Behind North Korea's Red Curtain With Sam Smoothy

  • Life
posted by James Willmott

Let’s be straight up honest, The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or North Korea, is not the first place anyone would generally think when thinking of destinations for their next snow trip. Not the case for The North Face’s Sam Smoothy and filmmaker slash close pal, William Lascelles. The pair recently (and successfully) did what most people would never attempt, dare or even think of, going behind the Red Curtain with the purpose to ski and get a taste of a culture so many of us know little to nothing about.

“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.” Then, within a blink, there they were.

This is the stuff we love to hear about! Individuals breaking outside of their comfort zones to explore new places and completely new environments. There are so many questions that come to mind when you first hear of the concept, ‘How did the idea come to mind?’, ‘What were the rules?’, ‘What’s one thing you saw that you couldn’t document?’ and so on and so forth.

Well, we were lucky enough to snag a quick few minutes with Sam to find out more about the epic adventure. Check out the epic feature film and see what he had to say!

Ok Sam, one thing that’s on everyone’s mind is how and when this idea of exploring the ever fascinating North Korea first came to mind? What was it like when you first stepped foot in the country?
There was definitely a lot of nervous energy, customs immediately kinda scared us but going through our laptops, asking us to show them what movies we had, “Do you have ‘The Interview’ movie by Seth Rogen?” that was something they were pretty excited about, but thankfully  I only managed to open GoPro files of me being trying to ski. Then the trend of our expectations being upended began, our guides found us and were two cute Korean girls who were super nice and knowledgable, and who didn’t drink whisky or smoke which rendered all our gifts useless as that is what we had been told to bring.



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We know the rules and restrictions of the country are strict to say the very least. Were there any outlandish rules that you were surprised by?
My favourite fun DPRK rule was about the daily newspaper. It invariably featured Kim Jung Un on the cover, giving guidance in some factory or office, and the images of the leaders are treated with the utmost reverence. You cant crop any picture of the leaders or disrespect it; so you cant scrunch up the newspaper, leave it on a seat, roll it up, throw it away or anything….so how do you get rid of it once you’re done reading? We never really worked this out, my guide held mine for me and I brought it home for future memorizing.

There were a number of rules but I was really surprised by how freely we talked about subjects with our guides, on all kinds of topics including their satellite/rocket launches of late. It would sometimes get a little close to the bone and we would veer off but yeah it was super interesting talking with them.

Ok let’s get to the reason you went, the snow. How did the quality compare to other places around the world? We can’t imagine the mountains being very busy in comparison to places like Whistler, Big Bear and Queenstown to name a few?
Sadly we got fairly skunked snow wise. The first day was nice firm winter snow, and we ripped around on piste with some local ski instructors. Well, not quite with them but beside them, but they were ripping which was cool. Then this storm came in which got us excited BUT it rained to the top and fully saturated the snow pack leaving us with a foot of the mankiest snow known to man. But we skied on and had a goofy good time anyway. The skiing wasn’t really why we were there, it was more the excuse to go there.

It was more like lift accessed backcountry skiing on piste up high, we were literally the only people we ever saw skiing up there. It was pretty eerie and ominous scouting through the mist and trees in our little two man team, never really sure if we were allowed to be where we were.

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Do you think this project will set precedent for other snow enthusiasts looking to explore the land so many will never see?
I don’t think there will be much of an influx of tourists to DPRK, but maybe some will go looking for something a little different, something that might challenge their own beliefs and ideas.

You obviously made a video documenting your experience while you were there, tell us about some things you were unable to capture? We know the guides keep a close eye on what you can and cannot film. did you see anything that they did not want you to see?
Nah, our guides had us on lock down pretty good, though Will had a weird sighting of some strange animal in a cage, wanna extrapolate on that bud?

How was the food and accommodation?
I love Korean food so was pretty stoked to explore what they had on offer; everyday we got taken to places to eat and while some of the more  adventurous things didn’t go down as well that’s totally part of the fun, and made the plates you’d never eaten before all the better. They definitely tried to impress on us how much food there was and I definitely packed on the pounds, lunch and dinner being 10 plates of all kinds of tasty snacks.

The accommodation was a weird part of the trip. The hotel in Pyongyang was huge and basically empty, but had a whole level of games with ten pin bowling, billiards, table tennis, the works to keep everyone entertained and in the hotel. Then the hotel at the ski resort was even bigger, really trying to be flash with a pool and a big restaurant and this karaoke room with instruments you could play. Well, in our case, try and play and piss of the locals accidentally with.

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Do you think you’d ever go back or was this a one of adventure?
I’m pretty sure I won’t go back, I’m also pretty sure I wouldn’t be allowed back. It’s not like we tried to poke fun at them, we actively tried not to, but I don’t think they would appreciate my humuor in the movie. I think one and done is good enough for me here, but who knows, maybe the country will change at some point in the future and that would change things for me.

Last but not least, what’s one lesson/experience you’ll take away from this trip behind the red curtain to remember forever?
This trip definitely humanized North Koreans for me; while there are obvious huge issues over there, the Average Joe is just trying to live his life, support their families, make the best of what they can. They aren’t running the country they’re people just like everyone else. So I think maybe its made me a little more cynical about governments and the way media manipulates us and a little more sympathetic towards my fellow man. Woah, accidentally diving into the deep end there.

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*Imagery William Lascelles