Last week a friend and I decided to go skiing. In Israel that’s no easy task. When Mount Hermon, towering above Majdal Shams on the Golan border with Syria, is covered in snow it offers a limited number of days every winter in which skiing and winter activities are available. We had decided to go up in early February but we knew weekends would be crowded. Friends said that people begin lining up at five in the morning and that traffic jams can be expected. Hours of waiting. This didn’t seem enjoyable. So we opted to go on a weekday.
Winter this year has felt unusually cold and rainy, at least in Jerusalem where I live. It has snowed once in Jerusalem and tempratures have often hovered around 7 degrees C. Majdal Shams is closer to 4 degrees during the day and below freezing at night. That means the snow has accumulated on the Hermon. This was good news for us and so my friend hovered online waiting for tickets to be available and seeing which days the site was open. To understand how difficult this is, when I opened the website today to see about tickets, it appears there are some available from the 14-17th of February at a cost of between 39 NIS just to enter the mountain site, and some 400 NIS to rent ski equipment and ski.
We drove the several hours north to the Golan from Jerusalem by taking the Jordan valley road. This is the most picturesque and ideal route to drive, rather than the 6 or other roads. There are some drawbacks. There are no good places to stop for coffee or food on the valley road. But it does go up through the desert and then turns to undulating hills near Beit Shean and one then is vomited out onto the road around the Kinneret, next to the Tsemach junction. This place has an Aroma so you can actually get coffee, which is a nice way to break up the three hour drive. From here the road goes around the lake, passing up into the Golan after Had Nes. One can stop at the Gilabun meat place as they ascend to the Golan, probably one of the few places to stop after Tsemach. It has good brisket and steak and burgers.
From here the landscape rapidly changes to the pretty open country of the Golan. Cattle roam and there are many army bases, festooned with tanks and monuments to wars of the past. Eventually the snowed slopes of the Hermon come into view. You won’t see the skiing areas from this side, because they are actually hidden from view around a kind of mountain col.
We stayed near Majdal Shams in the town of Mas’ada. Both towns are Druze and there are finally ample places to stay and eat. We stayed at a guest house underneath a fried chicken and knafe restaurant. It’s hard to beat those two choices for comfort food. Before night set in we drove into Majdal Shams to a ski rental place that is located next to the Hotel Narjis. This place is run by a man who worked at the Hermon site for many years. He rents boots and equipment and snow pants. This is a good option to get equipment before going up the next day. Rentals can run a few hundred shekels depending on what you want. If you’re downhill skiing definitely make sure you’re happy with the boots because otherwise you may be miserable and in pain the next day on the slopes.
Having secured out boots and pants we went back to our guesthouse for a bottle of wine and rum and snacks. We ended up eating at both the Why restaurant and Green Apple in Majdal Shams over a stay of two nights. The food was decent and the service was nice.
Having heard rumors that one must get up at 5 in the morning to get in line for the skiing we decided to phone a friend to see if one really must get up so early. He assured us we should, while others said to arrive by six or seven am. In the end we got up at 6 and drove up towards the circuitous road that leads from Majdal Shams to the mountain. There was already a long line of cars and a man directing traffic. So we stopped in the line, and one of us grabbed a coffee while we waited. By 7:30am the traffic was moving slowly and we began to drive up the mountain. Snow appeared now increasingly on the sides of the road and the ridgelines around us. After a checkpoint gate we finally arrived at the main ticketing gate at 7:53. We had our tickets and they scanned them and directed us to a parking lot. Here we had to change clothes, put on some thermals to stay warm, and sling our heavy ski boots over our shoulder before getting on a bus. The bus, operated or arranged by the Mount Hermon site, then took us the rest of the distance up the mountain. Here there was another gate searching bags, apparently for weapons, and then we had to pass several hangar-type buildings. The actual ski area then came into view, a long low rise building that has bathrooms, a cafeteria and a bunch of lines for people who want to rent stuff, get their day ski pass, and drop a bag in a locker.
The experience of standing in line and getting tickets and more gear and dropping bags, took us until around 9:08am. Now it was time to hit the slopes. According to the map of the area there are several small areas to practice skiing and then several ski-lifts going up the actual mountain. One of these lifts is a short five minute ride to an easy slope. The other two go to an area near the top of the mountain and enable access to several other slopes of varying difficulty. In addition, skiing down one of these slopes leads to two other small ski lifts.
