The Three Jewels of Korean Mountain Climbing.

My girlfriend Fee shared with me one day early in our courtship last year the fanciful idea of climbing all three of Korea's highest mountains, namely: Halla-san, Jiri-san, and Seorak-san. Being as I had already come close to climbing two of these, I hastily agreed that it should be a goal for us in the time we had remaining in Korea. Over the next year though, we would struggle with finding, adequate vacation time, the logistics of getting to these places, and quite a bit of fun and mishaps along the way. So here's the story...

Halla-san (한라산)

At 1,950 feet Halla-san is probably the most amazing land formation in the entire country. It is a gigantic shield volcano that sits in the center of Jeju-do, and essentially makes up the entire island. With a volcanic crater at its peak and the trail to the summit composed of big portions of lava rock, misty clouds floating about, and a unique weather system that swirls around the roads leading up it, this place is nothing short of enchanting.

I had ventured once to Halla-san once before a few years back, but due to ignorance of the trails did not actually make it to Halla-san's true peak, only to the Wissaeoreum(윗세오름) peak.

This time I knew things would be different. Rather than only allocating a long weekend, my girlfriend and I packed our bags to make this journey during Chuseok. In an attempt to enliven the adventure, and save on the logistics of transportation we made the decision to ride my motorcycle for the length of the journey... Yea, we rode with the two of us plus probably 30+ kilos of camping gear on my puny tapped-out 250cc Hyosung Comet from Gangnam in Seoul all the way to Jeju. I had actually done this solo before on my previous trip to Jeju. So I was prepared for both the hardship and awe of this journey over land and sea...

We started on our first day leaving quite a bit later than we would have liked. We had some issues getting everything in order, and with my girlfriend being susceptible to getting stressed out from this kind of thing it couldn't be helped. In fact we actually set off just past sunset; rode off into the night with only a couple of blankets, a tent, and a pair of saddle bags carefully packed with all the things we reckoned would be needed for this week-long expedition. At the outset, the late departure was soon met with unfavorable weather conditions. With less than 200 kilometers between us and Seoul the skies opened and rapidly progressed from a few raindrops to a proper downpour. In the brief time period of about 10 minutes from when the storm began, I located an underpass to allow us a little refuge while we made plans for our next move.

After briefly musing at the idea of setting up our tent under the bridge for the night, we began the more practical steps of wrapping our luggage in plastic bags to keep it from getting wet. We decided it would be best to go back down the road a ways to find ourselves a motel for the night. Of course as Murphy's law would have it, it was another 10 kilometers or so of solid rain until we managed to find acceptable accommodation for the night. It was certainly a good thing we decided on looking for a hotel despite the rain, because come morning things hadn't really changed. It was raining steadily, and with our morale... umm... dampened, we were forced to set off into a rainstorm mid-morning.

From here on things began to go more according to our plans. By noon the rain had stopped, and we made it to our destination (the ferry terminal at Wando(원도)) with only about 30 minutes to spare. After the requisite red-tape involved to get our tickets purchased (for both ourselves and the bike) we loaded the motorcycle onto the ferry and were soon aboard the ferry for it's 5 O'clock-ish departure.

Finally, aboard the ferry we got some well-needed rest. It wouldn't last too long as we knew this was the express ferry that would only take us about 3 hours to get to Jeju-si. Amidst a couple of bowls of Shin-Ramyeon we met another traveller. We noticed each other by the obvious quantity of motorcycle gear in both of our possessions. Boots, gloves, bulky jackets; even when not riding bikers are pretty distinctive I suppose, even to our own kind. Anyway, after having a cigarette with this guy and sharing our travel plans, he mentions a good youth hostel that he knew of that we could shack up at for our first night. It was going to be too late to set up at the proper camp site that Fee had planned for us. When it came time for departure we followed his fully-laden KTM Adventure to this hostel on the coast.

It was a beautiful place, sculpted almost entirely out of quality wood that I could only imagine was extremely expensive, especially in Korea. The hostel was alive with friendly occupants for the night, many of whom were merrily amused at the novelty of having a waygook motorcycling couple around. After a cup of coffee and light conversation with the proprietor, the unfortunate truth emerged that in fact the hostel was full up for the night. Not even our Korean friend could find a solo bunk for himself. So after a little deliberation, and assistance from my girlfriend. We managed to get in contact with Tipi and Chae, two lovely women who Fee was aware of due to their hospitality in helping a couple of other traveling waygook who happened to be riding in Jeju. Apparently our Korean acquaintance was also friends with them. At an impolitely late hour we arrived and were warmly received with some snacks and a room that we were lent for the night. A few gifts were exchanged, a little bit of American jerky here, some Kimchi there, and soon we were on the road again. 

