PHOTOS: Kari Medig
Inside the sea green hut at the top of Mount Hermon, a half dozen ski patrollers smoked cigarettes, sipped instant coffees, and discussed the difficulties of ski boots. Nabih Abo Saleh, the 20-year veteran ski patrol director, gazed out the window. It was the second day of an ongoing storm. The ski area was closed--too much snow, too little visibility. Outside, rime encased dangling chairlifts as snowflakes blew sideways in the milky light.
The patrollers' red jackets displayed the Star of David on the center of their backs, though none of them were Jewish and most were of Syrian descent. Mount Hermon Ski Resort is the only place to ski in Israel. Situated within the northernmost nook of the Golan Heights, the ski area is surrounded by Lebanon and Syria and a no-man's land of shifting borders and cease-fire lines that represent one of the most turbulent regions on earth.
A day earlier, Micki Inbar, the media manager for the ski area, warned me about the dangers of skiing off groomed trails. "There's no significant border, but you just don't cross it; you don't have anything that can bring you back," she said. "You should be aware of that. Most of the skiers, they know, because there are no slopes over there, but if they go off-piste, they might find themselves in Lebanon or Syria."
The ski area was expecting more than 10,000 visitors the next day--about the same as a typical day at Vail, but packed onto one-fifth of the acreage. Patrollers spent the morning smacking snow off chairlifts and bamboo poles, shoveling the magic carpet clear, mending orange netting, and, naturally, skiing powder.
After the break in the hut, photographer Kari Medig and I clicked into our skis and followed Afeef Shofi and Milad Rabah. At 25, they are the youngest patrollers on staff. Saleh, who considers patrol his family, called them his two sons. Rabah had a bushy beard, a GoPro mounted on top of a royal blue helmet, and big, happy eyes that matched his consistent smile. "With the snow, every time I feel good," he said.
At the top of the pitch, they shared an important word with Medig and me: "yalla." An Arabic word adopted by all of Israel, it literally means "Oh God," but is slang for "Let's go!" Shofi smiled, said "Yalla!" and dropped in. The slope was a wide-open 1,500-foot pitch with five inches of textured, untouched snow on top. He skied elegantly and lightly, with the determined angulation of a trained ski instructor. I gave a playful "Yalla!" and followed, picking up speed and throwing my skis sideways to kick fresh snow into the air. When we regrouped on the cat-track, we were all laughing at how good the run was.
Shofi and I got on the slow double chair they had running just for patrol. He spoke quietly, but his English, his third language after Arabic and Hebrew, was excellent. He told me he learned it from watching Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone films. Shofi, like many of his peers, learned to ski at age 4. It is what everybody does in Majdal Shams, the neighboring town, he said. His father was one of Israel's first ski instructors and ski patrollers. All of his uncles were ski instructors as well. Shofi tried university in Haifa for a couple years, but longed for the mountains. He is now a certified instructor, too, but likes patrol because it allows him to ski more.
"What I like about it, first of all, I get to ski a lot," he said. "I always want to improve myself. Each day, I work on my skills. I always want more."
We skied back to the base area, and the storm finally weakened. The sun penetrated the clouds and cast a brilliant glow on the slope as Saleh, Rabah, Shofi, Medig, and I cruised through pockets of powder. At the bottom, we saw two gun-toting soldiers dressed in white ski by as the patrollers shared their lunches with us. Each ate the local fare--flatbread grilled on a dome-shaped stove, slathered with labneh cheese and covered with spices. One patroller toasted his on the space heater inside the shipping container used as their base.
That night, we all met at Après Ski, a bar founded by a local ski instructor who went to Italy and brought back the tradition. It was one of the first places one could get a drink in town. (The first, since replaced, was called Unidentified, a reference to the shifting nationality of this village). Après was dark, hip, and modern, and the servers were all young and handsome. We drank Carlsberg pilsners and shared a spread of hummus, falafel, tabouleh, kebabs, and delicious breads. I sat next to Rabah, and we talked about our favorite places to ski and how his father, though it was a foreign concept for their family, encouraged Rabah to pursue a life of pleasure. "He told me, 'Do what you want to do,'" he said with a giant grin. Tequila shots arrived. "Cheers!" "L'chaim!" "Saha!"
