Saturday, February 04, 2006

Israel: Mt. Hermon

For such a small country, Israel's geography is quite varied. You've got your deserts, your coasts, your forests, your foothills, and even some mountains. One of these mountains, Mt. Hermon, is home to Israel's only ski resort.

Having only been skiing once before, and more than five years back at that, I was hardly an expert skier. Still, I was determined to give Hermon a go. I knew it would be fun, and the novelty of skiing Israel was too good to pass up.

The ski season on Hermon is fleeting, some years lasting only six weeks, so there was no time to lose. I rounded up a posse, and we decided to head north on the last Saturday in January.
Unfortunately, by the Friday preceding our trip, every last person had backed out. Lousy posse...

Since there was still time, I opted to postpone the whole thing until the following weekend, rather than go alone.

By the time the next Saturday arrived, the posse was thankfully still intact. It was more than intact actually. It had expanded from four people to seven. Well, it was sort of expanded. The three add-ons didn't want to ski, but they still wanted to coordinate a trip with us to the northern Golan Heights. While we were skiing, they would tour Nimrod's Fortress. Then we would all meet up and grab a bite to eat and whatever else people wanted to do.

Logically, we split up into a skiing car and a non-skiing car. I was driving the skiing car, and we left Tel Aviv at o-dark-thirty. Our 5:00 AM departure was supposed to put us at Hermon right at 8:00 - opening time. The non-skiers, meanwhile, could afford to sleep a little later. They hit the road at 7:00.

My posse consisted of me and my good friends Doni, Jenn, and Yoav, and as we started down the darkened highway, it was immediately apparent that we didn't all share the same vision for the day. There was a bit of grumbling from some quarters about the early departure time, and some (well Doni anyway) understood the value of it. Of our party of four, Yoav and Jenn seemed to be picturing two or three hours on the slopes while Doni and I were envisioning a full day. Obviously, not everyone was going to be completely satisfied come the end of the day.

As the driver, I was the only person who had to be awake, so I was unsympathetic to the whining about the early departure. The others did sleep off and on.

Then when we were about halfway to Hermon, Yoav asked if we could stop at a café for some breakfast. No one else presented any strong objection to the stop, so we set about looking for a good place to eat.

Then Yoav had another grand idea.

“How close are we to Rosh Pina?” he asked.

At the time, we were maybe 20 minutes away.

As soon as he mentioned Rosh Pina, I knew exacted what he was going to say. Yoav and I had gone touring in Rosh Pina only a month before, and on our trip, we had stopped at a café for breakfast. The food was good, but it took forever. This café was perhaps a little too leisurely for our current needs, but then again, we didn't even have consensus on what our needs were. A leisurely breakfast would work just fine for a two-hour day of skiing.

Right on cue, Yoav asked if we could stop at that same slow café.

After I pointed out that there wouldn't be any quick in-and-out at this place, I agreed to go along with the majority. Yoav and Jenn were firm yeses. Doni kind of gave a “if that's what you guys want, I'll go along too” response. She didn't seem totally on-board with it, but I could tell that she didn't want to be the bad guy. I didn't either.

So, we all planted our butts in that café and ate a full breakfast. We had juice; we had salad; we had cheese; we had fish; we had omelets; we had bread; and we cappuccinos. We had delightful conversation and picked our teeth with toothpicks.

And by the time we left, our friends in the other car (who had departed Tel Aviv two hours after us) were fifteen minutes in front of us on the highway. Doh!

Since the two cars were basically together at this point, it was decided that we would rendezvous. Other than to further delay us, I did not understand the reason for this. We had seen these people the day before, and anything that needed further discussing could be done by cell phone.

Along the route, there was a place where a few roads intersected. At this spot, there were always people selling fruit and miscellaneous home-prepared crap (like honey, jams, cheese, and olives) from roadside stands.

It was here that the lead car would wait for us.

When the four of us were reunited with Deborah, Geoff, and Masha, everyone wandered around for a bit and looked at the roadside booths. Then we all trooped over to see a waterfall that was in the vicinity. And that was about it.

People were like, “You on cell?”

“Yeah. You?”


“OK. Call us when you're done.”

“OK. Later.”

Then we drove the few remaining minutes to Hermon, and the others peeled off for the fortress.

When we reached the ski resort (after 10:00!), the parking attendant warned us before we paid to park that the weather wasn't good (although the lifts were running). We decided that we would pay anyway and have a look.

We parked, suited up, and caught the bus from the parking lot to the slopes.

Yoav, originally from Ukraine, had been living in Israel for years and had never been to Hermon. He had, in fact, not even seen snow in something like fifteen years.

This immediately added an element of interest to things as Yoav started going crazy, leaping into even the nastiest mountains of plowed parking-lot snow. After he got scolded a few times by employees of the resort, we coaxed him to come inside where the real snow was.

For being a bad weather day, there were a good number of Israelis on the slopes. We got to witness the famous Israeli style of kamikaze skiing, and the number of people who were out of control seemed to greatly outnumber the rest. For someone like me who also sucks, this is not such a huge problem. For someone like Doni, on the other hand, it's a huge annoyance. (Doni grew up in Montana and skies like an ace.)

As the parking lot attendant had warned us, the weather was not the greatest. It was cold and windy, and visibility was low. Before dishing out the shekels for a day-pass, we decided to ride up the longest chair lift to get an overview of everything.

