helped
me out of the car and told me to go to bed, sleep a bit, and afterwards to
go downstairs for an herbal tea that would “bring life back to me.” I followed
his advice and went straight to bed. Around 10 p.m., feeling slightly better,
I went downstairs. Mr. Berge kindly made me a cup of a strange-tasting (but
good!) tea, and offered me some light dinner. Ronald also showed up, so after
two weeks of chatting via the ‘net we finally got to know each other in person.
Both he and Mr. Berge told me exciting stories about the mountains, for which
they both felt proud. I started liking Lebanon a lot. I went back to bed,
and my only question was, would I be able to ski next day?
I got up early the next morning, and felt much better. I walked
up to the window and gazed out. Blazing sun, brilliant blue skies, and dazzling
white snow everywhere. I immediately knew that the answer to last night’s
question was “yes.”
I took a quick stroll in the village. The base of the lifts,
at 1,850m (6,068 feet) was only a five-minute walk from the hotel. The air
was fresh, and the walk rejuvenated me. I met again with Ronald at the base
of the “Jabal-Dib” triple chair. We agreed that we would first take a few
“reconnaissance” runs for photography, and then spend the rest of the day
skiing. I had brought all of the good camera equipment with me, and it would
prove very useful.
Faraya-Mzaar is by far Lebanon’s biggest and most developed
resort, and also the most popular. The 11 lifts (including 7 chairlifts and
two private ones) radiate to two major peaks: Jabal Dib (2,296m / 7,531 feet)
to the north, and Mzaar (2,465m / 8,085 feet) to the south. You can enjoy
a vertical drop of more than 2000 feet. A number of other peaks reaching similar
altitudes seemed to surround the resort. We soon stood atop Jabal Dib and
the views were amazing. I just could not believe that the mountains of Lebanon
could be so extensive, tall, beautiful, and snowy. Snow depths ranged from
about 2 feet at the base of the resort to 10 feet or more at places near the
peaks. The treeline is only at 3,500-4,000 feet, so all of the peaks and slopes
around us were dressed in a spotless white. I was really impressed. But then
Ronald promised much better views from Mzaar, the region’s highest peak. I
was really wondering if this could be possible.
We soon found ourselves traversing from Jabal Dib to Mzaar via
the “Traversee vers Nabil” and the “Couloir vers Mzaar” trails, which bought
us to the bottom of the Mzaar triple. The snow underneath my Atomics was packed
powder of the best quality that I had experienced in years. All around me
were snowfields, varying in pitch from very steep to practically flat, covered
in pristine fresh powder that fell in quantities only two days ago. Of course,
the sun did work the snow a bit, and the powder off piste was getting very
heavy. The temperatures were seasonable, with mid-forties at the base and
mid-twenties at altitude. After a quick ride on the Mzaar triple, we found
ourselves standing on top of Mzaar, the highest peak in central Lebanon.
Well, I have to admit that Ronald was absolutely right. The
views in all directions were stunning, simply beyond description. To the North,
way in the distance, the AntiLebanon Mountains and the Cedars area named for
their cover of cedar trees were raising their head. To the East, it was just
row upon row of more white peaks, usually roundish, extending all the way
in the distance to the Syrian border. To the South, Mount Hermon raised high
its white cap, a sea of haze and clouds separating the mountain from the Bekaa
Valley directly below us, which with its contours and terraces was just… indescribable.
And to the West, the shimmering Mediterranean seemed to be just a jump away.
Beirut was lying practically below our feet, and in the distance, above the
pale blue of the sea, I could readily see the tops of thunderstorms over my
island! Although pictures are said to be worth a thousand words, in the case
of Mzaar, no picture can do justice to the views in all directions. I remember
stupendous views from my one week at Val d’Isere, but certainly nothing remotely
as striking as the view from Mzaar.
