I’m not a hiker, let’s just throw that out there right now. In fact, I don’t even really like hiking all that much. I’m more a team sport, dance class or just lie on the couch type of girl.
But, I have a bucket list of things to be completed and it is for this reason that I decided to do the Seoraksan Mountain New Year’s hike. The hike would let me cross off 2 things on my list- 84. Hike Seoraksan AND 119. Watch the first sunrise of the year on a mountain (which is a Korean tradition). Seoraksan is the 3rd highest mountain in Korea and it was only after the hike from hell that I was told it was considered a rather “difficult” hike.
Little did I know the horror that would be waiting for me and that this would be the most extreme/ crazy thing I have ever done.
The day before I departed for Seoul I had a quick look at the weather and was not at all happy with what I saw. The weather said the mountain would be -18 and near the top with the gale force winds it would feel like -30 to -40. I could not believe that this was real, could it even be real. I then also realised a very serious shopping spree was in order as I was not nearly prepared enough to be hiking in those extreme weather conditions.
Off I went to the outlet stores as I was seriously not prepared to pay through my ass for gear that most likely would not be worn all that often (ok, whom am I kidding, it definitely wouldn’t be used that often).
I found the most beautiful pink hiking boots, only to discover they only go up to a 250. ALL women’s hiking boots only went up to 250. (250= 6UK= 8,5-9US size). So I had to buy men’s hiking boots. After an hour of shopping around I got everything I wanted and felt more at ease about the hike. We layered up, I had a pair of fleece leggings, proper ajusshi hiking pants pants, hiking socks, hiking boots, under armor long sleeve thermal top, another long sleeve thermal top, tank top, fleece pullover jersey, snow jacket, face mask, head band, beanie, gloves and a scarf…I thought I’d be fine. Filled with some nervous trepidation but also excitement we headed to the bus meeting point.
The group we were doing the hike with was Seoul Hiking Group. A group that I had traveled with before and whom I found fun, easy going and up for adventure. You can find them on Facebook here. They do many other trips besides just hiking and I enjoy going with them, most of the time. 😉
4:30 am we started the hike, by 5 am I realised that this was going to be much more intense than I expected and I wondered if I had indeed bitten off more than I could chew.
Our leader told us it was 5 km to the peak, when I got to the 2,5 km mark I was proud. I was a little winded but still going strong, it seemed I would be able to do it…till we go to 500 meters after that sign. The snow had started and I had nothing for my boots. So we plodded along, trying our best not to slip and fall down into the river that lay next to us. Luckily earlier I had been a good Samaritan and loaned my spare torch to a girl who didn’t have one and now she returned the favour by giving me her spare crampons (spike things you attach to your shoes so they dig into the snow and you don’t slide). The spikes definitely made a difference and I was more sure on my feet.
As we continued up it started getting colder, the wind started picking up and the stairs just wouldn’t stop. So many damn stairs, all covered in snow waiting for you to slip and crack your skull open.
I was shivering and I was hungry but we couldn’t stop as we had to keep going so we could see the sunrise and for fear of freezing. By this stage our water bottles had frozen over.
The sun finally started rising and we found a gap in the trees to take a shot or two.
As we got nearer the wind grew even stronger than before and all the people coming from the front seemed to be running and they had ice in their hair and eyelashes. I feared for what lay ahead, and rightly so.
We neared the top and rounded the corner and OH SWEET MOTHER OF MARY was it cold, it was beyond cold, it was horrible, it was freezing, every part of me was cold no matter the layers on.
We stopped for a while to eat some biscuits and admire the view but we did not stay long. I was unhappy, I was cold, I was grumpy and my body was not happy with me.
If I thought being at the top was bad, going down the side with the wind blowing from all directions was worse. I seriously thought I might just die. I wanted to cry but was to scared to, I didn’t know what would happen to my tear ducts if the tears froze in them. So instead I just made little chunking sobbing noises as I went as fast as was possible towards the shelter that was only 700 meters away. My fingers started freezing inside my gloves, I couldn’t feel them anymore. At one stage I thought my pants were sliding down and I took my hand out of my glove to try pull it up but I couldn’t bend my fingers, I couldn’t get them to do what I wanted. The sobbing chunking noises continued till I got to the shelter. Never have I been so happy to arrive at a wooden establishment.
