Last year my partner and I challenged ourselves to climb South Korea’s three highest mountain ranges in three consecutive weekends. We not only climbed the mountains (san’s) but also reached the highest peaks (bong’s) in each range: Dongneunbong at Hallasan, Cheonhwangbong in Jirisan, and Daecheongbong in Seoraksan.
Seoraksan Saturday, 9/19/15
The Daecheongbong Peak Course is 16 kilometers (9.94 miles) that averages approximately 11 hours and 20 minutes to complete (Obviously, we are better than average 🙂 ). We hiked the majority of the mountain quickly, crossing falling rivers, stone carvings, watching mountain climbers scale sheer rock faces, and almost being turned away at a guard post (we got a late start), but checked into a lodge 3/4 of the way as night fell.
The lodges on Korean mountains are not the typical lodges that come to mind. They are small, cramped, and lack privacy. They are typically one room buildings full of giant bunk beds without mattresses (or maybe that is only for us peasants). One slab of plywood held approximately six people which increase the chance of sleeping next to someone who snores (myself included). Thankfully, since I was one who contributed to the harmony of snarls and wheezes, I slept quite well.
Whatever sleep we did enjoy was short-lived because if we wanted to reach the peak by sunrise, we had to start hiking at 2:30 in the morning! However, watching the vibrant sunrise at 1,708 meters (5,604 feet) made the lack of sleep and early morning climb worth the extra hustle. As we waited for the sun to rise above the ocean and clouds we munched away on snacks and watched the rocks around us fill with other early risers.
Hallasan Monday, 9/28/15
The next mountain on the list was South Korea’s highest mountain, Hallasan, on Jeju Island. The 9.6 kilometers (5.97 miles) up Seongpanak Trail to Dongneunbong at 1,950 meters (6,398 feet) took us six hours both ways. At the peak we ate our snacks amongst the other hikers, were offered chocolate, and my partner even got told to put a shirt on in the process of changing out of his sweaty top! We struggled with the lineup or lack thereof to get our pictures with the engraved rock with the name of the peak, but barely got them before being crowded out by courteous and patient locals. The beginning and end of the trail was at such a gradual incline that on the way down we were able to get competitive and race past the stares of the Koreans (foreigners are weird). Next to the parking lot was a UNESCO information center where we were able to purchase tacky certificates for successfully hiking South Korea’s highest mountain (we’re so cool).
The conditions could not have been better; the tail end of the summer meant the weather was warm, the sky clear, and thanks to the proximity to the ocean, a slight breeze. We congratulated ourselves on a great day at a “Monkey Bar” complete with slides, jump ropes, ball pits, games and buckets (and straws) of alcohol (in moderation).
Jirisan Sunday, 10/4/15
Jirisan was our final hike! We took the Chilseon Valley Course, 9.7 kilometers (6 miles), to Cheonhwangbong at 1,915 meters (6,283 feet). The hike is estimated to take ten to twelve hours round trip, but we managed to complete it in approximately seven to eight hours (estimating be damned)!
As we pushed our way to the top, my partner’s stomach began to bother him. He almost gave up, but when I offered to leave him behind he became so determined that he carried me the rest of the way (A few days later, we found out his appendix had burst!). Upon reaching the peak we ate our snacks waiting for an opportunity to get our picture with the peakstone but alas, it was too crowded. We met our third companion at the bottom and enjoyed a cup of ramyeon before driving back home, flushed with our completion of a three week uphill battle with Korea’s highest peaks.
Initially, we considered hiking Korea’s three highest mountain ranges in three consecutive weekends to be an ambitious plan, but luckily it was logistically completely possible. The mountains are in opposite corners of the country (one on an island) and it just seemed destined to fail when my partner fell ill in the days leading up to the last hike. Thankfully we are young, in good enough shape (damn sweets), are able to enjoy time off from work, are both stubborn and as obstinate as the mountains themselves, and took some time to plan it all out. Similar to many things in life, this was a small lesson in overcoming obstacles in geography and our own inner naysayers to complete a challenge and rise to the occasion.