(NOTE: written three days after the hike, posted 3 weeks later)
I am in so much pain today! Three days after our sunrise hike to Seorak Mountain and I'm STILL feeling the pain. Stairs are so daunting and difficult that I missed my train because i couldn't speed up! Wow. All that being said though, it was a wonderful and beautiful hike.
We (myself, Jamie, and Christina) traveled with a new group for this trip, the Hiking Group. It was exciting to meet new people and I really like the organizer, he's a and is Fluent in both Korean and English so it made for a nice trip. Warren (the organizer) is an avid hiker and this group has a hike almost every week. It's nice to have finally gone somewhere with them so we'll be more comfortable attending these hikes in the future.
We met everyone HUGE and hopped on the bus to Seoraksan (san means mountain). We arrived around 2:30AM and promptly began to hike (after being shocked by the winter weather - Siberian winds, literally). The hike started with this
staircase. I was soon regretting starting off so quickly and was thankful when I got to the top so I could begin to just walk, but oh my, was I wrong. The entire hike, both up and down, was essentially straight up (or down). It was like 15 hours on a stair master. I'm not used to such a hike. I'm more familar with a hike that includes a few plateaus or slight upgrades. Maybe some switchbacks to cut the intensity. OH NO. Not to be had. When we first arrived we had started out with the idea of doing the 16 hour hike. About 20 minutes in I realized that I was SORELY mistaken. We re-adjusted our plan and instead did the 11 hour hike (well... 11 hours for the seasoned hiker, it was about 15 hours for us). Almost 20km all told. WOW.
Aside from the strenuousness of the hike, the mountain was beautiful. It's like every corner was a "OH!" or "WOW." It was really cool because we were hiking in the dark for about 5 hours and when the sun came up it was really remarkable. We hardly knew where we were going in the dark, so when the sun finally came out, we were all of a sudden 1000s of feet up in the sky. And is was peak foliage time! The Korean country side has an abundance of the Japanese maple (don't know what it's called in Korean, I'd wager something totally different...), which turns a beautiful flaming red, so those were interspersed with some yellowing oaks and aspen-like trees, but there was certainly a higher percentage of evergreens. The cliffs were unbelievable, a lot were so sharp and jagged that they were bald, so they stood in great contrast to the trees, and there was something going on with calcium leeching out in some areas, because in places these huge cliffs were just bleach white. So gorgeous.
So aside from being a really interesting hike in terms of physical endurance and the crazy start time, there's the uniquely Korean aspect of this trip. This mountain is sort of like the Mecca (Koreans are huge into hiking and this is considered the best place to go, and this was the best time to go). This means that we were not the only people starting at hike at 3:00AM. There were 1000's of people hiking. When we got to the first peak you could you could just see this endless snake of flashlights on the trails ahead and behind. Wish our camera was better at night photos!
However, part of the joy and struggles of hiking with thousands of other people is that you constantly feel like you're going slow because you're being out-paced by these 60 year old women (no offense to the age-it was just shocking) BUT there's ALWAYS a line of people behind you. So you're really ahead of someone at any moment. HOWEVER, in Korea, it is perfectly acceptable to just push past people when they are walking to slow. Which, on a sidewalk is annoying-but relatively safe. On the side of a mountain, in the middle of the night with a hefty breeze and a paltry little flashlight it makes it terrifying! I started running my hand along side the mountain so people were forced to pass me on the outside. Thankfully, everyone was going in the same direction so it was only one way traffic.
OH! and becuase there were so many people and only one narrow trail twice we got stuck in traffic and had to stand in line for 20 minutes. That was potentially the worst park of the hike because you were so sweaty from CLIMBING STAIRS for 4 hours and you just stand still with the wind blowing. BRRR!
Anyway, we made it to the summit (5 hours AFTER our group leader) And, Ok. Fine. Not really the summit. The summit was an extra 20 minutes up, but I had no interest and people told me that it was cloudy and you couldn't see anything. I'm not upset to have missed it. SO, we made it to the "almost summit" 7 hours after starting. 7 HOURS. I did mention it was almost completely VERTICAL. Oh man. Of course the summit shelter was packed with people eating. (If we were really korean, we would have packed a 7 course meal like almost everyone else was eating, complete with camping stoves and all that jazz). AND, had we gotten there two hours earlier we could have taken a nap. They had nap rooms! Unfortunately, when we arrived they were cleaning so that in an hour when the people who started on the OTHER side started to arrive the could nap.
So, we munched on some almonds and we started down the other side of the mountain. Listen. Going down is NO easier that going up. In fact, I think I rolled my ankle no less than three times and my knees were seeing a constant song to the rest of my body, "idiot" "moron" with each step. Right. So again. 7 hours later we arrived at the bottom.
Yes. That math comes out to 14 hours. Yes, this was the 11 hour hike that took us 14 hours! Um. . My legs hurt for 3 days straight. Of course, now that it's over I'm already looking at the next hike this guy is planning. It's impossible for me to remember the pain clearly now. Obviously I need to learn my lesson two or three times.
In reality though, it was a beautiful hike (aside from the thousands of people) and I'd even say that it was worth it.
The next day we went to the beach and a few of us went swimming. The rest of us played beach volleyball. That was pretty awesome and potentially where I sustained the most injuries.
Exciting things About Korea:
Hiking is not a past time for young people. The avid hikers in Korea all seem to be middle aged married couples.
As I mentioned above there is no 'light' meal on the mountain. People bring full a full on meal to be cooked, INCLUDING side dishes.