Athlete climbs to health on Mt. Seorak
|Kia Tigers’ first baseman Choi Hee-seop atop Daecheong Peak on Mount Seorak. Since his first hike last autumn, Choi has become an avid hiker. By Cho Young-chul|
Baekdu Daegan is a mountain range that stretches from Mount Baekdu in the northern region of the Korean Peninsula to Mount Jiri in the south. Some of the toughest terrain along the range is in the Mount Seorak region. The Gongryongneung Trail is one of the better known trails in the group.
Defying logic, the trail attracts a large number of visitors at the height of the winter season. That is because experienced climbers consider Mount Seorak the most scenic when it is blanketed by snow and covered in ice.
Choi Hee-seop of the Kia Tigers baseball team is one of those who frequent Mount Seorak during the offseason, which happens to fall between late autumn and winter. Standing at 196 centimeters (6 feet 4 inches) tall and weighing 115 kilograms (254 pounds), Choi has the distinction of being the first Korean player to break into the Major Leagues with the Chicago Cubs back in 2002. The first baseman earned the nickname “Big Choi” and went on to post a .240 batting average, 40 home runs and 120 RBI in six seasons with four MLB teams.
However, after signing with the Kia Tigers, his hometown team, Choi struggled in his first two seasons. Looking to shed some weight and break out of his slump, Choi went to Mount Seorak last autumn. As he explains it, he went unprepared without any water, and nearly died.
“I first went to Mount Seorak with the thought that if I did not break out of my slump after the tough climbs up this terrain, I would quit baseball,” said Choi.
Choi returned to hike Mount Seorak late last month as a way to reflect on his successful season. Choi batted .308 and hit 33 home runs and 100 RBI, playing a significant role in Kia’s clinching the 2009 Korean Series title. In comparison to his statistics from last season, when he batted .229, hit six home runs and 22 RBI, Choi had finally lived up to his billing as a power hitter.
Choi credits his success and change in mentality to his climb up Mount Seorak.
“It was this mountain that helped me to play well this year. Climbing these trails also made me realize the importance of family and the need to start a family of my own,” he said.
The climb up Mount Seorak with Choi started at Osaek Springs near the South Seorak Expedition Support Center. The course starts near the southern base of the mountain and ends at Daecheong Peak, which is 1.7 kilometers, or about 1 mile, above sea-level. The highlight of the climb is the scenic view from the peak of the range as it stretches toward North Korea. The trek takes approximately seven and a half hours, so we started our climb early in the morning. The trail was quiet and there was not a soul in sight on this particular morning.
As we made our way up the mountain, Choi talked about why he had chosen Mount Seorak, despite its remote locale and harsh terrain.
“I wanted to escape Gwangju last season. I first came here last fall in the midst of the season. My teammates were busy, but I was suffering from shoulder, back and leg injuries and I wanted to get as far away from Gwangju as I possibly could. It was a good thing because climbing this mountain turned out to be an unforgettable experience.”
Choi’s offseason treks up Mount Seorak were a big help to his physique as he lost a significant amount of weight prior to the start of last season and looked noticeably slimmer in his uniform. Choi, who says he weighs 115 kilograms, said he skipped dinner the night before our hike and plans on dropping another 10 kilograms from his frame. While power hitting has been a big part of Choi’s game, the 30-year-old doesn’t think his weight loss will contribute to a drop in power.
“I’ve always had strength. I lost about 20 kilograms by hiking up these trails last year. It didn’t result in any loss of power. Instead, I gained confidence in the batter’s box,” explained Choi. “I was always weak against southpaw pitchers in the past but things were different this season. Even against some of the league’s top lefties such as Kim Kwang-hyun, Ryu Hyun-jin, Bong Jung-keun and Jang Won-sam, I felt confident.
“When facing an opposing pitcher, I would think back to my first climb up Mount Seorak last year. I had a near-death experience on the mountain and from that perspective, baseball was merely a game.
“I also learned to be patient at the plate, and my patience came from learning how important it is to take your time when making your way down these trails.”
Having experienced the benefits of hiking, Choi recommended it to Lee Seung-yeop of the Yomiuri Giants, who was coming off a disappointing season due to injuries.
“He had lost a lot of weight from the stress. I know what that’s like. When he was swatting 40 home runs a season, they referred to him as ‘Ha Seung-yeop,’ a reference to the team manager Tatsunori Hara,” said Choi, cautiously adding that he was not giving advice to a player with more experience in the game, a move that might be seen as impolite. “So I told Lee that he could regain his power stroke by hiking.”
Once atop the peak, Choi started making a lot of noise.
“The home run crown is mine next year!” shouted Choi.
He went on to point out the Gongryongneung Trail as the place where he nearly lost his life last year, as he gazed out at a picturesque range that had become partially covered by clouds.
Temperatures at Mount Seorak often reach -10 degrees Celsius (14 degrees Fahrenheit), so it is imperative to dress warmly in the winter in clothing that dries well.
The course from the South Seorak Expedition Support Center to Daecheong Peak is five kilometers (3 miles) long and is the shortest route to Mount Seorak’s peak. The trail starts from the back of the Green Yard Hotel. It takes approximately four and a half hours to climb to the top and three hours on the way down.
For more information, visit http://seorak.knps.or.kr or call (033) 636-7700.
By Kim Young-joo [email@example.com]