An exploratory trip, an exploratory hike… that’s what the day was supposed to be… instead it turned into a full scale tough hike/climb of a mountain up through clouds to its lofty summit.
With Debbie enjoying a shopping adventure in Hong Kong over the weekend, the kids and I remained behind in Korea with a 4 day weekend for them, and a three day weekend for myself over Veterans Day. There are only so many times one can watch the “too close to call” presidential election so Ben, Kate and I planned an exploratory trip over to Ch’iaksan National Park. We called it exploratory because we didn’t know if we could find it, we didn’t know what a national park would be like, and we didn’t know what hiking would be like in Korea. I told Kate to expect to see lots of people dressed in knickers, all decked out with the latest equipment and clothes for hiking. She said there would not be anyone there in kickers and opted instead for jeans and a fleece.
After only making one wrong turn at the a highway tollgate, we found the entrance road for the national park and paid our W4000 (or roughly $4) entrance fee and were directed to the large parking lot which was nearly empty as I suppose it is now approaching the “off season”. But with a late Fall in Korea, the leaves were still on the trees down low. We followed the signs marked “TRAIL” out of the parking lot and were promptly deposited on a narrow trail alongside the road… this was the trail to the trail I decided and after about 1/2 mile, we reached the trail head proper. It was a much smaller parking lot where a bus could turn around and there were various outdoor vendors there selling food and souvenirs. We just kept following the TRAIL sign and came to hike “tollbooth” where we paid another W4000 to enter the trail proper.
Paying our “toll” we proceeded down the cobbled path with literally hundreds of other Korean hikers decked out in knickers and the latest in hiking gear. Score one for Dad much to Kate’s chagrin. 🙂 We felt like we are in a moving sea of people and all of us are thinking if this is what hiking in Korea is like; perhaps it’s not for us. We passed a sign for the main peak in this area, Pobring Peak but paid it little mind as this is exploratory not a summit climb.
We continued up the trail with the gradually thinning crowds to a temple built earlier this century. The colors and architecture was stunning and it was Ben’s first temple. He had a goal of seeing a lot of them while living in Korea. We didn’t stop on the way up, but explored them on the way down — see the tired faces on these kids…!
As we continued to ascend to a waterfall we were still surrounded by many other hikers. I felt like I was on the Interstate to Seoul at rush hour as many had come in large groups and were singing or shouting in anticipation of a great day in the mountains. We reached the water fall after about 1.7km and sat down to rest and contemplate what our next objective was for the day. The kids naturally want to go for the peak, but since all of the directions were in Hangul, I didn’t have an appreciation for the elevation gain. The sign from the waterfall said 3.7km from there to the summit and an orange bridge led across the river to steep stairs ascending the cliff. I guess I thought this was a peak where the hordes would all make it to and it would be an easy hike. Mistake number 1. Little did I know what lay ahead as we all crossed the orange bridge and ascended the first set of stairs…
After this initial set of stairs, there was another set, and then another. All told, the stairs ascended almost 1000′ from the valley floor and this set the tone for the rest of the climb. At least at this mountain, switchbacks were never used; rather the trail went straight up the available ridge. Not knowing this in advance I assumed the peak was much lower than it was and this steep climb would soon abate and become more causal. The crowds thinned dramatically and Kate remarked that we were alone for the first time the entire hike! Ben was feeling ever so strong just coming off his HS football season and he was clearly in better shape than Kate and I. This gets depressing…there was a time when he was never stronger than I and now he was stronger and taller at 6’3″! He said he would forge ahead and meet us on the summit; mistake number 2. Assuming this had to get easier soon, I said ok, and off into the thickening mist he went. Not soon after we lost sight of Ben, Kate and I came to a ridge that was a lot like the Via Ferrata of Italy with cables strung to assist the climber along this section. Kate led out on this fun section.
