Sunday, May 1, 2011

Favorite Day in Korea: 지 리산 (Jirisan) Hike

At 11:55 Friday night I load a bus full of 46 other Climbing Korea members. We were supposed to meet at 11:45, but in true Lana fashion, I am late. The charter bus is overbooked and my friend Maria and I find that we don't have seats. Mr. Kim, the leader, kindly boots two of his right hand women from theirs and gives them to us. Then, at 12:00PM, we depart for 지 리산 (Jirisan), mainland South Korea’s tallest peak. Many of us regular hikers hadn’t a clue what we were in for…

The drive south takes about 4.5 hours. Most of us try to sleep, but the hard chairs, bright Korea lights, and unsteady bus all take pleasure in preventing such. At the rest stop, determined to sleep at least one hour before the early morning hike, I offer to switch seats with someone on the floor of the bus. For the rest of the trip I use Mr. Kim’s sleeping bag to sprawl out like a cocoon on the floor. Still, no sleep.

At 4:30AM, Mr. Kim taps my arm repeating, “Lana, get up!” until I finally sit up. Feeling like I’m in dream or perhaps even a nightmare and thinking, “Why the hell did I think this trip was a good idea?” Mr. Kim shoves a paper in my face and spews out the names of various trail names and some times. He then puts a microphone in my hand telling me, “OK, say it!” Mr. Kim sometimes likes to put me in charge of making announcements. I really don’t like the speaking, but what it represents is my acceptance into a group that has become my family away from home and this I do like. Having pretty much no idea what he said to me, I mumble off some things I read on the paper and Mr. Kim quickly says, “No, no!” and again I think, “Why, oh why am I here. I’m so freaking tired.” All that I want to do is climb into my warm bed and sleep in until the sun shines into my apartment’s window. The microphone is given to a Korean woman, someone much more suitable for reading and pronouncing the day’s itinerary.

Five minutes later we arrive at the base of the mountain. It’s pouring rain and still dark out as we unload the bus and huddle under a covered picnic area. Some hikers purchase ponchos at the small family run convenient store before we follow Mr. Kim to what we can’t see, but figure is the trail. I should have brought a flashlight; I don’t know what I was thinking. My only excuse for being this unprepared is that it’s my first time hiking at 4:30AM and in the dark…

Our first 10 minutes are difficult just as the first 10 minutes of any hike are. Hikes in Korea are unlike hikes in the states. There is no steady increase in elevation, but more so you’re walking straight up a mountain and therefore, sometimes feels like rock climbing without gear. But once my breathing starts to steady, I begin to take in my surroundings. All I can see are the rocks below my feet when a girl from behind shines her light in my direction. My weakened sight sends my perception of hearing, smell, taste and touch into full action to compensate. I hear the rain falling to the trees and making it’s way down to the ground. It trickles along the surface of the downward slanted rocks below my feet and creates the perfect rhythm with the flowing river and waterfalls. I cannot see them, but hear that they are below the ridge. The air smells fresh, unlike the polluted Seoul. As we trek through the wet dirt, our feet release the scent of healthy soil that permeates around us. And as my body begins to perspire, sweat mixed with rain and dribbles down my face, over my lips and into my mouth, sending the taste of salt straight to my brain. I grab cold wet rocks and tree trunks in my hand to guide my way.

Slowly the sky gets lighter and I give up on my hood in exchange for a better view of the mountain inhabitants surrounding me. My hair is drenched within minutes. Koreans believe that rain on the head will cause hair to fall out and so umbrellas are used for the lightest of rain. Avoiding even more stares than usual means I often give in to the use of an umbrella. “When in Rome.” But now it’s okay for me to be wet because there is no avoiding it and we are all certain to get soaked. I love it.

The hiking is very difficult, the most difficult I’ve ever experienced. Many turn back for the bus and as time passes, we are no longer a group of 47, but are without many and in smaller divisions traveling at varying paces. My group changes periodically, and for about 45 minutes I find myself hiking alone. This is when I feel most at one with nature and many times I stand on the edge of the ridge, look down at the raging river and take in a giant “I’m thankful to be alive” breath of mountain air. No matter my group or if I’m alone, I am always certain I will meet back with the leader because there are always stopping points for rest and re-gathering. 

