Let's Ski South Korea

Summertime sparks our wanderlust. We pulled this story, which was included in 2006's Best American Travel Writing, from the archives to augment your summer reading list. In it, writer Christopher Solomon braves the slopes of South Korea, eats fish guts, and hears the voice of God.
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Summertime sparks our wanderlust. We pulled this story, which was included in 2006's Best American Travel Writing, from the archives to augment your summer reading list. In it, writer Christopher Solomon braves the slopes of South Korea, eats fish guts, and hears the voice of God.
Let's Ski Korea

On the fifth day of skiing in the land of almost right— after hearing the Voice of God, watching malevolent puppets exert Confucian order on the liftline, even after an assault by a computerized toilet—I finally experience something that truly shakes me. The twitching leg does it. It's evening. Tall nightskiing towers line Muju's icy slopes, and in their weird lunar glow a not inconsiderable crowd swarms and bumps like moths beneath a porch light in August. Except the boy. The boy, he's a blur moving fast toward the bottom of the ski hill. He makes no attempt to turn. He doesn't scream. Remarkably, he makes no sound at all as he hits a restraining fence at 20 miles an hour. He hits so hard that momentum bends his body under the fence and sends him skittering 30 feet beyond. He's unconscious and immobile when I reach him. Except for his leg. His left leg is twitching spasmodically.

It seems a very long time before the boy opens his eyes. He sits up, swats at the snow on his pants, stands unevenly and starts to gather his goggles and poles. Back in the liftline, Pom is waiting for me. Pom, a 23-year-old university student and part-time ski patroller at Daemyung Vivaldi Park Ski World, is my guide and translator as I visit three of South Korea's top resorts. After the crash, Pom told a bystander to call the patrol. There, apparently, his interest in the matter ended.

For me, on the other hand, it's the worst crash I've seen in 20 years of skiing and my heart is pounding like Tito Puente on Benzedrine. I need to talk to someone. I need, as we say in America, to "process" this. That leg. Jesus. Didn't he notice that leg? Jesus. Pom...well, he looks rather bored at the moment.

"Did you see that?" I say. It comes out like a yelp. Pom's slack expression is the face of hard-won stoicism. Maybe it's the patroller in him. Or maybe it's the fact that he sleeps every night beside a border of two million land mines. When he does speak, his voice is a shrug.

"Not very unusual," he says.

Let us imagine for a moment that you are a skier in search of epic turns and big adventure. You board a 737 that climbs into the pinking western sky. You sit smugly with your tomato juice and your complimentary Economist as your airplane arcs over the world-class slopes of Vail and Keystone and the Wasatch legends of Alta and Snowbird before descending into LAX. There, you board a fatter plane and head out over the blue Pacific. Eleven hours later you arrive in South Korea, your mind cobwebby with jetlag. Still, you are excited. Now before you is the chance to plunder the slopes of a land that is 70 percent mountains yet remains terra incognita to Western skiers. If you did this, you could say that you are an open-minded world traveler. You could say that you have an unslakable thirst for the undiscovered steep-and-deep—that you're a Magellan among powderhounds. You'd be what the Koreans call pah-bo. Loosely translated, it means you are a damned fool.

If, however, you come for the sheer phenomenon that is skiing in South Korea—if you come to glimpse how it's done in this land that quite possibly holds the future of skiing—well, now you're onto something. By some accounts, South Korea is home to the fastest-growing skiing scene in the world. Visits to the country's ski areas have ballooned nearly 75 percent over the past decade. This winter a 13th resort opened, and at least seven more are planned. Next year, car manufacturer Hyundai hopes to start building a ski area in North Korea, which would open the DMZ to tourists from the south. Korean détente, it seems, may yet arrive—on a pair of Völkl Supersports. Along with China, which now has more than 200 ski areas, South Korea is where tomorrow's skier are being grown. Their embrace of the sport is all the more remarkable for the fact that the skiing in South Korea is—let us speak plainly, shall we?—breathtakingly awful. At least by the standards of the American West. Most of Canada. Europe. And pretty much anywhere else north of the horse latitudes where man has strung a ropetow, with the possible exception of the Midwest and Pennsylvania.

But this is beside the point. The more I learned about South Koreans' love for the sport that I, too, love, the more I wanted to see them enjoying it. What a wellspring of passion these people must have, that skiing's fragile flower can blossom in such rocky soil! What hardships a people must have endured to forge the heartiness needed to ski here! What heartiness that few soft-bottomed Americans could ever muster! Before I leave, an expat American skier who lives in Seoul offers me some insight. Much in South Korea feels a nudge off-center, she says. This is a country in which yellow traffic lights precede greens as well as reds, with predictably dangerous results, she says. I think of my book about Korea, which speaks of a country where things are done both energetically and half-assedly, where the people "often appear incompetent, and yet they achieve." Across the crackling phone line, the expat skier says she has a phrase for this Korea. The Land of Almost Right, she calls it. The way to the mountain is lined with fish. This is not a Zen koan. There are actually fields and fields of fish beside the road that leads to Korea's oldest ski slope, YongPyong. "Hwang-tae," says Pom, as we pull over the van. "What?" Pom produces an inscrutable device that looks like a pocket calculator and punches keys. "'Alaskan pollock,'" he reads. The fish, he says, are carted here from the docks to cure in the brutal winds that right now are blowing down from Siberia. "Specialty of the region," he says. The fish? I wonder. The wind? Outside, a million pairs of shriveling eyes stare up at the quilted sky. The air smells of snowflakes and low tide on a hot day. This combination strikes me as unpropitious. We pull back onto the road to YongPyong.

