Hiking in Korea Part 1
Hiking in Korea Part 1: Seoraksan National Park
By Kiel Bowman
Hiking in other countries, like doing anything you usually do in another country, is a wonderful way to reflect on the similarities and differences of places. It also allows one to more critically consider their home. When you’ve never been anywhere other than your home, all things in your life will seem inherently normal; contrast is necessary for self-evaluation.
Of course, it’s nice to just see some new pretty places, too.
I’ve hiked in five countries so far, and through the experiences, I’ve learned that there is some national mechanism that shapes the way people enjoy the activity from country to country. For instance, camping is rarely a component of hiking in Korea. Oddly enough, it’s still idealized, as you can find restaurants that try to emulate the camping experience, i.e. sitting in a fake outdoors setting with a tent and a small BBQ grill nearby. It’s surreal, but real.
I was excited to go hiking in Korea, nevertheless. From what I had read, there was a thriving mountaineering community in Korea, and viewing the changing colors of the seasons in the mountains is a national pastime. One of the most beloved places in all of South Korea to do this is the mountain range known as “Seoraksan”, in the northeastern province of Gangwon-do.
I had already been living in South Korea for over a year, and had previously done a couple of smaller hikes. Seoraksan was one I was really looking forward to, though, and so I gathered a few of my closest friends and booked a bus for all of us for a trip there on a weekend at the end of September.
We arrived on a Friday night, and woke up early Saturday morning to tackle one of the most popular peaks, Ulsanbawi, at an elevation of about 2500 steep feet.
Right from the start, the first thing one realizes is the enormity of the crowds. Seriously, you could rarely hold your hand all the way forward or backward without touching someone. This included the walk from the parking lot to the trailhead. Not a single second went by without passing by someone going the opposite direction and following the rear end of someone right in front of me.
This is something that would be hard to imagine for people who had hiked only in North America, with the exception of a few hot spots such as the infamous cables at Half Dome in Yosemite. Perhaps you’ve read an article about the overcrowding on the summit of Mt. Everest.
In fact, even either of those experiences are nothing like what you come across on the trails of South Korea in peak season. Although the issues at Mt. Everest are certainly more dangerous and depressing, from what I’ve read, it’s still mostly bunching only during the attempt of the summit. Going from base camp to base camp, you will certainly see people, but it won’t be a single file line miles and miles long. Similarly with the cables of Half Dome; there is a single file line going up the cable portion of the trail, but the miles and miles before it are rather sparsely populated with people. In effect, both of these locations have what we know as a bottle neck, and the bottleneck just happens to be the end of the course.
Whenever you are hiking in Korea, however, you see that the bottleneck is the entire friggin’ course. There are a lot of reasons for this, but this is a website about hiking, not about South Korea, so I’ll stick to a few simple facts: South Korea is a tiny country that fits comfortably into the area of Southern California. Half of its 45 million people live in the capital city or immediately around it, which has some nice small mountains within city limits but aren’t ideal for viewing the changing colors of the seasons. This monstrous city is conveniently linked by various modes of transportation of only a few hours away from an incredibly place to see those colors. So when peak season arrives, Seoul goes on vacation. They’re also incredibly brand conscious, so you can expect whole phalanxes of neon and black North Face and Marmut attire, every direction you look.
Generally, it’s just one of those things that makes you shrug your shoulders and say, “Well, when in Rome”. However, there are a couple of other key differences when it comes to hiking in Korea. Most importantly, trails are rarely dirt paths, but instead are usually molded rock, whether carved or placed, supplemented with the occasional iron staircase. Such was the case when we were reaching the peak of Ulsan Bawi.
I wish I had the infinite use of a private helicopter to take more illustrative photos of some things. Unfortunately, being on the staircase made it hard to take a picture of the stair case, but I’d estimate that the incline of this 60 degrees or worse, with very low handrails. Crowding in these conditions tingled my Spidey Sense, and I worried about the possibility of a domino collapse sweeping us all down in a cascade of North Face fleece. Quite honestly, it’s an accident waiting to happen, and it’s a miracle that it hasn’t happened yet.
Getting to the top was sublime, although incredibly windy! The peak, unlike many in North America, was a rather sharp point, meaning that a true 360 degree view was to be had. To the west, we could see the sprawling Seoraksan range, and to the east, we had clear views of the East Sea. However, even up there, the guardrails were short, and at my six foot stature, I felt unsafe. Once I took my requisite conquest photos, I scrambled back to the comparative safety of the guardrails of the Staircase of Doom. Granted, this really didn’t give me much comfort, but it was only a thirty minute descent of terror until we were back on gently sloping ground, and it was time to go back to the comfort of our guesthouse for the night.
Before we retired to our bedroom, though, we went out on the small sleepy town of Sokcho, to a fantastic little BBQ restaurant that provides all you can eat of anything they have for an entry fee of approximately $9. This is almost a required way to celebrate the end of a hike in South Korea: grilled meat and copious quantities of beer and soju, the Korean spirit of choice. Maybe hiking in Korea isn’t so bad after all. That’s Gangwon Style.