Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Peak-bagging in the ROK

Elite mountaineers have their seven summits and their eight-thousanders. For those lesser skilled mountaineers of us, or those less adaptable to altitude, Colorado has its 14ers; Scotland has its Munros, its Corbetts and its Grahams; and Kyuya Fukada celebrated 100 of Japan's famous mountains in 1964 in his book of a similar name. The ROK, most likely in a bid to have something to approach the fame of Fukada's list, has had their Forestry service compile a list of "100 Noted Mountains in Korea." It's done by province at this site, which also has information about Korean mountains and mountain culture that is interesting to read.

Interestingly, arguments can be made that folks in both Korea and Japan have 'canonized' their mountains in various ways for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Another point of interest, at least for me, is that height plays a subordinate role in compiling either the Japanese or Korean lists, unlike the European and North American lists I mentioned earlier which use it as a primary requirement. Rather mountains are designated famous or noted due to their status in legend, the battles that have been fought upon them, or for their sacredness and religious significance. In Korean National Parks it is not uncommon to see signs prohibiting practicing shamanism within the park's boundaries.

What I find glorious about this is the personalized 'sub-lists' one can compile for one's own - albeit somewhat sad - gratification. So this is what I have done. I doubt that anyone but me cares, but anyway, the lists are (in no particular order of importance): (i) the Jeolla-do section of the 100 Noted Mountains in Korea (I live in the south half of this province and this gives me 22 peaks to climb); (ii) the "Hidden Mountains" (whatever that means!) in Jeolla from the same website (10 more); and a list of the 25 highest peaks in the country. I also have a list of mountainous National Parks to visit. The lists are in the first few pages of the notebook I take hiking with me every time I go out.

Given my reasonably imminent departure from the peninsula, in just over five months, the fact that one of those months will be spent in Nepal, and that winter storms make hiking difficult if not unpleasant for some of that time, completing the list is going to be tricky. Here's the breakdown of what's left: National Parks - 4; Jeolla-do 100 Noted mountains - 12; Jeolla-do "Hidden Mountains" - 9; highest peaks - 7 (though one is inaccessible, so 6 really). It appears it's time to really get stuck into trying to get these ticked off or give up on the idea altogether.

These last two weeks have been spent mostly lying low at work, marking essays, and slowly beginning to shake off this belligerent cold. With that in mind, and the fact that the weekend before had been a bit of a big one, we opted for a short walk these last two Saturdays, and have been rewarded with a beauties. Diamonds are smaller than bricks, it would seem.

Heukseoksan, just inside Haenam country , almost spilling over into Gangjin and Yeongam counties is a tricky mountain to reach, but then it does have the "hidden" designation from  the Korean Forestry Service. On a map it's just south of Wolchulsan National Park. If you want get here by public transport you will need to get a bus to Yeongam-eup then a bus to Dangsan-ri. Get off at the bus stop at the bottom of the village and walk for about 2-3 miles up the left hand fork next to the bus stop; eventually you'll come to the trailhead. From here signposts will tell you the trial leads to 가학봉 (Gahakbong), before carrying on along the ridge to 깃대봉 (Gitdaebong), the highest point of the mountain (it's only 650m though!).

You can walk from one side of the mountain to the other, that is down from Gitdaebong to the other side, but, as we had the car, we decided to go as far as we could on the ridge before turning back and retracing our steps. It was maybe 7km in total on the ridge with another 2km on the road to where we had parked and we completed it in a very leisurely 3 hours. The slope to Gahakbong did prove a bit difficult with its 10cm-deep covering of superannuated leaves. It was the first time I've ever postholed through dead foliage, the result of which - the dusty path glissade - pleased BH more than mildly. Some slightly taxing scrambling sections also added interest: for once the ropes provided were necessary in at least two places. Some of the views were great, even if my photos don't do them justice.
Flowers still blooming in November

More of Korea's autumnal beauty

Wolchulsan's Cheonhwangbong peak poking through the murk in the distance

Autumn colour in the valley

This is the top of an inaccessible ridge to the east. Although it looks like a house on top, I can promise you it's not. It's just the way the rocks formed.