The day before my flight to Tel Aviv, Inbar, the media manager, told me not to come. The incoming storm was likely to shut the ski area down all week, she said. Medig and I had been researching Mount Hermon for two years. We wanted to explore the unknown, cultural reach of skiing. The previous winter, bureaucratic hurdles and too little snowfall delayed our visit. Now the issue was too much snow. Inbar explained that because Israelis are generally inexperienced at skiing and driving with fresh snow, not to mention the potential security conflict when visibility is limited, the ski area takes its time opening after a storm, despite demand.
We went anyway. We stayed near Majdal Shams, Israel's only ski town, a few miles down the road from Mount Hermon. From Aramaic origins, the name of the 11th century Druze village means "Tower of Sun." The town of 10,000 sits along a ridge in the foothills within the northern Golan Heights. A majority of the employees at the ski hill, including nearly all of the ski patrollers, are Syrian Druze living in Majdal Shams. Those who are Jewish live a few more miles down the road in Neve Ativ. No Jews live in Majdal Shams and no Druze live in Neve Ativ. On the drive back to the hotel after our dinner with the patrollers, I asked Uri, our fixer and a Jew, if there were any exceptions to that rule. "Of course not," he said. "They're too different."
Druze are an esoteric ethno-religious group with Egyptian origins and secretive practices that date back to the 11th century. The religion has about a million followers, mostly in Syria, Lebanon, and Israel (about 60,000 live in the U.S.). The Druze faith incorporates Islam, Hinduism, Gnosticism, and classic Greek philosophy. They do not permit conversion, and marriage outside of the religion is rare. It is an insular and conservative society, but skiing, introduced to Israel when the Office of Tourism financed the first chairlift in 1971, has changed Majdal Shams.
"There's the old, classic, traditional way of life and there is the new one," says Shofi. "If you go to the side with the old religion, you can sit with [the elders] and talk with them, and if you go to the other side, you'll see bars and restaurants. It's unique. You have the best of both."
Shofi estimates that Majdal Shams is the only Druze village in the world with bars. To the older generation, this is dispiriting. For young people like Shofi, who makes an annual trip with his friends to ski the Alps, it's progress. "We want to show the world that we can do anything," he says.
The town sits on the fringes of the Holy Land. Religious scholars speculate that Mount Hermon is the site of the Transfiguration of Jesus, a scene in the New Testament when Jesus is transformed and becomes radiant in glory upon a mountain. The ski area, at 7,297 feet, is known as "the eyes of the nation." It is the highest summit in Israel and the Golan Heights, which is internationally recognized as Syrian territory. Until 1967, Syria used Hermon's elevation to shell Israeli military positions and villages. Israel now controls the western two-thirds of the region, having seized it in the decisive Six Day War against Syria, Egypt, and Jordan. In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Syria, in a surprise attack, gained ground in the Golan Heights, including Israel's military stations on Mount Hermon. The ski area was destroyed. After a devastating battle that led to approximately 15,000 casualties, Israel regained its positions. A year later, they rebuilt the chairlifts.
Since then, the ski area has operated continuously as Israel has controlled the southern flank of Mount Hermon, while Syria claims its northern slopes. The peak of the mountain, at 9,232 feet, straddles the border of Syria and Lebanon. Iran and Syria, as well as militant groups like Lebanon's Hezbollah, have vowed to liberate the Golan Heights. Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad insists on Israel's total withdrawal. Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked President Trump to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the region, which neither the U.S. nor the international community has ever done.
"Though there have been no major clashes so far, there are occasional mortars or fire directed from the Syrian side at the Golan Heights, either intentionally or not, which is typically answered by Israeli fire," said Boaz Atzili, an associate professor at American University who specializes in international security. "The borderline on the Syrian side is now controlled in part by forces loyal to Assad's government and in part by various rebel opposition forces."
