Every mountain has its own character. Some are stoic, plainly presenting themselves in dramatic stone glory. Some are playful, offering surprises around their circumference–streams, small waterfalls, meadows and groves. Some are just kind. My hometown hill is called Pleasant Mountain, and the name says it all. The 2,000 foot hump on the outskirts of downtown overlooks a large pond. It’s a walk to the mailbox compared to some of the mountains on the west coast or even in the White Mountains. During winter it morphs into a low-key ski resort. It’s the Tom Hanks of mountains–giving a smile a wink, and a wave to tourists who drive over the causeway at its base.
And then there’s Hallasan (한라산) here on Jeju (제주). This is a mountain that dwarfs Pleasant. It dramatically bears its chest–a stunning peak that, on a clear day, you can see from anywhere on the island. In my eight years on Jeju, I’ve run over and hiked it countless times through seasons, ages, different levels of shape. I became versed in the landmarks of its trails.
During my two year stay in Shanghai, I started to get nostalgic about the peak. The city crowds and dubious air quality of the city ground me down until the Jeju life I’d left behind began to feel idyllic. There was free entry to an 80km race I had done before so I naturally decided to venture over for the weekend. I had been training on the flat boulevards of Shanghai, and was surprised at how quickly my legs had forgotten elevation. The race started out well enough. We began at sea level at 6am, plodding up the road to the island’s center where Halla awaited. On the first real ascent I knew something was up. Muscles collapsed into painful knots as my legs kept churning. I cursed the flat streets of Shanghai that had allowed my uphill and downhill muscles to atrophy. And then another surprise: snow on the summit in late march. I had foregone crampons and had some near misses gliding down Gwaneumsa (관음사) trail to the snow-free terrain.
Before beginning the race’s last big ascent around the 50km mark a storm hit. This was no problem, a little sprinkle of rain never hurt anyone. I trotted up the trail and began the grinding climb. But, as I neared the summit of Yeongsil Oreum, I noticed something. The rain had turned to snow…and it was picking up. By the time the Eorimok trail spit me out into a clearing near the summit, it was white-out conditions. My thin jacket which was soaked with rain and sweat began to feel icy against the skin underneath. I didn’t quite know what to do. I could turn around and book it down the mountain, or push on the few kilometers to the descent on the other side. I knew there was some sort of shelter coming soon, but it was hard to say how soon in the white out conditions. I didn’t even know if it would be open. Turning around, on the other hand, would end the race that I had traveled and trained for. I kept going.
My hands continued to get colder. Gloves might have been a good idea. I did the old hand tuck in the jacket but it didn’t help. I blew into my icy paws. I pinwheeled my arms wildly to keep blood flowing. A mad man in a red jacket on the top of a mountain in a blizzard. The image of Jack Nicholson at the end of The Shining popped into my head. They were going to chisel me out of a snow bank tomorrow. Why hadn’t I packed gloves or a warm layer? Was the extra weight that much of a liability. I knew there was a waypoint coming up and I pushed through, the aching in my hands growing increasingly worrisome.
And then, like an Elysian hallucination, a hut appeared. A few friendly race volunteers ushered me inside where there were other racers in similar shape. We huddled around a gas stove with cups of instant coffee in our hands in silence. I regained feeling, procured some cheap gloves and a plastic poncho from the volunteers, took a deep breath and a long look at the side-winding wall of white snow moving past the door, and then set out into the storm again. I booked it down the mountain and managed the final stretch of road to the finish line as nighttime descended. Turns out my hands would have stabbing and painful chilblains, the initial signs of frostbite, for about a week. I had a few things to consider when I arrived back in Shanghai. A few lessons to learn.
It was with this humbling experience in mind that I planned my trip to Jirisan (지리산). I was in the mood for a challenge and had my eyes on the Jirisan Traverse (화대종주), a 40km route through the heart of Jirisan National Park. Most of what I knew about the trail I took from a helpful running expat blog that I stumbled across in my research. There were a few logistics to work out, but it seemed doable. I would go and stay in a small hotel near the trailhead, get up early, and arrive at the other side in mid-afternoon with enough daylight to meander back to the hotel in time for dinner.