It was clear from the beginning that many of those who come are either beginners, have never skied before, or are throwing themselves in to skiing slopes they are not prepared for. Nevertheless everyone seems cheerful and happy, with hordes of families going over to go sledding, while others take to the slopes. The mountain is beautiful and was caked in snow. Up from the base camp site where one gets equipment, and on the drive up, we could see for miles, far away into Israel and over Lebanon. Later in the day the snow would melt a bit and the slopes would be carved up by the skis, but for now the cold winter morning snow was perfect, with only a few patches of slippery icy areas.
The scrum of trying to get rental equipment and just get to the mountain behind us, we made our way first to the easy slope, a soft circuitous run that goes from a ski lift, over to a central valley and then down to the beginning again; and then tried the higher slopes. If one can imagine a mountain with basically two major ski runs on it, and then a bunch of other routes that bisect or intercept them at angles, you’d have a good feel for what Mount Hermon looks and feels like. The two major runs both converge at a small cabin that serves coffee and offers a kind of relaxing way point if you’re tired or cold. From the cabin everything funnels down back to the beginning.
I hadn’t been skiing in almost two decades when we arrived and was worried that I’d forgotten what to do. The skis were much shorted then I remembered, and the boots heavier, like those boots astronauts must have used to walk on the moon. But we wanted to make a go of it, and tried to do as many of the various routes on the mountain that were open. One of the runs seems to curve around, kind of making a long track back and forth and back again, on a narrow relatively gradual descent, and since it’s small no one seemed to be on it, which made for a more relaxing ski and more time to enjoy the views rather than being concerned someone will run into you, or having to avoid people falling all the time. Indeed, half the skiing was a kind of obstacle course of men, women and children tumbling over like bowling pins as you go by them, feeling sorry for them as they lose their poles or watch one ski cascade away. Sometimes the people seem to do things that are outright devilish, like one man who had attached his kid to a long rope so that you had to navigate around them to avoid being close-lined. From his point of view he was keeping the kid safe, but he was also creating an excellent obstacle.
Besides all this fun, the wait times for the ski lifts to the top were relatively short, but the lift themselves takes some 10-20 minutes. The ski down also takes time, which is nice, but you find yourself a bit exhausted. In the sun we also found ourselves unusually hot, putting on sun screen and taking off layers.
The Hermon site says it is at 2,040 meters above sea level and spreads over some 45 kilometers. Most of those area doesn’t seem open to the public. The ski portion says it has 11 chair lifts and T-bars, the latter being a rope with a bar at the end that you wedge between your legs to go up a short distance. “Visitors can enjoy a variety of other recreational activities; snow sledding for children, alpine coaster (mountain sleds), a ride by a new cable car to the top station and snow games. In addition visitors can visit local stores to purchase winter clothes and ski equipment, and dine at the various buffets,” the website says. Indeed there is a store to buy warm clothes and mittens and such. There appears to be a place to eat but the line was far too long.Overall like many places in Israel this site becomes jammed with people when it is open and when its season has arrived. It’s hard to compare this to other ski locations because it is unique. You’re sitting on the top of a mountain in snow, in an area that is usually a mix of desert and Tuscan-like terrain. In addition the top of the mountain adjoins Syria. There’s something odd about the fact Israel even build a ski center here. It appears a large investment for being open such a short amount of time. It is also so regulated and circumscribed, from the bus ride to the fact that there seems no where on the road up to stop and snap a photo. This makes it feel otherworldly, like you’re not in Israel, and that you’re not really able to authentically enjoy more than just this one area. Surely, like most things, there is a security reason for this. The presence of some soldiers in ski gear and snow camo echoes this point.
As the closing time of 4 in the afternoon neared, I was tired. My feet hurt from the boots and constantly bending slightly forward to ski. I wondered if, when I finally took them off, I would feel my feet again, or only the sharp pain of the my ankles. When I did remove them, I found I could readjust to walking. Just when I’d got back on my feet, and before my friend returned from turning his skis in, a group of men from Chabad came out of a bus to sing and offer tefillin. We’d now been transported back from our little Chamonix on Mount Hermon to Jerusalem, and we hadn’t even begun the three hour drive back.