The friendly greetings of “Hello, how are you?” and “Where do you come from?” had long since ceased – probably somewhere around the 1,000 metre mark. Now with every Korean hiker I passed, I’d hear phrases such as “Be careful!”, “Good luck!”, or “Fighting! Fighting!” being shouted into the wind.
It was my last long weekend in Korea, and in the weeks leading up to it I had been feeling steadfastly determined that I would use it to see Seoraksan National Park, the last of all the spots in Korea that I’d been highly recommended to visit. I didn’t want to leave any major stone unturned before the end of my one year of teaching there, and I thought a hiking trip might do me some good after all of the overfeeding of the holiday season. And besides, after a year of trekking all over the country and leading hikes for Busan Daytrippers: Guided Mountain Hikes (an expat Facebook group), it would be a shame to miss the most famous hike of all.
It sounded like a great idea from the comfort of my pleasantly heated apartment, but after hours of sinking into knee-deep snow, slipping and falling all over myself despite putting on some crampons, and facing temperatures below – 20 °C (and with a windchill of nearly – 40 °C!), I was starting to have second thoughts.
It started out pleasantly enough. There had just been a major snowfall when I arrived, and the mountains looked nothing short of epic, covered in a thick layer snow. On my first day I did some easy day trips in the park, walking up Ulsanbawi, watching kids making snowmen, and enjoying the relatively balmy 0 °C temperatures. The scenery was absolutely spectacular! The snow covered, jagged, rocky mountain faces made me feel like I was thousands of metres high doing some serious mountain trekking, despite only being several hundred metres above sea level. It was pretty great, and entirely effortless!
The next day though, as I’d climbed higher and higher up the mountain, things started to change. The temperature started dropping at a steady rate. Every once in a while you’d take a wrong step and be literally up to your hips in snow. And after spending one night sleeping in a mountain shelter over halfway up, things had only gotten even more ridiculous! All of the staircases were completely covered with snow. My water bottle had frozen solid within half an hour, so I was fresh out of drinking water. Finally, by the time I finally got to the peak at 1,708 metres, I was literally clinging to the rocks, as some of the strong gusts of wind at the top would literally knock me off my feet!
I must admit though, that by the time I’d finally started my descent I was absolutely just giggling like a madman! Who would have ever thought that you could find such an adventure right here in South Korea! It was absolutely the most satisfying, and really one of the only challenging hikes I’d ever done in the country, and it totally held up to some of the best hikes that I’d done around the world.
So, if you’re sick of your typical Korean mountain scenery, and feel tough enough to make it through the cold, you should definitely find the time to head up to Seoraksan before the winter’s over for what is easily the best mountain hiking that the country has to offer!