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|
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.
|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.
|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.
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|