After about 4 hours of climbing slippery rocks, my legs begin to ache. I am conscious of every step I take and each feels like it will be my bodies last. Sometimes I push my knees with my hands for larger rocks and my upper body helps my lower body. All at once, the calm air turns wild. Winds at insane speeds laugh while brushing us sideways. I tell myself this means I’m getting closer. Finally we make it to a shelter. Hot plates and pots are unloaded for cooking ramyun. Koreans pull out various Korean foods and foreigners pull out their mixed lunches of Korean foods they have come to love and their western choices that are still necessary for comfort. It’s nice to rest, but waterproof clothing has lost its power and every part of my body except my feet is wet. Standing still makes us very cold. After we re-energize, four of us take off in a group we c “The Fearsome Four.” After every stretch of steep rocks, I think to myself, “I can’t make it any further,” yet somehow I do. And after every stretch of rocks, comes another, but we keep telling each other: “We’re almost there!” 

During short breaks from the wind, I hear birds chirping. The mountain now looks brighter as the sun peeks it’s way through the fast paced clouds. I wish I could move as fast as them. Then I’d be at the top by now. My friends are enough to keep me going, though, and we continue to encourage one another. One of my favorite things about hiking mountains is the adrenaline high it provides. Adrenaline let’s my body do amazing things and it is what would get me to the top of this mountain.

Finally, about 6 hours from departure, I see the peak. I try not to get too excited because I thought I had seen it about 5 times prior only to be let down each time. But this time there are people excitedly climbing the tallest stretch I’ve seen yet. By now the wind is back and with a vengeance. I wonder if it would be enough to blow someone off the mountain. I start up the rock, grasping it tightly within my palms as I climb. When my face peeks over the ledge to the top, I’m hit with a giant gust of wind and suddenly find it difficult to breath. For a moment, I wonder what will happen if I go all the way up, thinking maybe I shouldn't. I put the negative thoughts past me and pull myself up to the top. I feel like a bird! We meet a division that had left the shelter before us and take some pictures with the marker. Things start disappearing: hats, glasses, and even a backpack started to move before someone grabbed it. I feel alive.

We then huddle on the opposite side of the peek where we are safe from the wind. From this point we can see the top and watch as the rest of our group arrive in intervals. Of course there is someone with some soju, so I take a couple sips. It warms my stomach and for a second I forget about my sopping clothes clinging to my skin. For some time during the trip, I felt a bit of strangeness toward the new hikers, but by time we have reached the peak, I’ve made new friends and we all sit admiring our accomplishment.

“Chop, chop!” Mr. Kim shouts. Somebody taught him the phrase and now he can’t get enough of it. “Mr. Kim, you mean skedaddle?” I say. A couple weeks prior I tried teaching him a variation for getting people to leave so he could switch it up a bit, but it usually comes out as “Dattle!”  We begin the trek down. It’s difficult in a different way than on the way up. It’s not my core that begs for the energy, but now my wobbly knees. I’m reminded that I’m now a full fledge adult and cringe as I agree with those around me when discussing our knee pain. Then I remember that we have officially climbed the tallest peak of peninsular South Korea and could care less if my knees are a bit aged. 

On the way down, we take several breaks, all much more relaxing than on the way up. At one point, we find a nice stream where we soak our feet and wash up. Soon we reach a fork where we had come from on the way up and would now begin retracing our steps, steps that were made in the dark morning. We were now seeing what we had previously only been able to hear, smell, taste and touch. There is Magnolia trees, all shades of green and brown, and lots of running water.

During the bus ride back to Seoul, all goes silent as we enter the pleasant sleeps we had yearned for during the ride down. Back at our starting point, I’m told I’m going to dinner. Somehow it is exactly what I want to do despite being ever so exhausted. David, a friend of everyone in the group and who is currently doing work in another country was back for a visit and would meet a small group of us for food. We ate, drank, joked, laughed, and probably stunk up the restaurant. It was a perfect end to my favorite day in Korea.


  1. This trip sounds amazing! You look beautiful drenched in the rain : )

  2. Sounds like an amazing trip. The same things happened to me when I climbed St Helen's.