Once inside I did not want to leave. It was warm, it was dry and there was no wind. People were busy cooking away and it seemed that some had even spent the night there. We had no idea that you would be able to buy food up on the mountain and so we had no money. We just looked at the other people eating until one person felt sorry for us and gave us each a piece of candy. While we were standing there trying to defrost Juan asked me if there was something wrong with the top of his one ear as he couldn’t feel it. I had a look at it and it was FROZEN, as in rock hard frozen. He had been so cold he did not feel it happening.
It came time for us to leave. I wasn’t ready for it, I had even thought about if it would be possible for me to stay there till the next day or whenever it was going to get warmer. The only comfort I had was that from now on we would be going down hill. My gloves were still frozen solid but I discovered the best way to keep my hands warm was to bunch them into a ball and put them in the palm section of the glove. Leaving the frozen fingers part well alone.
We braved the cold and on we walked till we got to a 3 way split. I had remembered our leader had told us to go to a temple and I saw some other people going left and so we decided to follow. I was much happier as we were out of the wind blast and going down hill. I even commented on how I was glad we were going downhill and not up. What a silly thing to do!
We got to the temple at the bottom only to discover we had GONE THE WRONG WAY. Words cannot describe what I was feeling at that moment. I just wanted to sit and cry. We would have to go back up the 2 kms we had just come down from. I was broken. On the walk back up I literally had to just concentrate on one foot in front of the other. I was so angry and annoyed with us for being so stupid to go the wrong way and put ourselves through this extra pain. Luckily there were 5 other people who made the same mistake so we knew we weren’t last.
We got to the top and turned the right direction. It said it was only 10 km but it could take up to 6 hours. We were starting to worry we would be getting back really late and hold the bus up. I started formulating plans for a helivac and wondering the cost involved.
2 months prior to this hike I had fallen down some stairs over Halloween in Busan and twisted or sprained my knee. I thought it was all better prior to the hike…it was not. My left knee started paining with every downwards step I took.
The one really fun thing about going down the mountain is that at some stages the path was too steep or slippery to walk down so we literally slid down on our butts. It was fun albeit a bit painful at times when you hit some stray rocks. It also took some pressure off my knee.
Unfortunately the fun didn’t last long and we hit the valley! The valley with so so so many stairs. Some covered in ice.
At this stage the tears had started flowing, every step was painful, I was cold and I was hungry. The worst of this was not having the option to stop. The mental strain was exhausting. No matter what my body felt I just had to keep going. If we stopped we got cold and it pained to start again.
In my mind I was wondering how I was going to describe this, what Facebook status could I formulate that would adequately convey what I was going through. My thoughts were torn between that, the constant thought that if I just sat down and waited surely someone would come rescue me, and possibly in a chopper, and how grateful I was that none of the friends I had invited with had actually come (they were smart). It was bad enough that I was suffering and that Juan was suffering but it would have made me feel so much worse if I knew I had been the reason my friends were suffering too.
It was getting later by now and the sun had disappeared from our view in the valley and with the lack of sun the temperature seemed to drop even more and my knees were killing me!
Somehow I managed to do the last few kilometers. I’m honestly not sure how my body pushed on through, but I’m happy it did. The last 2 kms were on relatively flat ground which I think saved me too as it was the going down the stairs that killed me.
My neck was sore for having stared at the ground for the last 12 hours, my knees were throbbing and every muscle in my body was aching but I had made it!
I had survived the toughest thing I had ever done. It had taken 12 hours to do 20-21 km (half marathon) on a path labeled expert most of the way with only a few advanced parts before the last 2 kms which was labeled easy. My body has been put through some painful experiences before, and this one was definitely in the top 2, but it was the mental side that got to me. I had never hiked for long, had to focus for so long or was cold for so long. The option of giving up was not available, if it had been I would have taken it ages ago. I just had to keep putting one foot in front of the the other and keep telling myself I could do it, I had to do it, there was no other option. I just pushed through all the tears.
P.S. Not everyone else took the strain we did. They were fitter, had better equipment and also didn’t take a detour like we did. Some seemed to have enjoyed it and I’m sure it could be a pleasant hike it you are prepared, we were not.
P.S.S Having the right gear is so important. If it wasn’t for the gear I had bought I would have never made it. The correct shoes are a must and the right pants made sure my legs were never cold. The only thing I would deem a failure of my gear is my gloves, they did not work as intended to.
P.S.S.S My phone didn’t like the cold so wouldn’t take many photos. So thanks to my friends Eva, Darren and Juan for letting me use theirs.
P.S.S.S there isn’t a photo of us at the end because quite frankly I didn’t care. I just collapsed onto the bus and refused to move.