Americans like to think of skiing as a Thoreauvian escape. We like to push off on a quiet run beside still woods, to hear the swoosh of new snow beneath our skis, to feel the cold biting our face as we reconnect with nature. At YongPyong, nature has been augmented by a 10-foot-tall television screen in the middle of the ski slope upon which, at this moment, a Korean model is rubbing foundation into her porcelain skin. Next to her is a slope lined with billboards of the size seen along interstate highways. Nightskiing is big in South Korea, and the towers are ablaze with lights. Pom and I head up for a few runs. I see that the giant television and the billboards and the truck that’s playing cartoons—all these are nothing next to the noise. Speakers on the lift towers blare tinny Korean hip-hop. Ski patrollers blow traffic whistles. Every Korean owns a high-tech cell phone that makes American telephony look like so many tin cans and string, and each uses it ceaselessly. The slope is an aviary of electronic chirps and squeaks and barks and bleats. The noise is complete, it is enveloping, and the Koreans wear it as comfortably as a sweater. Occasionally the thrum of hip-hop ceases and the Voice of God booms across the slopes. “What is she saying?” I ask Pom (for the Voice of God, in case you ever wondered, is female). Pom cocks his head. “‘Choose your slope as your ability.’”

Saturday morning, 9 o'clock. Forty-six tour buses fill the parking lot. Every few minutes another bus arrives from Seoul. A few of the skiers inexplicably wear white surgical masks, as if there were something lurid and miasmic in the tart mountain air. A food stall outside the mammoth base lodge sells curried hot dogs; another pours red ginseng lattes; a third hawks skewers soaking in hot broth beneath an English sign that reads "Fish Guts." English has cachet here. Vending machines sell cans of Let's Be Coffee and Pocari Sweat. The rental shop is busy. The lodge is busy. The line for the gondola is already crammed. Whoever dubbed South Korea "The Land of the Morning Calm" has obviously never skied here. I am reminded of the many cautions I have received about skiing in South Korea. "Total mayhem," one American ski consultant who worked here chuckled unhelpfully, "but they love it." The most recent warning came the previous evening, from another American, in the hotel lounge. "They ski," he said, "like they drive." This wouldn't be a bad thing if we were in, say, Sweden, and everyone were driving sensible Volvos, sensibly, on sensibly maintained roads. But South Korea has one of the highest traffic mortality rates in the world. Though things have improved from a decade ago, somehow this is not comforting.

And then there is what I have come to think of as the juche problem. Koreans have a deeply rooted belief in juche, or self-reliance. In other words, an amateur can tackle anything if he puts his mind to it. This goes some way toward explaining why there are lines everywhere this morning except at the Daegwalleong Ski School desk. Still, it is sunny and bright as we board the chairlift, and the attendant bows and smiles, which is nice. I can think of many ways to describe what I experience next. Most of these include the words "pinball" and "blunt-force trauma." I learn that the quaint Western concept of skier density limits does not translate in a country where 50 million people live in a crawlspace the size of Pennsylvania. I watch Seoul-raised Pom glide through the crowds like water around rocks. A few South Korean skiers are very talented. Pom is one of them. The rest are terrible. No, not terrible. Terrible and swift. The conditions don't help. The wind blows hard, drawing a bony finger down your spine but bringing little snowfall. Snowguns keep skiing alive. The resulting slopes are bulletproof, unforgiving, New Hampshirean. I see a hundred near misses to bring a mother grief. I see men hit children. Juche, again. Yet no one gets angry, or apologizes. Another American expat says it's the best skiing he's seen in years.

That afternoon we head to YongPyong's crest, to a trail that's been bulldozed into the ridge to create a scenic top-to-bottom run. The scenic run is rather narrow and lined by a severe chain-link fence to keep skiers from dropping off the edge. The pinched run does not discourage snowboarders from sitting down in the middle and pulling out their cell phones. Others talk while skiing. Occasionally, men pull over and have a smoke and talk on their phones. Where some gather, more gather. It's like watching a blood clot forming. On the way downhill I see a ski patroller, a lonesome anticoagulant, standing over a snowboarder, blowing his whistle in the wind. -Christopher Solomon SKI November 2005