The cold returns for Winter Games in Pyeongchang

After two straight balmy Olympics, athletes and visitors alike will finally experience a serious chill in mountainous Pyeongchang.

The cold is back for the Winter Games.

After two straight balmy Olympics where some might have wondered if it was even winter, let alone the world’s pre-eminent freeze-dependent sporting event, athletes and visitors alike will finally experience a serious chill in their bones during the games in mountainous Pyeongchang.

How cold is it?

So cold that tears spring to the eyes. So cold the ink in a pen grows sluggish and fades as it scribbles over a page. So cold that South Korean men sometimes flash back to being posted for hours on the frozen frontline during mandatory military service. So cold at least six people were treated for hypothermia last month after a pop concert at the open-air Olympic Stadium.

Related: Climate change hits Winter Olympic preparation

“We all hope it will be better in February, but if it’s like it is now, there will be big trouble. It’s just too cold for outsiders,” says Choi Jong-sik, 64, smirking in his short-sleeve shirt as a visiting reporter removes layer after layer of thick outerwear for an interview at Choi’s Pyeongchang restaurant.

Vancouver and Sochi, where ski jumpers were landing in puddles, got complaints for being too warm, as might Beijing in 2022, but the weather in Pyeongchang will likely dazzle spectators, and confound organizers and athletes, in its bitterness.

Pyeongchang sits nearly half a mile above sea level in the northeastern corner of South Korea, not too far from the border with the North. It is one of the coldest parts of the country — wind chill in February is often in single digits (Fahrenheit) — and notorious for a powerful, biting wind that gathers force as it barrels down out of Siberia and the Manchurian Plain and then across the jagged granite peaks of North Korea.

It can be hard to get people here to talk about, or even acknowledge, the cold. It is simply a fact of life, and stoicism is often the rule when confronted with outsiders’ weather-related questions.

“The only thing foreigners can do is the same thing locals do: bundle up,” Nam Sun-woo, 60, a fishmonger in Pyeongchang, says. “Not many outsiders understand how cold it gets here. It’s not like where they’re from. This kind of cold is completely different.”

The weather will be on display, and maybe a major nuisance, at the Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium in Hoenggye village. The much-criticized 35,000-seat open-air pentagon-shaped arena, which cost 118.4 billion won ($107 million), will be used only four times — during the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics and Paralympics — and then torn down.

On a recent blustery day, from the top of a nearby 17-story building, the white angular stadium looks a little like a giant discarded Lego piece. It rises isolated on a wide, flat plain, muscular mountains cascading down behind it. It looks vulnerable and exposed — all those thousands of orange and pink seats laid bare below the wide dome of sky — but also slightly magical as the sun glitters off millions of tiny ice flakes blowing across the plain.

The wind is brutal, and it pounds the entire area, including the stadium and the rooftop, where the gusts rattling through the big AC units sound like a doomed bomber plummeting out of the sky in an old war movie.

Despite the cold, organizers have done little to protect stadium visitors. Spectators will have to sit exposed for as long as five hours in the elements during the nighttime ceremonies. There are no built-in heating systems for the seats and the corridors, and it’s too late to build a roof and too expensive to install central heat, officials say.

Related: Russia’s Olympic punishment stuns Canadian sport community

Many of the concertgoers last month where six were treated for hypothermia reportedly flocked to the arena’s toilets for a rare bit of respite from the cold.

Organizers plan to provide each spectator at the Olympics ceremonies with a raincoat, a small blanket and heating pads — one to sit on, one for the hands and a pair for the feet. They also plan to install polycarbonate walls above the highest seats across the two northwest sides of the stadium to block the strongest winds. About 40 portable gas heaters will be placed in aisles between the rows of plastic seats, and lots of hot coffee and tea, fish sticks and heated buns will be on sale.

Still, by the time the opening ceremony starts at around 8 p.m., the wind chill at the stadium could be minus 14 degrees Celsius (about 7 F). That is much colder than the wind chill at the ceremonies for the Vancouver and Sochi Games, which were 5 degrees and 4 degrees C, respectively, according to South Korean officials.

When Associated Press journalists visited the area earlier this month, it was minus 18 degrees C (a little below zero F) midmorning at a resort near Olympic Stadium.

Sochi temperatures soared at times. On Monday, Feb. 10, 2014, for instance, it was 16 degrees C (61 degrees F).

The coastal areas of Gangneung, where skating and hockey will be held, are warmer than Pyeongchang. But it’s still cold. Tourists can be seen in thick quilted coats standing on piers and posing for pictures as huge, frigid blue-green waves crash behind them; they run and laugh, trying to dodge the spray.

Locals often smirk when they see bundled up tourists waddle around Pyeongchang like penguins. Choi, after an interview, stands outside his restaurant, still in his short-sleeve shirt, smoking a cigarette while a well-layered-up reporter shivers nearby. “Sometimes I go out like this and the people in warm coats look at me like I’m crazy.”

A drive into the mountains twists through isolated former mining towns and past frozen fields, frozen rivers, frozen forests and dramatic granite peaks that look in places like they’re sliding into the valleys. The sun sparkles on the brittle ice covering the landscape; the wind roars through the pine trees like traffic on the interstate.

“It’s cold, and it’s going to get colder. But what can we do?” says Ahn Young Ju, 36, a restaurant owner in the remote town of Nammyeon in Jeongseon county, which will host the downhill skiing events. “We were born here, so we try not to think too much about it.”

___

Associated Press writer Kim Tong-hyung and video journalist Yong Jun Chang contributed to this report.

Foster Klug, The Associated Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

Prince Rupert’s students are baking it all the way to the bank

Charles Hays band students serve up goodies to fund summer trip

Two temporary voyages between Prince Rupert and Ketchikan added to AMHS schedule

October and November will see service to Alaska during the last week of each month

Police still looking for more info on missing mushroom picker in Nass Valley

65-year-old Greg Agnew was reported missing on Sept. 30

Conrad is giving thanks

Conrad students celebrate the holiday with a special meal

Last house standing from Third Ave. fire demolished

Leftover debris has also been cleared from the site

ELECTION 2019: Climate strikes push environment to top of mind for federal leaders

Black Press Media presents a three-part series on three big election issues

Sentencing date set for Vancouver Island father convicted of killing his two daughters

Andrew Berry was found guilty of two counts of second-degree murder last month

B.C. woman finds mysterious coin among Grandma’s collection

Grandmother died when she was very young and her past is not well known to her mother

Advanced polls saw 4.7 million Canadians cast their ballots in the 2019 federal election

That’s a 29 per cent increase from advance polling in 2015

Cheating husband sues mistress for gifted ring after wife learns about affair

The husband gave his mistress $1,000 to buy herself a ring in December 2017

Pot use admission at U.S. border snagging Canadian boomers, says lawyer

A waiver to enter the U.S. can cost $2,000 and isn’t a guarantee

Health concerns over vaping cast haze over Canadian cannabis market expansion

More than 1,000 people in the United States, and a handful in Canada, have developed a lung ailment

UPDATE: British couple vacationing in Vancouver detained in U.S. after crossing border

CBP claims individuals were denied travel authorization, crossing was deliberate

After losing two baby boys, B.C. parents hope to cut through the taboo of infant death

Oct. 15 is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Day in B.C.

Most Read