The Bokwang Phoenix Snowpark sits in the Taebaek Mountains about 80 miles east of Seoul, and though many South Koreans feel the drive from the capital is far, the 2.5 hours go by fast. You zip past colorful rest stops selling noodles, cappuccinos, and soups. Hills and villages scroll by the windshield. And inside the tunnels, fake police lights flash and a high-pitch, electronic voice comes out of nowhere to berate you into driving safely.
“Stay alert!” the voice screams. “Adjust speed! Caution! Caution! Caution!”
It’s a sunny day in February, and we’ve arrived at Bokwang. We’re here for an Olympic test event that’s also a World Cup stop, and the place is hopping. Skiers and snowboarders in crisp new jackets scratch their way down about 1,300 vertical feet of manmade snow. Six lifts twirl along 20 runs. The air is so icy and fragile you can almost hear molecules shattering around you.
“Welcome to the future site of the Winter Games!” a presenter booms in American English from a booth high on a hill. A small crowd has gathered near a beginner run called Masters, where a battlement of kickers stand two-men high. The snow below those jumps looks chopped and curdled and almost pillowy, which it is. A softer landing zone better absorbs bodies falling from 50 feet up.
South Korea will host the 23rd Winter Olympics from Feb. 9 to 25. It will be the first time since Nagano in 1998 that the winter event has come to Asia. The heart of it all will happen in a region called PyeongChang, a collection of sleepy villages and small resorts like Bokwang. In PyeongChang—not to be confused with Pyongyang, North Korea—you’ll find some of South Korea’s better resorts, including Yongpyong and Alpensia, each of which will hold some events. The Olympic freestyle teams will come here, to Bokwang.
Today is a chance for the resort to work out any kinks before the Games kick off for real. Some of the world’s best aerialists and mogul skiers are here. The crowd—especially the Koreans—are eating it up. They wear flags draped around their shoulders while women slip through the crowd wearing hair bands that say “It’s You PyeongChang!” Right now, all eyes are on a lone pole-less figure standing atop the run-in, deep in focus.
“Next up, Ashley Caldwell, of the United States!” the announcer calls. Caldwell, a 24-year-old aerialist from Virginia, has her eyes on the biggest jump of all, a 14-foot-high beast that will blast her three stories or more into the air. Her signature trick is a triple back flip with four full twists, a “full, double full, full” as they say. She is one of only two women in the world right now qualified to do it. The crowd falls silent.
“She either wins or crashes,” an onsite doctor whispers. “We always hope it’s a win.”
That do or don’t style resonates well in South Korea, a country that transformed itself in the aftermath of the 1950s Korean War from a smoldering wasteland into one of the world’s highest performing economies in just two generations. In 1988, when the country came out to the world by hosting the Summer Games in Seoul, it was barely a democracy and the average income in the capital city was about $13,000 a year. Now the people have impeached a president. They earn $56,000 a year on average. Korean food, fashion, and dramas are hits worldwide, not to mention K-pop. The 2012 hit “Gangnam Style” now has nearly 3 billion YouTube views, the second most for any music video on the site as of press time.
And skiing? “Well, um, we’re getting there,” says Chae Yeon, a sports manager in charge of the event venues at Bokwang. South Korea is about 70 percent mountainous with 21 resorts carved out of the forests but none of it is Kitzbühel. Summits feel high if they tap 5,000 feet. Japanese resorts can get 50 feet of snow a year; here they’re lucky to get five feet. Powder? It happens, but mostly that’s a beauty product and South Korean men—not women—spend more per capita on cleansers, serums and things like Neo Classic Homme Ener-Surge Masks than dudes in any other country. Indeed, many soldiers staring down the nuclear north first apply a moisturizing camo cream.
“We are fascinating,” Chae shrugs.
And that, my friends, is why I’m as giddy as Psy in a Sunglass Hut to have flown many hours over the Pacific to dink around on scratchy groomers at a time when my home hill in Oregon, Mt. Bachelor, is getting pummeled for the ages. If you want great skiing, you should probably go elsewhere—anywhere. But if it’s a high-flying, talking-tunnel, glowing-skin spectacle that may or may not involve real snow that you seek, a K-stay can be wildly fun. The Olympics will only make it better.
A few days before the test event kicks off I do some exploring around PyeongChang. Sam Gross, a rep from the U.S. Ski Team, and Rebecca Houck, a sponsorship manager from Columbia Sportswear, joined me at Alpensia in northeast PyeongChang, where we have hotel rooms in a fancy InterContinental. The place is huge—238 rooms—with a breakfast buffet the size of an arena. A lot of the Nordic events will take place near here. The ski area itself is small, just 650-foot vertical with three lifts and six easier runs, though it does have Ocean 700, an indoor water park.
