Gajisan is the highest mountain in the Ulsan area, and considered one of the top 100 most beautiful mountains in Korea. I’d wanted to climb it since we got here; we only live half an hour away from the hiking trails.
Waiting for the bus in Eonyang I ran into Nico, another teacher going to the mountains. I could sense that I was in the presence of a being far more healthy and fit than I was. Mind you, an old green potato is probably fitter than me. Nico pointed out the sights along the way; a restaurant shaped like a pirate ship and a motel dedicated to Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Most hiking start points in Australia are ramshackle paths hidden among overgrown gum trees. Not in South Korea. There was an entire tourist depot next to the temple which marked the start of our trek into the Yeongnam Alps, where you could buy soup mixes, squid on a stick and soft drinks.
Nico nicked off soon after we got off the bus; I was thankful because I knew there was no way I could keep up with him.
“I’ll bet he finishes the hike in three hours,” I said to Justin K as we waited for Chris to show up.
“No way,” he said in a Nebraskan drawl. “Maybe four.”
The plan was to do a loop up the side of the mountain, and down directly from the summit. We followed a group of ajumas (middle-aged women) dressed in fluoro jackets, complete with poles and technical hiking boots. This is standard Korean fashion. They’ll go shopping downtown wearing this. We call it ajuma style.
We started at a cracking pace, overtaking the nannas in their bright yellow visors. For about half an hour we were doing ok. But the mountain kept going up and up and up, and my health to happiness ratio kept going down and down and down. I’d had a mild cold during the week, but I’d thought it had gone. Not when the nausea of a milky breakfast started gurgling in my stomach.
We slowed down, mostly to accommodate me. Chris was a regular mountain goat, powering up the hill. But I didn’t want to turn around. I wanted to get to the top. The problem with mountains is that they are up. If they say they’re 1240m above sea level, then you’re walking at least twice that vertically to get up them. The map we took indicated a moderate two and a half hour climb, then two hours to get down.
“I think I see the top,” said Justin K. “We’re nearly there.” This being Justin K’s first time EVER climbing a mountain, Chris and I rolled our eyes and agreed that we were farther away than he thought. The heights continued through a series of false ridges, rock faces opening on vistas to the city below.
Four hours later we were at the top of Gajisan. Four hours of solid uphill climbing with nary a flat bit in sight. Exhausted we crashed on the top of the mountain. I’d run out of water. Nausea pounded in my stomach. Thankfully this is Korea. They have snack bars at the top of mountains.
A groovy guitarist and his dog with painted on eyebrows filled my water bottle for 2000 Won. I don’t know how he got the water up the mountain, but he did. Brief thoughts of giardia flitted past my mind, but they were overwhelmed by the desire to chug water. Of course, the Korean hikers had brought soju with them (rice vodka) and were toasting each other’s success in climbing the mountain with small metal cups.
We crossed the ridge to the Rock (that’s what it’s called on the map). From there, the map indicated two paths down. A longer route across more ridge lines, and a short route of only one hour. After the hike up we were eager to get down. We chose the short path.
Of course, the short path is never the short path. It wasn’t even a path. