PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — At most ski areas in the United States, there’s a standard set of signs you encounter as you approach the end of a lift ride.
“Raise the safety bar.”
“Prepare to unload.”
“Keep your ski tips up.”
In South Korea, they should add one more: “Don’t forget to bow.”
At the end of every lift ride, a liftie waits at the landing platform — not inside the shack — and greets you as you arrive with both a deep bow and “annyeong haseyo,” the Korean phrase for hello.
It’s polite to bow back, and perhaps say “kamsamnida” — thank you — as you ski away.
The same thing happens at the base lift stations, where the attendants are unbelievably friendly and will help you in almost any way. That even includes going outside the line corral to pull a struggling skier up into the loading zone. They lower the safety bar for you. They push you up to the right spot to load the chairlift. It’s like the lifties are your personal valets.
Yongpyong Resort is where the technical ski races are being held in the Olympics, and colleague Rachel Bowers and I had the opportunity to spend a morning there before the Games kicked into high gear. Yongpyong opened in 1975, although the location has been a ski area since 1953 and is considered South Korea’s first modern ski area. A section designed to hold major races was added in 1998, and Yongpyong has hosted World Cups and other events.
The level of service was the big takeaway, but it was also a really fun place to ski.
Yongpyong is a two-peak kind of layout on Mount Balwang, with a valley between the peaks, although part of the area was closed because of the Olympics. We could not take what appeared to be a beautiful eight-passenger gondola to the Dragon Peak, which is at an elevation of about 4,700 feet, because that served the slopes that would be used for the races.
What was open was enough to get a good feel for skiing in Korea, which honestly feels an awful lot like skiing in New England. Yongpyong is not huge by any stretch, and if I had to compare it with a New England mountain, I’d say it’s like Ragged Mountain, or Berkshire East, or Gunstock. Places such as Killington, Loon, and Sugarloaf are far larger.
But the snow at Yongpyong was perfect. It undoubtedly was mostly manmade, because there wasn’t a ton of snow across the surrounding landscape, but the slopes were thickly covered with soft packed powder. When I walked uphill one morning to watch some of the training runs, my boots sank into the groomed snow an inch or two every step, which meant that on skis it was as carve-able as it gets.
There also wasn’t a trace of ice, and the area was pretty much deserted on the weekday we visited. We were the first and only ones in line for first chair, but it was difficult to get an answer as to whether that was the norm or just because of the Olympics. On Saturday morning, there appeared to be a few more skiers and snowboarders heading out, but not many more.
A huge difference from New England skiing was that advertising is everywhere — on billboards, safety netting, and the backs of chairs. Yongpyong is also extensively built up, with hotels and condos throughout the surrounding region and extending far uphill, like a ski area plopped in the middle of a small city. It does not have much in the way of rustic and rural charm.
Another big difference: chain-link fencing lines any slope that has the danger of drop-offs into the woods. There were several trails that meandered through the forest and didn’t have a ton of advertising, but the chain-link fencing and signs everywhere that appeared to be like distance markers took away that “away from it all” feeling you get when a trail is left in a more naturalized state.
Tree skiing? I didn’t see any tracks in the woods.
One thing I did see a lot of was Olympic-level skiers out getting their ski legs in shape in the days before things got truly competitive. After these Olympics, Yongpyong will always have a special designation as an Olympics venue, and for me it’ll be a fond memory of being able to experience a place chosen to be one of sport’s grandest stages.Matt Pepin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpep15.