Kiwi skier tackles North Korean slopes

By Kirrily Schwarz

Kiwi freestyle skier Sam Smoothy and filmmaker William Lascelles have gone on a snow trip like no other, exploring the slopes of North Korea.

Kiwi freestyle skier Sam Smoothy and filmmaker William Lascelles have gone on a snow trip like no other, exploring the slopes of North Korea.

"We were looking for something to do in the northern hemisphere winter. We wanted something off the beaten trail, and I must've typed into Google 'Craziest places to ski'," Lascelles told news.com.au.

"An article came up saying Kim Jong-un had built this resort. Sam started laughing hysterically, and we thought we'd just see where this rabbit hole would go."

The resort, east of Pyongyang, was built in just ten months as part of the North Korean leader's plan to attract one million visitors to the country by 2017, and two million tourists by 2020.

Just before they left, a 21-year-old American student was arrested for stealing a political banner. Otto Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years hard labour, and it was almost enough to put them off.

"Sam was in Europe, he called me in the middle of the night and was super quiet. I was like, 'Why did you call me?' and he said, 'Should we be doing this right now?'"

"I've never really been known for my subtlety or discretion. It's so hard to understand what you could or couldn't do anyway, and when the consequences are so high there's this constant tension," Smoothy told news.com.au.

Skier Sam Smoothy and filmmaker William Lascelles at Kim Jong-un's ski resort. Photo / CoLab Creative
Skier Sam Smoothy and filmmaker William Lascelles at Kim Jong-un's ski resort. Photo / CoLab Creative

"We had a meeting in Beijing on the way over, at the consulate. They kind of, I wouldn't say they put us at ease, but they told us the rules and said if you follow them, North Korea is pretty much the safest place on Earth," said Lascelles.

They spent 10 days inside the world's most secretive state, and it was plenty.

"That's plenty with a capital P. Was it enough time for what we wanted to do? Yes. Was it enough to get a real feel for the country. Absolutely not. I felt like the longer we were there, the less we knew. Answers would change depending on the context. You get the sense that you're not being told the truth," said Lascelles.

"We weren't there with any hidden agenda, we just wanted to show other skiers what it was like to be there with skis in your hand. We figured as long as we went with the flow of things, it would be OK."

Arriving in Pyongyang was like stepping onto the moon.

"The newspaper always had a picture of Kim Jong-un on the front page, looking important or inspecting a factory or something. You can't put it face down, and you can't roll it or scrunch it up or anything because that's disrespectful. How do you get rid of it?" Smoothy said.

The pair arrived in the capital in time for the leader's birthday celebrations, and had to lay flowers at the feet of a statue and bow to show their respect.

"I didn't really want to do it, but I had to do it anyway. There were guards, military guards, everywhere. The fear just washed over me like a tidal wave," he explained.

Smoothy surveying the picturesque mountains. Photo / CoLab Creative
Smoothy surveying the picturesque mountains. Photo / CoLab Creative

"It was weird. We knew going in, that we would have people watching us. I think the thing that struck us as the most interesting was the conversations we had. On our first night we had dinner, and we were talking with our minders about girlfriends and boyfriends and different things about their culture I never thought would come up," said Lascelles.

"One of our minders was always texting her boyfriend, and it was just so natural. All the news reports we hears from the outside was that everybody was starving, or getting hurt by the regime. In no way am I staying it's not happening, but we didn't see that. We weren't looking for it, either."

Together with their two female minders, they got into a little grey van and drove toward the slopes. North Korea's mountains are picturesque, and the lodges are impressive. However, the men found the weather conditions difficult to predict.

"It was really cool terrain, plenty of rollers and lots of little tree runs. It could be really good, it's close to Japan and that has some of the best terrain in the world, but it's hard to know when the best time is for snow," Smoothy told news.com.au.

"Unfortunately, the second day we were there it rained all the way to the top, and that kind of stuffed the snow completely."

Lascelles with the pair's minders in Pyongyang. Photo / CoLab Creative
Lascelles with the pair's minders in Pyongyang. Photo / CoLab Creative

"It pretty much turned into the worst snow imaginable. We carried on, we were always adamant that our minders would think we were having the best time ever," said Lascelles.

In the video, Smoothy wasted no time racing over a jump, before heading off-piste and exploring the trees. However, when the sticky, slushy snow proved problematic, he headed over to the bunny slope to give their minders a beginner lesson.

"It's pretty complicated, ethically, going to a place like that. I mean, we had a good time for sure and it definitely wasn't what we expected. You just have to accept that you'll have some different ideas," Smoothy said.

"You can still find common ground. They don't run the country, they're just trying to live their lives as best they can. You can't trust everything you hear in the Western media, either. I felt so confused by the end of it, because you didn't think you were being told the truth by anyone."

Arriving in the capital was like "stepping onto the moon". Photo / CoLab CreativeS
Arriving in the capital was like "stepping onto the moon". Photo / CoLab CreativeS

So far, reaction to the film has been positive.

"There's always the risk of people coming back with a negative view, as if we're trying to tell people to go on holiday to North Korea. We're not trying to tell people to go, but we're not trying to tell them not to go either," Lascelles told news.com.au.

"What you see is what you get, this is the experience that we had first-hand. We're not journalists, we're not trying to portray it in any light other than what happened when my camera was turned on."

- news.com.au

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