(Barely) Conquering Mt. Hallasan - Korea's Tallest Mountain.
After a whirlwind month, I finally have the time to get back to blogging! This throwback post is from JD and I's ridiculous hike up Mt. Hallasan on Jeju island back in November.
Reporting for Duty
After a late night and brutally early morning, JD and I arrived to the base of the 8:20 arrive at Gwaneumsa trail around 8:20am. We had a nice chat with our taxi driver as the sun beamed through the windows of the old taxi. We thought to ourselves, what a perfect day for hiking! We used the restrooms that were provided and took a couple minutes to study the trail map.
With our eyes glued to the giant map, we hear the tires roll into the parking lot behind us. We turn around to see an outpouring of Korean elders exiting the bus as they split of in droves each donning bright color coordinated hiking gear. We chuckle at them while feeling proud of our own outfit choices. We both were donning lighter gear. Jd had sweats and a thin long sleeved shirt, while I had shorts, a light sweater, and (bright) green rain jacket.
Forrest Love- Sup Sarang! 숲 사랑
The weather was forecasted to be significantly warmer than the snowy temps north of us in Seoul. (Hence our outfit choices). A group of eager folks blocked the entrance to the base of the trail. This was not a you shall not pass sort of stance. To get by all we simply had to do was accept the buttons the group was handing out. With a if it's free it's for me mentally we happily took the buttons, pinned them to our backpacks, and got started. The pins stated "숲 사랑!" which means Forrest love! A statement we can all get behind, and a strong sentiment that would be crucial to our hike going forward. The morning light poured through the thinning branches, and twigs and leaves crunched beneath our feet.
It was the perfect morning. We stepped over smooth volcanic rocks, and everything about the atmosphere was peaceful.
Check point or Bust
We had taken the first 45 minutes or so at a leisurely pace as we got our muscles warmed up and acquainted with the trail. Every few hundred meters or so a check point sign was posted listing the remaining distance to the summit. We had remembered another sign at the beginning of the trail that stated we had to make it to a specific check point by noon otherwise we'd have to stop and turn around.
Of course the trail got tougher as we progressed through the mountain. There was a brief section with a steep staircase that took me some time to get through, however it served for good practice for what was to come later. The higher we climbed, we were able to catch glimpses of the city below through the foliage.
A few hikers passed us along the way, and though I was a little tired, it was nothing I didn't expect. We were in high spirits and were confident we'd make it to the shelter before the cutoff time. As we near the shelter a woman walking towards us on her way down the mountain just stops. She stops, looks at me, groans and then says something to the effect of anjoayooooo which Jd and I understood as not good. She cryptically cackles, says nothing more, and then continues on her merry way. Okay cool. Pffft that lady probably thinks we're amateur hikers who forgot our hiking sticks at home, and failed to wear fully matching hiking gear. Ha! We'll show her.
We laugh about the encounter and our smiles grow bigger when we see the checkpoint only just a few feet away. We did it! We rush towards the shelter and notice some frost and a light dusting of snow as we near. Aw, we get to see a touch of winter after all! We think nothing more of it and get ready to have lunch. (Insert red flag here)
The foliage opened up and we felt every whipping wind that came cutting through like tiny knives. The sky had grown overcast making everything colder. We scurry inside like mice to eat our packed lunches....well snacks rather. I was so cold I just started wolfing everything down. As we look around nearly everyone has gathered together relaxed with plenty of food. They where enjoying a hot cup of ramen, tea, and all with seating pads. That was high class living compared to our set up. We brought along some fruit, jerky, gimbap, chips, cheese sticks, protein bars....and the forbidden fruit, a bottle of makgeolli, a rice wine. (This honestly was one of the things that saved us.)
After lunch, we took a quick bathroom break and my hands never felt so cold. Everyone at the shelter looked at me and applauded my efforts and gave two thumbs up. The bewildered looks followed me throughout the rest of the hike and never let up. Hikers actually stopped in their tracks to gasp, sigh, ask if I was okay, laugh, or offer their favorite word of encouragement, 화이팅! (hwaiting derives from the word fighting) At that point we were pretty aware of what we would be facing the rest of the hike so we made the decision to just finish as quickly and safely as we could. This meant we had to start cutting people off, we began sprinting past groups of people just to keep ourselves warm. Looking back it is laughable because we must've looked like crazy people sprinting around a mountain with little gear. Jd managed to snap a quick photo of me on the bridge, but we quickly continued sprinting after this for a bit longer.
