Reporter's notebookThe snow must go on

Missile fire can’t dampen Israel’s winter wonderland, with record snow on Hermon

Israel’s only ski resort offers surprisingly good skiing once you escape the crowds, with three times as much snowfall this year as an average winter

A skier on the upper slopes of Mt Hermon Ski Resort on January 23, 2018. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)
A skier on the upper slopes of Mt Hermon Ski Resort on January 23, 2018. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

MOUNT HERMON SKI RESORT, Golan Heights — The threat of Syrian missiles couldn’t dampen Israelis’ enthusiasm for witnessing record snowfall on the country’s highest mountain, which was at near-capacity for the entire week despite the army’s one-day closure on Monday.

The army closed the tourist site on Monday, amid concerns a cross-border conflagration could intensify. The move came a day after Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system intercepted an Iranian surface-to-surface missile fired toward the Hermon area from Syria. In retaliation, the army bombed at least a dozen targets, including Iranian weapons caches, inside Syria.

Despite the one-day closure, 7,000 visitors came the next day, when the park reopened. On Wednesday, the site hosted almost 10,000 visitors, close to capacity. (Between 8,000 and 10,000 people per day usually visit the Hermon during the winter season.)

On Friday, the resort inaugurated the site’s first extreme park in nearly a decade, with three large jumps and a number of other elements for doing tricks and spins mid-air.

On Sunday afternoon, when the Iron Dome intercepted the missile en route to the area, most people looked up to the sky in surprise, said Micki Inbar, the spokeswoman for the Mount Hermon site. A few took out their phones to film the white trail of smoke. And then they put their sunglasses back on and went back to sledding or making snowmen or skiing, she said.

“There’s really something about Israeli strength,” said Inbar. “Israelis have had experience with this all over the country, so it’s nothing new.”

Inbar said the sheer amount of snow this year – more than three times what the mountain normally receives during an average winter – has brought a record number of visitors to the site.

Israel is experiencing heavy precipitation this winter, after a seven-year drought that was especially brutal in the northern part of the country.

Even a day-long closure for the mountain is an economic blow for the resort. The entrance fee alone nets the site around NIS 300,000 per day (about $80,000), and almost everyone who visits spends hundreds of shekels on food, lift tickets, equipment rental, or attractions like sledding or an alpine roller coaster.

The upper mountain, which rises to over 2,000 meters (6,561 feet) above sea level, had over two meters (6.5 ft) of snow last week. The lower mountain had 1.7 meters, when last year there was just half of a meter of snow on the lower mountain. Inbar said that even if there is no additional snow this winter, the existing snowpack will allow the site to continue operating the ski lifts for at least two more weeks.

Israelis ski and snowboard after snow mounted on Mt Hermon and the ski site opened for the season, in Northern Israel, January 11, 2019. (Basel Awidat/Flash90)

Last year’s ski season was a paltry 13 days, though two years ago the season managed to last for 54 days. This year, the resort has been open since January 11 and is expected to continue operating at least through the first week in February, though it could be open longer if there is more snow.

On Wednesday, the lower slopes of the mountain were, unsurprisingly, mobbed with thousands of people. Many were skiing or snowboarding for their first time at the Hermon, and the lower slopes were a swirling mass of flailing ski poles and fantastic, colorful wipeouts involving curse words in multiple languages.

“I just wanted to get out in nature, and I got a spontaneous invitation to come,” said Arnon Hecht, 34, a hi tech entrepreneur from Tel Aviv who was trying out skiing for the first time. “I don’t ski or snowboard at all. I had no idea what I was doing. It was crowded, but there’s only one Hermon, only one place like this. I’m sure that there are places where it is nicer to learn, but I’m not going to get on a plane and fly there for my first time ever.”

Hecht said it had been at least a decade since he was around snow. Driving up the mountain and watching bits of snow begin to accumulate on the side of the road, he said, he felt the excitement building. Visitors can get stuck in traffic jams for hours on their way to the site, especially during the weekends. Once the site reaches 10,000 visitors, officials close the area to additional newcomers because of overwhelming traffic.

The crowds are an inseparable part of the experience, and Wednesday saw a hodgepodge of “only in Israel” moments, including the sight of a young ultra-Orthodox man with tzitzit [ritual fringes] flying in the wind, unsteady on his snowboard, crashing into a group of giggling teenage girls from Ramat Gan.

Forget the downhill skiing or snowboarding, the most extreme sport on this mountain might be waiting in line for the chairlift. If you thought Israelis were bad at waiting in line at the supermarket, try waiting in line for a ski lift with hundreds of Sabras who paid upwards of NIS 400 each and drove hours to get here — most of whom have zero control over their momentum.

Skiing on Mount Hermon on January 23, 2019. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

But once you get on the ski lift up to the top of the mountain, which is also accessible to non-skiing or snowboarding visitors via a separate chairlift, there is a different vibe entirely.

At the upper reaches, a panorama of snow-capped mountains reaches out towards the horizon, farther than you can imagine. It’s an unmistakably Mediterranean mountain vista, with rocky outcrops and stubby trees, but covered in snow and glinting in the sunlight. Riding up the lift for the first time, the view took my breath away. I had to keep pinching myself, asking over and over: Am I in Israel?

Well, barely. At some points on the mountain, I was just a few hundred meters from the Israeli side of the 1974 ceasefire buffer zone with Syria. It is strange, while having an ungodly amount of fun carving down the mountain, to realize that just a few dozen kilometers away, a civil war is raging.

But on the top of the mountain, navigating between the skiers snowplowing tentatively down the slopes, I lost myself in the snow and blue sky stretching out in every direction.

I headed to the Hermon excited for the experience of skiing in Israel, without high hopes for the level of skiing itself. But this year, with the record snow, I was pleasantly surprised. A bit of ice at the start of the day quickly morphed into excellent spring skiing conditions. Sunshine turned the snow a bit slushy, but still fluffy enough to send a spray of powder into the air every time I turned sharply to avoid hitting a snowboarder.

There are an unexpected 45 kilometers (28 miles) of ski routes on 11 different paths, serviced by eight chairlifts or t-bar lifts (a cable that tows skiers along with a t-shaped handle). The routes are stunning, with rolling mountains in every direction.

The name “Mount Hermon” is a bit confusing, because it makes you forget that the Israeli site is just a small part of the Anti-Lebanon Mountain Range. The true summit of Mount Hermon is at 2,814 meters (9,232 feet), straddling the Lebanon-Syria border. The Israeli peak is at 2,236 meters (7,336 feet), and the resort reaches up to 2,040 meters (6,690 feet). Amidst the majestic peaks, the mountain range stretches into the distance, a vista shrouded in white that seemed more European than Middle Eastern.

The Mt Hermon Sport Park, for snowboarders and skiers over age 13, opened on January 23, 2019. (courtesy Mt Hermon Ski Site)

The site hosted a smaller park a number of years ago, but Friday saw the inauguration of the first extreme park in nearly a decade, built in cooperation with experts from Slovenia over the previous four days. The team from Slovenia also trained their Israeli counterparts in the technical aspects of building a ski park so the site can build a terrain park every year. The park features a number of boxes and kickers for doing tricks, and three large step-down jumps for getting air.

The park is open to expert skiers and snowboarders over age 13. In the summer, the site plans to carry out infrastructure work to make next year’s ski park easier to build. This year the ski park was successful because of the large amount of snow, Inbar said.

The ski resort is trying out a snow making machine for the second year in a row, said Inbar. Though nighttime temperatures dip low enough for snow production, it is often too humid for the machine to work. It’s still the Mediterranean, after all.

The vast majority of visitors to Mount Hermon don’t come for the downhill sports. Only about 1,500 to 2,000 ski or snowboard per day, said Inbar, and among those, most stay on the beginner slope, which has a cheaper lift ticket.

So you can escape most of the crowds by going to the upper reaches of the mountain, including a chairlift on the back side of the resort, which barely ever has a line. Non-skiers who take the visitor’s chairlift up to the top can also experience the snow-covered hush of mountains in the winter, with the chairlift affording panoramic views of peaks draped in white.

A white vista on the top of the Mt Hermon ski site on January 23, 2019. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

There’s also a sledding slope (for both kids and adults) and an alpine roller coaster called the “Sky Rider,” which was built this summer.

“I’m in Israel? I’m in Israel?” I found myself yelling in glee as I rounded another bend and saw even more snow-covered peaks rolling towards the horizon. I stopped to take a deep breath and turned my face up to the sunshine. At that moment, an out-of-control skier slammed into me from behind, knocking us both down. While heaving myself back to my feet, I noticed an empty bag of Bamba crumpled into the snow. Yes, definitely in Israel.

“It’s pretty amazing, this country,” said Hecht, who made the round-trip drive from Tel Aviv in the same day, rising at 4 am. “I mean, today I was skiing in the snow on the Hermon, and next week I’m going to the desert. It’s fun that this is possible.”

“Most people are coming to just see the snow and feel the snow,” said Inbar. “We are a Mediterranean country, so that’s exciting for us.”

Even if a little less excitement, in the shape of missiles fired from Syria, would be appreciated.

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