The Stairmaster to the Sky

• Dispatch #7 •

My first hike was a monster of a mountain: Seoraksan in South Korea. What did I get myself into?

“Are those trees real or did the government plant them?” I innocently ask the tour guide on our bus, gesturing to the perfect line of forest lining the top of the mountain ahead of us.

He blinked, as though asking, what a question. “Oh they’re real. I mean, they’re really from those mountains.”

I was in Seoraksan National Park, a few hours away from Seoul in the east of South Korea. I was here to climb Seoraksan, the highest mountain in the Taebaek mountain range and the third highest mountain in South Korea (after Hallasan in Jeju Island and Jirisan in the south of the peninsula).

It was also my first hike in six years, and I didn’t know what kind of a monster I was supposed to climb. I was told by Korean friends that any mountain with the syllable “ak” in it was something formidable. They probably scream “aaaak” as they climb it, I told myself grimly, a bit afraid now that I was a few minutes away from what seems to be a daunting task that I was not physically prepared for.

I foolishly asked about the authenticity of the trees because I had never seen a huge mountain up close. We were in the last few weeks of winter, and the dry cold made it look like a calligraphy painting come to life. It must have snowed a few days before, because the top of the mountain was white, but the trees poked out, leading to a well-outlined ridge. It was beautiful.

As it was my first hike, I had prepared well before this trip, buying hiking shoes, pants, tops, and a jacket. Korea, being 75% mountainous, has a thriving hiking subculture and a market to match. Need to look like a local who just stepped out of a North Face catalog? Have no fear. I bought my entire outfit for less than 100 dollars because of the cheap markets at Dongdaemun.

Looking like a terrified pink marshmallow amidst the size of Seoraksan, I swallowed hard, adjusted my backpack, and started walking.

The long journey ahead started off rather pleasantly. There was a stream nearby, and the sound of the water gliding past was rather pleasant. On the way, I encountered what must be hundreds of stacked rocks and pebbles—a Buddhist tradition, I later learned. Most mountains in Korea are home to monasteries, and it was common to see monks among the hikers.

About half an hour later, we reached the bottom of the mountain, and it was time to start the actual hike. Thankfully, this being a well-maintained national park that had thousands of visitors, most of the trek consisted of stairs. And so we climbed.

And climbed.

And climbed.

To keep my mind off my increasingly sore legs, I looked at a distance to the rocks and mountains that comprise the range. Mountaineering is probably the best activity to do when one wants to contemplate the beautiful accidents of nature—a collection of mighty looking rocks thrown together in a pile, the jagged sides of boulders the size of a huge building in New York, and the patches of greenery in the most unexpected of places. Aside from the equally exhausted strangers I was climbing with, there was no one else but perhaps the birds who were watching our trek.

A teardrop rock surrounded by last night's snowfall.
A teardrop rock surrounded by last night’s snowfall.

After a short while, there was a bit of a relief.

I was on the first pit stop was Heundeulbawi (Rocking Rock) which is famous as a photo-op and a physical challenge: visitors try vainly to move it from its solid perch up on a rocky ledge. Nearby was a Buddhist temple, and many stopped to rest and eat, drink, meditate, or take photos.

Leaning against the immovable Heundeulbawi (Rocking Rock).
Leaning against the immovable Heundeulbawi (Rocking Rock).

As a practitioner of taekwondo for almost twenty years now, there is a poomsae (form) we have to learn, usually when one is training for a third-degree black belt. Called Taebaek, I imagine that it’s named after this mountain range that Seoraksan is on. (It looks like this.)

The skills honed when learning this form, as I’ve learned the hard way, are strength, balance, and adaptability—things one eventually achieves when climbing mountains of this size. I understand better now.

After a few minutes, I started the climb again. The cold air was a relief, as I was panting again after half an hour. It wasn’t my imagination; the trek started to get steeper. I sighed wearily. What made me leave good old Seoul to do this to myself on a beautiful weekend?

“Oh you guys are so close!” exclaimed a stranger on his way back down.

“That’s what the other guy said thirty minutes ago!” I wailed. I must have been hiking for hours. This was an endurance test I didn’t expect. I cannot count the number of people who encouragingly yelled “Hwaiting!” at me on the excruciating last leg of the ascent.

I understand why majority of the locals have evolved to have such straight bodies—you need it when living in a mountainous country to be able to scale peaks and valleys with agility. As someone with the more extreme hourglass shape, ambulating at an angle is not the most comfortable activity. Hips don’t lie, because physics! Indeed, for the succeeding hikes I had, I noticed that I was often the slowest hiker on the mountain. Even the elderly hikers who needed a cane easily passed me by. Alas, I would never win any speed hiking contests. But my slowness gave me more stories to tell.

At the top—hurrah!—I was too exhausted to whoop with triumph. Instead, I focused on the prize at the end of this incredible climb: the view. The ridgeline I was gawking at hours earlier, whose trees I asked about on the bus, was now below my eye level. It was a cloudy winter day, and the peaks of the mountain range looked as though they were piercing the clouds. If I squint, I could almost imagine wild animals that must have roamed this environment years before. I wonder who was the first to explore this mountain, before the stairs were erected and before the flag was placed at the top?

At the Ulsanbawi peak. Hurray!
At the Ulsanbawi peak. Hurray!

There was also another prize; one that money can buy. For a mere 10,000 won (about 10 USD), one can buy a medal from a rather exuberant and enterprising vendor at the top. He will etch the date and hang it around your neck with a well-practiced speech and such pomp and circumstance, it’s hard not to laugh at this absurdity through your wheezing. It’s amazing how people can try to make money even at the pursuit of transcendence. And even more amazing how people who experienced that transcendence can buy into it. Yours truly included.

The ridgeline of Seoraksan
The ridgeline of Seoraksan

I now understand why dedicated mountaineers refer to this practice as a not just a physical, but a mental task. If the mountain is more than you thought, then it takes a lot of willpower not to abort the mission. It’s also an exercise in following through—unless I was planning on spending the night there, there was no other way to go but forward. There was no safety net, no escalator that could be an exit strategy should I give up. Quite an excellent metaphor to relate to everyday life.

Of course, these reflections happened after the hike, as my goal was just to get through it in one piece. I was afraid my legs would cramp and make the arduous hike even harder.

On the way back down, it was then my turn to shout “Hwaiting!” to the ones who were struggling on their way up. The route of descent was the same way I trekked up, though with gravity now on my side, it was a lot easier. My legs thankfully didn’t give in. At the bottom, perhaps it was my imagination or a change in perspective, but there seemed to be more of the little rock piles that people made. Perhaps it was a sign of the people’s gratitude at making it back safely. Regardless, I could no longer feel my feet at the end. There was much that I had learned on this one-day hike.

Little rock piles.
Little rock piles.

On the numb walk to the bus—just a few more feet, hang in there!—I looked back at the statue of the bear guarding the entrance to the park. What legends this place must carry, and how much more beautiful it must be in the fall. When one ascends the mountain, he descends as a poet, for to be dominated by nature in this way gives one a deeper meaning in life and a better connection to the natural world, regardless of what he does for a living.

I was the last person on the bus. Everyone whooped and clapped as I sheepishly made my way in and to my seat at the back. Again, I will never win any mountaineering marathon.

But I will come out with a lot of stories.

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