Lebanese Ski Army commander confident mountain base will survive long winter
The warmth of the Col Samih Khalil welcome contrasts with the freezing cold outside. On the top floor of the Youssef Rahme barracks, above the mountainous town of Bcharré, it offers coffee and tea, accompanied by Manoucheh pancakes.
Lebanon is experiencing one of its coldest winters in decades. Throughout the season, snowdrifts gradually accumulated around the base.
During the summer, the nearby Cedars of God, one of the oldest cedar forests in Lebanon, attract many tourists. During the colder months, the city attracts winter sports enthusiasts.
The National Visit Bsharri on a weekday and the town is quiet except for a few enthusiastic traders selling tourist wares. And, of course, the approximately 150 Lebanese soldiers who guard the base.
When coffee grounds are all that’s left at the bottom of the cups, Col Khalil points to the portraits of former base commanders – his predecessors – hanging on the wall above an imposing fireplace. The top photographs have started to fade with age.
“The base in the past had a great history, even internationally,” he says. It has been a key part of the army’s training strategy since the founding of the Lebanese state “because we have a lot of mountains in Lebanon and we have many units stationed in the mountains”.
Recruits learn to navigate snow with little support and treat the wounded in inhospitable conditions.
Army training here isn’t just military in nature, Col Khalil says, as the army is often called upon to help stranded civilians in the rugged and isolated mountain terrain. “We offer them help, we evacuate the wounded, we evacuate the sick,” he said.
It should have been the perfect posting for Col Khalil, who grew up in the mountains and loves skiing. But he arrived at the base in 2019, shortly before Lebanon’s devastating financial crisis. A few months later, he was dealing with the effects of the Covid pandemic.
“I didn’t have time to take advantage of it, because the last two years, in 2020 and 2021, we couldn’t do any tests. We couldn’t even organize the military championship”, says he. “In the past two years, we have done almost nothing.
The base is slowly working on resuming some of its activities. Col Khalil prepares to inspect an alpine ski training session for some of the recruits and so goes to change out of his military fatigues.
In his ski gear, without the trappings of his military rank, he could be any middle-aged enthusiast. This is what he would have liked to become in a few years, if his retirement plans had not been completely disrupted by the financial crisis.
A line of polished red snowmobiles demonstrates one of the base’s lifelines. Foreign army units have been training here since the barracks opened, but the base is increasingly dependent on help from international partners. These snowmobiles were donated by Canada, but it is not a durable model and the budget for updating the rest of the inventory is gone.
“It affects our performance here because all the equipment we use for training is imported,” says Col Khalil. “Now, with the budget we have, we can barely buy one pair of skis a year.”
At the end of a short drive between snowbanks two meters on each side are a handful of tired lifts. It’s the oldest ski resort in the country – and it looks like it too, especially when compared to the big resorts closer to Beirut that still attract Lebanon’s fashionable elites on weekends.
Here, the offer of rental equipment is old in comparison and the advertising campaigns on ski lifts and shop fronts have been devised for different generations of equipment and skiers.
Col Khalil puts on his skis and skilfully seizes the ski lift offered to him by one of the attendants. From the summit, holes in the clouds reveal some of Lebanon’s most spectacular mountain scenery. The resort below is nestled in a vast natural mountain amphitheater, adjoining the rugged Qadisha Valley which winds its way towards Tripoli.
He gestures to the other side of the track. “You can see that old chairlift there. It doesn’t work anymore.” The lift has been owned by the military and has been taking trainees to the slopes since the 1950s, but not anymore.
“Now we can’t find any spare parts,” he says. The Army is looking to replace the elevator, but that depends on finding someone willing to donate it.
The base is overwhelmed, struggling to keep going amid the global pandemic and crippling financial crisis, with salaries for its staff shrinking to next to nothing and increasingly dependent on international aid for equipment. Nonetheless, says Khalil, the base “will get through the crisis because the crisis won’t last forever.”
In the meantime, the army makes do with it. Recruits wear a hodgepodge of different clothes. An experienced French instructor guides them on the slopes, one bend at a time.
Col Khalil stays with them, observing without intervening. But as the group gets closer to the bottom of the run, the Colonel skis down and grabs another ski lift. Time for one more race before returning to base.
Updated: April 06, 2022, 03:00