Desert Oasis

Desert Oasis 1203

Duck the ropes at Mount Hermon, Israel's only ski area, and you might confront more than the usual backcountry dangers. Skiing off-piste at this 245-acre area could lead you into deserted Syrian minefields or, at the very least, across the border into potentially unfriendly territory.

A trip to Mount Hermon offers a crash course in the Arab-Israeli conflict. The peak of the 9,232-foot mountain is in Syria, while the lower mountain is in Israel and is part of the still-disputed territory captured during the 1967 Six Day War. The ski area abuts Syria at the top and Lebanon at the bottom, two of Israel's historic enemies. Just over the bunny hill is Shebaa Farms, a controversial border area that is more or less up for grabs. The resort manager's first phone call of the day comes at 4 a.m., when the local army commander lets him know if it's OK to open the mountain.

None of this fazes Israeli skiers, for whom hostile neighbors are a way of life. They come in droves to ski and take part in the unique bonhomie that binds people on a ski trip. And as citizens of a mostly desert country, many come just to see the snow. From the country's center near Tel Aviv, Mount Hermon is a four-hour drive past villages, pita stands and, near the entrance, an Israeli army check-point where soldiers stand guard in an armored truck with a mounted machine-gun. Later, you'll see soldiers on the slopes with Uzis strapped to their backs and skis on their feet, navigating the slopes among Israeli citizens who ski the way they drive: aggressively, and often with cell phones glued to their ears or cigarettes in their hands.

Mount Hermon's snow (380 inches last year) tends toward slushy, and the liftlines are long. But none of the 8,000 daily visitors seem to mind. In a country where conflict is all too common, the slopes of Mount Hermon are a refuge of peace—as long as you stay inbounds.