We arrived at the campground that would be our home for the rest of the trip. After a few experiences with cheaper tents in the past, the Coleman we employed here proved to be a much sturdier and reliable option for us. After a day of relaxation and sightseeing, we decided to make our attempt on both the "Sunrise Peak" (성산 일출봉), and the summit of Halla-san; the crater lake called Baeknokdam(백록담)...

Sadly, this first attempt was a failure on both fronts. We awoke a little too late in order to see the the sunrise. As it turned out, it was a somewhat quick scramble up natural stairs cut into the rock to make it to the peak. We hadn't thought about actually having to climb the peak there, so whilst being shouldered out of the way by twittering Chinese tourists, we didn't exactly manage to get to the top in time. We tried to keep calm and carry on to Hallasan, but here I'm afraid we met with similar ill luck. We took an odd route up which allowed for a detour to a Buddhist temple featuring a rather imposing stone Buddha, however this put us behind schedule for the peak, and we were turned around by park rangers. Not only this but I was forced to separate from Fee as I retreived the motorcycle from where we began our hike, as it was actually a different place from where we ended it. A game of  foot-bike-taxi musical chairs ensued in order to get us back to camp, but soon we were languishing back at our tent from the days events.

Wholly unsatisfied I demanded another go at it, Fee was understanding. Or maybe just accepting of my bullish determination I know not which. Either way the next day would have been deja-vu had it not been that we actually made the Sunrise Peak in time! (a calming, magical experience made a little less so by loud tourists who all seemed to be following the same travel guide). Pushing on through a meager breakfast of Dunkin Donuts. We went for Halla-san again shortly after, packing a couple of sports drinks to stay hydrated, and some meager provisions to keep energy up. After a few breaks for rest we managed to make it to the summit. It was quite the gratifying experience, but this was a high point in more ways that one... it was downhill from there.

Fee had managed to injure her knee amidst all of the exertion. This slowed our decent pace for sure, but would also prove to be a problem in the future. The problem at the moment however was that we needed to leave the island immediately after our return in order to make it home in time. The trip back to Seoul was deserving of a story in and of itself, involving a mad dash for the ferry that ended up snapping the frame of my poor motorcycle and then involving a few flights, one week, 100k worth of parts, a sympathetic but dickish owner of a scooter shop, and then another mad dash over a mountain in the middle of another rainstorm with no headlight. Sadly that madness belongs to another story.

Seorak-san (서락산)

A few months later, Fee and I found ourselves with a long weekend at our disposal. Hiking Seorak-san was on the tip of both our tongues, despite a knee injury which she picked up on the ascent of Sunset Peak, she and I both were keen on the idea. This however was to be quite different than our trip to Jeju. As the inaugural journey on my newly purchased Honda CB400 and a much shorter trip, we packed much less. Opting to stay in a cheap motel for a couple of days seemed (correctly) to just be an easier way of going about things.

We left decently early in the morning. This trip was the typical slog across the country covering many kilometers. We were used to it, sorta. The temperature was really starting to drop however as we ascended into the beautiful Taebeak mountain range. Route 6 through this area is probably one of my most favorite roads in Korea. Home to many smoothly paved and banked corners, in addition to some breathtaking views amidst the wind-farms, Route 6 is a road that is massively rewarding no matter how leisurely, aggressively, or ham-fistedly you want to approach it.

Despite my enjoyment of the vista by the time Fee and I managed to find a cheap hotel in our base of operations in Yangyang we were quite exhausted from the ride and the cold, but quite glad for the comfortable lodgings. Our attitudes towards the situation at hand grew colder than the mountain air, but I was eager to press on. The ascent was surprisingly devoid of the rocky outcrops that were to be found in Jeju. Rather, here we found a lovely amount of fall foliage to keep us company during our hike. It was a very friendly atmosphere. I even managed to find a chipmunk willing to eat almonds out of my hand...

So, it was quite a sudden change when all of this flora abruptly gave way to an incredible view from the summit of the mountain. It really just crept up on us. Fee mentioned that one of the other trails that led to the peak was supposed to be a touch more scenic, but I found the vista that we were savoring in that moment to be rewarding enough. Seorak-san was tall enough that we could easily see the east coast through the mist of clouds that floated about.

