My last trip for the winter with the U.S. Alpine Paralympic Ski Team would take me east, to Japan and South Korea. Our first stop in Hakuba, Japan was the alpine skiing venue for the 1998 Winter Olympics based in Nagano. Followed by a stop in Pyeongchang, South Korea. The central city for the 2018 Winter Olympics. Jeongseon, South Korea is located about an hour from Pyeonchang and will serve as the alpine skiing venue.
The contrast between these two cites and venues is quite large. Hakuba is a quiet town shadowed by the high alpine of the Japanese Alps. A town that naturally fits in its surroundings and has a ski culture with multiple ski areas. Jeongseon on the other hand, seems forced and artificial. Granted, Pyeongchang does have a few ski areas surrounding it, but these ski areas don't have the vertical relief for an olympic speed event. The result was to literally construct a venue in the middle of nowhere. There is no town, city, or village in Jeongseon. Just a spot on the map that fits the specs for a ski hill. Hence the South Korean government built three runs, a gondola, a couple chairlifts, and a snowmaking system to accommodate three speed events for the olympics. That's it. In Jeongseon there is no public skiing, rental shops, restaurants, cafes or regular snowfall for that matter. The hotel is still a shell of itself and the base lodge is surrounded by mud. I'm sure it will all be ready for the games but what happens after the games are over? There is no real plan, which is what scares me.
Our time in Japan was short, with just a couple of races for the athletes and a single day of free skiing for the whole gang. If you didn't already know, Japan is known as one of the best countries in the world to ski deep powder. As our day off approached I had a hard eye on the weather forecasts. Hoping for that total reset of powder. Even though the goal of this trip wasn't to ski powder, the fantasy that maybe we'd somehow stumble into some neck deep pow was always on the back of my mind. It did snow overnight prior to our day off but the accumulation of snow didn't stack up to our necks or even our boots. Without the heavy accumulation, only four of us rallied to ski. We did have a few good turns at the start of our one run adventure into what could have been a permanently closed area. (We never got any confirmation on that.) When you can't see more than a couple of feet in front of you and you don't understand any of the Japanese signage you're skiing by, you'll usually find yourself in the strangest of places.
With this being my second trip to Japan without any "Japow", I'm hopeful my next trip will be the big one. On this visit though, I really felt the true kindness and welcoming spirit of the people. My next visit here will surely be spent seeking out those experiences that move me closer to the people.
The next 10 days would be spent in South Korea for the IPC World Cup Finals. This event would also act as a test event for next year's Paralympic Games. A test event is a way to give organizers a feel for what needs to be improved or kept in place for the next year's big show. All was well until our first day of racing arrived. The gondola, which is the only way out of the base area, mysteriously stopped running. Delay after delay throughout the morning finally forced the organizers to cancel the race. The word floating around camp was that there was an electrical problem with the lift and lift operations couldn't get it solved. We were all dumbfounded when we learned the real issue at hand was that the company who installed the lift had remotely shut down the gondola. From Austria! Wait....that's possible? The South Korean government had decided not to pay their bill. South Korea thought Doppelmayr was bluffing when they had issued a warning that they'd shut down the lift if nothing was done about the outstanding bill. They weren't bluffing. An obvious first for me and one of the weirdest situations in skiing I've ever experienced.
This issue seemed to have been remedied by the following day. The lift was running and the rest of the week went off without a hitch. A small matter of not paying a bill couldn't overshadow a successful ski race.
The U.S. team had a few injuries throughout the week but finished the with some great results. The team earned a couple overall globes and had a huge win in the Men's Slalom event. Congrats Jamie!
I would be lying if I said this trip wasn't one of the strangest experiences surrounding skiing I've ever had. A few things come to mind. As we prepared to leave Japan for South Korea, North Korea had just launched missiles into the Sea of Japan. Hakuba is on the coast of the Sea of Japan. Flying to Seoul from Tokyo you travel over the Sea of Japan. No big deal.
When we landed in South Korea the country was in the midst of impeaching their president. (Who they later arrested.) The city was in a bit of an uproar. We were also attending an event near the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea. Where formations of military jets flew over us on a daily basis to keep up reminded. We weren't in Kansas anymore. With all this going on we were never at risk and never felt to be in any danger. Just an odd turning of events. And who doesn't pay the bill for a chairlift!