Lebanon's skiing army commander confident mountain base will survive long winter

'The National' visits the snow-covered Youssef Rahme Barracks in the peaks above Bcharre

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The warmth of Col Samih Khalil’s greeting contrasts with the bitter cold outside. On the top floor of the Youssef Rahme Barracks above the mountaintop town of Bcharre, he offers coffee and tea, accompanied by manoucheh flatbreads.

Lebanon is experiencing one of its coldest winters in decades. Throughout the season, drifts of snow have progressively accumulated around the base.

During the summer the nearby Cedars of God, one of Lebanon’s oldest cedar forests, attracts plenty of tourists. In the colder months, the town attracts winter sports enthusiasts.

The National visits Bcharre on a weekday and the town is quiet, save for a few enthusiastic shopkeepers selling tourist merchandise. And, of course, the 150 or so Lebanese soldiers who staff the base.

When coffee grounds are all that remain at the bottom of cups, Col Khalil shows portraits of the former base commanders – his predecessors – mounted on the wall above an imposing fireplace. The photographs at the top have started to fade with age.

Col Samih Khalil in front of photographs of previous commanders of the ski base. Finbar Anderson / The National

"The base in the past had a great history, even internationally," he says. It has been a key element of the army’s training strategy since the foundation of the state of Lebanon "because we have lots of mountains in Lebanon and we have many units stationed in the mountains".

Recruits learn how to move across the snow with little support and how to treat the injured in inhospitable conditions.

The army’s training up here is not just military in nature, Col Khalil says, because the army is often called to help stranded civilians in the rugged, isolated mountain terrain. "We offer them help, we evacuate the injured, we evacuate the sick," he says.

This should have been the perfect posting for Col Khalil, who grew up in the mountains and adores 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 enjoy, because the last two years, in 2020 and 2021, we couldn’t do any events. We couldn’t even organise the military championship," he says. "The last two years, we did almost nothing."

Col Khalil inspects his troops from a distance.  Photo: Finbar Anderson / The National

The base is slowly working towards resuming some of its activities. Col Khalil is preparing to inspect a downhill 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. It is what he would have wanted to become in a few years, had his retirement plans not been completely upended by the financial crisis.

A line of polished red snowmobiles demonstrate one of the base’s lifelines. Foreign army units have been coming here to train since the barracks was opened, but the base has become increasingly reliant on aid from its international partners. These snowmobiles were donated by Canada, but it is not a sustainable model and the budget for updating the rest of the inventory has vanished.

"It is affecting our performance here because all the equipment we use in training is imported," Col Khalil says. "Now, with the budget that we have, we can barely buy one pair of skis a year."

At the end of a short drive between two-metre banks of snow on either side are a handful of tired looking ski lifts. This is the oldest ski resort in the country – and looks it too, especially when compared with larger resorts closer to Beirut that still attract Lebanon’s fashionable elites on the weekend.

The snow-covered mountains of Bcharre at 1,500 metres, about 120 kilometres north of Lebanon's capital Beirut. AFP

Here, the rental equipment on offer is ancient by comparison and the advertising campaigns on the lifts and shop fronts were envisioned for different generations of gear and skiers.

Col Khalil clips into his skis and expertly takes the drag lift offered to him by one of the lift attendants. From the top, gaps in the clouds reveal some of Lebanon’s most spectacular mountain scenery. The resort below nestles in a vast natural mountain amphitheatre, adjoining the rugged Qadisha Valley that winds down towards Tripoli.

He gestures towards the other side of the piste. "You can see there, this old chairlift. It’s not working any more." The lift belongs to the army and has been taking trainees up the slopes since the 1950s, but no longer.

Recruits line up for instruction in front of the army's now defunct ski lift, first installed in the 1950s. Finbar Anderson / The National

"Now, we cannot find spare parts any more," he says. The army is looking to replace the lift, but that depends on finding someone willing to donate it.

The base is snowed under, struggling to carry on amid the global pandemic and the crippling financial crisis, with its staff's salaries dwindling to almost nothing and ever more reliant on international aid for equipment. Nonetheless, Khalil says, the base 'will get through the crisis because the crisis won't stay forever.'

In the meantime, the army makes do. The recruits wear a hodgepodge of different clothing. A seasoned French instructor guides them down the slopes, one turn at a time.

Col Khalil stays with them, watching, not interfering. But as the group gets closer to the bottom of the piste, the colonel skis off and grabs another drag lift. Time for one more run before returning to base.

Updated: April 06, 2022, 3:00 AM
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