Doni and Jenn took the first chair, and Yoav and I followed. The wind was screaming, and it was bitterly cold. Everyone who passed us in the opposite direction was huddled up in a ball, as was Yoav. I opted to remain unballed so I could fully appreciate the numbness that was overtaking my body.

Even though he was all rolled up, Yoav continued cooing about the snow. By the time we reached the lodge at the top of the lift, I was definitely ready to change partners for the lift ride back down.

The lodge was serving cafeteria food that looked pretty bad, but was still selling like hotcakes - except for the hotcakes which were selling like gangbusters.

Oh, the beauty of a hungry, captive audience!

Seating was tight, and as we walked through the water-logged, sweaty dining room, people guarded their tables with an unwarranted fierceness.

“Touch that chair and die! My kids will be right back!”

OK, chief, take it easy.

We stood around for a few minutes, and a table eventually opened.

With our hot beverages of choice in hand, one by one we shared our feelings on skiing. Jenn said that she didn't want to ski anymore but that she would if everyone else still wanted to. Doni and Yoav said the same thing. Then it was my turn, so I put the last nail in our trip. With three no's already on the table, I wasn't going to say yes to skiing and force three people to hang around for my benefit.

Had I not been part of a group, though, I would have definitely stayed and skied. Even though conditions weren't the greatest, I didn't like my odds of getting another chance. I've already mentioned the short ski season. Beyond that, Hermon's close proximity to Lebanon and Syria means that there is always a chance that Israeli authorities will close the site due to conflict in the area, or else that the Embassy will put it off limits for whatever reason.

Anyhow, a group vote is a group vote. We finished our drinks and headed back to the lift.

Just outside the lift, there was snow out the wazoo, which of course makes sense. Seeing this, Yoav bolted and started climbing around again. Before long, a member of the ski patrol came over and chastised him. Doni thought it was screwy that this guy was getting on Yoav's case while in the meantime, there seemed to be complete chaos on the slopes.

Once we got on the ski patrol man's bad side, we went back to the lift. And just as I was about to suggest that we change seat mates for the ride down, Yoav piped up, “Same partners as last time!”


And so for the next ten minutes, my face froze solid, and Yoav squealed like a school girl about the wintry wonderland.

As we were leaving the resort, the other group called us. They were finished also. They wanted to come over to the mountain just to have a quick look at the snow, but when we told them that they would still have to pay for parking even if they didn't ski, they decided not to come.

We met instead at a Lebanese restaurant a few miles from the mountain. Both Lebanese and Israeli cuisines are largely regional, so the food at this place was basically the same as at any other place in Israel. We ordered the usual suspects (pitas, hummus, falafel, tabbouleh, labneh, olives, tahina, and a few other salads) and shared them around the table.

During the course of the meal, someone commented on how good the hummus was. This led someone else to mention that the chef had a secret recipe, and that he always made the hummus alone to protect the secret.

With the door wide open, Geoff made a stupid joke implying that the secret ingredient was semen, and that the secret process was, well, you know.

[Actually, this reminds me of something closely related. Two of my Israeli colleagues at the Embassy refused to eat prepared hummus from the grocery store because there had supposedly been an exposé in the newspaper once upon a time in which the hummus from a major manufacturer had been found to contain semen. I obviously have my doubts about this, but my friends swear it's true. If it is true, the perp would have to be pretty stupid. You can't really deny your involvement when your DNA is in every container.]

Anyway, Geoff made his hummus joke.

We all groaned and moved on, except for Yoav. He didn't stop laughing for like three hours.

After lunch, we decided to do a bit more touring in the Golan before heading home. The place we picked to see was, I believe, called Mt. Bental. On this mountain, which was near the border, there was an abandoned Israeli bunker that looked down into Syria. There was also a sculpture garden and a café.

The bunker was pretty cool actually, and touring it was my favorite part of the day. Everything was still set up, so you could see the kitchen, sleeping rooms, and so forth inside the tunnels, and outside, you could see the different watch posts and firing positions that the soldiers had once used. The view into Syria was nice.

By the time we finished looking around, the sun had gone down. We loaded back into the cars for the drive back to Tel Aviv.

There was a difference of opinions as to which route we should take, but we ended up taking the longer, windier northern road.

We were all still wearing our ski gear as we drove home, so I turned the heat down pretty low in the car. This didn't sit well with the others, though, and I cranked it back up for their sakes. I was roasting.

By the time I dropped everyone else off and got home myself, I was just about all Hermoned out.

Just about, but not quite.

The very next day, I went for my third attempt, this time by myself.

I woke up bright and early and hopped in my car down in the garage in my building. And to my surprise, I found that my battery was dead because someone from the day before had left one of the interior passenger lights on. The ill-fated Saturday trip was still thwarting me a day later.

Undeterred, I waited around for some of my neighbors to appear so that I could get a battery jump.

It wasn't meant to be, though. Several people tried to help, but they were all driving little clown cars that didn't have enough juice to jump my jeep. Eventually I had to call a towing service and request that the man bring the jump-box to my garage.

When he finally showed up, it was hours later and the window for driving north had passed.

I was once, twice, three times the loser for skiing Hermon that season, and I never did get another chance.

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