We had to slow down a lot shortly after passing the bridge due to the steepness of the mountain. We were confronted with severely steep uneven slippery steps. In fact, we passed a couple of groups that had stopped due to injuries or fatigue. A few quotes from surrounding hikers included "I feel like I'm gonna die." and "Our friend doesn't want to hike anymore." Our lungs were pounding against our chests as we ascended the steps. We started to get that burning sensation as we breathed since it was so cold. Despite this though we remained in fairly high spirits; we knew complaining wouldn't help. You know how in cartoons, after a bad day a character will often say "Well, it can't get any worse than this!" after which it immediately starts to rain above them? Well as we were trudging up the steps, the clouds opened up, someone above thunderously laughed, and we began to experience Hallasan's wrath of hail, rain, and snow. Hwaiting! (right?)
You know, come to think of it, we had passed a lot of squawking ravens on the trail and I could've sworn in the distance one of them squawked winter is coming. We were just too proud to see it.
It's all about the climb
As we continued, conversation slowed down and sometimes Jd and I would just exchange looks as if to say you good? Where was the peaceful ambiance and warm sun from a few hours ago?
Along the way we met a nice group of people stopping to take photos. We asked if they could snap a photo of us as well. Turns out they were from Mongolia and it was their first time experiencing snow. They were dressed more appropriately than we were! They told us we were close to the summit so the smiles below are genuine!
This news gave us a second wind. Minutes later we finally reached the summit! 1,900 meters now behind us. Wow.
A big draw for Hallasan is that on a nice sunny clear day, you can see a vast volcanic crater at the peak. We obviously didn't get that. We walked to the ledge where the edge of the crater was located, but instead we saw nothing but white ahead of us. We didn't even get a sneak preview. Winds whipped harder than before and we were being pushed around by it.
Sadly there was no real time to marvel at anything or even take a rest and admire our accomplishments. It was too cold and windy so we decided to immediately find our way back down after finding the distance marker. As we got closer we could see that there was actually a huge line of about 50 hikers for the stone withstanding blizzard-like conditions. I guess everyone wanted photo proof of their victory.
There was no way we were gonna wait so I snuck in to take a quick photo. (Sorry!) We headed for the opposite side of the peak as we knew we wanted to take the Seongpanak trail rather than turn around and go back down the same way we came. The Seongpanak trail is the most popular way to ascend the mountain since it has smoother trails. We thought it would be better to go down this way since it seemed nice to end on a more comfortable note. Funnily enough, we weren't quite sure where to find the trail since everything was so white washed. Now I understand why everyone was so brightly dressed! Thanks to them, in the distance we could see groups of people.
We also managed to ask someone which way lead to the trail to take us down.
What goes up must come down
We were shocked to feel how warm the air instantly felt after descending for a few minutes. We noticed dead silence amidst the trees, and it was so peaceful. We finally decided to take a rest and sit for a few minutes while listening to the rain.
All of the soreness was setting in. This hike was extremely hard on the legs, but we were grateful for the smooth paths laid ahead before us. This is when we started to break out the makgeolli. Whoop whoop! We started stopping more often for ahem, "water breaks". So we became jollier and jollier as we walked down. What knee pain? We walked and walked and walked (and drank) Eventually we grew wary and anxious to finish. Suddenly we look up to realize we had made it to the entrance at the bottom of the mountain. We did it! It was 4:30pm when we finished...nearly 8 hours of strenuous hiking while experience every weather pattern imaginable.
I couldn't wait to collapse in the bed at the hotel that I decided to collapse right as I got to the parking lot. Success! We conquered Korea's highest mountain without dying or killing each other!
So many lessons learned; our experience on the mountain will never be forgotten.
For anyone interested in hiking Mt. Hallasan, I highly recommend bringing layers, plenty of food/fuel, and water. Also though the Gwaneumsa trail is a little longer, it certainly is more picturesque so it's nice to go up that way and then head down via the Seongpanak trail.
If you have any questions please reach out! Check out the rest of our relaxing jeju island trip here.
Thanks for reading! Happy hiking! :)
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