Some grinning, peak-bagging muppet

View down into the Honam plain to the east

Japanese maple getting ready to join the leaves on the trail

Honam plain to the south-west

*          *          *

The most recent Saturday past we went for another of the peaks to bag, this time Chuwolsan in Damyang county, just north of Gwangju. Located next to Damyang Lake it was obvious that Chuwolsan was popular, particularly in summer with not only Gwangju-ites, nut visitors from further afield.

Even though we left the 'po at 7am the first coach was disgorging its party just as we arrived. this was a slightly bigger and consequently more commercialized mountain than last week's. Getting a bus here from Damyang-eup would not be a problem.

We decided that we would hike along with the herd who started just before us and choose the trail to the ridge that they weren't taking, and hot-footed it up to the ridge in a surprisingly quick time. The weather was fantastic again, cool, and cloudless, with a delicate haze scudding across the horizon.
Hazy views of the lake

The views of the lake were great as we climbed and then we shot along the ridge which became increasingly crowded.
View on the descent

After a quick photo at the summit of the mountain we headed down. The park was obviously very, very popular. Pensioners in their multitudes struggled up the oceans of steps that constituted the trail on the other trail, and we were serenaded by soju-addled singing and hollering all the way down. I'm not a fan of permit systems, but Korea will eventually have to introduce them, I think. Or at least place limits on visiting numbers in popular spots. We counted 11 coaches parked at the entrance and plenty more cars. Chuwolsan is tiny, and it would be a shame to have a place this pretty be mismanaged into total closure. Paths were already badly eroded with sidetracks blazed that a cap on daily visitors, particularly on the weekends, could have prevented. The hike took us just over four hours.

On the way home the car died, irrevocably and interminably, which will mean even earlier starts if we, or I, want to continue bagging the local peaks.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010


It's been a busy couple of weeks, with no hiking (sad face emoticon), and hence no posts. I would update about school, but really there has been little going on that has been noteworthy. The presentations were actually a little predictable in the end, but I think once the kids get a hold of the concept - we'll do another one in a week or so - they'll do better with them.

After a fairly hectic couple of weekends of - cringe - socializing, I was itching to get back in the mountains before the crampon and ice-axe season begins. It was my birthday as well last week, and my Better Half asked what I wanted to do. I suggested we went to Jirisan and climbed a few peaks. Jirisan is undoubtedly the daddy: it was the first designated National Park in the ROK, it's the biggest mountainous park in the country, and it has the tallest mainland peak.

A couple of days later, idly looking around the Korean National Parks website, I noticed that a shelter on the ridge had rather a lot of space available. After a quick conflab with BH, I booked it and started to contemplate walking the ridge for the weekend. I was excited. I really wanted to do this hike with BH, but it looked for a while that I would have to do it on my own when my contract finished. Furthermore - and I realise that no-one else really cares about this - it meant I could put some more ticks in my little book: the course we planned on walking runs over eleven of the twenty-five highest peaks in South Korea.

I should give a little background at this point. This is not the first time I've been after doing this trail. Last May, when there was a long weekend to celebrate Buddha's birthday, me, BH and three other friends attempted to traverse the ridge in what is the 'usual' amount of time: three days. To cut a long story short, overloaded packs (my fault), problems with shelter reservations (partly my fault), the preposterous number of people on the mountain, and a storm that nearly blew us all off it (both not my fault, mercifully) combined to make the trip a mitigated disaster. After exiting at Seseok shelter the first time around, we were cold, wet, sore and pretty miserable.

