Reaching Your Personal Peak

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Reaching Your Personal Peak

My fingertips are white from clutching the lip of a crack on the face of the sheer rock wall. Only inches from my face, ants scurry up and down, left and right, seemingly oblivious to the gravity I am so desperately fighting.

"Lean away from the rock!" Shaun Van Poucke yells. "Don't be afraid to fall."

That's easy for him to say. Mr. Van Poucke, founder of the Seoul Rock Climbers, has two feet planted firmly on the ground. He has also been rock climbing for 10 years.

The Australian's first climb was with a friend. Mr. Van Poucke came close to dying that day and blames the near-death experience on his friend's poor safety techniques. The experience left him so angry at his naivete, Mr. Van Poucke ditched the friend and enrolled in proper climbing classes.

Our Sunday had begun safely enough. I had joined Mr. Van Poucke at the Muakjae subway stop soon after sunrise. Mr. Van Poucke had parked his Korando on the sidewalk and two other climbers, Peter Jensen and Cho Young-eun, were napping inside. The Seoul Rock Climbers usually meet on Sundays at 7 a.m. or even earlier in order to avoid the mad rush of afternoon climbers. Members also meet on Fridays for climbs outside of Seoul.

At 190 centimeters tall and 97 kilograms, Mr. Van Poucke, in his 20s, looks more like a linebacker on a football team than a rock climber - his frame is far bigger than the long, sinewy frames of most climbers. But after climbing with the Australian School of Mountaineering and working at Intel Life, an outdoor adventure program for students, he developed enough technique to compensate for his size.

We drove five minutes to Mount An. Climbing Mount An does not have the same prestige or mystery as climbing Insubong, the mother of all climbs in Korea. Not only is the granite at Insubong, in Bukhansan National Park, easy to grip, but, with more than 100 courses, all levels of difficulty are represented. Yvon Chouinard, the famous French rock climber and president of Patagonia, an outdoor sports apparel company, was once a soldier in Korea. He fastened bolts to some of the climbing spots at Insubong, enhancing its reputation.

In comparison, the courses at Mount An are mostly for training, and the rock tends to crumble easily, making climbs slippery.

After carrying backpacks of gear to a course rated 5.6, we do an equipment check. According to the U.S. rating system, courses are rated from 5.2 to 5.14. All ratings start with 5; the second number denotes the difficulty of the climb.

I strap into a harness and slip into shoes with sticky soles. Mr. Van Poucke gives me a quick run-down on safety. He tells me to walk up the mountain, keeping my body as perpendicular to the wall as possible. He warns me against leaning in, because my feet will slide down.

Mr. Jensen, who has been climbing for three years, leads the first climb. I tie my harness into the rope, call out, "Climbing!" then start my ascent. After walking up 30 meters, I slip and start hugging the wall. That's when I got scared and saw the ants.

"Falling only means you're climbing at your limit. Falling is the ending to a good climb," Mr. Van Poucke calls up at me. According to rock climbing standards, 30 meters is not high. But it takes several heartbeats to gather my courage and scramble to the top. Mr. Jensen holds the rope and helps me descend.

Mr. Van Poucke leads the next climb. I make it to the top much quicker this time, and hitch myself to the anchor. We look down at apartments bordering the forest, cars in a parking lot, a school. As we quietly take in the view, Mr. Van Poucke talks about his a favorite subject.

"Back when I started, people used sling harnesses," he says. Climbers tied this seatbelt-like material around their waist and legs. There are several methods to secure a knot. The one type of knot that will really secure a harness is called a tape knot. Getting it right was essential for safety; his friend used a different knot.

Mr. Van Poucke was seconding the climb, following his friend, pulling out the quickdraws as he went along and clipping them to his harness. A quickdraw secures the rope to bolts that are placed in the side of the rock. When he got close to the top, his harness fell right off. "It was kind of unnerving," Mr. Van Poucke says in no small understatement. But he returned to the rock over and over again.

The climbing keeps him fit. The adrenaline rush keeps him energized. But the mindset and the isolation are what drew him back to the rock, until he set off "to see the world."

Mr. Van Poucke left his job as a computer game designer in Australia and moved to Korea in 1998 to bum around. He had no plans to take up rock climbing. By chance, he saw a stranger walking around in climbing gear and asked him about the climbing scene. Mr. Van Poucke started climbing again and founded an informal club in Ulsan, where he was teaching English. Earlier this year he moved to Suwon, near Seoul, where he continues to teach English. He invested almost 3 million won ($2,300) in equipment and started the Seoul Rock Climbers, which is open to all skill levels.

"People who really get into climbing tend to undergo a change," Mr. Van Poucke said. "When you're climbing, especially leading, you're forced to make decisions." Do I keep climbing? Do I rest? Do I protect myself? Am I going to fall? Meanwhile, the person following you trusts your decisions.

"Question after question passes through your mind, but in the end you have to believe in yourself," he said.

We descend the course and pack our gear to check out a 5.10 course. I sit back and watch Mr. Jensen look at the rock, mentally marking the footholds, and mutter, "I have what it takes to get up there."

by Joe Yong-hee

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