United Nations peacekeepers maintain a thin strip between the enemy forces. A few miles down the road from Majdal Shams, on top of Mount Bental, a Norwegian volunteer next to the royal blue U.N. flag stood watch with binoculars from a stone perch. He told us that on many days he hears gunfire from the Syrian Civil War.
As such a strategic military location, Mount Hermon Ski Resort might be the most heavily militarized place to ski in the world. Cars must pass through a military checkpoint that is closed if the lifts aren't spinning. The Israeli Defense Force has a fleet of customized white snowcats at the base and bunkers on every ridgeline. Young combat engineers--Israel's army--are stationed at most lift shacks. And the elite, clandestine Alpinist Unit, an infantry reserve squad trained in mountain warfare, roams the mountain on white skis, in all-white suits, with black M4 assault rifles on their backs.
It's an unexpected location for the busiest ski area in the region. The 1,200-acre resort regularly has 12,000 visitors a day, many of whom are seeing snow for the first time. Due to travel restrictions, Mount Hermon is the only place in the Middle East Israelis can find snow. It is a melting pot for a segregated country, a place where Jews, Muslims, and Druze all recreate together. While the area has a short, six- to eight-week season, the terrain is impressive, with long fall-line chutes between dolomite and limestone outcroppings. Placed somewhere in Vermont, it would be the best place to ski east of Colorado. The chairlift-accessed backcountry is vast but not recommended. Land mines are hazards anywhere off the beaten path.
When we arrived in Tel Aviv, the storm had just begun. Uri, our fixer, was a former IDF commander who carried a 9mm in a fanny pack wherever he went. He was skeptical of our mission--"Why would anybody come to Israel to ski?"--but he was essential to the effort. On a drizzly, foggy morning, he drove Medig and me from Tel Aviv, past bright green eucalyptus trees, across the 1949 Armistice Agreement Line, toward Jerusalem. We first drove to Mount of Olives, a 3,000-year-old Jewish cemetery with 150,000 graves, where ancient tombs are covered in rocks.
Later, we entered the Old City, where the religious divisions were as obvious as the cultural diversity. In the Jewish Quarter, we touched the Weeping Wall and drank pomegranate juice, which is said to have 613 seeds, the same number of commandments in the Torah. In the Muslim Quarter, we met a renowned archaeologist who shared tea with us and ate savory hummus, pita, and falafel at a hole-in-the-wall café before walking past Jesus' tomb inside the Christian Quarter's Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
It felt like the cultural center of the world--the most influential 0.35 square miles on the planet. The devout from religions worldwide converged to pray. I never made it past Genesis as a young Catholic. I appreciated the historical significance, but my mind wandered to the places I felt most at peace: the mountains. After our tour, we went looking for them.
We drove through the West Bank to 1,000 feet below sea level, near the shores of the Dead Sea, and pulled over at a rest stop near Jericho. A camel named Shu-Shu waited patiently in a parking space. We continued north along the Jordan River, which forms the Israeli-Jordanian border, driving past men on tractors with boys hanging off the back, caves with settlements built into them, a number of villages with tall, narrow minarets, rows of date palms, and countless Biblical references. We drove past Magdala, where Jesus met Mary Magdalene, and the Sea of Galilee.
Eventually, we reached the foothills of the Anti-Lebanon mountains in the Golan Heights--about as far north as we'd be allowed to go.
After four days of whiteout conditions, Mount Hermon Ski Resort opened to a horde of fanatic locals. Along the road to the ski hill, we saw signs warning of land mines, a 13th century Crusader fort, and 10-foot-tall wooden skis. In the car, Uri mentioned that nobody in the country hitchhikes anymore because suicide bombers used to pose as someone needing a ride. Every town we passed had five-inch-thick gates to protect against a ground attack. In order to avoid the standstill traffic, Inbar, the media manager, met us in her hometown, Neve Ativ, at 6 a.m. Her car was full of kids. Inbar is a tough, hard-working mother of three young skiers. Her husband is a snowcat driver who transports supplies and troops for the IDF.
