Taking a peak at Hallasan in the winter
During the summer months, Korea’s most famous tourist destination, Jeju Island, is inundated with tourists from all over the world. Many visit for the natural beauty of Cheonjiyeon Waterfall, the silvery sands of Hyeopjae Beach and the daunting caverns of the Manjang Cave, while some prefer Gimnyoung Maze, the Trick Art Museum or even the erotic sculptures of Love Land.
But then there’s Jeju in winter. Because most tourists opt to vacation in warmer climates, this is when the island clears out. Jeju’s ubiquitous green vegetation is replaced by determined weeds and gnarled black trees, the stuff of nightmares; birds and residents alike migrate south and the wind, a sadistic and relentless gale hailing from the Korea Strait, ensures that sightseeing is an adventure.
Camaraderie at the base
Last winter I was one of these few travelers who braved frigid temperatures and knee-high snow banks to spend my December vacation climbing Hallasan, Korea’s highest mountain. I’d climbed it twice before, but each time the volcanic crater at the peak eluded me due to a combination of bad luck and uncooperative weather. This time, with the forecast predicting clear skies, I was determined to see the crater and its mythical lake.
I decided to travel with a group of veteran snow hikers on the premise that they wouldn’t allow me to fail in my mission in the dead of winter. On our first day we started with the flat yet impressive Olle Trail, a prelude to the trials to come. And while the hiking was easy, the weather was a stark reminder of why most of my acquaintances had fled to the Philippines and Thailand for their winter vacations — it was freezing. Hikers were huddling inside the Buddhist altars we passed on the premise of prayer, but I got the distinct impression most were just trying to gain a short respite from that bitter wind.
Later, we gathered at one of Jeju Island’s heukdwaeji (black pig pork) restaurants for a celebratory barbecue dinner, where one of the older men immediately took up the tongs and began throwing thick slabs of meat on the grill. Mandatory shots of soju were passed around, and we all found several excuses to toast one another with our one-shot liquor. Tomorrow would be a big day.
Ascent into coldness
3 a.m.: The Hallasan attempt began. Our group of 12 filled the van with eyes half closed, carrying our hiking equipment, plastic-wrapped pastries and Dixie cups of coffee. After a slow, icy drive, we arrived at the park entrance.
4:45 a.m.: Dozens of hikers packed the entrance, adjusting their crampons, taking group photos and finishing up a final pre-departure snack; and in the wan winter light we ascended in droves up the darkened trail. The mood at first was jovial, and chatter drowned out all other sounds, but after an hour the trail ascended sharply and the blanket of snow covering the ground became thicker; the chatter ceased and a silence pervaded our resolute throng.
6 a.m.: Sunrise. The early morning rays started to filter through the trees, and we packed away our headlamps and flashlights. The sunlight — a welcome guest after an hour of fumbling along in darkness — turned the untouched snow on the trees a soft blue, and the hikers remained silent in respect for the natural beauty to which we were all privy.
11 a.m.: We reached a shelter and took cover, and I realized I was quite ill-prepared for the cold: My face (uncovered) was red and sore from wind burn, and my fingers were numb. When I was offered a hot cup of coffee, I gratefully accepted.
2 p.m.: We were about an hour and a half from the top, at least according to hearsay, but then our group leader pulled aside a few members and exchanged some rapid-fire Korean. It had been decided that we would not continue to the top. The snow hadn’t been cleared, and our ferry back to Incheon was departing in just a few hours. There was a chance we could make it if we increased our speed, but we risked losing our transport home. After a quick group vote, it was decided that we would turn back.
A small but tenacious group
For the third time, I missed catching a glimpse of the elusive Hallasan peak. I didn’t take the obligatory photo with the famous crater in the background. I didn’t catch a glimpse of the lake, Baengnokdam. Despite this failure on all accounts, there was no disappointment. The point of visiting Jeju Island in the winter, the reason why determined visitors take on the challenge of a 12-hour hike up Korea’s highest mountain through uncleared snow, isn’t just for that coveted crater selfie. Rather, it’s to see the beauty of Korea’s natural environment at its harshest and most unforgiving, and to convene with the small but tenacious group of visitors who prefer trudging up a mountain at 5 in the morning to lying on a beach in the tropics. And so what if a winter vacation in Jeju doesn’t go exactly as planned? That’s why there’s soju and heukdwaeji.
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