There is a moment on Seorak Mountain, over two hours in and 1,000 meters above sea level, that is dauntingly unfair to novice hikers. You have to squint real hard and crane your neck so far back that your head hits your backpack just to glimpse the three-kilometer signpost, tauntingly perched atop this sleet-covered, 70-degree-steep, God-knows-how-tall hill. It is a profoundly ridiculous slope.
We witnessed a Korean family, decked out in the trendiest climbing gear (crampons, ski goggles, two poles each; we had none of this), struggling to climb down. The father, after a few minutes, gave up and slid down on his butt, laughing and urging his scared wife and daughter to do the same.
Climbing was a full-on hands-and-knees effort. Digging our sticks into the ground, we found little solace in previous climbers’ footholes, which, rather than offering support, spat our feet back out behind us. We leapt from tree to tree and grabbed emerging stones and, somehow, after 20 minutes, emerged victorious, earning our reward of water, dried Korean army cookies and Tesco-brand Nutri-grain knockoffs.
We were officially more than halfway to the top.
Seoraksan is South Korea’s third-tallest mountain range, and among the country’s most popular winter hikes. Getting to the 1,708-meter-tall peak, called Daecheongbong, takes a full five hours, but offers the famous sight of “Dinosaur Ridge”, a spiky mass of jagged rocks that really do resemble the spine of a stegosaurus. We chose the Lunar New Year long weekend for our trek, which is especially popular with climbers who ascend on the new year’s eve and wake up to watch the first sunrise from the peak, which we deemed too serious for us.
Inventory of food: Nutri-Grain knock-offs, a hefty bag of mixed nuts, two apples, three Snickers, one large ramen cup, rice triangles, two moon pies, a bag of Famous Amos chocolate chip cookies, two cheap convenience store sandwiches and three bags of the aforementioned dried cookies made popular by the Korean army.
Lacking: crampons, those sharp cleats that proper hikers use to dig into padded snow underfoot. We are not entirely inexperienced hikers, but we are cheap, and forwent the purchase on the basis of probably never using them again in our lives.
Our mistake was obvious early on. Even before the third kilometer’s ridicu-slope, the first two kilometers were basically a slope of ice atop what was once, presumably, a staircase. Descending Koreans, serious enough to have slept at the peak the previous night, shot confused looks at our sloppiness.
After the first trying hour and a half, the path rewards hikers with a mostly smooth series of sloping hills and staircases, snuggled within the mountain’s bosom. There’s little wind and lots of early-afternoon sun. This kilometer would be the first and last that we’d willingly remove our jackets, redefining brisk weather as a motivational push to keep moving.
The third kilometer is a steady, defeating incline of thickly padded snow. It is not as immediately obscene as the ridicu-slope, but culminatively just as difficult. Sticks have to be thrown down hard into the snow to maintain what felt like turtle-speed headway, which, for my hiking partner, meant a breaking point.
“I don’t want to do this anymore,” she shouted, tears forming and immediately starting to freeze in her eyes. She wasn’t joking when she said that she wished we’d never come here. It wasn’t the physical difficulty of it—we’re both young, active and healthy—but it’s an incredibly depressing feeling to have every step you take result in sliding back down halfway. For every three inches of progress, we’d slide back by two.
I hugged her, reassuring her, and secretly myself, that we can do this. I can freely confess now that any reassurance was a totally baseless claim. Years of expat life have helped me to bury any possible sense of fear under my youthful illusion of immortality. Of course we can do this, in the abstract sense—it’s just walking uphill for a really long time; we both knew that—the real problem was that neither one of us especially wanted to anymore.
But we’d climbed ourselves into this mess, so I put on my best alpha male guise and feigned optimism. Wiping away tears, she agreed to keep going, which was, in hindsight, an immensely braver move than I knew at the time.
As if sensing our frustration, the wind suddenly stopped pounding after that. Everything fell unprecedentedly quiet. It was the first peaceful moment we’d had in hours, a mental lifesaver. The confidence it gave us was way more important than the relief it gave our legs. We were moving briskly again, making good time, suddenly proud of ourselves for having come this far.
Any shred of zeal was totally blown away by the peak’s wind speeds. We were literally toppled over, pushed onto our hands unless we jutted our sticks out at strategic angles. The recorded -14-Celcius temperature was nowhere near how cold it really felt: the reality was that snot would drip out of my nose, immediately crystalize and shoot horizontally off the mountainside.
We glimpsed the peak’s shelter 700 meters away, across a path of impossibly thrown together boulders, and reached it 30 minutes later, by 1:15 p.m. I immediately noticed two things: the first, that this is perhaps the best-heated structure on the entire Korean peninsula; the second, that they sell crampons.
“I’ll take two,” I told the shopkeeper in mediocre Korean. He gave me a quizzical look and asked me if I’d come up without them. I nodded, and his eyes widened as he loudly exhaled. “It was hard,” I confirmed, pathetically.
Only one family was in the shelter then. The kids were shockingly young, no older than 14, recharging their phone batteries and playing video games. We lingered in the heated living space for a while, mentally and physically depressed at the thought of having to go back out there (“Can’t we just sleep here?” my accomplice pled), but agreed to distract ourselves with food and reconsider it in an hour.
In the dining room, which is well insulated but annoyingly not heated, we devoured our bevy of snacks and borrowed the stove of a broad-shouldered, middle-aged Korean man for our ramen’s hot water. He obliged, and we offered him a Snickers as thanks; rather than look pleasantly surprised, he didn’t flinch, but nodded, Yes, I will accept your candy, and took it with the intimidating stoicism of, say, meeting his daughter’s high school boyfriend.
Ramen never tasted so good. By 2 o’clock, we were overfull and mentally rejuvenated. Time heals most wounds; Famous Amos and a space heater do the rest.
With our bellies full and our feet cramped-on, we noticed an immediate difference. I am still amazed by both the brilliance of the crampon invention and our idiocy for even attempting the snowy behemoth without them.
The downhill trek was more than just a breeze: it was actually kind of fun. We didn’t recharge our brains, we rebooted them; we actually felt better about ourselves en route down. We were making good time and, for the first time in hours, able to enjoy the limitless winter view.
We reached the familiar front gate minutes before 6 o’clock, right on schedule. This was more than relief. We felt an actual, rare instance of—I hate this word too, but—transcendence. It’s a trite travel buzzword, but we really did transcend something: mental blocks, perceptions of torture, one’s own abilities. Gliding down the mountain, we literally passed every painful memory from earlier that day and replaced it with a sense of triumph. It honestly did feel like a new year.
Which is all a bit unfair to claim as personal victory, really, because we owe our success exclusively to the invention of crampons.