As we ascended the mountain, cars already stretched a couple miles from the military checkpoint to Majdal Shams--many of the drivers sleeping at the wheel, waiting for the army to open the gates. Traffic was so bad it would take three hours to go the final 25 miles to the parking lot. We drove past the idle cars and the army waved us through. When the gates opened at 7 a.m., lines moved slowly to the rental center, coffee stand, ticket counter, and, finally, chairlifts.
The ski area has five lifts--including one for pedestrians only--a Poma, a T-bar, a magic carpet, an alpine slide, a designated snowball-throwing space, and an area at the base and the summit for sledding. Every zone, including areas below the ski area where people had parked on the side of the road to avoid paying the entry fee, was completely full. Disneyland is less busy. From savvy skiers to families of five generations having their first snowball fight, Mount Hermon was as energetic and diverse as the crowd in the Old City, and in a similar state of rapture.
I was in the lift line when I heard someone yell my name. "John?! John?! Powder Magazine?!" The man pleaded that I wait for him--I was at the front of the queue--as he put his skis on and pushed passed hundreds of other skiers. His name was Rami Dorot, a 35-year-old medical sales rep in Tel Aviv who spends most of his weekends skiing. He had driven up that morning and heard this magazine was visiting. He had a mop of curly black hair, a gap-toothed smile, and was frothing at the mouth. On the chairlift, he talked without pause, explaining how much he loved skiing: He had just come from La Grave, France, and he had a powder clause in his contract at work and he knew all the pro skiers. And did he mention how much he loves North American ski media? He insisted I follow him so he could show me his favorite stashes of snow.
Dorot was frenetic, but I couldn't say no. At the top of the lift, we met his friend, "Next," a one-legged, one-armed splitboarder from Sheregesh, a ski area in Siberia, and started hiking toward a ridgeline. Dorot seemed nervous but happy to have me as an excuse to push the boundaries. Which seemed like a bad idea. "If the army yells, just keep walking," he said. "They won't shoot you."
At the top of our hike, I noticed coiled barbed wire wrapping along the ridge and a small bunker mostly buried in snow. "Watch out for the wire," said Dorot. "There are mines. We should go quickly." He dropped in. I felt sick. I didn't make many turns, skiing as fast as I could back into the ski area, where the comfort of other skiers in line at the T-bar felt like home.
To his credit, Dorot showed me good snow on steep, inbounds pitches, but he continued to make me uncomfortable. I went my own way around the time he asked two bemused young army guards if they had rolling papers.
At the summit sledding area, a man in an orange vest bellowed into a microphone to try to rein in the chaos, as grown men hurled themselves down undesignated embankments. Every other person seemed to be taking a selfie. The mid-mountain hut played The Beatles' "Come Together" while skiers, snowboarders, and four members of the IDF's Alpine Unit took a break to eat a kosher dog or have a beer or roll a cigarette or pass around an old water bottle filled with booze.
Across from the hut, three different double chairs moved slowly toward the same ridgeline. Beyond them, facing us, lay a beautiful, untouched powder run. Medig and I traversed over until we looked down the barrel of a 1,000-foot, 40-degree slope with cold powder snow. The terrain filtered into a narrow funnel, with big rocks on either side. I floated toward the bottom and heard young girls on the chairlift giggling, others singing. Medig dropped in and carved controlled, effortless arcs through boot-top powder. The wind picked up and with each turn he created a spray of light, cold snow. It lingered in the air for a moment, illuminated by the sunlight, before dissipating into the bright blue sky.
Toward the end of the day, I ran into Shofi in the lift line. He was skiing by himself, stealing a few runs in between job duties. He wore his red Star of David ski patrol jacket and a camouflage buff that covered the lower half of his face. We rode up the chair together and talked about why he loved his life here.
For Shofi, this was clearly home. The impenetrable borders and omnipresent military that surrounded him were just vague context to what mattered to him far more: the community he had in Majdal Shams and the identity and feelings of freedom that skiing gave him.
"It's something inside, you know? I'm just passionate about it," he said. "I love the mountains. If you go to the cities, I can't handle it. I've been in cities for a couple years, and I always come back here."
This story originally appeared in the October 2017 (46.2) issue of POWDER. To have award winning stories delivered right to your door, in print, subscribe here.