Next stop in my travels through South Korea is Seoraksan National Park.
This area is a hiking enthusiast’s dream. A stretch of largely untouched land. It’s rolling mountains soar to such heights that one may think they could touch the sky. If you want to trade the concrete buildings, rush hour traffic, and the hustle and bustle of daily life for the surreal mountain landscape, then this is the place for you.
The government designated the area as a nature reserve in 1965. It was also the first Korean national park to be named under the National Park Law in 1970. The reserve has an area of 163.6 square kilometres (63.2 sq mi) and includes many mountain peaks measuring over 1,200 metres above sea level, the tallest being Daecheongbong, at an altitude of 1,708 metres.
Daecheongbong Peak off in the distance.
I will start off by saying this was probably one of the most difficult physical experiences of my life and this wasn’t my first mountain hiking trip; however most of my trips have only included hiking up one peak. A group of friends and I planned out a trip to hike the highest peak Daecheongbong only…however, a detour and some split second decisions later, we ended up hiking across the entire mountain range.
Here is a play by play of my experience climbing mountains at Seoraksan National Park:
0730: We make it to the camping site at the base of the mountain. We setup our tent that we will be staying at once we return later that evening, leave most of our gear and head for the bus stop.
0830: Reached the entrance of Seoraksan National Park. We stopped at a local convenient store to eat a quick breakfast and purchase water because the camping site didn’t have drinking water available. The park charges us 5,000 won (equal to $4.15) to get in? Well a small price to pay for the sights to come.
0845: We start making our way through the park to the trail we want. The plan is to hike to Daecheongbong peak travelling on the expert trail. The hike was approximately 21.2 km (13.17 mi)
0935: We’re about 3 km in and we reach the base of Biseondae peak. This is where we are supposed to take the trail South towards Daecheongbong peak; however we are met with dismay. The trail is closed. We haven’t begun making any elevation climbs yet and in our excitement we choose to take the expert trail to Biseondae peak which bypasses the trail that was closed. This was our fatal mistake, we didn’t look at the extra distance; it added an extra 12 km to our trip.
Looking out from Biseondae Peak.
1140: We reach Biseondae peak, the view is beautiful. We haven’t even reached the highest peak yet and I’m amazed at the natural untouched scenery. My body is destroyed, that hike was definitely the most difficult I’ve taken on since being in South Korea and we haven’t even gotten to the halfway point. We push on.
Pondering their very existence.
1400: We are currently in Madeung-ryeong pass. We stop to rest and eat what food we have (I only brought 40oz of water and cream wafers). At this point we realize we may have gone too far and not taken enough supplies. I have had muscle cramps in my legs for the past hour. I only had a couple ounces of water left and split the cream wafers with another member in our group. We decide that heading back would take longer than making the trip across the rest of the mountain range. Now is when I change modes from the photograph shooting tourist to the hiker that pushes far beyond the limits of exhaustion to make it off the mountain before nightfall.
1500: Still on Madeung-ryeong pass. The pace is grueling, we are out of water and food. Some extremely nice hikers saw we had very little gear and gave us a bread roll and a hotdog. We split the food between us (total of 3 in our group); I was relieved to have some nutrition as I was getting dizzy and losing my footing at this point. The view is amazing but I’m no longer taking photographs or paying much attention. I’m only focused on one foot in front of the other. We start considering sleeping at a shelter that is nearby only a few km’s out. Even though we don’t have any sleeping gear it seems better than climbing mountains at night.
1530: We make it to Huiungak shelter. Our Korean friend reads the signs and we realize we cannot stay in any of the shelters as we would have had to reserve a room prior to the trip. We restocked on our water. There was a creek near the trail and we filled our water bottles. The water looked clear, tasted amazing, maybe it was just because I was so dehydrated. Still no food. I voice the idea of just sleeping in the cooking area which is just an open tent. The muscles in my legs are so tight at times I can’t even bend my legs. Muscles in other areas of my body are starting to cramp. This is the moment I consider the possibility I might push myself to the point of passing out.
We push on…
The view out on the plateau just below Daecheongbong peak.
1730: We reach a smaller plateau on Daecheongbong peak. The climb to this plateau was grueling. It’s raining, the temperature has dropped at this altitude. After being soaked with sweat with most of the trip I’m now freezing. We see another shelter and decide to stop. At this point worry is running through all our minds. Can we make it off the mountain before nightfall? One of the members in our group decides to use the bathroom and comes out with three candy bars. I want to cry. The whole way up the peak I had been dreaming of all the good food and drink in the world that tasted good just to keep my body moving forward. I grab the candy bar and demand to know where in the hell he got it. He claims this shelter is selling them. I rush inside and come back out with three more candy bars and devour them. It takes us 5 minutes to traverse the rest of the way to the top of Daecheongbong peak. I want to keep pushing but I am eventually convinced to do one group photograph at the top. I see a sign that says 5 km to the entrance. I have a new found hope (maybe my 6th or 7th wind). We are getting off this damned mountain range I told myself. We only have maybe an hour and a half of daylight left. We start the descent.
2000: It’s getting dark. We’ve made great time but we’re still about 2.5 km out from the entrance. I can’t feel the exhaustion anymore. The adrenaline of being so close and the fear of trying to hike the rest of the way in pitch black keeps me going. We hit a stroke of luck. As we are racing down the mountain at a dangerous pace we run into a group of hikers also heading down the mountain. They see we have no lights and generously give us a light. We eventually end up passing them as they are packing more gear than us.
2120: I can see street lights glowing through the trees and eventually spot the gate. Relief, joy, and every emotion possible washes over me. We made it, we really made it! We get through the gate and realize there is no bus station at this entrance so our friend tries to phone a taxi. As we are waiting the group of hikers that gave us a light shows up and we give them their light back. Our Korean friend engages in conversation with them and they actually offer us a ride back to our base camp. We hitch a ride back to our camp, thank the fellow hikers generously and head to a chicken and beer restaurant. I ordered everything in sight and ate until I thought I was going to puke.
After totaling the distance we ended up hiking 32.8 km (21.38 mi). I will never forget the amazing sites or the breathtaking views. The trials and tribulations I faced to witness it all was well worth it. Not only is this a log of this beautiful and unique site in South Korea but a word of caution to hikers, a narrative of hard lessons. Even if you don’t plan on hiking the entire day, prepare for the worst because you never know what may happen. Life has a way of throwing a wrench in your plans, you have to adapt but it is always best to be prepared.
The right gear matters – The Scholar