Climbers conquer peaks above the clouds

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Climbers conquer peaks above the clouds

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I am now a mountain climber, at least, if having climbed one mountain is the only requirement. The place was Mount Jiri, the time, two weeks ago, my prior experience at mountain climbing, none whatsoever. And the only reason I survived is the History and Mountains Club, a Seoul-based group of Korean and foreign hikers.
The group was formed in 1994 to tour sites of the 1894 Donghak Peasants Revolt in South Jeolla province. Today it takes monthly hikes to different Korean mountains, but it retains its ties to the labor movement and its history. Park Joon-sung, a professor at Worker Education Center, which is affiliated with the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, usually accompanies the trips to illuminate each site’s distant past. The group’s current foreigner liaison, Rebecca Kim, joined in 1997.
Levels of expertise represented in the group included casual hikers, people planning trips to the Himalayas and beginners like myself. One young Korean woman revealed that she had just bought all her equipment for the hike the week before, and that it had cost more than her last vacation.
That equipment: windproof coat, scarf, cap, gloves, windproof snow pants, little cloth shin guards to keep the snow off one’s snow pants, boots, crampons for the boots, an enormous backpack, flashlight, sleeping bag and ski poles. Many of the Korean hikers had these last items, which seemed odd, but I was later told they help put less stress on the knees. I imagine some also brought equipment they didn't use at all ― those enormous backpacks had to be full of something.
At the base of the mountain, checking off in my mind all the items I didn't have, I began to panic.
My sole fellow foreigner, a Canadian native named Saralyn Covent, noticed my anxiety and stepped in to provide emotional support. “Don't worry. You will always feel under-equipped when hiking with Koreans. Wait until you see some with matching uniforms.”
It turns out the club only requires members to bring appropriate clothing, boots, food, a flashlight and the fee for lodging and transportation, which is generally between 20,000 and 50,000 won. Spikes can be borrowed if the hiker needs them (I did).
The Mount Jiri trip was the club's first after a two-month hiatus, which led to the shortage of foreigners. Both Saralyn and Ms. Kim assured me there are usually more. “In the winter, nobody's here in Seoul. They're taking breaks in their home countries” or just don't feel like hiking, Ms. Kim observed.
But the dearth of foreigners was not much of a problem, as many group members have picked up English through work or hiking in the United States.
After a bus ride of four hours and an initial hike of about as long, our group stopped at a cabin below the peak to stay the night. Most of the Koreans had sleeping bags ― Saralyn and I rented blankets. Only the cabin's mandatory lights-out at 8 p.m. cut short the club's usual late-night soju and singing escapades.
Prof. Park was absent from the Mount Jiri hike ― he is recovering from cancer ― but others were on hand to give snippets of history. Ms. Kim pointed out that Mount Jiri was a stronghold for rebels from the time of the Japanese occupation to the end of the Korean War. As I hiked toward the peak, I tried to imagine spending a frozen winter among the dead trees with rations diminishing and Japanese patrols on the hunt.
Nearing the top my imagination shifted to a more immediate danger, that of impaling myself on the rocks below. But Saralyn tells me that this hike is actually very low on the “possibility of death scale,” and it would seem these feelings disappear with experience (of which I had none).
She also noted that the club has become much safer and more predictable since she first started attending a year ago. Hikes listed at four hours used to take up to double that time, and one hike, down from Mount Odae in Gangwon province, mushroomed into a 12-hour slog through waist-deep snow. Now the listed hiking times are much more reliable, she said. This was borne out by our hike on Mount Jiri, which comprised more or less the four hours of hiking each day that was promised.
And as the group guzzled makgeolli in a village before leaving for home, there was one thing that wouldn’t leave my head, and it wasn’t my luck in escaping violent death. It was the experience of watching the first rays of the sun shine down on the clouds as they flowed between the hills below us. It was that indescribable feeling that made me realize why people risk injury, exhaustion and poverty to climb.


by Ben Applegate

For more information about the History and Mountains Club’s monthly hikes, contact Rebecca Kim at rejoicerebecca@hotmail.com or (011) 9284-9551, or read the “Tours” section on Fridays.

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