Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Ultimate Hike- Seoraksan Mountains

Christine and I at one of the trail checkpoints: not actually feeling as happy and pleased with conditions as we look

This one was actually (obviously) taken after daylight broke, maybe around 5 am. Still feeling pumped up and good to go!!

We really grew to love our headlamps...
START TIME: 2:30 am
The first hints of light, around 4:30 am

Daylight beginning to break...a little bit eerie, but still so serene
FLOWERS?! Lillies and lilacs?! I had almost forgotten what real flowers look like, growing in a real nature setting
First major checkpoint: sky still looks okay, don't be fooled! This was just before the rain began...the rain that lasted the entire day....
Beginning the looong descent, through the deep valleys and river beautiful!
Check out the clock, documenting our finish time: 1:07 pm!! Feels like it should be bedtime, though...
Drink some traditional makeoli (Korean rice wine) after hiking for 12 hours? Okay.
Beautiful mountainside Buddhist temple, just inside the entrance of the national park
Of course you have to sit at the picnic tables after your hike to drink soju (vodka) and makeoli (rice wine) and eat seafood's what all the Koreans do!
The official entrance to the national park
Leaving the park...goodbye, Seoraksan! I'll see you again, promise.
FINISHED! Wet, exhausted, and perhaps a bit delirious. Do we look like we've been hiking for 12 hours in the rain??
Namsan Beach in Sokcho, the coastal town that's closest to Seoraksan National Park. Right across the street from our motel!
Cheesy Ramen: disgusting, I know. But I'll chalk it up to the likely salt deficiency from so much exercise and sweating while hiking the day before. I therefore remove all personal responsibility of actually ordering and devouring it!
A new friend on the beach: this Korean man and his wife entertained us for an hour, with their animated interactions and attempts at English...and their little picnic of Soju (vodka), bottles of Starbucks Frappuccinos, and pigs' feet (which we immediately identified as such and proceeded to bury in the sand when they weren't looking)

On the beach before going home
"The Ultimate Seoraksan Hike." That was the name of the weekend hiking trip sponsored by Discovery Korea, a travel and culture group for young foreigners (read: English teachers) in Korea. A fourteen hour hike on one of the highest peaks in South Korea, climbing roughly 5,000 feet of rugged elevation.
A bit daunting, I'll admit, for someone who grew up in the flat state of farm country...where the highest elevation is perhaps Lutsen "Mountain" ski area. And a bit deterring for someone with quite unpredictable leg problems, but quite predictable dependence on physical therapy. Furthermore, the hike was scheduled to begin at about 3 am, as soon as our bus arrived in the Seoraksan Mountains (which lie about 3 hours east of Seoul, right near the coast). Brushing those doubts and uncertainties (and rationale?) aside, I commited myself to the weekend hike, along with Christine. I was definitely anticipating a challenge!
And I was right...although not as much a physical challenge, as a mental one...which was just about the opposite of what I had been expecting. Beginning the hike at 2:30 am, literally stepping off the bus into the pitch-black, rural nighttime and strapping on our hiking shoes and packs, turned out to be exhilarating and energizing. I was on an adrenaline rush for a good 3 hours, just because we had started hiking at such a ridiculous and unreasonable time...trekking up the rugged slope, climbing over rocks and roots, with only the controlled light of our headlamps...feeling the mountain breeze, cool and refreshing...every so often, reaching a break in the forest that offered nothing beyond the ink-blue sky, dark silhouettes of trees, and the rising fog. I felt almost giddy with the excitement of what we were embarking upon, and what we were embarking toward...the ultimate peak, the ultimate view, the ultimate sense of accomplishment. And, I think, giddy with the experience of just being back in far from Seoul...the unexpected scent of crisp morning air (clean! pure! good for you!), of lillies and lilacs framing the trails, of damp leaves and earth. Adrenaline rush! I felt like I could have sprinted up that whole mountain...for the first few hours, at least...
Because of course, the tables began to turn around hour 4, at about 6:30 am. The mountain breeze turned sharp, penetrating even through the thick brush of the trails. The sky darkened, threatened rain. Our bodies started to drag, unsure of what we were putting them through. It actually felt oddly similar to the experience of jet-lag: being exhausted, sleep-deprived, unsure of the time, and place, and what meal you should be eating. Was I feeling sick? Hungry? Sleepy? Deprivedof electrolytes? Overwhelmed by the elevation? I had no idea- but I knew we had to just keep going.
We reached our first major checkpoint about an hour later, a small shelter between two mountain passes. The view was spectacular- endless mountain peaks, shrouded in fog. We took a rehydrate/refuel break inside, intending to head back out shortly in order to make our second major checkpoint on by 9:30 am...which was crucial to our plans for the rest of the day- if we didn't reach this checkpoint by the allotted time, there was no way we could make up enough time to complete the full 14 hour hike that day....and I know that none of us were willing to concede to anything less than 14 hours! Unfortunately, the weather had other began pouring, as we were inside the shelter, the kind of hard, biting rain that hits you like sharp pellets. In other words, not quite ideal for hiking.
We set back out after an extended (and increasingly dismayed and downtrodden) break, intending to survey the trails and keep a check on the weather as we headed in the right direction. It was a rough hour and a half of steep downhill, all jagged, slippery rock. Our quads burning, our attire soaked, and our attitudes similarly dampened, we stopped at our next checkpoint. Eating what felt like my sixth "meal" of the day (and it was only 9 am!), we made a mutual decision to forgo the full 14 hour route and instead opt for the "next best" route that would still take us about 11 hours in full. It would have been very risky, and not very smart, to go for the full 14 hours...the trails could very well have become washed out, and un-hikable, by the time we reached the additional trails...and that was not a risk we could afford to take at this point. Besides, it was so rainy and foggy, what would be the point of reaching that high peak and then not even being able to see anything from it??
We were all feeling pretty down about the fact that we couldn't complete what we had set out to be honest, I was feeling devastated. I had been preparing myself for this challenge, and it just felt as though we had been cheated out of it, despite our best efforts. I think the fact that I truly, and surprisingly, felt physically able to do the full hike was the hardest thing to face...I just kept thinking, "My legs don't always feel this good while hiking or exercising! I have to take advantage of it!"
But, it turned out that we still had our work cut out for us on the way down, for the next 5 hours of the hike. Many, many more kilometers of slippery rocks, cliffs, and wooden stairways, built into the sides of the mountains. The upside- it was beautiful. It was miles and miles of a deep valley, with rising cliffs on either side and the clearest, purest looking mountain spring running directly through it. The rain made the greens of the trees and brush pop. The fog was settling around the tops of the cliffs and distant peaks. Around a curve, every so often, we'd happen upon waterfalls and pools of water...making us wish enviously that it was 90 degrees and sunny, so that we could indulge in these swimming pools.
Finishing the hike at about 2:30 pm was a pretty surreal feeling...for the last hour or so, it had felt endless. Just turn after turn of the same cliffs, the same distant peaks, the same rocks and pools of waters. Someone had even began humming, "this is the hike that never ends...and it goes on and on, my friends..." We were drenched with rain and sweat, smeared with dirt, trucking along with shaky legs from the miles of steep downhill, certainly feeling the effects of the all-nighter we had been forced to pull in anticipation of the early morning start time. Altogether, the hike lasted about 12 hours...not quite as impressive as a 14 hour hike...but pretty darn close. And was I stronger because of the experience? Absolutely- physically and mentally. Was I still on a hiking high and adrenaline rush, 12 hours later:? Absolutely not- but I was already looking forward to the next possible opportunity for a 3 am hike!!
(Which will actually be next weekend- sort of- I'm signed up for a 10 hour hike, through the same travel program. Start time, 4:30 am, just in time for the sunrise!)


  1. um, can I come visit? 12 hour hike... that totally beats our like 3 hour bike ride and 2 hour walks, so I think we are due for some crazy long ultimate physical challenge... K?
    Miss you a lot lately.

    PS- one of Layla's favorite stories... "Pat the Bunny" - she's definitely into touch and feel books lately.

  2. Wow some nice pictures of the nature :D and you really look exhausted after 12 hours of hiking :P haha.

    Greetings Joeri