I’m a little unsure why it’s taken me so long to get around to hiking up South Korea’s highest mountain. After all, I’ve been here nearly three years and have walked in most of the National and Provincial Parks.
I’ve even been to Jeju on three separate occasions, although I suppose they were primarily footballing trips. I was aware that I’m running out of time though and I’d have been disappointed to leave Korea without having made it to its highest point.
Jen and I had originally been booked up to travel to Jeju the weekend after this one but the possibility that I’d have to go to Oman then meant that it made sense to bring the trip forward a week. It’s taken me a long time to work out the system over here but I’ve finally twigged how air travel, and I suppose train travel, works in Korea. There are minimal penalties for changing or cancelling bookings, so whenever tickets go on sale they are snapped up immediately. The flight then remains fully booked until a few days before and at that point people make their minds up as to whether or not they want to travel. If you can book either very early or very late you should be able to get on even the most popular flights and trains.
It cost us a thousand won (sixty pence!) to change each sector of the flight. We could even have cancelled it after the flight had departed at no more cost than that. That’s AirBusan too, one of the budget airlines.
I knocked off from work mid-afternoon and we took the subway to Gimpo for our 6pm flight. There must be a bit of slack in the timetable as despite taking off fifteen minutes late we still managed to land at Jeju Airport fifteen minutes early. We took a taxi to the City Hall area as apparently that’s the part of town with plenty of bars and restaurants. There weren’t many motels though and it took a few minutes of wandering around before we found one with an available room.
It’s probably one of the scruffier places that we’ve stayed in and if we’d noticed the hairs on the pillows earlier than we did then we’d have looked for somewhere else. It was cheap though at thirty thousand won a night and the owner couldn’t have been friendlier. He enthused over our hiking plans, gave us free energy drinks and took the time to warn us not to leave anything of value in the room as his cleaning staff would probably steal it.
The next morning we were up at five-thirty and out by just after six. I like that time of day, even when it’s dark and cold. If it’s quiet then it often reminds me of the short-lived paper round that I had as a kid and how I’d be the first person that day to leave footprints in the snow as I caught up with the latest sports news and checked out that day’s Page Three girl.
We took a taxi to the Seongpanak entrance to Hallasan National Park, arriving soon after half past six. The car park was already full and there were dozens of hikers milling around and making their last-minute preparations. The gate had been open since six o’clock and so I imagine that plenty of others were already on their way up the trail.
It was still dark as we set off, although the snow on the ground made it easier than it would have been to follow the path. Most of the Koreans had head torches, which was a shame. I much prefer to let my eyes adjust to the darkness and then enjoy it gradually getting lighter.
Seongpanak entrance is at 750m and so we had another 1,200m of ascent ahead of us in the 9.6 kilometres to the 1,950m Baeknokdam peak. That’s not too bad an overall gradient and there was a very helpful sign detailing exactly where the steeper sections were.
To make life easier for the park rangers, Hallasan has cut-off times for various points along the trail. You are not allowed to start after 9am and you must reach the checkpoint at the Jindallaebat shelter no later than noon.
It was relatively quiet on the way up. There were a few smallish groups of hikers and the odd lone bloke or couple. The temperature had dropped to around -7C and whilst there was a steady light snowfall, there wasn’t much wind. We couldn’t see very far, but the trees around the path looked spectacular in the wintery conditions.
We reached the Jindallaebat shelter at 1,500m just before nine thirty, well inside the cut-off time. There were about forty hikers inside and we joined them for a while as I warmed up with a bowl of ramyun. We gained height quickly after that and as we reached 1,800m got above the treeline. On a clear day I’m told there are spectacular views over fields of pampas grass. We couldn’t see more than twenty yards in any direction though.
The wind had increased to the level where it was difficult to stay on our feet and the snow was pebbledashing my face. I could feel the ice forming in my hair, eyebrows and beard. It was just like the death zone at Cleethorpes seafront.
Four hours after setting off we reached the top. On a different day we’d have been able to see the crater and the lake, as it was we couldn’t see much more than the marker stone that signified the top. We posed for the obligatory photo and headed off back down again. The initial stages of the descent were a little tricky as we battled the wind and those people still on their way up. There were ropes and railings to hang on to though that made it easier than it would otherwise have been.
Once below 1,800m we could relax and take it easy along the forest trail. Or at least we could until we met the hikers coming upwards. At first it was still the odd small group. Before long though we were faced with an unbroken line of people trudging upwards. As we got further down the numbers swelled to the extent that they were walking two abreast.
As we approached the Jindallaebat shelter any pretence at a line had gone and it was just a swarm of people filling the entire track. There were still around ten minutes to go to the noon cut-off for making the ascent to the top and the rangers were attempting to manage the crowd with loudhailers.
As we reached twelve o’clock there were still long queues for ramyun inside the shelter. Surely people wouldn’t risk being sent back for the sake of a pot noodle?
We headed back down the hill and for the next hour or so we were still passing people on the way up. Either they were oblivious to the restriction or else they felt confident that it wouldn’t apply to them. It struck me as so Korean. There’s a deadline so lets push it to the absolute limit.
We made it to the Seongpanak entrance in two and a half hours and were able to get a taxi back into town. It wasn’t a particularly strenuous hike at all. The slog up Chiaksan a couple of weeks earlier had been a lot harder on my legs.
Hallasan is another one of those mountains that I’d like to do again sometime, if only to be able to take in the views from the top. The entrance opens at 5am in the summer and I reckon that an early start coupled with a midweek date would be the sensible way to avoid the crowds.