I picked up my friend, another Tim, at 6am and we made our way to Jeju airport. It was in full frenzy for Chuseok holiday (추석), the parking lot full to the point that makeshift spots were being invented. Tim also realized at the end of our car ride that he had somehow ended up with his wife’s phone. While he negotiated with a cab driver to deliver the phone to his house, I circled the lot a few times. 15 minutes passed and nothing was appearing. I tried the art of inventing my own spot only to end up in a minor yelling match with a bus driver. Panic was setting in. We were going to miss our flight. And then, like the hut atop Halla, a van pulled out and a dream spot appeared.
We flew into Gwangju and grabbed a cab to the bus station. Time for breakfast. But nothing was open aside from the chains. There was one curry place that gave us some hope. One lady motioned us in, and then as we entered another lady decided differently and told us “no” holding up her arms in the unmistakable Korean “X.” We sulked off in confusion and disappointment. This is how on the first day of vacation and ready to tuck into local cuisine we found ourselves walking into a Subway. They hadn’t even made the bread for the day. Flatbread it was. A poster for the new “Sub Dog” mocked us from the wall. One of Tim’s best qualities is his unadorned honesty. “This tastes like ass,” he said.
From there, a two hour bus ride to the park. Despite the Subway flatbread-shaped bricks in our abdomens, we were feeling slightly better now that we had made it to the home stretch and were ready to chat a bit during the ride. We found our seats and began to ease into conversation, only to be silenced by a small gust of loud air. What the hell? It was a shush.
“No talking,” said the driver from his throne four seats ahead of us. His sunglasses peered at me in the mirror. This guy wasn’t fooling around. We looked at each other in confusion, soaking in the absurd scenario. We began texting each other about the ridiculousness of the situation. Every fiber of our being wanted to break the silence. It was like trying not to fart in church.
The Tims arrived in mid-afternoon and scoped the terrain of our mountain hamlet. It was on the outskirts of Gurye (구례), a small town to the southwest of Jirisan. We found an acceptable cafe and an exceptional lunch of mountain food. The banchan (반잔) were small courses unto themselves. Marinated black beans and mountain greens. The flower root deodeok (더덕) which tasted like an earthy ginseng.
That night we hiked up to Hwaeomsa Temple (화엄사) where silence descended along with dusk. We meandered up through three gates that travelers were meant to pass through as a series of cleanses. As we reached the top, the dull throb of a monk hitting a drum began. Another monk chanted from an unknown location. The noises pirouetted with the crickets and the breeze and built until a giant gong was rung. Small shockwaves to end the day.
We spent half the next day waiting out a torrential but expected thunderstorm. The small stream behind our hotel became an enraged river. The ionized air danced through the screen. When the storm cleared I strolled into the visitor center and used my shoddy Korean to inquire about the trail. The park ranger made the same “X” when I said I wanted to do it in one day.
“Impossible,” was her general message.
“Agree to disagree,” I thought to myself.
As I began to get my supplies ready, I glanced at a few final logistics. It was then that I found the one detail that I had invariably overlooked: the return trip. I had assumed that, at most, I was dealing with a 50,000 won return cab ride from the other side of the park. I also knew that there were some buses that I had assumed could lead me back this way. However, the buses were looking to be a seven hour odyssey that I wasn’t going to be able to navigate in sweaty running clothes. The cab ride was going to be 150,000 won that I wasn’t willing to spend. Anxiety rose in my chest. This needed to work. I had come all this way. I looked at different routes, different apps, different websites. There seemed to be no feasible options. Impossible was right, but not for the park ranger’s reasons.
I talked it over with Tim over a dinner of grilled deodeok in red sauce. It was simple but delicious. Perfectly browned on the bottom. Crunchy and chewy both at once. The quiet night outside our bright hospital lighting restaurant. By the end of the meal I had made peace with an out-and-back. I would run 21km into the heart of the park then turn around and retrace my steps. The anxiety of post-run transportation logistics dissolved but traces of disappointment remained.
I plodded out into the early morning, making my way up the initial ascent. The first climb traced the small stream that flowed behind my hotel straight up the mountain. It was a quiet warm-up to the day. The trail passed a few waterfalls here and there, making its way through flat riverbed rocks. I hit the first hut in the beginnings of morning. A few other hikers quietly moved in the morning fog. One snapped a photo for me before I moved on down the trail.
