I’ve been obsessed with the app “Meetup” for the last little while. For those who don’t know, it’s an app on your phone that lets you join groups of people with similar interests for many different activities. Love eating breakfast? Join the breakfast club. Do you like to bike? There’s a group for that. Really into Star Wars? You best believe there’s a bunch of like-minded geeks hanging out nearby. Interested in climbing Bukhansan? Absolutely.
When I discover something new I tend to go all out, and with the warm weather, I was ready to make as many friends as possible for the Korean springtime. I started joining meetup group after meetup group, and attending event after event. Running, exploring, photo-taking, breakfast-eating, you name it, I was at it.
Friday night rolled around and I was sitting at my desk trying to think of something to do for the weekend. Try as I might, I haven’t got too many friends in Korea, and spending the weekends alone only tend to make me more conscious of this fact; so I try to keep myself busy. Luck had my back though when across my computer screen appeared a hiking meetup for the next morning – or so I thought.
I checked out the event and quickly joined the group, not careful to note any of the details. The event mentioned that myself and a group of about 40 other people would be climbing Bukhansan to its highest peak, Baekundae, a whopping 836 meters above the city of Seoul. The highest mountain in the Seoul metropolitan area, Bukhansan seemed like it would be no easy task, but blog after blog of foreign teachers climbing on a weekend reassured me that it was a piece of cake. I read that there was a nice easy path to the top, with lots of stairs, hand rails, and ropes. It could be easily climbed by older Koreans, so there was no reason why I, an able bodied young man, shouldn’t be able to do it. Perfect.
Saturday morning rolled around and my alarm wrenched me from my sleep. Questioning my sanity for waking at such an early hour, I showered, packed a backpack with a camera, a hoodie, a jacket, a few snacks, a large water bottle, and hitched it on my back with some gym shorts, a T-shirt, and an old pair of running shoes I’ve had since high school. I boarded the subway for the hour and a half long journey to our meetup point – just outside a subway station a little North of Seoul’s city centre. Relieved when I saw a few faces that looked just as lost as me, I joined up with a group of 30 people – foreigners and Koreans, as we introduced ourself and boarded a city bus out to the boonies.
Thirty minutes of sudden acceleration and deceleration that only Korean bus drivers seem to be able to manage, we arrived in the epitomical middle of nowhere. We formed a circle, stretched, and introduced ourselves to the group – after that, we hiked.
It Started Off Easy…
Upwards through a forest we climbed, stair after stair, hill after steep hill. Straying from the path occasionally, the climb was less than formidable. My many previous experiences with my run-sploring meetup group had given me the stamina to make it up this first stage of the mountain without dying. Taking a break every 30-60 minutes, the group was in high spirits. I was making new friends, discussing Korea, Canada, and everything in between with newfound friends.
It seemed like all of a sudden though that things got a little difficult. Our 40 degree incline had increased by about 20 more degrees, and the trees, roots, and all things to hold on to were getting quite scarce. The trees got thinner, and the climb got steeper until it seemed we were just scaling an insurmountable incline of bedrock; this was not the easy climb that I had envisioned. Reaching a break in the slope, we paused to take a look at the hill we had just climbed – it was huge.
We started wading through another forest on a shallower incline, and all too soon I had forgotten about the previous palm-sweating encounter, until we happened across another one. This time, with no hand holds, we would have to run up a steep rock to get to the top to continue on our way. Realizing that we were climbing the ridge of the mountain, I quickly also realized that there was no turning back. Nervously I stepped up onto the rocky ledge and made my way quickly but hesitantly up the slope – noting at this moment how terrible of a decision it was to wear old running shoes.
Things Got A Little Difficult
Balancing my way up to the top, I noticed on the right side of me a cliff. Casting my gaze over the edge my eyes searched for the bottom only to be obscured by the clouds. Have you ever had one of those brief moments of clarity where your brain snaps out of the moment to tell you “Hey, what you’re doing is dangerous and you should probably stop”? That happened to me. The other thoughts to cross my mind at this point were “Your shoes have zero grip, why did you wear them?” “You probably shouldn’t have come on this hike” “This group is way more professional than I thought” “There’s a very real possibility that you could actually die today” and “I really wish I packed more than just chocolate bars for lunch”.
With the help of friends, I made it up the rest of the ridge all the way to the highest point on our side of the mountain. It afforded us beautiful views of nothing but white – since China’s pollution was blowing in strong from the West that day. I was told by many I’d need to climb it again to get the full experience – though I’m not sure if I would take that exact same route.
Realizing we were on the complete opposite side of the mountain than we intended, our group set out to find the high altitude trail that encircled the mountain. To get to it though, we would have to descend a path that I can only accurately describe as the secret stair into Mordor. It was insane.
The rest of the hike was spent on a nice trail, and although it was not easy stamina wise, it was a welcome change from the leg-shaking, fear inducing trail that we had previously been on. We circled the mountain, found our way to the main trail, and hauled ourselves (quite literally) up to the summit using well placed ropes, metal stair cases, and hand railings.
The climb down, we took a staircase from the top of the mountain to the bottom. That was the trail I had read about.
I met some amazing people, and pushed myself out of my comfort zone. While it was a little intense of an experience for me, it’s the kind of thing that makes for a good memory – as well as a good story, so I’ve got absolutely no regrets. I’m planning on climbing Bukhansan again soon to see the amazing views of Seoul I’ve been promised, but this time, I’ll be taking the stairs.
Note: To illustrate my adventures, some photos are stolen from the meetup group page (thanks guys!) because I was too scared at times to have my camera out.