With the initial excitement over, and the necessary pictures
taken, we started skiing. The Mzaar trail, described on the trail map as red
(similar to a single black diamond in the U.S.), offered me the steepest skiing
I had experienced since my Val d’Isere trip in 1996. Thank goodness that my
flu-weakened quads supported me, and within seconds I regained my rhythm,
linking turns on the freshly groomed snow. The skiing was certainly worth
all of the effort and the risk that I had taken by going to Lebanon in my
condition. We caught a quick snack and started skiing all over the designated
trails. We hoped from lift to lift, traversed from trail to trail, usually
with Ron in the lead and me, continuously awestruck, closely behind. All the
while I kept wondering how was it possible to have such a skiing heaven in
my own backyard and not discover it before. We stayed on red trails (no trail
is officially designated as black, though some approach 30 or more degrees
and sustain themselves). Despite being Saturday, there were no crowds and
no liftlines; we seemed to have the mountain to ourselves. Ronald explained
that this was not a special privilege for my visit, it was just that for most
Lebanese the upper trails at both Mzaar and Jabal Dib are simply too much
of a challenge. Indeed, I was later to find out that the crowds congregated
on the few blue and green trails, leaving the steeper and longer red trails
for the privileged few.
At some point, while riding the “Piste Rouge” lift I spied someone
jumping off a huge cornice and executing a flawless landing twenty feet below
in perfect style. Ronald informed me that he was the local extreme / freestyle
champion. I soon realized that extreme skiers are few in Lebanon, but what
few there are, they are very hot. So hot, in fact, that they caused a great
increase in freestyle’s popularity. As a result, Team Elan was up for a show
at Faraya the following week. The limited number of extreme skiers in the
area could be confirmed by their tracks in the powderfields – or rather the
lack of them. Very few of those steep snowfields showed tracks – there seemed
a whole world of first tracks for the demanding skier to conquer!
The skiing remained awesome throughout the day. A quick stop
for lunch at the base proved Ronald right regarding the crowds on the easy
trails. Most skiers seemed to be sitting at the base restaurants, skiing once
or twice on the easy trails, then sit some more, and then ski the flats some
more. The snow started to get heavy under the strong Mediterranean sun, and
by the end of the day it was turning to corn in places. But even then it was
still very skiable and certainly very enjoyable. On certain trails, such as
those around the “Nabil” lifts, small bumps formed, and we had a blast through
them. We skied quite a bit of what Faraya had to offer – inbounds that is.
We got nowhere near skiing all the inbounds terrain, it was just plain impossible
to do so in a single day – even without liftlines. As for out-of-bounds, maybe
a few months of non-stop skiing could be enough. Here I have to stress that
the trail map makes the terrain appear uninteresting and boring, but the actual
experience was a very pleasant surprise.
Even during this single day of skiing at Faraya, I managed to
get exposed to something completely new in skiing. In a shady, unnamed, red
chute-like piste off the Nabil chair, we saw a skier rhythmically disappearing
and reappearing in what appeared to be clouds of powder, yet no visible trails
were left behind. We decided to explore the situation. Although the high pitch
of the trail kept most skiers away, it just couldn’t be untouched, ungroomed
powder. We soon discovered a new sweet treat: For reasons that probably have
to do something with the microclimate situation of that trail, the snow was
deep, very deep loose snow grains, each grain slightly smaller than a grain
of rice, slightly larger than a grain of sugar. In a trail that looked formidable
at first sight, you had to keep the skis pointed directly down the fall line
just to keep yourself moving – only the slightest of turns were needed. It
did feel like skiing deep powder, but in a denser white medium. Sort of skiing
through rice crispies! Delightful! We had a couple more of runs in that sweet
chute just to enjoy ourselves.
The overall snow conditions were on either side of excellent.
Deep snow, all natural, to a depth of more than ten feet at places – and this
was before February and March, the snowiest months of the year. There were
frequent huge drifts on the treeless slopes, and in spots there were extensive
cornices. There were also the best sastrugi formations that I had ever seen
anywhere. Ronald said that after a typical dump (one to two feet are “typical”
and quite frequent) the off-piste skiing is simply incredible. After my single
day at Faraya I certainly believe him. The out of bounds at Faraya extends
for miles and miles in all directions, except to the west. It seems that it
would take forever to explore all the powder possibilities there. Of course
there is the usual avalanche danger, but avalanche-prone areas are well marked
inbounds, and if common sense prevails, shouldn’t be much of a problem for
sensible skiers. I must admit that I was pretty lucky, as I ended up at Faraya
only two days after a storm and enjoyed brilliant sunshine. But judging from
the comments I eavesdropped, what I experienced was not beyond the ordinary
for this early in the year. I can only shiver at the unlimited possibilities.
