This was perhaps my favorite day of our whole trip, for we climbed Hallasan (한라산). Though it wasn’t quite the departure from civilization as other hikes I’ve gone on, it was enough to feed my soul some of what I had been missing surrounded by the towering buildings of urban and suburban Korea. And the snow-encrusted trees transported me to the worlds within my imagination.
But before we made it to the mountain, we journeyed in search of a bus in the shadowlands. And that journey didn’t start until after my wife and I had called our parents on their Christmas. I enjoyed being able to say hello and recounting some of what we had done so far. Yet the time soon came for us to say farewell and set off to find a bus.
We wandered toward a traffic rotary in the northern part of Seogwipo, since that is where a bus was supposed to be, though once we found the rotary we had to figure out where the bus actually stopped, as it wasn’t at any of the bus shelters lining the sides of the rotary. Fortunately there were some Koreans who sort of comprehended our English. They pointed us a little south of the rotary to a bus “terminal” (it was more of a parking lot with a ticket booth nestled against a building). We managed to find a bus that would take us to Jungmun, which was in the right direction.
Upon arriving in Jungmun we realized that we really had no clue where to go to catch a bus to the mountain. There was an information center not too far from where we had disembarked. They provided us with the location of the stop, but then we needed to catch a taxi to try and make it there in time to catch the bus. We didn’t. Yet this gave us time to eat a little while waiting and eventually talk with a Korean man who was planning on hiking the mountain. He gave us plenty of useful information. ^^ The 1100 bus arrived and we were off.
As the bus wound its way up into the central highlands we began to spot snow–first patches here and there and then the patches joined together to form a quilt of snow laid across the land. The bus driver mentioned that we would have to be on the trail by noon, a proclamation repeated in the parking lot where we left the bus by those standing at a chain gate. The trailhead was a kilometer or two up a road and noon was fast approaching. So rather than walk up the snowy road to the trailhead and possibly not be allowed on the mountain, we took one of the taxis that were so conveniently operating between the parking lot and the trailhead.
Near the trailhead was a little shop and maybe restaurant, but we passed by those to make it onto the trail. However, the person regulating entry on the trail turned us back. We had to have crampons in order to make it onto the mountain. So we visited the shop and bought crampons at ₩50,000 per pair. So it turns out there was a “fee” for climbing the mountain, it just wasn’t a park fee…
We passed by families who were sharing crampons, with the parents splitting a pair and the children splitting another, and I think I saw one couple without any crampons. And while at the time the price seemed rather outrageous, especially since it had been unexpected, we know now that it is a rather reasonable price for crampons. Plus, the crampons did help immensely! Even better is that I now have a pair to use back in the States.
That aside now aside, the trail took us through a wood in the shadow of the mountain. The elevation gain was gradual. We crossed a few frozen streams on snow-covered wooden bridges all while sheer rock cliffs loomed over us. I knew we would eventually end up at the elevation of the tops of those cliffs, but I wasn’t sure how. Until, that is, I glimpsed a nearby shoulder of the mountain and saw the stairs.
You see, most mountains I’ve hiked up or canyons I’ve hiked down into have had trails that switchback. Sure, this means you have to walk farther, since you snake up or down the slope. But it also means that the angle of ascent or descent isn’t as steep, which allows for a more relaxed journey. So my first thought was, “Oh no, they wouldn’t dare…” Then my imagination took over and I found myself thinking of the stair as The Winding Stair, you know, the one Frodo, Sam, and Gollum take into Mordor. Had there been a tunnel near the top, I’m not sure what I would have done! In any case, it was climbing up, up, up this winding stair that I became grateful for the crampons–snow and ice covered steps with not much room on each step’s level ascending slopes of a decent grade that eventually bordered a cliff.
At some point the winding stair broke out of the trees and I got good views of Hallasan’s southwestern slopes. There were waterfalls frozen to the side of the cliffs. The day was relatively clear, so I could see almost the entire western side of Jeju. It was spectacular. So spectacular that while trying to capture it with my camera, I tripped over my own feet and ended up getting one of my hiking boots tangled up in the crampon on my other foot (it was either the shoelaces, the loop of fabric sticking out the back, or both).
After my wife helped me extricate myself we hiked a little further to a wooden platform that was relatively clear of snow. Our lunch consisted of chocolate bars, something that I think claimed to be cheese, and a few other snack-type foods. Following lunch we ascended the last bit of stairs into a snowy wood. The way the snow clung to the trees and was sculpted by the wind, the icicles, and the closeness of the forest made me think that I had entered Narnia. This being Korea, I wouldn’t have been surprised if I had come across a lamppost in that wood. Sadly, there was none to be found. But I still enjoyed wandering through those woods.
All too soon the woods ended and we found ourselves on a snowy plain with the crater rim in sight. There was no way to get to the crater rim from our trail, as the connection had been closed for ecological rehabilitation, but we did climb to the top of a ridge that provided us with a good view. Had they not been frozen over, we could have used the mounted binoculars on that ridge.
From that viewpoint on, we headed downhill, though we stopped for a second lunch at a collection of buildings in the shadow of the summit. They served hot ramen! While we were eating our ramen inside one of the buildings, the loudspeakers blared out a notice that everyone needed to start heading down the mountain in order to be off it before the trails closed. I gulped down the rest of my meal and then headed out down the trail. Unfortunately, my photo taking slowed me down, so I had to take fewer pictures in order to keep up with the rest of my group.
A Siberian weasel ran across the trail, giving me a glimpse of non-avian wildlife. And a short way down the trail from where it had run we came across a snow-covered sign with a picture of it on it, so I took a picture of the sign, which allowed me to use the Korean name to discover what it was we had seen. So that is how I know it was a Siberian weasel.
By the time we reached the trailhead for the other trail (we ascended one trail and descended another, though both were on the western side of the mountain), the last bus back to Jungmun had already departed. So we had to take a bus to Jeju city to get to Seogwipo city, which meant we went north to go south.
For dinner my wife and I had some of the black pork Jeju is famous for. It was rather delicious. Of course, Korean BBQ in general is just fantastic and if there is a Korean BBQ restaurant in your area you should definitely go there. Mmmm… And that’s about it for this day, so I better stop rambling now before too many more words head your way!
P.S. You can find more pictures in my deviantArt gallery (it’s easier to upload them there as I don’t have to edit them to under 2MB…)