9:30am — 1,950-meters
Shrieks of glee echo across the sky as Warren, the leader of our hiking group, crests the top of the mountain.
I am sitting alone with my thoughts. High above the clouds gazing at the massive crater on the top of Hallasan Mountain on Jeju Island. To the north, nothing visible but white fluffy clouds, creating a barrier between the real world and this little slice of heaven. To the South, the crater stretching 400 meters across the top of the mountain. Snow covers everything in sight and the wind whips through my layers. It’s cold, but I am content.
Warren’s excitement jerks me back to reality.
“OH MY GAHD! This is perfect. This is, like, so beautiful! Like, look at the sky! Look at the clouds, and like look at that crater! Wow! Wow! Wow!”
Warren, the last of the 30 people to reach the summit of Hallasan, has climbed to the top of this mountain at least 20 times. His childlike glee is intoxicating. I join him, and the others, to celebrate this accomplishment one more time.
6am — 750-meters
I stand shivering in the darkness at the bottom of Hallasan. A group of Korean hikers make me question my decision to climb the mountain as they push past me setting off on the Seongpanak trail. Outfitted to the nines in neon layers, poles, headlamps, and ice climbing boots, they are prepared to tackle Everest. I use my cell phone and bare hand to expose a tiny radius of light.
No time to get lost in my head on whether I made the right decision, Warren signals the group. It is time to begin our ascent. Only 9.6 kilometers separate us from the top of the highest point in South Korea.
For twenty minutes, the 30 of us stick close together as we pool our collective cell phone lights upon the ground to expose any obstacles that may cause someone to stumble. The gradual trail is easy to maneuver on in the darkness.
Slowly the group begins to separate, as most hiking groups do. I find myself in a small pod of new friends as we crunch across the snow covered ground. The sun starts to peak above the horizon, prompting us to put the cell phones away.
This first stretch of the hike is steady and gentle.
7am — 1,200-meters
The first resting place, the Sokbat Shelter, comes at the perfect time. The trail is just beginning to steepen, requiring greater effort on my part. Warren gave us one piece of advice before we embarked on this trek, “Don’t get sweat”, and so I rest long enough to sip some water, but not long enough to let the sweat cool.
Now the trail has begun its true upward journey.
With the grade of the mountain significantly increased, my pace slows a bit. The sun is fully risen now and the beautiful white landscape comes into full view. My small group uses “photo opportunities” as an excuse to take a quick rest.
The path winds up and around the mountain. Bare trees tower above us, surely creating shade during the summer, though right now it allows the sun to shine through.
8am — 1,600 meters
I burst through the trees into a large clearing. Another refuge arriving at the perfect time, Jindarreabal rest stop. I’ve shed most of my layers at this point, and am feeling the burn of the hike. I allow myself only 10 minutes to sit down, re-energize, and prepare for the final leg of the haul.
The high altitude brings a change in not only the scenery, but my breathing and energy level. This is where the real climbing begins.
I push through steep sections that leave my legs shaking and my lungs gasping for breath. Without realizing it, I pass the clouds, and the top is in sight. I count my movements, rewarding myself every 200 steps with a quick breather.
A group of men, none of them younger than 50, pass by me. Their smiling faces and lackadaisical attitude encourage me to move it.
Eventually the fir trees disappear. The trail is fully exposed; snaking around the side of the mountain to a huge staircase. I knew from my previous hiking in Korea that the trail would end with one final push up steep stairs. With my eyes set on the top, I follow the stairs up, creating a methodical pattern with my steps that propel me to the top.
9am — 1,950-meters
The lack of energy and burning legs subside the second I touch the top. Something about summiting a mountain changes me. All the pain and thoughts of quitting in the hours before disappear.
I sit and reflect on the 9.6 kilometers I just completed. Just as I am preparing to head down, Warren summits the mountain and reignites my excitement all over again.
Knowing full well, I will probably never be at the top of this mountain again, I share Warren’s enthusiasm at the beauty of the whole situation. I head toward the stairs that lead down the other side of the mountain, the Gwanuemsa Temple trail. The adventure has not ended, I still have another nine kilometers of steep, snow covered trails to get down.