So, I kind of had a bone to pick with this mountain and this trail. It was also my birthday and the last chance, realisitically, that BH and I had to do a multi-day excursion together for a while. The weather forecast looked really good. So in spite of our streaming colds, after packing our bags (me 10kg, BH 7kg) we got a couple of buses to get to the staging town of Gurye, on the west side of the park, found a motel for the night (35000won), had a few drinks and prepared for an early start. A word on Gurye motels (I've stayed in two, and I'd be surprised if there are any more): if you're ever there, get off the bus and head down the main drag, towards a Mini-Stop on your left-hand side. There is a motel down the road opposite the Mini-Stop, to your right. Avoid it. It's better, in my opinion, to go stright on for another 100 yards or so and get to the next one (I forget its name unfortunately). They both charge the same and the further one is much nicer (cleaner, newer bathrooms and western-style beds).

We left at just after six in the morning. There are two ways to get to the ridge: the first is to get a bus or taxi from Gurye to Hwaeomsa, a temple close to Gurye, and hike up from about 300m asl to about 1400m asl. Given that there are another fifteen or so kilometres after that to the shelter we had booked, we elected for option two: get a longer taxi ride (about 40 minutes) to Seongsamje, and ascend about 300m to the ridge. Walking up from Hwaeomsa adds more than 50% more vertical elevation to the hike, and would mean a total cumulative ascent of 3183 vertical metres in two days, rather than a much kinder 1903. To put this into perspective, the GR20 in Corsica, widely regarded as a tough trek,  has a cumulative ascent of around 10000m and takes around two weeks. If we had had three days the Hwaeomsa ascent would have been do-able. As it was, we were quite grateful to start where we did, just after dawn, and able to see some spectacular views, courtesy of the brilliant early morning light.
Early morning view from Seongsamjae

Seas of clouds

There were patches of ice still in shaded areas, reminding us that winter is just around the corner and that until we started to descend at Sseoribong, on the far eastern side of the park, we wouldn't be going below 1100m asl.

Lighter than when we had previously been here, we fairly raced over the rocky paths, reaching the turn off for Banyabong at just after half past nine. The walking had been reasonably easy, with only gentle climbs. Be warned though, the paths throughout this hike, similar to everywhere else in Korea, are either very rocky or steps. Constant vigilance as to where one plants one's feet is needed to avoid turning ankles. The last time we had been here we had had lunch just below Banyabong's summit, stashing our packs in the undergrowth to make the side-trip. We declined to re-ascend this time. While the views are great, we thought we would be better off saving our energy. We stopped for lunch a little further down the track - about 20 minutes - at Baemsagol "shelter" after climbing up and descending from Samdobong. There isn't a shelter here, however. There is an information point a little off the main trail, where you can get water, but no building to sleep in. It was only ten o' clock, but we were hungry, so we stopped and ate a lunch cobbled together from delicious leftovers from our fridge. BH's cooking is great so we ate well - perhaps a little too well - as we staggered off in the direction of Yeonhacheon shelter feeling full just as a large group of Chinese students arrived noisily.

The trail got steeper here and we plodded on, our lunch refusing to settle. It took about two hours for us to get to Yeonhacheon, the shelter we had stayed in last time we were here.
View from Myeongseonbong

Yeonhacheon shelter

It was starkly different to our previous experience. On Buddha's birthday it had resembled some sort of hiking refugee camp, with people milling about everywhere, and was a hectic, nerve-fraying experience that does not come recommended. It was comparatively serene now, when we stopped to have a cup of coffee. Relaxed, and really enjoying the day due to the empty trails, easier going, and our lighter loads we strode off, fortified, towards Byeoksoryeong shelter.

During the leg of the journey to Byeoksoryeong we encountered some charming German students also enjoying the park. We chatted briefly while jealously eyeing the Weisbier they had just finished. The weather was perfect: sunny and cool without much wind at all. I arrived at the shelter at 14:40, with BH ten minutes or so behind me. We lounged around enjoying the last couple of hours of daylight eating and supping a few alcoholic beverages, eating ramyeon and rice (it's sold at the shelters!), mandarins and trailmix. Although Korean mountain shelters don't approach the standards set by ones like this one - the gents' toilets are amongst the worst on the peninsula, I'm sure, and the fugue of snoring and kimchi farts during the night is excruciating - I was still impressed at this shelter by the staff who were friendly, yet forceful about the rules. Previously, at Yeonhacheon, the anarchy had been oppressive with people camping illegally outside, littering, and generally not treating the place with much respect. The crowd here were friendlier and better behaved. It was nice to see a couple had brought their three young-ish kids with them to stay the night.
Byeoksoryeong shelter

