My friend Kayla and I had been wanting to go hike Seoraksan for a while. My friend Joo was in town from Tampa and so we mounted a rushed attempt to organize.
We hopped off the bus in Sokcho and layed down a plan. Joo takes my cellphone. Kayla and I check in to the cheap and funky pink castle-esque motel right next to the bus station. go up to the room then Joo confidently strides in and goes up to our room number which I texted him and wham, we get 3 for the price of two and we use the money saved to buy some food.
When Joo gets up to our room we all have a good laugh and freshen up to go get food. The clanging bell of the vintage Victorian style phone jolted all of us out of our still sleepy bus ride state of minds. Kayla picked up and feigned a waygook, “i’m sorry I don’t understand” but our host countries English program, for whom we work, has been too effective. Our false stupidity was no match, the night clerk switched to English and asked us to come down to the lobby, where he explained in a sports caster like fashion how he watched on CCTV as we plotted our entrance, then how Joo entered, confused circled around, then faked not understanding the clerks inquiry as to where he was going before heading up the stars to the second floor, where he then got on the elevator, got off at our floor and then high-fived as he met Kayla in the hallway in front of our room.
After the burden filled monologue, the man made a deal, we pay an extra 15,000 won and Joo gets a blanket. It was a weird mood, like a disappointed parent tired of putting up with their child’s foolish behavior. later the man was as friendly as ever and gave us really in depth directions on how to get to the park entrance by bus from the hotel, including information on the reduced road dimensions at various points, which lead to congestion, and so suggests we take an earlier bus to avoid heavier morning traffic. He also was concerned about how we will have the local city bus plus the local traffic plus foreigners in rental cars and out of town Koreans in their cars and plus private tour buses and foot traffic and how the buses had no where to turn around so it causes so much head ache. This guy by this point was too much, we just wanted to go eat but he waved us over to the map and recounted about 80 percent of what he had already said but this time in front of a giant map as if he were giving a traffic update on the morning news.
We woke up at 5am, got to the park and the sun had barely began to illuminate the sky. Droves of people flowed out of bus doors. Tour guides waved flags like battle field commanders sending in more troops. (interesting aside; I noted during a really crowded new years street celebration that police officers don’t rely on solely on radio communication to organize. Instead the officers seemed to be divided into groups of about 16 officers. one of which was given the duty to hold a flag with a big bold number on it, reminding me of a battle scene from ancient times) We found the right path and headed past a few cafes and restaurants before getting to the beginning of the ascent.
Down below the fall colors still hung from the trees but as we made our ascent the leaves began to disappear quickly but the views got more and more beautiful. The trail wasn’t all that bad’ many sections were metal grating covered with a rubberized surface making for a really comfortable walk however we were soon left with really uneven surfaces and a variety of step heights.
We packed an extra change of clothes and food for lunch , dinner and breakfast for the next day. we had calculated based on some other blogs that if we left the bottom at 6 we could reach the refuge, that is an hour or so from the peak, by about 1. This means that we would beat the majority of people there and be able to secure a space to spend the night; watch the sunrise in the morning from the peak and come back down by the late afternoon the next day.
Despite being out of shape we got to the refuge earlier, only slightly, than we anticipated. but found out that the so-called “first come first serve” shelter was actually an emergency shelter for people who could physically not continue due to injury. We had brought plenty of Ramyun but for weights sake and because we read that we could get hot water at the refuge we didn’t bring my micro stove and gas canister. Thankfully the guys running the shelter gave us boiling water. The rooms were clearly empty and had I spoke Korean might have pushed harder to negotiate something but our only options were to turn around and go home having not reached the peak or to keep going and then hike back down after only a short rest since we would have a tight window of light to get back to the bottom.
In the following picture you can see the highest camp which requires a booking more than a month in advance especially during the fall colors season, when every Korean seems to make the pilgrimage. The last stretch seemed to pass quickly despite winds so strong that it would plow your feet out from under you with every step. At the top a gust sent Joo’s hat sailing 200 meters off into some brush. Somehow he managed to find it.
On the way down the outside back of my left knee started to hurt with almost every time I stepped on my right foot and let my right knee straighten out. Thankfully I learned on my first hiking trip up to Gwanaksan, that trekking poles are a great idea especially for going down hill since they can take some of the weight and stress off of your knees. Despite having brought and used the trekking poles, it was still getting really bad and the solution, favoring the other knee began to affect that one.
I thought going down would be quicker but it turned out not to be the case. There was nothing I could do so I just gritted my teeth and kept on. At about the second hour down we encountered a girl who was ill prepared for being on the mountain. she was complaining about something hurting I didn’t have the energy to deal with it but Joo and Kayla stayed and tried to help her and I continued Slow and steady, with Joo and Kayla sure to catch me shortly. Joo Played football in college for a bit and learned some tricks for fixing dings and scratches of all sorts. This problem he aided by rolling up a sock and stuffing it behind her knee. then taping it in position while the knee was bent, creating a sort of spring that assists the knee in straightening back out.
20 or so minutes later all of them had caught me and the injured girl and her friend even overtook us since Kayla and Joo slowed down to stay with me. Another hour later it was getting dark and and old man was trailing behind me slowly, basically just keeping up. I tried to let him pass but he just waited for me and then kept going behind. eventually my knee pain got too bad and I had to stop. When I voiced my symptoms Joo was asked why I didnt tell him earlier, it was the same thing as the girl from before, so he wrapped me up and I felt like a million dollars. We were practically sprinting, hoping we could catch a bus back to Seoul so we wouldn’t have to pay for a second night in a hotel.
With the last light I dug out my head lamp and flashlight which I gave to Joo and Kayla. the old man had an extra head lamp which he lent Joo. The four of us continued another hour until we came up to the same injured girl. This time she could not walk. And Joo had no more emergency knee brace tricks. Joo hiked slowly letting her lean on him but it was just too slow. An old man flung her up onto his back and piggy backed her for about 2 minutes but it was so sketchy we were all scared he would slip and drop her and him head first causing a bigger emergency. several people came from behind us and said there were only another 20 minutes until the end of the trail where there was a ranger station where they could call for help. someone had actually called the ranger station and was in communication with them. The problem was that the fire rescue was too far away and the rangers didn’t know where we were so Joo his things and ran ahead to find them and bring them to the girl, meanwhile Kayla and I continue on.
Kayla and I sat outside the gate to the park for a half hour while they must have took turns carrying her. The guy who had lent the really expensive head lamp must have given up waiting and so Joo ended up earning a really nice headlamp. We then bolted as fast as my knee allowed down the road to the nearest local bus stop to get to the next town where we heard there was a bus leaving for Seoul in 25 minutes. We waited and waited but there was no freaking bus. So we got a taxi, pulled into the bus station bought tickets and snacks and walked out the door of the station and the bus was idling in the gravel parking lot with a few passengers already aboard. 5 minutes later we were off to Seoul.
Around 2am we groggily got off the bus and took a taxi to my house. The following day I physically could not walk without assistance. It was a lot of Ice and rest. Gradually my knee has gotten better but i am still nervous about pushing It too much. maybe i will stick to the smaller mountains and less steep trails.