Fifty skiers and snowboarders descended upon the backcountry of Lebanon’s Mzaar Ski Resort, the largest skiing resort in the Middle East and an hour's drive from Beirut, to take part in a world-class competition for extreme skiing and snowboarding in February.
The Freeride World Qualifier debuted its first ever event in the Middle East Feb. 17-18 at 1,400 meters (4,600 feet) above sea level. The winners included Lebanon’s very own Jad Ghosn, who placed first in men’s snowboarding, with Swedes Jonathan Johansson and Ellen Forsberg placing first in men’s skiing and women’s snowboarding, respectively. The trio will likely go on to compete in other qualifying events around the world with the goal of making it into the Freeride World Tour. The competition runs range in difficulty from one to four stars, with four stars being the most challenging. The events are typically held in world-class ski resorts such as Verbier and Nendaz in Switzerland) and Kicking Horse in British Columbia in Canada.
Lebanon, which suffered through a 1975-1990 civil war and has been profoundly affected by spillover from Syria's civil war, is often described in the foreign media as either a hotbed of religious extremism and sectarianism or the home of the wildest nightlife in the region.
Ride4Peace defies stereotypes by purposefully uniting skiers and snowboarders from around the world for a peaceful if exhilarating event in an area little known for its extreme sporting potential.
The brainchild of Thomas Rigaudeau, Ride4Peace was organized with the help of Nour Saliba and Samer Jureidini, owners of the snowboarding shop and club Board Inc., and Ali Issa of the Republic of Snowboarding school. “What’s great about freeriding is that it can be done everywhere,” said Rigaudeau. In an interview with Al-Monitor, he said he had been eager to host the event in his home country since participating in the qualifiers last year.
The local freeride community was electrified, Nour Saliba told Al-Monitor. “To be honest, we weren’t expecting it to be this big. Everyone is so interested in the competition — even riders under 18 come to the shop to try and register,” she said, adding that little effort went into publicity as they wanted to take things easy their first time around.
Although there are far more skiers in Lebanon than there are snowboarders — last month Samer Tawk made history by becoming the first Lebanese cross-country skier to compete in the Winter Olympics — many are showing interest in snowboarding.
“You see a lot of ski instructors and ski-oriented competitions, so with Ride4Peace we’re hosting one big slopestyle competition,” Saliba said. She said the team at Board Inc. hopes to build a tight-knit community with a shared love for these sport. “We live in an awesome country where everything is accessible, and this event shines a light on that,” she said.
The event took place at the Mzaar Ski Resort, whose steep and rocky terrain is rated two stars out of a possible four. With a pitch varying between 35 to 45 degrees and a vertical drop of 200 meters (660 feet), the slope is a rare find in the Middle East. The terrain is comparable to some of the 40-plus degree slopes of Chamonix in France.
Any snowy mountain with slopes of over 30 degrees has potential for avalanches. As safety precautions for the freeriding competition, which takes place on ungroomed runs, Rigaudeau and his team were provided with avalanche kits, including communication devices, avalanche probes and shovels in case of emergency.
“It’s a great opportunity to showcase new riders, new cultures and new landscapes,” Rigaudeau said. Competitors from Canada, Sweden, Austria, Germany, France and the United Kingdom came to participate in Ride4Peace. More importantly, the event gave local riders the opportunity to earn their stripes an international competition and bond with worldwide peers over their mutual passion for shredding backcountry slopes.
Freeride World Tour Americas manager Tom Winter met Rigaudeau last year at an event in Chile. “There was this competitor who was interested in hosting a qualifier in Lebanon and I said sure, I’ll share all my knowledge, my budgets,” he told Al-Monitor. “It’s fairly simple to organize one of these. You need some passion and people who can help with the venue and volunteer,” he said, adding that Rigaudeau had the enthusiasm motivation to take the idea and make it happen.
Winter said it’s a unique competition as the first in the region and one that allows athletes to experience a place unlike any other. “It’s one of the oldest cultures in the world, known for its hospitality, art, music and historical sites,” he said, adding that it also gives local riders the opportunity to showcase their skills. “Local riders have always had to travel to compete and there’s probably some very talented athletes who couldn’t make it because of work or expenses.”
“Every good moment or passion can bring people together,” Rigaudeau said, adding that freeriding can be a meaningful peaceful experience between riders from other countries or religions, particularly in a multicultural hub like Lebanon.
Rigaudeau, who’s bonded with many riders since getting involved as an organizer, hopes this event will provide locals an opportunity to attain international rankings and attract more organizers to host regional competitions for local riders. The sport also promises to boost the country’s tourism, which has seen major setbacks in recent years following the outbreak of the Syrian war.
As for international riders, they get the chance to enjoy and experience a new mountain with local hosts, which is important for correcting misconceptions about the country and its ski and snowboard community. “I hope people will start associating freeride with more than just big, steep lines, as an opportunity to experience new cultures and landscapes,” Rigaudeau said.