Sokcho, Gangwon Province, South Korea
October 27, 2014
Atop a tower of boulders, I staked my lofty spot with outstretched arms and a euphoric holler like a rock star, shades and chutzpah in place. But who was I fooling? There was only one rock star in the house, and that was Seoraksan, its rocky apex piercing the infinite blue of the sky. I didn’t have the cheek to believe I had conquered a mountain. Mountaineering never figured in the agenda for this day trip, or my life. I climbed Seoraksan, not because it was there, but because I was there.
The day started slowly enough, yet it was far from a slow day at Seoraksan National Park. It was a Monday, but it was the height of autumn, the most scenic time of year. At 10 AM, when my friends and I got to the entrance at Sokcho, an army of ajumma and ajusshi had already invaded the ticket booth (admission was 3,500 won). These married Korean women and men (respectively), middle-aged but sturdy in physique, more so the women, easily outnumbered younger visitors. I wondered why they came to see the mountain in droves.
We didn’t have a chance for a photo op with the statue of an Asian black bear, the icon of the park’s residents; an entire association of ajuma was hogging the front space for a group shot. Even the mountain played elusive to the camera as it was against the morning sun.
The Sogongwon cable car that would whisk us up to the mountain operated in batches. Imagine our shock on seeing at the digital board that our tickets (9,000 won each, round trip) were for three hours later! We killed the epic waiting time with kimbap, steamed mandu, and super-small Coke (just one gulp!) at the food court and, for the most part, by power napping at the lounge. What better way to stock up and conserve energy than eating and sleeping? We also got on one another’s nerves (pikunan, as we would call it) then made up – that’s what friends are for – all this before boarding.
The cable car ride took all of five minutes! There was hardly enough time to see and snap photos of the multicolored forest cover as we whizzed past. The ride was akin to snorkeling above a bed of corals. Jagged granite peaks, jutting out at a distance, framed the colorful leafy canopy. On our return, I gave my gadgets a rest to be in the moment and just take in the view.
In a jiffy, Sogongwon became a distant memory at the valley below. The rock faces we looked up at seemed within reach at eye level. Just outside the landing area, we followed a narrow uneven trail up a rocky incline. Over the railings on one side was a leafless, lifeless forest belying a precipitous drop.
My old, creaky knees could still keep up with the aforementioned ajumma and ajusshi trudging up and down the two-way trail. At the trail’s end, we all stopped in our tracks. Lo and behold, we first laid eyes on Gwongeumseong Fortress.
The outcrop may not be the highest peak of Seoraksan at 1,200 meters, as opposed to Daecheong Peak’s 1,708 meters, but it was massive and dramatic. Save for a lone bent tree, frozen to the direction and force of mountain winds that, thank goodness, spared us, the craggy monster loomed large beyond the treeline. History claimed that a fortress had been established on the mountain when Korea was still Goryeo a thousand years ago, but we found no indication of any man-made fortification.
It dawned on us then; this day trip was not a wimpy cable car ride to the mountain top. A Korean flag staked at the summit was waving at us. We had to decide: go or no go? At this point, clearly there was no other way but up. We shouted Aja! Aja! (Fight! Fight!) and clambered up the steep face.
Melds, still recovering from bouts of intestinal issues, had spring in her step, even on all-fours. Cindy, half-blind but full-bodied, lugged her clunky laptop, perhaps the first and only one of its kind to reach the summit. I just held on to the climbing rope for dear life, occasionally taking selfies on every crevice that could hold my center of gravity securely.
At the summit, the depth and breadth of the northern Taebaek Mountain Range, the backbone of Korea, could be had in all its 360-degree glory. Valleys dove deep into the shadows, jagged peaks reached up to the sun. The city of Sokcho was reduced to a white freckle on the landscape. Sea and sky stretched out to the same blue beyond. The piece of rock on which we held a precarious perch was as narrow as the view was panoramic.
We shared the summit with a photo booth manned by a lone photographer. It was the most otherworldly workplace. I wondered where he went to heed the call of nature, but then I perished the thought. Cindy was compelled to give him a bag of caramel popcorn, the only source of sugar rush we had on us.
Millennials dominated the crowd of summiters. They mostly had their heads down to their smartphones, oblivious to the awe-inspiring place where land, sea, and sky met. A teenager nodded when I asked if Seoraksan was the highest mountain in SoKor, so I proudly proclaimed in a selfie video how I had transcended to the top of Korea. Ignorance was bliss, indeed. After the descent I googled Seoraksan, and it turned out to be the third highest. Back to earth, I had been had. I scrambled to delete my Instagram video.
The descent was more challenging than the ascent. Gravity was only too glad to help us down. Perhaps I hadn’t noticed, but there were neither guides nor guards. One misstep could have sent us tumbling down a rocky terrain as sharp as glass shards. My knees survived, but my leg muscles were quivering with each downward step.
Back at Il Heong Jang, our little hotel across from Sokcho Bus Station, we kicked off our shoes and relaxed our battered feet on the heated floor, called ondol in Korean. I had heard about this ancient heating technology from my Korean student. It may be powered by electricity now, but it was still both a therapeutic and cultural experience.
Later that night we had our caffeine fix at the cozy Mom’s Coffee beside the bus station. It was the place to be. The elderly couple who manned the shop received us warmly, their blueberry latte was heavenly, and most importantly, Wi-Fi connection was strong.
This pop verse said it all, “It’s the cliiiimb.” True that, Miley! This climb made all the difference in our day trip to Seoraksan, even our entire visit to SoKor. It was all our first time to summit, and the mountain was surprisingly welcoming. Seoraksan did not discriminate against noobs, kids, and the ajumma/adjusshi set. Seeing this “rock star” of Korea up close and personal beat any K-pop star sighting.