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If the legendary British army officer and adventurer Lawrence of Arabia had been born in the 1990s instead of the 1880s, he might have made his way across the Middle East on a snowboard rather than on the back of a camel.
In the depths of winter, the area surrounding Beirut is home to a spine of glistening white mountains that stretches from the north of Lebanon to the south, sheltering the capital from the Syrian border, just 40km away. The word Lebanon comes from lebnana, meaning white in Aramaic, and the highest peaks of the Lebanon Mountains have powdery tops all year round.
Beirut’s proximity to the mountains has given rise to a nascent winter and summer sports industry, where people are willing to climb, hurtle down and throw themselves off the area’s many summits and peaks. Combine this with the region’s most liberal locals and a love of the outdoors not found anywhere else in the Middle East, and it is no surprise to learn that Mzaar, the mountain valley 50km northeast of Beirut, is the up-and-coming adrenaline sports capital of the region.
Excellent skiing and snowboarding can be found here, and with 19 ski lifts – including several four-seater chairlifts and a new express chair that opened in December 2012 – Mzaar easily rivals many Alpine resorts in terms of scope and spectacle. It has a four month-long season from January to April, shorter lift queues than many other international ski resorts and, thanks to an increasing number of budget airlines such as FlyDubai and Air Arabia, Beirut is now a viable option for a weekend trip from Europe or the Gulf States.
There are 42 slopes and 80km of piste spread across three distinct valleys – named Wardeh, Jonction and Le Refuge – plus a number of ski schools and a wide variety of options for snowboarding, snow-shoeing, ski-touring, cross-country skiing and snowmobiling. With so much activity on the slopes, it is near impossible to imagine that from 1982 to 1990, Mzaar village was pillaged and the nearby hills were often occupied by militia and Hezbollah soldiers during the nation’s civil war.
Get your bearings at the top of Mzaar mountain, the resort’s highest point at 2,465m. From here you can peer down into the historic Bekaa Valley, famous for the ancient Roman ruins of Baalbek and more than a dozen wineries; or look across to the small Lebanese ski resort of Zaarour as well as Mount Hermon, the highest point in Syria at 2,814m. On a clear day, Beirut’s glistening shoreline and its satellite beachfront towns of Jouneih and Byblos feel tantalisingly close.
If you feel brave enough, you can ski down Mzaar’s treeless, rolling slopes in the morning and swim in the Mediterranean in the afternoon. To get the most out of the wilderness, local ski fanatic Ronald Sayegh can organise all manner of excursions through Skileb.com.
For something more extreme, follow the crest of the ridge from the top of the Mzaar Peak chairlift– a short hike past an old stone church and the remains of the Roman temple – to the ski area’s most tricky off-piste descents, including the Grande Coulée, a narrow ribbon of near-vertical piste that should only be tackled by those with a serious head for heights. The descent finishes at the seasonally barren lemon orchards and olive groves on the lower reaches of Mount Sannine.
Looking for even more of an adrenaline buzz? Hop upon a snowmobile, rev its engine, and, with a twist of your wrist, rocket out onto the empty snow fields beyond the ski slopes; the snowmobiles can hit 80kph if you are wild enough. On a 30-minute trip from Mzaar’s Wardeh base station, you will find yourself surrounded by more than 40 glistening peaks without another soul in sight.
In summer, hiking, paragliding, hang-gliding, quad biking and mountain biking take over, and the resort becomes a welcome escape from the humidity of the Lebanese coast; take a chairlift up 2,296m-high Jabal Dib or 2,347m Wardeh mountain and find your way back down by foot, parachute or bike. As the extreme sports industry is in its early days, you will need to bring all your own equipment or hire it in advance from Beirut.