We have a few days to take in some culture. For us that means karaoke, temples, and Korean barbecue. We wander clockwise around a towering seventh-century stone pagoda below the holy mountain of Manjusri just as a light snow falls. We drink makgeolli, a delicious, milky rice wine, under a tent at a market bursting with Chinese bush clover and dried jujubes. For dinner we cook juicy slabs of marbled beef on a coal-fired grill in Daegwallyeong, where the restaurant owner, Ju Sanghun, tells me how proud he is that the Olympics are coming. To cap it all off we wander into a noraebang, a classic karaoke club with half a dozen soundproof rooms, and belt out beer-soaked tunes until 3 a.m. With better pacing, we could have gone skiing. Bokwang’s lifts spin until 4 a.m.
At last it comes time to ski. We drive from Alpensia to Bokwang, following roads past blocky apartment buildings and Christian churches with neon crosses. Soon the mountains gather tightly around us and dozens of colorful rental shops line the pavement’s curves. Koreans simply don’t ski that much—resorts logged about 5 million skier visits in 2016, less than one-tenth of the U.S.’s 54 million—and people rarely own any proper ski equipment, not even a jacket. They can rent it all.
Curious, we stop at a shop called Legend of Winter a few miles out of Bokwang where I decide to rent some skis. Inside, the air reeks of 1993, with racks of well-worn jackets and pants with felonies for color schemes. Mr. Pae, a stocky manager in his early 40s, hands me some purple Dynastar Agyls that look like they’ve been hooky-bobbed through a meat grinder. They are 162s, the biggest he has. I’m 6’7”. These are busy times, though, and he asks if I can bring them back by 4 a.m.
“P.M., you mean,” I clarify.
“A.M.,” he says.
“A.M.?” I repeat.
“Night skiing!” he says. We settle on midnight.
We round a few curves to reach Bokwang, where I fork over $69 for a lift ticket. I take in the scene. Ads for banks and mobile phone companies hang over base area buildings where boxy kiosks sell bowls of spicy red ramen. Stations with dozens of dangling air hoses sit near the lodge entrance where skiers meticulously blow snow out of their bindings before carting them off to an outdoor ski corral nearby. The sharp metal edges of the lockers sit within colliding range of errant bunny-hillers, so bright orange safety pads cover the ends.
We make our way up to the highest point, a spot called “Mont Blanc” where a radio mast shaped like the Eiffel Tower and a funny little windmill rise over the trees. The hardwood forests buck and roll under the mountains looming in the distance. We shuffle skiers’ left to a run called Paradise where the signs urge me to behave: “Skiing or snowboarding after consuming alcohol is prohibited!” “Wearing helmet is the very start of safe skiing and snowboarding!” And again: “No drunken skiing and snowboarding ever!”
“Look at that!” Houck howls. Another sign posted in the middle of Paradise urges skiers to use the right of the run and for snowboarders to use the left. No one seems to do that, so I drop in behind a troupe of snowboarders who rip wall-to-wall, soul-surfer carves. The snow hisses under the Agyls, which hold an edge like a finely tuned saucer sled.
Just a few miles away sits Yongpyong, an area with a Stowe-like 2,400-vertical-foot drop. If Bokwang is the Poconos, Yongpyong is New England, and I get the feeling Korea’s better skiers come here—the runs are longer, steeper, and there’s more of them (31 to be exact). A lot of the alpine events will take place off its highest point—4,783-foot Dragon Peak. Gross, Houck, and I have time for only a few runs before the competition kicks off back at Bokwang.
All in all, the Olympic test event goes off well with only a few hiccups. One kicker isn’t quite up to spec and so workers reshape it. A feisty wind picks up and postpones the competition for a bit but otherwise the Koreans will be ready for the Games months ahead of schedule. And they will do it all for $13 billion versus the $50 billion the Russians spent on Sochi.
One of Caldwell’s coaches standing by the jump raises his arm, giving the aerialist the okay to begin. Caldwell points her skis downhill and races toward the kicker. She stands tall through the transition with her arms high to better build her rotational momentum. Her body stays stiff as it pulls at least five Gs through the ramp. Suddenly she’s so high in the air and spinning so fast the crowd gasps. But something’s wrong.
“Stretch!” her coach shouts. “Stretch!”
Caldwell is spinning too fast, too high, and making herself longer to help slow her down. It’s too late though. Caldwell hits the landing zone too far back on her heels and smacks her back on the snow. Despite the extra difficulty of her jump, the poor landing takes her out of the running. The Chinese sweep the women’s event. American Mac Bohonnon takes third for the men. Jaelin Kauf takes fifth in women’s moguls, rounding out the top finishes for the U.S.
That’s the way it goes, though, and in a few weeks Caldwell will nail the jump to win the World Championships in Spain. It’ll be the first championship gold medal for the women’s team since 1995. “The best feeling in the world,” she’ll tell me later. If she qualifies and makes it back to Korea for the Games, you can bet that’ll feel pretty great, too.
Tim Neville has covered some of the world’s weirdest resorts for SKI, from Kosovo to North Korea, which helps explain why he panicked when we first offered him this assignment. (“No, SOUTH Korea,” we said.) His trip to PyeongChang may have involved more kimchi than skiing—so much so he thinks he literally pickled his tongue—but even that can’t explain his horrific karaoke skills.