Sunday, January 21, 2007

Belleayre Day

I came home smiling, after driving about 8 hours today (well, brother Jon drove about an hour or so for me at one point) so that I could have the Belleayre experience, or rather, the Jiminy Peak experience. That is, I went skiing for the day. The big boys and I, sans Ira and Akiva, and accompanied by niece Helaina who is here for 2nd semester at Hebrew U, drove up to the Hermon.

It was a true of act of skiing faith that we actually went, and a stroke of good fortune that we managed to ski. We had planned the day trip with my brother Jon and 2 of his four, Adam (18) and Talya (11). After Shabbat, we spoke on the phone. It was stormy in J'lem - howling winds and strong rains and the Hermon was receiving snow and nobody know how this wuold effect the opening. I asked, "When it snow, doesn't the mountain stay open? That's how it works in the States" I was told, "Nothing works here the way it does back in the States." In the States, as any good skier knows, upon hearing of a snowstorm, you pile into the car and drive north, hoping your tires and forebearance will hold out until you reach the mountain and make fresh tracks in the snow. The Hermon, by comparison, closed down in bad weather on Saturday and had to take 1000 skiers off the mountain. I remember a day at Belleayre last year, where we skied, essentially, in the fog. The next time we went back, we were amazed at what we had skied down because in clear conditions we had to stare down the headwall of a steep run, always a daunting sight, as opposed to ski it blind because we couldn't see it in the fog. I did feel that I should have gotten a refund from Bellearye that day but chalked it up to win some lose some.

When we spoke to Jon on Sat night, he was pessemistic. He said that when the snow is heavy, visibility is lousy up there and the fog descends and they close the mountain. He himself was caught on a lift that lost electricity during a storm a few years ago. Jonathan recommended that we should pack our bathing suits and the worst case scenario, go to the hot springs at Hamat Gader, near Tiberias. Ok, that sounded good to me and to Helaina as well. We packed up, after searching through the machsan/storage room downstairs for our skis and accessories, and made many sandwiches and headed for bed, a 5:00am wakeup call planned. Note: Ira wasn't going. In his continued efforts to pull up lame at all times, he had wrenched his back and wasn't skiworthy. He'd get Akiva off to school and receive him and also make time for a trip to the chiropractor.

I went to sleep feeling anticpicatory. I didn't sleep well, sleeping on what I call the "local," waking up every hour or so to go to the bathroom and listen to the wind whistle through the trissim/shutters and the rain beat against the window. At 5:00, I checked the Israel Weather Service report and we learned that the it had snowed and was still snowing but should be letting up, with weather improving up north during the day. Jon called at 5:20am and thought we should bag the whole plan but he'd go with my decision. We discussed and called him back and told him we were on. We decided to drive until 8:00am, when we'd be able to check with the Hermon and find out if they were opening or not. At 5:45am, we were on our way.

Jonathan had prevailed upon me to drive towards him and continue up Route 6, cutting through the middle of the country. I had planned to drive through the Jordan Valley, on the Beka'a road, which would have saved me some time but agreed with him as it's a narrow road and likely to flood in bad weather and the rain was still heavy at times when we left. We met up on Route 6, after a necessary gas, coffee and potty stop at about 6:45ish. I'm finally getting better at pumping gas but they ask for way too much information - first you swipe your card, then enter your TZ/identity card #, then your license # (I always have to look) and then you can fill your tank.

We headed up Route 6, toward Yok'neam and then turning into Wadi Ara, eventually running parallel with the Kinneret/Sea of Gallilee, which we could catch the occasional glimpse of. The weather had improved and we noted a patch of sun through the clouds over to the East and felt sure that that was the direction to which we were heading. At 8:00am, I listened to the news which was about choosing the new commander of the Israeli army, who'd been blown up in Baghdad, including the terrible information about the large number of American soldiers who'd been killed over the weekend, and the Kassam that had landed in an open field and caused no injuries down south. The report ended with the weather and the important words, "the Hermon will be open today," which everyone in the car, down to Helaina, understood. Jonathan, called the mountain and had that information confirmed. Cheers. We continued driving, passing Rosh Pina, and heading toward Kiryat Shimona which we drove through and continued East toward the Hermon. At some point, probably around Rosh Pina, we saw the Hermon, large, imposing and snow-capped in the distance. That's when we all realized that we really would go skiing at some point.

We arrived at about 9:45am, paying the entrance fee (per person!) to get in. We headed up to the lodge, shlepping our stuff (Jonathan insisted on putting on his ski pants in the car, even tho I assured him that he could do it in the lodge but like any good Israeli, he is used to car changes for anything from bathing suits to ski pants) in. It looked, like any basic ski lodge - nothing fancy and basic in it's amenities. Bathrooms, cafe with sandwiches and coffee, shop with hats and gloves for all those unsuspecting Israelis who'll show up to admire the snow and realize that they're cold and ski shop with ski related stuff. We rented equipment and proceded to get ready for our day on the slopes. Skiing at the Hermon is pricey, certainly by Israeli standards and definitely by Skop/Steinberg "skiing on the cheap" standards. Lift tix were 200nis each, or about $50, regardless of age (no discounts for kids and no free skiing for 70+) and rentals were about 135nis or $30. We were lucky, we had hit a special and rented for 70nis or $15. Good savings for us. In the States, we rented for the boys each season, figuring that we'd invest in permanent equipment when they finished growing. We're thinking that Natan may be ready for boots and skis - maybe we'll wait another year. We also had a ski rack in NYC but left in the basement of 409 Pacific as we didn't know if it would make sense to shlep it here for the handful of times we're likely to get up to the Hermon. As well, we didn't know if it would fit on our car here (it wouldn't), so we couldn't take my skis with us but at least I brought my boots, but STILL had to pay the full fee just to rent skis - sigh. When we go back again, we're going to look into staying overnight as we're told that the lodging deals include lift tix and are generally worth it.

We got ourselves ready and out on the slopes, excited and anticipatory. A few facts on the Hermon from Wikipedia, but I will tell you that Gabe knew the elevation, which he learned in Ulpan in his Hebrew geography class. Mount Hermon (33°24′N 35°51′E; Hebrew: הר חרמון‎, Har Hermon; Arabic: جبل الشيخ‎, Jabal el-Shaiykh, Djabl a-Shekh, "mountain of the chief" and "snowy mountain") is a mountain in the Anti-Lebanon mountain range. Its highest point is 2,814 m (9,230 feet) above sea level. This summit is on the border between Syria and Lebanon, and is under Syrian control. The southern and western slopes of Mount Hermon came under the control of Israel as a result of the Israeli victory in the 1967 Six-Day War.

The Israeli sector of the mountain is heavily patrolled by the Israel Defense Forces and the Israel Police, and the Israeli Security Forces maintain a strategic observation post for monitoring Syrian and Lebanese military activity near Mitzpe Shelagim ("Snow Lookout"), which is at an elevation of about 2,224 m (7300 feet). Its adjacent peak, at 2,236 m, is the highest elevation under Israeli control.

Happily, it looked very much like a ski resort, albeit an underdeveloped one. The resort is managed by Majdal Shams, a Druze village right at the base of the mountain, and Neve Ativ, a moshav a few kilometers south of the mountain. It's absolutely beautiful up there and topographically, it reminded me alot of the look of the Little Cottonwood Canyon, where we skiied last March, in Utah. Scrubby, rocky looking mountains, that you snake through on switchbacks, gradually seeing patches of snow that eventually turn into a light frosting and then, suddenly, heavy coverage. The mountain is big and craggy, and above the treeline, and it stares down upon the visitor with imposing demeanor. There are not alot of runs, although I'm told it's alot better than it was 15 years ago, and there are beautiful, untouched areas of virgin snow, that just beg for a brave skier to venture into. Thing is, the snow is heavy and moist, not light fluffy powder and one wonders if a skier would get stuck in the wetter stuff, beneath the upper crust of snow. I saw a few off piste skiers, but felt that without fatter skis and without a knowledgeable guide, it was not going to work. Anyway, we had our work cut out for us, with 3 beginner skiers to take down the mountain. Talya was the most experienced, with Helaina a close second and Adam a rank beginner. They were all game and worked hard all day. Gabe took Talya under his wing and she followed him down, much like the rows of little ones in ski school filing after their instructor like ducks in a line and Natan handled Adam for a good portion of the time, especially after Adam admitted to Natan that he needed a crash course in turning. Helaine was slow and steady but made good headway in getting herself down the runs successfully. After a while we switched and I bothered Adam much in the same way Rebecca Schiffman used to bother him - "pick up your butt, keep your poles in front of you, look down the mountain," and then, when he tired, went back to basic ski kid talk, "pizza/snowplow and french fries/parallel." He did well. We stopped for lunch as Jon had insisted we keep our sandwiches in a backpack with us. We ate voraciously of our smushed but tasty sandwiches and headed back for more. As warned, fog had descended earlier in the day which had made skiing the upper mountain hard, esp with our new skiers but we managed. At about 2:00pm, the fog lifted and Jon and I headed for the other side of the mountain. Natan and Gabe were tiring and stayed with Helaina (Talya and Adam had traded their skis for sleds), eventually going into the lodge and returning their skis. Jonathan and I headed over to the Siyon side, taking a rope tow up to another spot. We got off the rope tow and there we were at the top of a beautiful canyon, complete with a snow crusted cliff to our right. We skied along the upper rim - I had to sightsee and stop along the way, agog at the beauty and grandeur of the mountain, which we had, virtually to ourselves. We skied down into a valley, towards the base of the Western face of the other peak that we had been skiing on earlier. The snow cover was thick, the quite was absolute, except for the soft schuss of the skis. We reached the bottom, by the lift, alongside the lift house and watched a few soldiers joking with the workers, smoking cigarettes, their rifles hanging alongside their sides, their green uniforms at odds with the pristine beauty surrounding them. We had seen other soldiers during the day, wearing white coveralls, skiing with us, some on some of the oldest equipment I'd ever seen. These were members of a unit that patrols the Hermon and I'm told they train in Norway. Got to find out more, maybe they're interested in one of mine for such a posting. They didn't look like hotshot skiers but I only saw a few of them out on training runs. I don't think there's an Israeli ski team but skiing in the army, there's an idea...

