On one breezy day in May, amidst gasping breath, dimming vision, thinning air, wobbly legs, dry throat, dwindling water supply, and worst, a growling empty stomach (!), I finally reached Daechongbong, Seorak-san's peak!
And this is how I got there.
Our office has a mountian climbing club, which regularly organizes climbs on mountains in Korea. Unfortunately (or fortunately?), I wasn't able to join their hikes up Jiri-san, the second highest mountain, and Halla-san, the highest one, located in Jeju Island. Yes, these mountain-climbing addicts would get on a plane just to climb a mountain.
On a bus full of sleepy climbers, we left Seoul Friday night at around 11, and reached the foot of Seorak-san, Gangwon Province, on the east side of Korea, at around 2 A.M. (Yes, 2 as in early freakin' morning when I should be snoozing soundly in bed). After our organizer announced the last-minute reminders (which was spoken in Korean and which I totally did not understand) and distributed bottled water and packed breakfast, we all got off the bus and gathered around for some stretching. After that, my journey began... 'with a single step'.
As we walked up the rocky path in total darkness only lit by our 'head' lights (literally - lights strapped around our heads), I told my fellow mountaineers (I hesitate to call myself one, actually) that I grew up in the lowlands and climbing mountains was not part of my childhood. (I only climbed trees then!) They all tried to give me encouragement even as my feet started to ache and my bad back (mild lumbar scoliosis) started to complain.
There were 32 of us and I was in front of the pack along the trail, when I realized that, one by one, they all started to overtake me. The aching feet, thinning air, a rocky path, a very dark trail and lack of fitness dragged me behind the pack. I could not keep pace with the rest and I surrendered to the reality that climbing the 3rd highest mountain in Korea was not the same as climbing Namsan in Seoul, either on a cable car or on a bus!
As a Korean mountain tradition, everybody must be at the peak at 6 A.M. to catch the sunrise and make a wish! And at 6 A.M., the pack was at the peak, taking photos, resting and making their wishes. Except one. I was only able to make a wish....two hours later.
At 8 A.M., I reached Daecheongbong, the peak at 1,708 meters, and made a wish that I be immediately transported to a deluxe room at the Shilla Hotel with a warm bath and an intercontinental breakfast! But nothing happened. I take it that any latecomer's wish would not be granted. I was still standing at the peak exhausted, hungry, thirsty, legs wobbly with thoughts of jumping off the mountain. And with the freezing breezes blowing from the north, south, east and west, I decided to get off already.
I consoled myself that the hardest part was over. I was now ready to eat my packed breakfast and hurry down the mountain with camera in hand to capture the views.
At the Jungcheong Shelter, about 600 meters down the peak, other climbers were there: resting, eating, mingling and sharing the restroom. I spent less than an hour there to digest my food, catch my breath, rest my legs, re-hydrate and visit the loo.
Since we were traversing the mountain, we climbed from one side and go down the other. Now, the enjoyable part was about to begin. As I climbed up with sleepiness and torture, this time, I climbed down Seorak-san with interest and adventure. As it was summer, most of the flora was green and the only fauna I saw were squirrels. And on the steep cliffs, hand-railed ladders were constructed to aid climbers.
How I wish it was all about climbing down! Though the strain were on my thighs as I went down, chatting with other climbers, crossing a stream, watching a waterfall, running after squirrels, and befriending Korean 'ajummas', who mistook me for a Korean, completed the whole adventure.
And what a relief when I finally realized I was walking on level ground. No more ups, no more downs. I started the climbed at about 2 A.M. and I arrived at the foot at 3 P.M.
As I sat there at a small store drinking an iced cold 'Powerade', my feet rested, my back relaxed, my breathing relieved, and my shirt required changing.
And although there was no deluxe hotel room waiting for me at my 'finish line', I had something pricier than an overnight stay at a 5-star hotel: A sense of achievement and a fulfillment of an adventure.
Would I want to climb again?