Monday, July 28, 2014

Lost in a Mountain in Korea

Puk-an-san peak, I was in the wrong peak not knowing it has a twin


When I arrived in Seoul, I quickly contacted my (office) colleague and asked for the nearest good mountain peak I could climb over the weekend. (It was my first time in Korea, on a business trip, and I didn’t want to lose a chance to at least see or climb a local mountain). He offered me some options. The nearest from Seoul and the easiest to climb was “Puk-an-san mountain. That was how I heard it called.

He wanted to go with me, but he had other plans. What he did was to leave with me precise instructions that he wrote down in Korean, telling me to show those questions to strangers so I could be told where to go. There was a tinge of doubt on his face because it was my first time in Korea.  
I didn’t have any gear with me.  I decided to wear my office clothes, a winter jacket, and a beach net-bag I used as a stuff-sack-cum-backpack. Next morning I started my journey, taking the complex subway. I showed the paper with the scribbles of my Korean colleague to ask for train directions. I managed to get off in the right town, board a school bus and alight in the right jump-off spot. All seemed easy. I didn’t have a clue which trail I'd take; I simply guessed. 

Back then, Koreans in the rural area did not speak English. From experience I learned that a local would try to answer a lost stranger’s question politely, even if it’s a wrong answer. I hit the right big trail on my first hour but got bored with it so I tried to experiment and did a short cut. The postcard picture of the mountain showed me an elegant, shiny, white peak. Ah, Puk-an-san! I saw the bald peak and felt excited, wanting to reach it fast. From my knowledge of geometry in high school, I knew that the shortest distance between two points was a straight line. So I followed a straight line.  With or without a trail, I stayed on the path I chose, telling myself,  "This is a solo adventure. No point in being too “safe”."

That was a bad decision. The trail became steeper, but that didn’t stop me. I hiked, climbed and scrambled over boulders and dead trees.  (At times I felt worried, but I just pushed on). Before long I faced a giant monolith,  a big white wall. I couldn't figure out how I came upon this big rock on my trail. It (took me a while but) then I realized that this was the peak shown in the postcard. I had reached it.  (And quicker than what I’ve expected).

The peak was very smooth, the kind of smoothness that would require a drill to climb the thing. I wondered how people climbed this mountain? I knew that Koreans queued  every weekend for a chance to reach the summit. I didn’t see a single soul around, except on the lower part. 

It felt like I had reached a stalemate. Stepping back, I scratched my head, thinking how could I go over this barrier. It looked like I had just screwed up again. This didn't look like the place where I could climb (over) it. When I looked around, I noticed a ridge to my left, a bit lower than the top of the giant monolith. I checked it out only to get dumbstruck because there was another peak. This was a twin-peak mountain all along, and I was targeting the wrong peak!

I stood on the saddle, looking at the climbers forming a line on their way up the true summit. I cursed myself before I found my situation funny. I walked towards the peak, probably 20-30 minutes away from the saddle. The next challenge was to queue with the other hundred people who wanted see what was up there. Although this challenge involved a climb on the smooth surface of a giant boulder, it was fairly easy given the carved steps and side railings.
the 'correct peak' to climb. Climbers on right-hand side is seen queuing the rail

The pilgrims ahead of me moved slowly, but eventually the peak revealed itself. While climbing the last few steps, I saw a stunning, 360-degree view of the landscape (and scores of sun-basking local climbers sprawled on the mountain top). I relished the spectacle and congratulated myself for the effort and the wait.  (Or for surviving the ‘lost alone’ ordeal).

Mentally, I ticked off Puk-an-san from my list. By the end of the day, I was back in Seoul, relieved, safe and fulfilled. My personal history now included another solo adventure (in a cold foreign land).
(from the book Akyat).

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