Similarly to Halla-san our descent was slower. I started feeling weak legged, and my offers to carry Fee to speed things up became few and far in between. Fee herself, slowly but not unexpectedly, felt the return of the injury she suffered on Halla-san. The elation of reaching the summit soon left us while trudging back to the start. We got back just past dusk and I would hazard to say that despite the exhaustion, spirits were quite a bit higher than they had been before the climb.



Jiri-san (지리산)

There was to be no more climbing of mountains for the rest of the year. With the cold weather approaching, riding a motorcycle out to these notably cooler places wasn't really a good option. But with the last peak being an itch in our minds we were set to complete this last hike sometime in the spring/summer of 2014.

We had both changed jobs by this point, but still managed to find time off for this. The event was initially a South African Braai. A sort of barbecue event that is taken more seriously in Mzansi than it ever would be by the average Migookin in America. It just so happened that this one Fee wanted to attend was situated in Jirisan National Park. So in an effort to consolidate activities, we decided to both go to the barbecue and attempt climbing Jirisan in the same weekend. An adventure both hedonistic and physically challenging to be sure.

Accommodation was perhaps the most damning of situations we would encounter here. As it was a long weekend there were no campsites that were not all booked anywhere near where we wanted to go. So we decided on a motel on the outskirts of the park; figuring that the motorbike would make quick work of the travel needed to get to both the barbecue and the hiking trails... In that however, I was mistaken.

We arrived midday in Namwon(남원), the closest town to the west side of the park. We chose this due to its size (guaranteeing it would have a cheap motel), and proximity to both locations we were heading to. Still given the distance from Seoul, this being closer was also a deciding factor. We needed some rest, and the aircon and ice creams we got from our motel and a local minimart gave us just that. At least it was enough to encourage us to press on to the barbecue, located in the middle of the mountains.

The Braai was quite a good time. Plenty of meat, booze, and hookah that Fee brought along made for a great evening. The ride out to the site was a touch worrisome due to lack of lighting on the mountain, and the seemingly endless corners on narrow roads. The temperature dropped as we ascended, but thankfully as we descended after some laughs with the South Africans it got a little warmer despite being the middle of the night. A good night all-in-all, but perhaps not the best preparation for summiting a mountain the next fact it certainly wasn't.

Rousing Fee, and even myself, proved to be quite an effort. Add to this that the trail to the summit of Jiri-san was quite the distance away, thus it came to pass that we didn't begin our hike until 12:00 or so. As we had fallen afoul of turnaround times enforced on Korea's mountains before, I was quite wary of the possibility of failure and increased our pace as much as I could (with Fee nearly cursing me for this). However, the persistence paid off and we managed to make it past the cutoff with nigh on 10 minutes to spare. Resting no more than 15 meters past this point we tucked into the last of our provisions before continuing our ascent.

Actually, with the intensity of our situation, I have scant memories of when we actually reached the summit. A few photos of the cloudy expanse before us, a tomato shared by an elated Korean couple that we met there, and we needed to return. It was at about this time that I got the feeling that our descent was going to encounter some serious problems.

We stopped at the rest stop that was located at the cutoff for the summit. After acquiring some more water and Choco Pies I suggested pressing on, and this is where it began to get dicey. Due to the inevitable return of Fee's leg injury our pace was slow; even slower on the downhill than the ascent. A constant conversation we were having was weather we should shelter for the night at the rest stop or even the side of the trail rather than risking further injury by continuing in the dark. At that time I calculated we could get down at about 8:00, but with the sun setting on the other side of the mountain we were shrouded in darkness much sooner than I predicted. Now, from growing up in rural New England I am something of an outdoorsman. Fee on the other hand had never been in a forest at night before. Amidst the panic, exhaustion, pain, and drama of our predicament we managed to make our way back to the beginning of the trail at an excruciating crawl. Only to find that it would be another 60 km by motorbike back to the hotel. When it rains it pours... actually it was raining by the time we got back at nearly 1:00am.

After all the dust settled from our ordeal Fee was still practically in shock the next day. In fact it would be a number of weeks before the pain in her knee went away and we got back into running regularly. Despite our misgivings from the many difficulties encountered in our adventures, it always sits close to the heart. As evidenced by how Fee trotted up to me recently and remarked "we should go climb a mountain". 


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