Almost Making It To The Top Of South Korea’s Jirisan

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Almost Making It To The Top Of South Korea's Jirisan

Jirisan, one of South Korea’s highest mountains, is a favorite hike in the country. But come prepared, it’s not as easy as you’d hoped.

By Andrew Post

Jirisan, the highest mountain in continental South Korea, is a 6,284-foot-high pile of rocks, trees, rivers, bushes, flowers, black bears, Buddhists and backpackers, located on the western fringe of Gyeongsangnam-do Province, in the national park of the same name.

Though not the intimidatingly tall Hindu Kush mountain range, Jirisan and its neighbors are still a tall order. These mountains comprise the southern tip of the Sobaek Range, running the length of both Koreas. They isolated the southwestern Korean provinces for millennia. The range is deceptively rugged. In winter, harsh winds scour the rock-strewn ridgelines. In summer, temperatures can shoot into the 90-degree-Fahrenheit range, with humidity to match. Some slopes are nearly vertical. Potable springs are miles apart. Coming to this wilderness unprepared is a recipe for disaster. Arriving over-prepared and late is even sillier.

Jirisan was only a two-hour bus ride from my home base on Geoje Island, south of Busan. So, one May evening, my friend Jeff and I — both ex-pat English teachers — scored some bad pizza, installed ourselves in my festering apartment, fetched up a map of the park, and began to plot a hike.

Because we’d be burning up two hours just to get to the mountain, we elected to make things quick and dirty. We chose the steepest and shortest route up: starting in the foothills at the village of Jungsan-ri, and ascending the eastern face to the highest summit, Cheonwangbong. Horizontally speaking, it was three and a half miles — an estimated three-to-five-hour trek, according to a Korean mountaineering blog.

It sounded simple, but we were determined not to neglect the slightest detail. Camping, we’d read, was illegal except in designated areas, but we packed a tent and sleeping bags anyway. We were macho like that. And the food we brought would’ve put the Berlin Airlift to shame: massive peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, trail mix (which we couldn’t stop calling by its alternative name: “gorp”), granola bars, fresh fruit, and copious amounts of water. In all, our packs weighed about 30 pounds each.

Everything went wrong after that.

We made the bus station the next morning only to discover that the 6 a.m. bus actually departed at 5:55 a.m. The next one wasn’t until 6:55 a.m.

That was one hour shot. We had no choice but to hang around the station, contemplating how half-baked we were, watching the other bus-goers: skinny men in business suits and bored-looking townie girls in heels and insectoid-like sunglasses.

Matters worsened when we arrived at the town of Jinju, just outside the park. We found that the bus to Jungsan-ri wouldn’t leave until 9:00 a.m., nor arrive until 10 a.m. Now we couldn’t get on the trail until 10:30 a.m. at the earliest.

Our feelings of intellectual inadequacy increased.

If we’d had any sense, we’d have called the trip off right there. But being the bold, intrepid trailblazers that we were — the sort Walt Whitman wrote poems about — we decided to soldier on.

Either the sign over the trailhead was mislabeled, or we had no clue where we were trying to go. It read Sacheon (the name of the park district) instead of Jungsan-ri (the name of the village). But after some helpfully pointed fingers from the amused locals, we were heading up some absurdly steep streets to the trailhead. Once we ran off the narrow road and wound up in the middle of some farmer’s cabbage patch. We hunkered down and threaded our way out without being subjected to curses or thrown rocks.

We plunged into the forest at eleven a.m. We were slightly concerned, but cheerful. Our surroundings were picturesque. Huge, leafy trees lined the trail like ranks of loyal soldiers, lending shade and beauty. The river roared soothingly nearby. Sunlight, muted by thin clouds, filtered through the canopy. Birdsong echoed in the distance. Well known Kalbawi, a massive, scissor-shaped rock, loomed over a bend in the trail like a sentinel. I could almost see the great Siberian tigers, which once roamed freely throughout Korea, stalking us in the verdant margins.

The only problem was the trail itself. A path only by name, it resembled a continuous, uneven pile of enormous boulders. Jeff and I spent the first two hours breathlessly sliding and clambering over them, falling into the occasional puddle. Though the May weather was fair, the air under the trees was still and muggy. We were soaked with sweat in minutes.

The rest of the climb warrants vitriolic description. For most of the way up, the trail was little more than an uneven series of excruciatingly steep stone staircases. Jeff and I stomped grimly upward, determined not to give in, stopping only when the pain in our legs or the wheeze in our lungs became unbearable.