Essential kit for shelter stays in Korea

Sunset from Byeoksoryeong shelter

As soon as the sun went down the cold set in. We were in bed by half past six, in separate, single sex dorms. I found it hard to sleep as the guy next to me, who, bless him, slept for about ten hours straight, snored like a nasally congested bull elephant. Waking frequently, I took several trips outside and reminded myself how beautiful the stars are in cloudless night sky, something you never get to see living in a Korean city, even a small one like Mokpo.

After finally having enough - I got about seven hours sleep in total - I got up at five and started pottering about  making myself a coffee. Thankfully the gas canister was warm from being inside the shelter all night, but it had to go back up my jumper to make Sam and I our oatmeal when she got up half and hour later. She too had had fitful sleep, though our colds definitely played a part in this as well.

We took plenty of photos of the sunrise and started off towards Seseok shelter. Again the early morning light made the mountains especially captivating. While the autumn foliage had largely gone the crisp air was great and the sea of clouds that swamped the lower elevations looked other-worldly. The paths were rocky and undulated more than the day before, meaning we took about two and a half hours to get to the shelter where we refueled on crackers and packet soup, trailmix and more mandarins.
Morning view

Early morning view on the way to Seseok

Jirisan's rugged beauty
Yeonhabong (foreground) and Cheonwangbong (background)

As Seseok had been our bailing out point last time around we had a smile at the fact that we were finally breaking some new ground - at least for us - after ten and a half hours of hiking. Feeling more energetic after our feed we pushed on at a decent pace over Samshinbong and Yeonhabong and climbed to Jangteomok shelter, where it began to get very busy with day-trippers wanting to climb Cheonwangbong. We changed our socks and aired our feet for ten minutes before pushing on with the crowds up the steep incline to the park's biggest peak, at 1915m asl.
Cheonwangbong madness

The summit was insanely busy, hordes of people pushing and shoving: we joined them and got a couple of good photos before heading off onwards to Jungbong. There are other ways of exiting from Cheonwangbong, both of which are much shorter, but we took the trail that headed to Daewonsa mainly so I could get the last two peaks and those ticks in my little book (sad, I know). Jungbong, which at 1875m asl is only marginally shorter than Cheonwangbong, also has beautiful vistas, but when we arrived, crazily we were the only people there.
View back to Cheonwangbong from Jungbong

Tiring by now, we labored a bit to Sseoribong and then started on the long way down to Daewonsa, via Chibanmok shelter, which we reached at 15:15. The decision to go for the last two peaks was a bit rash: we were already tired and it was getting late. It seems that Jirisan is able to invite me to bite off more than I can chew; obviously it's an invitation I find hard to decline.

The path from Chibanmok was about 7km long. Initially it dropped steeply, and included  a longish climb back up before reprising its gruelling, knee-mauling descent. It was a long day, with roughly ten and a half hours of hiking over steep and often rocky paths, with some sections of scrambling and we felt very, very tired coming down, losing the race with the sun towards the flatter horizon. When we arrived Yupyeong village at six o' clock it was completely dark.
The last remnants of autumn colour
The journey back to Mokpo was no less relaxing. Having asked around at the businesses in the village we found that no taxi would take us to Jinju, the nearest significantly-sized settlement. In the end a family running a restaurant offered to take us for 50000won, fifteen thousand more than a taxi would have cost us, but tiredness and desperation left us in no position to negotiate. We got the express bus terminal fifteen minutes after the last bus to Gwangju left. Beginning to suffer now, having been awake for so long we trudged to the city bus terminal and got a bus to Suncheon. Then it was bus to Gwangju, then a bus to Mokpo. We got home at midnight, tired, but satisfied and happy after a great weekend's hiking.