We headed up the lift - all the lifts were slow 2-chairs but the weather at this point was warmer than it had been all day and we were tired. It was too late for another run down the valley so we headed over to the other peak and skiied down - answering the phone on the way, it was Helaina, wondering where we were - and headed for the lodge and the gift of every ski day, taking off your ski boots. The kids were already in their street shoes. We gathered our stuff and changed and got ready to leave.

A note about the skiers. Most of them were newbies and most, rank newbies. Normally, when one goes skiing, there's always a few impressive skiers, who zip past the likes of the rest, carving beautiful arcs into the snow. I would say that there were none of those but lots of happy beginners with a bunch of intermediates thrown in for good measure. What we saw alot of were new skiers. New skiers, complete with tzitzit and kippot flying in the wind, new skiers with skirts over ski pants (and sometime not), new skiers with jeans and sweat pants, wet on their behinds, skiing or trying to ski and generally getting in the way and falling all over the place and mucking about in areas they shouldn't have been finding themselves in. I was glad I had my helmet but it was fun to see such happy newbies enjoying the snow. Maybe they just put out their cigarettes and hang up their phones (I stopped when I answered mine, unlike another guy I saw skiing and talking) and they'll be less of a threat to everyone on the mountain.

We were ready to leave at about 4:15pm with a minor complication. I was to deliver Natan to his play rehearsal at 8:00pm in J'lem. It was starting at 7 but I had dispensation to bring him late. What to do. There was no way that we could get home and have sahlab, which Jonathan had been planning all afternoon. We'd have to drive the Jordan Valley way on our own and it was getting dark and I was thinking I didn't want to. I called the director and said, "W're fine, had a good day and just wondering how much you need Natan." Leah had given us her blessing to go but had exhorted Natan not to come back with a broken jaw as the last actor had done during the play period. She said, "Well, I'd like to have him." I said, "No problem, I'll get in the car and get him to you." She said, "I don't want you driving like a maniac." Excellent. I had invoked Jewish mother guilt. I said, "No, we'll be fine but, I'll tell you, this has been a good day for Natan. He's been working hard and under alot of strain and it's a special day for him. BUT...if you need him, I'll get him back to you." I should add, that as expected, Natan is an excellent and responsible cast member and knows his lines and his blocking and I'll tell you more about the play another time. Leah thought and said, "Don't hurry back, it's ok." I asked her again if she was sure and she said she was. Natan was overjoyed.

We headed down the mountain and made our first stops at a group of small shacks right as you exit the entrance to the area. We stopped, according to Jonathan's scientific analysis, not at the first or the last but the middle person. We were greeted by hot cups of sweet and spicy tea. She told us that it had sage and cinnamon in it. Lovely and restorative. Then, we ordered large druzi pita sandwiches. I tasted, saving myself for the sahlab. They looked like crepes almost - quite flat and large. She folded one in half and laid it across an overturned pan, shaped much like an upside down wok, and warmed the pita. Then she slathered it with either chocolate spread (for Gabe and Talya) or labne (soft yogurt cheese), sprinkled with a hot, spicy herb mix and a drizzle of olive oil and folded the whole thing up for eating. She offered tastes of homemade cherry preserves (not too sweet, complete with pits) and something she called, grape honey, which was sweet and syrupy, perhaps a cooked down syrup from grape juice. We tasted her olives, which were crunchy and good and some sort of salted bean - perhaps a relative to ful beans but smaller. We got a few cups of sahlab. Hers was quite unusual with an almost sagelike taste or maybe it was lavender - not my favorite, and it lacked what Jon and I consider essential, chopped nuts, but we drank anyway, some of us dumping midway, or giving to Natan to finish. We headed off, extra pittot and jam in tow, and Jonathan decided to stop at the last shack, veering from his scientific hypothesis of the past, and we sampled another sahlab which Helaina liked more but which I thought was lacking completely. After a quick stop 10 minutes later to view a waterfall, we got on the road, driving to Rosh Pina, where we stopped for a quick potty stop and a driver change (Jonathan took over for me). We considered eating humus but of course, everyone was full, not surprisingly.

Jonathan drove the next leg back down to Route 6 and we switched again, when we neared Kochav Ya'ir and I took us back up the hill to Jerusalem, listening to the soft snuffle of Natan's snoring in the back seat. We arrived home at about 9:15pm - really not a bad trip overall and I think, under the projected 4 hours each way but didn't clock it of course, much to Ira's chagrin, and we'll analyze it further the next time we go, hopefully, in a few weeks (assuming there's still snow).

I went to bed exhausted but content. It had been hard to leave NY, knowing that skiing here would be complicated and different. This wasn't bad at all, and it was a good realization for the big boys as well. Maybe next year, we'll manage a real ski trip somewhere exciting, assuming global warming hasn't totally destroyed the glaciars in the Alps, but meantime, we've got the Hermon, right here in Israel.

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