Discovering Lebanon through extreme sports
Beirut - Joey Abou Jaoudeh was dwarfed by the huge rock he was ascending, overlooking the Tannourine valley. Facing the Mediterranean to the west, the imposing cliff offers a breathtaking view of the valley, many hundreds meters below the climbing site.
Although Lebanon is not known for extreme sports, such as climbing and abseiling, the adrenaline-rousing exercises have gained popularity in recent years.
Abou Jaoudeh, a 28-year-old architect, has become an avid enthusiast of challenging sports, including rock climbing. “I started climbing three years ago in an indoor gym, then directly switched to scaling outdoor crags and fell in love with it,” he said.
According to Abou Jaoudeh, the number of outdoor sports participants, especially mountain climbers, has been rapidly increasing over the past two years after renowned masters of the sport visited Lebanon, exploring sites and rigging climbing routes.
“They also gave technical knowledge and moral support to a once-shy community of alpinists,” he said.
Only a two-hour drive from Beirut, Tannourine el-Faouqa, at more than 1,500 metres above sea level, is next to a reserve of Lebanon’s famed cedars in the northern part of Mount Lebanon.
The sky was superbly blue with a few clouds hovering over the peak, giving a stunning contrast with the greyish face of the limestone. Abou Jaoudeh chose to climb a “5b+” route, which is medium-level difficulty in the French scale of climbing. The open-ended scale lists a climb as “1” as easiest. Letters, with “a” easier than “b” and so on, and the “+” sign are used to subdivide the numerical rating.
He clipped the rope to his harness and started ascending with ease and assurance. When he went back down, enthusiasm and happiness were splashed across his face.
“This site is called Harissa. It is also known as Shir al Ribez. It is personally my favorite climbing site in Lebanon, offering a multitude of super cool routes from easy to medium and very difficult, all with magnificent views,” the climber explained as he started ascending a different route.
He said he never got the chance to climb the multiple-pitch route of 300 metres called Mon Coeur s’envole (French for “my heart flies”), the longest of the Harissa- Tannourine climbing routes.
“Every time we’d finish warming up, doing the easy short routes, it was too late to start it!” Abou Jaoudeh said with a sigh.
He said he has no specific climbing partner although ascents are preferably done in pairs or groups for safety reasons.
“We are a small group of friends that usually go climbing together. The Lebanese Climbing Association has done a great job by setting up new (climbing) routes and expanding the community of climbers,” Abou Jaoudeh said.
“My advice for new climbers is to train hard and always abide by the safety rules. Be eco-friendly and raise the bar higher for future generation.”
Just a short distance from Tannourine al-Faouqa, the small village of Balaa is home for one of the most beautiful natural wonders of Lebanon, the Three Bridges Chasm, also known as Balou Balaa, a 255-metre-deep sinkhole and caves carved out of ancient limestone over millions of years by winter melt water.
Overhanging the enormous mouth of the chasm are three natural bridges, suspended above each other over a height of 100 metres.
The best time for visiting is in spring when the mountain snow melts and crystal ribbons of water flow down the drop and shoot out through three separate holes, providing stunning images.
It is a 15-minute walk to reach the sinkhole from the car park. Tarek Baba, his wife and two grown children are “fanatics” of extreme sports and for them abseiling in exceptionally difficult spots is a regular family outing.
“Abseiling the Three Bridges Chasm is an unforgettable experience that I lived a few years back with my family,” Baba said.
Baba’s eyes sparkled with excitement as he recalled his adventure in the sinkhole. “After fixing my rope around a big boulder, I started my descent sliding with my feet against the rock side for about 15 metres, then, I was dangling in the air some 80 metres above the mouth of the chasm… I was literally flying behind the roaring waterfall.
“The view was hallucinating! From the bottom I could see my wife like a spider sliding down the solid static rope.”
The site was recently escalated by professional climber and European champion David Lama, who opened the first climbing route in the wall of the chasm, listed as “9a” in the French scale, which is a ranking of 28 on a global difficulty scale of 1 to 31.
Lama said that particular escalade was one of the highest difficulty grades possible in climbing.
Baba noted with sadness that Balou Balaa was becoming a popular weekend summer destination, drawing picnickers who are littering the place.
“It gets really crowded in summer, endangering the site, which should be a protected natural heritage. We found plenty of rubbish at the bottom of the waterfall,” he said, complaining that a dam is being built nearby, which would cause irreversible damage to the sinkhole.