Yes, it was true, the sweets of Lebanon could really be found on its mountains.
The military checkpoint upon leaving Faraya (photo Rolandos Constantinides)
We kept going up and down until the time the lifts had to close.
My skiing performance ranged from below standard to barely above acceptable,
especially towards the end of the day as the effects of my recent flu started
to show up. It was almost impossible to keep up with Ronald, who was an excellent
skier and in good shape, but he was patient enough with me that day to wait
whenever I was slow. Despite my exhaustion and weakness, I just didn’t want
the day to end. But all good things in life usually have an end, and so did
that day at Faraya. Soon I was back in Ronald’s car, heading towards Auberge
Swisse, stopping en-route at a military checkpoint – a vivid reminder that
war may be over in this country, but not everybody is relaxed. I thanked Ronald
for one of the best days of my entire life, checked out of the hotel, and
I was soon on my way back to Beirut.
With the little daylight still left I was able to see the various
small towns along the way. Small settlements in patchy snow, a little bit
below the ski area, wore an air of indifference to the excitement I felt skiing
on their own mountains. It seemed that nobody was moving in these villages,
possibly a remnant from the days of war. Children were playing while wearing
military uniforms. Graffiti in all shades of green and red covered many walls,
with the messages in Arabic letters incomprehensible to my eyes. “They are
threat messages from one faction to the other,” my driver informed me. “Things
are still tense – we never know who is a friend and who is a foe – and we
Lebanese are too insignificant, we just suffer from the inexorable benefits
of the great powers.” How true! I have been feeling the same for so many years
with all that my country has suffered (and it still suffers, but that’s another
Although Beirut is renowned for its superb nightlife, I did
not have the strength to enjoy it. I checked in at the Casa D’ Or Hotel, in
the heart of Hamra (the shopping area of Beirut), had a nice dinner of falafel
and shish kebab, and went straight to bed. Upon rising the next morning, I
took a stroll from the hotel to the seaside and back. Beirut seemed the capital
of contrasts. I recalled Anthony’s words in his article: “Everything seemed
half-finished or half-wrecked, and it was hard to decide where the destruction
ended and the resurrection began”. Buildings full of bullets and holes from
bombs stood side-by-side with modern towers. But the various signs and shops
that sprang up all over made it clear that Beirut was again becoming a lively
beehive. On cutting a corner I even discovered a “Ben & Jerry’s: Vermont’s
Finest” outlet shop about to open in February. I was almost shocked – perhaps
a Ben & Jerry’s outlet in Beirut was the last thing I expected to see, especially
knowing that many Lebanese are still blaming Americans (and all companies
associated with them) for their country’s misery. But at the same time it
felt good – it was a sign that things are indeed changing, that peace is really
returning to this tortured city. The seafront, lined with palm trees and with
the glistening white of the Faraya Mountains providing a beautiful contrast
to the dark blue of the sky and the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean,
was full of people. Nothing in their behaviour could suggest that only a few
years ago, these people were fighting each other.
A couple of hours later the wheels of the MEA Airbus left the
tarmac of Beirut’s runway 15, taking me back to Cyprus, and bringing to an
end a most memorable trip. As we climbed away, I recalled another of Anthony’s
comments in his Powder article – that his skiing in Lebanon “amounted
to the best he had for the whole season.” In my case, it amounted to the best
skiing I had experienced in several seasons, by far the best skiing since
my visit three years ago to Val d’Isere. The realization of having such a
skiing heaven in my own backyard and not playing with it for so many years
almost made me feel like crying. But now the treasure has been discovered.
And it is more than certain that it will only bring pleasure, tons of pleasure
to my future skiing! I will be returning.