After several more hours of huffing, puffing, panting and ranting at Korean masochism, we reached a clearing at the top of a ridge. The sun took us in the eyes. When they had cleared, we beheld Beopjusa, a small Buddhist temple clinging to the side of the mountain. Just below it was Jangteomok Shelter. A huge crowd of hikers had gathered there, clad in brightly-hued synthetics, loitering about the picnic area below the temple entrance. Jeff and I selected a sizable rock some distance away from their staring eyes and had lunch.

It was 4:30 p.m. Two and half miles down, one to go. The sun was getting steadily lower. It would soon pass behind the mountain peaks to the west and we’d lose the light. Nonetheless, we foolishly decided to press on.

Minutes later we stopped at a scenic overlook, a vast, recumbent table of rock jutting from the mountainside, commanding a supreme view of the valley below. Beyond the valley, scattered among the foothills, were white and red specks: the rooftops of Jungsan-ri, where we’d come. The blue skies to the southeast were tinged with gold from the sunset behind us.

I reached for my camera bag to take a picture.

I promptly discovered that my $300 Fujifilm camera had seemingly disappeared.

The carrying case hung innocently from my backpack, its top flap hanging loose, the broken zipper grinning incompetently at me.

Leaving Jeff at the overlook with the backpacks, I dashed back down the trail, hunting right and left. A helicopter departing from nearby delayed me. A red-clad man with gloves stood on the trail and held up a stern hand, in the manner of a traffic cop, until the chopper was safely away. I resumed my frantic search near the rock where Jeff and I had had lunch; I even inquired of the crowd (in Korean) if they had seen a lost camera. I got no reply.

Despondent and dejected, I returned slowly to the overlook. My endurance was fading along with the light. The sun was about to set. The sky was purpling. Hundreds of feet below the woods were tinged with fire and shadow. My head pounded. My heart ached. My legs throbbed — rubberized by thousands of stairs. Abandoning pretense, I flopped down next to Jeff, and both of us sat and looked silently out at the divine panorama.

Weary, sweaty, aching and heartsick, Jeff and I were forced to descend every last blasted stone of the thousands we’d traversed on the way up. We met all the same boulders, rocks and ridges, but now with the prospect of darkness closing in. It was agony. Soon, my leg muscles felt as though they were ripping loose from their moorings. My arms stung from lifting my tottering torso over endless obstacles. The blood blasted through my brain.

We also felt the keen sting of defeat. Every rock on the trail seemed to be tittering at our pathetic attempt to summit Jirisan.

To cheer ourselves up, the two of us began, deliriously, to play around with the word “gorp.” We made up puns and song titles, nonsense words and catch phrases: gorptastic, gorptacular, gorpin’ on up, gorpin’ it real, gorpified, and other ridiculous doggerel. It worked. Our spirits gradually rose as our elevation declined.

After two long hours, we stumbled out of the dusky woods at the trailhead, just as the last light vanished. Unable to stomach the thought of waiting for the bus, we caught a cab back to Jinju and a direct bus home.

For a week after I couldn’t go down a staircase unaided; I had to clutch the handrail and do most of the work with my upper body. My quads had gone on vacation and lactic acid was house-sitting.

Jirisan had defeated us — aided considerably by our lack of forethought. It was foolish of us to try to lug 30-pound packs up the greatest natural barrier in the country. The rough but simple beauty of the Sobaek Mountains, however, had awed us. Despite its heavy physical taxation, Jirisan is one of the most beautiful and popular national parks in Korea, patronized year-round by middle-aged Koreans with legs and lungs like mountain goats. Should you be in the vicinity of Gyeongsangnam Province and feel like giving Jirisan a try, rest assured, there are a multitude of less strenuous hikes than ours.

Just go prepared, and don’t over-gorp it.


Andrew Post is a freelance writer, pilot and bartender living somewhere in the California desert, and has lived in Tennessee, Ohio, North Dakota, Wyoming, and Washington, D.C. He has completed his first novel, a work of allegorical science fiction, and is currently working on the second.

Andrew will be taking a two-week hiatus from his novel-writing, high-flying lifestyle to visit Newcastle, Northumbria, England in June 2010. His travels throughout England, Ireland and Northeastern England will be covered in He is also laying plans for a Fitzroy Maclean-style exploration of Uzbekistan; a one-year sojourn in Australia; an English-teaching contract in Japan; an overland trek from South Africa to New Zealand; and a voyage around the world as a volunteer deckhand on the HMS Bounty.

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