June 29, 2013

Hallasan - Climbing Korea's Highest Mountain

Jeju is an island off the south coast of peninsular Korea. It is the closest thing that South Korea has to a tropical paradise, making it an extremely popular yet still laid back travel destination. In the middle of the island is Hallasan, a gently sloping shield volcano that rises 2 kilometers into the sky. It is not the most beautiful mountain in the country, nor the toughest to summit, but it is the highest and thus worthy of a climb.

I was travelling Jeju with a Korean lady, a Dutchman, and an American guy. It took us around 8 hours to go up and down. The incline was very gradual and not particularly painful, but the decent was hard on the knees and felt far more tiring. The weather started off cooperating for the majority of the climb, but fog engulfed the mountain when we reached the peak. We waited a long time at the top but the clouds would not cooperate, robbing us of any stunning views. The crater at the top only had a small pool of water.

A heavy storm had recently hit Jeju, so the staircase up to the top of the mountain was a mangled pile of wooden debris. The rest of the trail was in good condition, with a couple of rest areas in between giving us a chance to mingle with the brightly dressed community of mature Koreans who adore hiking up mountains. One old timer kept pointing me out to his companions in between slurping his cup of instant noodles and taking swigs of soju, perhaps trying to recollect which magazine cover or billboard he had seen me on before.

Since we had come up one way and down another we were separated from our rental car. The taxi drivers were all in cahoots and not willing to use their meters, so we had a tough time making our way to the parking lot where we had originally started. Exhausted we made it back to Jeju City in time for dinner with some former students of my Korean friend, who is a teacher of business English to Korean professionals. While we enjoyed a delicious meal of barbecued black pork, a Jeju specialty, the students perspired heavily from the effort of having to communicate with foreigners, which is a Korean specialty.


"Cliff! And then walked slowly down the mountain when you let go." - Warning sign posted on the trail