As the trail continued in the foggy morning, I started to focus on the gnarly roots and rocks. My legs moved at strange angles and my hiking poles extended like feelers to find a way forward. In the woozy fog, a hypnosis took over and the roots and rocks were the White Mountains of New Hampshire thirty minutes from Pleasant Mountain where I grew up. In short bursts it felt like home.
A few more peaks. A stop at a natural spring to fill up my water bottles. A chat with another hiker in my rough Korean. We were at least able to communicate where we were going before we reached the turn-off where we parted ways. Eventually I had stopped checking the GPS, confident of where I was headed. My legs started to adjust to the trail’s contours and I no longer had to concentrate so hard on every puzzle that the roots presented. A rhythm was forming. And then the sky’s stomach grumbled.
I ignored the first few rolls of thunder, passing them off as sonic anomalies in the valley, but then there was another, and another. Eventually it started to sound like I was standing in the parking lot of a bowling alley. The thunder was frequent. I began an inner monologue.
“Come on, I had planned this so well. The storm was yesterday, not today. Today was supposed to be cloudy but clear. I did the research, I brought the right gear, I had learned my lessons from Halla.”
Jirisan didn’t care about my mental complaining, it threw a few more strikes at me. I had moved from the bowling parking lot into the waiting area by the lanes.
“Maybe the storm is passing north? This is a big area, there’s no way this sucker is going to land right on top of me.”
And then the leaves started chattering with rain drops. The next words I spoke out loud.
“Fuck, this is going to land right on my head.”
I whipped out my raincoat, threw up the hood, and started booking it as the few initial droplets out of the spout turned into a steadier drip and then a full-on geyser. I could see the lightning now. It would burst and then 1…2…3…boom, the applause of thunder. This was getting dangerous. All that I knew from my wilderness experience was to form three points of contact with the ground. I pictured myself huddled on the trail hugging my knees and discarded this mental image. Something told me I needed to keep moving.
CREAACKK. A particularly loud thunder roll. I could practically feel that one grabbing me by the shoulders and shaking me. I decided to consult the GPS for answers. My hand reached into my vest, the glow of the screen, and a look at the map, “holly jolly Christmas, there’s a hut right around the corner!” I sprinted that last half a kilometer with every bit of concentration I had. Roots and rocks flew by before I was spit out into a clearing. The dark mouth of the empty hut was calling my name. I had found shelter.
A fellow hiker appeared from the trail, an older lady who seemed much more nonplussed than I. Five minutes later, her friend emerged from the woods. They argued in quick Korean between the thunder strikes in our small space as I played out scenarios for the spat.
As the storm sputtered its final droplets, I tentatively jogged from the hut and down the path. The fog of the morning had been completely brushed away by the violent storm. I hit a more technical section of the trail–gnarly roots and high boulders–but paid them no mind. My attention was focused on the approaching turnaround that I had chosen based upon the label “Viewpoint.” It didn’t disappoint. I found myself on a bald rock with a full view from the heart of the park. The peaks licked the last bit of fog off their lips. The trees turned from opaque to vibrant as they greeted the sun. I whooped across the valley.
Returning felt quick. Maybe it was knowing that instead of a five hour bus ride at the end I had a hot shower. Maybe it was the transformation of the storm. My feet felt sure and focused, finding quick footing. By the time I reached that first hut, it was buzzing with tourists. I charged through in a hurry to find my way back to quiet trail, and descended down my rocky ravine.
The next morning, Tim and I took another hike to the temple and then jumped into the stream behind our hotel. On our return trip, we knew to sit in the back of the bus out of bus driver earshot. We talked about aspirations, writing and business ideas. We shared some of our stories with each other. The couple of other passengers didn’t seem to mind the chatter. Jeju airport was asleep when we arrived. Lots of parking spots. Mount Halla looked down from its dark perch as I drove in the fresh evening to drop him off.
Mountains aren’t your friend or even your teacher. They’re a collection of enchanted mirrors. You can spend time in the mountains and come out with a pleasant experience, emerging unscathed. Or you can come out with some tiny transformation. It’s those discoveries that keep you making the trip, tracing an initial path that will inevitably require a return journey back to wherever you came from.