At first it was mild then developed into 300′ drop offs each side. I assumed Ben had made it through fine but when I hollered for him, I got no response. This was to be the common theme all the way to the summit. The trail never eased and continued up the spiny backbone of the ridge. Other hikers were nowhere to be seen and as we ascended through the clouds, we felt alone. As we neared the tops of the clouds, the heavy frost we had encountered now turned to snow and Kate was delighted as on the way to the park she said there would be snow and Ben and I had said there would not be on the mountains. After the ridge way we continued to encounter steep, more vertical sections of rock where there was a cable or at times; a heavy hemp rope, in place to assist hauling yourself of these sections. With the snow packed from hikers before us the trail turned into an ice skating rink and at time, Kate and I were clawing up the trail; hanging on by the thinnest of margins. I guess I did not have pictures from these areas as I was too busy getting up them to stop and take a picture. I now realized this trail was as serious as any trail I had been on in Colorado and our little exploratory hike was now 2 hours old and we were still going up. I realized the seriousness when we finally broke through the clouds and I saw for the first time how high we were and how far we needed to go.
Ice was on the tress and there were a few inches of snow on the trail and rocks. The weather was beautiful but in the 30’s at this elevation. While we had plenty of water, we had eaten the majority of the snacks back at the waterfall and we were all hungry. Kate was intent about going all of the way but I started to have my doubts how wise this was and had Ben been with us, I think we would have called it a day and come back another time. But Ben was nowhere to be found and did not answer my repeated calls. Mistake number three. I would assume he would go to the top, figure out we were not going to make it and return via the same path, but that thought left me feeling uneasy. If Kate and I returned to the trailhead, there was a whole series of events that could find us separated at day’s end in a part of Korea we were not familiar with at this stage. Kate and I continued up; she putting on an incredible display of strength and courage. The high, tough scrambles for me were 200 times tougher for her and she accomplished them all.
By 2:30pm we were still continuing up and the trail became a complete scramble; incredibly hard with packed snow. Kate was reaching her limit as we came close to the top. I did ask one Korean hiker coming down if he had saw an American boy in a black jacket on top and the hiker had answered “yes, from Osan!” Well, at least we know he made the summit. Finally, we were faced with a short rock scramble to gain the tallest summit and Kate was completely spent, decided she would rather wait for me there while I retrieved Ben. She had suggested that numerous times before but I would not further spilt up. I ascended the last pitch with the help of a heavy rope and shouted for Ben. He finally appeared and I told him to head on down to help me with Kate going down. He was concerned about Kate but in typical big brother fashion asked him I would take his picture on the summit first. With the obligatory picture done we slid down to Kate. We are counting this summit for Kate. She fought the hardest of us all!
We got back to Kate and assessed the situation. Looking down we were way above the clouds, very tired, with little food. The trail going down would be much harder than going up and each step was a slide or a slip waiting to happen. We ate the rest of the snacks, drank water then started down.
Ben continued to be strong and took the lead, turning to spot Kate on the various vertical sections of the “trail”. After about 1 hour of descending we again in the clouds and although there was still snow, it had disappeared on the trail at least saving that hazard. Each of us had taken at least one heavy fall on the upper position and we are all had various scrapes and bruised forming. When we reentered the clouds, the snow made everything seem very quiet and peaceful.
We continued down and it was not until 3:45pm we reached the orange bridge again and the waterfalls. We still had another 2.5 km to walk down to the entrance but at least it was on a graded trail. I did the numbers in my head as we slowly walked to the entrance and realized we had ascended over 3000′ during the climb and had walked about 14km or about 9 miles RT; definitely not want we expected. Kate was a trooper to the end and we all shuffled past the trailhead tool booth and caught a bus back down to the parking lot, saving us that 1/2 mile walk which now appeared to be marathon in length.
Arriving back to the van, Kate was asleep before we left the parking lot and Ben, after unsuccessfully trying to buy some food at the trailhead, said point me to the food! At the trailhead he had tried to communicate he wanted some whatever they had broiling on the stick, but we were unsure if it was part of a soup concoction so we gave up. I knew there was a rest stop just down the road and unlike the ones in the United States; these are full service, like what you would see off the NJ Turnpike. We feasted on Sushi, chicken and soup before piling into the car to complete the rest of the drive on the heavily congested Interstates in Korea. We got back safely to home at 7pm some 5 hours past the time I thought we would.
Tired but content that we had climbed our first of many Korea peaks. We all awoke the next day with sore shoulders (from pulling on the ropes) to sore legs. Frustratingly so, Ben was the least sore of the three. I guess what he tells me is correct; I am just an old guy…:-)
Beta: 14+km RT, 3400′ elevation gain, 6 hours+