Many individuals helped out in my going to Lebanon for this
trip: MEA offered a free trip to the Cyprus ATC Association and ended up with
me. Elena Varianou, from Varianos Travel in Cyprus, guided me very carefully
through the stumbling blocks of visiting Lebanon for the first time, and through
her arrangements my trip was more enjoyable and comfortable – Elena, Thanks
a lot! The people both at Auberge Swisse (especially the manager, Mr. Berge)
and Casa D’Or were very hospitable and at all times I felt treated like a
friend, not a paying customer. Captain Gaby of MEA offered tons of advise
on my inbound trip, and was a great company on my outbound trip – Thanks Cpt.
Gaby! Marc Guido has agreed to post my account of this excellent adventure
on First Tracks!! Online – Thanks Marc! And finally, a great, GREAT THANKS
goes to Ronald Sayegh of SKILEBANON,
who made everything possible for me to enjoy my Lebanon skiing from before
my visit to until after I returned to Cyprus. Ronald, with his patience and
support during our day of skiing, was an excellent companion on the slopes
and added a whole extra dimension to this trip. THANKS Ronald! Looking forward
to seeing you again this winter!
Nuts and Bolts:
Despite the years of war, Lebanon is an increasingly safe place
to visit. Being a Cypriot, there were no special requirements for my entry
to the country, but it is possible that for Americans, Canadians, and maybe
some European citizens, certain requirements apply.
MEA (the national Lebanese airline), some European airlines
(including Air France, British Airways, KLM, and Swissair), and most regional
airlines provide flights into Beirut International Airport. Hotels in Beirut
are not too expensive with adequate service. I stayed at Casa D’Or Hotel,
and was very pleased with my stay there. It was a four star hotel in the heart
of the commercial center of Beirut, and with some phone calls and other extras
I paid US$90 for one night. There are many cheaper hotels scattered mainly
in the commercial center of Hamra, or near the Casino to the North. There
are all sorts of shops in Beirut, and prices are lower than in Europe or the
US. The Duty Free at Beirut Airport is the cheapest I have ever visited, certainly
more than worth a visit. You can find all sorts of food, from typical fast-food
(McDonald’s and the likes) to all European Cuisines and of course all the
Lebanese specialties. Don’t forget to sample some of the incredible sweets
for which Lebanon is so well known.
Regarding the skiing, whatever I might have said above, it just
could not really represent the real thing. You have to experience it to believe
it. There are at least five skiing resorts in Lebanon, with Faraya-Mzaar being
the biggest and most developed, while The Cedars appears to be the second
option. You can also visit Faqra, Laqlouk, and Zaarour. As for the out of
bounds, it certainly defies description with unlimited possibilities. There
is enough space on the slopes slopes just around Faraya to build a mega-ski
area like those of the Alps or Colorado, but no such plans exist at the moment,
and as Ronald pointed out to me it is unlikely that such a resort will ever
be created due to legislation and problems in land ownership. Skiing is cheap,
with a weekend day ticket at Faraya costing around $28. Incidentally, another
peak at Faraya, Warde (2,438m / 7,997 feet) is currently being developed,
and will hopefully open this coming season, offering another 6 lifts and of
course will be connected to the other two peaks. Faraya-Mzaar is surrounded
by many hotels, in and around Ouyoune-El Simane, which offer quite reasonable
prices and commendable service. The one that I stayed at, Auberges Swisse,
was certainly worth every cent – nice people, nice food, great service – highly
recommended. Transportation from Beirut to Faraya and back can be a problem
though – although there are taxis at Beirut airport willing to get you there,
the taxi fare would cost more than the hotel bill! It might be better to arrange
for transportation while making the hotel reservation. Do not even think of
renting a car – driving in Lebanon seems to need quite a bit of improvement,
and anybody unfamiliar with local driving customs would be in serious trouble.
The best source of info for skiing at Lebanon is undoubtedly
Ronald Sayegh’s SKILEBANON site (www.SKILEB.com).
An excellent site certainly worth visiting, with up-to-date info on ski conditions,
ski area deals, activities, and all other pertinent info such as hotels, restaurants,
how-to get instructions etc. Ronald, at 30, is an accomplished skier and his
website more than accurately portrays his love for skiing at his county’s