BEIRUT: Lebanese extreme sports fanatics will have their winter kicks if not by snow then by mud. That was the decision of Gilbert Hobeish, founder and owner of Skyline Extreme Sports, one of Lebanon’s many ecotourism companies that have had to accommodate an unusually warm and snowless winter season.
Ecotourism groups have faired a lot better than mountain resorts and villages, which rely on the snow to provide a steady stream of skiers and snowboarders. But outdoor adventure groups such as Dale Corazon, Vamos Todos and Skyline coped with a dry January and grim February forecasts by packing their schedules with alternative winter activities.
In the case of Hobeish, Skyline led a team of adventurers on an ATV trip through the muck and mud left over from melting snowcaps in Bsharri in north Lebanon. Regular off-roading replaced the snowmobile or mountain ATV trips he would have scheduled, were there snow.
In the chill of winters past, Hobeish used to take teams of adrenaline-seekers to hike through blizzards at 2,800 meters above sea level or repel through forests covered in white powder. The colder, the higher, the windier – the better, he said.
“They wait for the storm to come so they can go on a hike and to make an igloo and live in it,” Hobeish said.
Skyline usually offers more exciting trips than standard hiking, and a balmy winter has put off thrill-seekers who want to get caught in the elements.
“This week, we went on a hike and walked for six hours,” he said. “But they’re looking for an adrenaline rush, to feel weak against nature.”
In the coming weeks, Skyline will invite the public on a six-hour cave exploration, a trip which would have been impossible in average winter weather conditions. The country’s mountain caves are usually blocked this time of year by snow and runoff destined to become the local groundwater supply.
It’s not just extreme sports that have taken a beating this winter.
Vamos Todos, Lebanon’s biggest ecotourism group with more than 15,000 members, hosts some of the country’s most popular hiking trips, which founder Mark Aoun divides into various levels of intensity.
Each year from January to March, most of those excursions rely on snowshoes, which keep trekkers from sinking into centimeters of powder. Shortly after “Alexa,” this winter’s only notable storm, Vamos Todos held four such snowshoeing trips. But since then, Aoun has had to change his program schedule around, canceling the snowshoeing and adding ordinary warm-weather hikes.
Aoun said he had never seen a snowless January in the eight years that he’s run Vamos Todos.
“It’s really something,” he told The Daily Star. “The snow is becoming so bad we had to stop. To hike you have to have a minimum of 5 kilometers and a maximum of 8 to 10 km for the high level. But we can’t continue because some parts are empty and some parts have snow.”
There is snow at Lebanon’s highest elevations, such as Qornet al-Sawda standing 3,000 meters above sea level. But the remote roads and frigid temperatures are too risky for average hikers, Aoun said.
This weekend, Vamos Todos has hikes planned in the Chouf and in the Metn village of Beit Shabab; for the annual Valentine’s Day overnight trip, Vamos Todos is holding out hope that it might be a snowshoeing trip rather than an ordinary hike.
Like caving, paragliding also got an unexpected boost this season as clear days and mild temperatures offered good conditions for soaring off cliffs north of Beirut.
Caroline Gabriel of Exit to Nature provides tandem paragliding trips from a mountain near Jounieh. This season has been better than usual, Gabriel said.
Bicycling is another sport often affected by heavy rains or ice. But organizers such as Beirut by Bike have been able to host open night rides without fear of heavy rains. And the organization’s permanent location along the city’s waterfront in Downtown has been swarming with children and adults taking advantage of sunny January weekends.
Aoun and Hobeish have both been able to rearrange their winter lineup and still draw participants. But the dramatic scenery of blinding white mountain peaks is really what’s missing this winter, they said. Lebanon – characterized by a bisecting mountain range and scattered forests – usually offers stunning views in the wintertime.
“It’s wonderful to see the cedar forest covered with snow,” Aoun said.
The ecotourism providers told The Daily Star they hadn’t yet lost hope that February might offer some of the precipitation for which winter-sports fans have waited.
“We still waiting. We hope to have at least two or three snowshoeing events in February,” Aoun said. “But we have to respect nature.”