Just shy of the ides of March, the Lebanese army is to host (snow permitting) the second Raid des Cedres, in which teams of three race through Mount Lebanon on skis and snow shoes. The teams begin in the pre-dawn dark from the entrance of the Tannourine cedars, before a long climb up Wadi Bayda to the southern crest of the mountainous amphitheater that half encircles the Cedars of Bsharre, at Al Arz.
One of my most memorable moments of more than 15 years in Lebanon was pausing toward the top of Wadi Bayda, and seeing behind me in the darkness what looked like an army of glow worms, as the competitors slowly ascended the valley using headlamps to light their way. Then, the dawn sun gradually rose above the mountain peaks to the east, suffusing the snow with soft pinks, while the icy wind whipped up a knee-high snow drift.
Despite Lebanon’s tiny size and rampant urbanization over the past four decades, it is remarkable that there are still large tracts of lofty unspoiled wilderness to be visited and enjoyed less than two hours drive from Beirut.
The vast plateau that forms the top of the Mount Lebanon range from south of Jabal Sannine to north of Qornet es-Sawda — Lebanon’s tallest mountain at 3,088 meters — presents a desolate and awe-inspiring vista. The terrain varies from gently undulating hills and valleys to dauntingly deep sinkholes, separated by knife-edge ridges of weathered, razor-sharp limestone, beautiful to behold yet a nightmare to traverse.
No one lives up there permanently. The only inhabitants one might stumble across, and only in the summer months, are shepherds and their families living in canvas tents, who offer the rare passer-by glasses of strong sweet tea, bread and fresh goats’ cheese. Then there are roaming shepherds, as agile as their goats, following their flocks up and down rocky slopes during the day, before lighting a fire and sleeping in the open at night.
In early February, I took a day off work mid-week and headed to Warde, above Faraya, for a day’s snowshoeing to the top of Sannine. Brilliant sunshine held up a deep blue sky over well-wrapped and colorful skiers and snow-boarders who, even on a school day, were packing the slopes. But once I had trudged up, over the first crest and beyond the pistes and ski lifts, I had the mountains to myself and saw not a single person for the rest of the day.
The deep layer of sugar white snow softens and smoothes the jagged, frost-shattered landscape of the summer months, creating a misleading impression of benevolence. But the weather can change quickly above 2,000 meters. When a thick mantle of cloud is draped over the mountains, not only is visibility reduced to a couple of meters, but the absence of the sun also removes all shadows and contrast in the snow. Without carefully probing ahead with a ski pole, it is easy to mistake a sudden 10-meter drop for level terrain.
When the Sannine hills are free of snow, the detritus of the civil war can be found here: shallow fox holes ringed with rocks, rusted shrapnel, tarnished brass cartridge cases and coils of barbed wire. In some places, unseen beneath the surface of the stony soil are landmines, still uncleared and potentially deadly. No one should hike the area between Ayoun es-Simane and Jabal Sannine without knowing exactly where the mined areas are.
Yet landmines are not the only man-made threat facing the limestone grandeur of Sannine. A few years ago, the Sannine-Zenith project was launched with the promise of building the Middle East’s largest tourist resort on 66 square kilometers — yes, 66 square kilometers! — of Sannine’s northwestern slopes. Other than ski slopes, the project would include residential housing, hotels, cinemas, an 18-hole golf course and a helipad.
Sannine-Zenith received the green light from the government to proceed in 2004, but thankfully the project has yet to get off the ground. Not only would it destroy one of the most beautiful and remote areas left in Lebanon, it would set a precedent and risk opening up the rest of the unspoiled wilderness between Sannine and Qornet es-Sawda for more tourist site proposals.
May Sannine-Zenith remain nothing more than a set of blue prints gathering dust, leaving the mountains unsullied for those that appreciate and enjoy them.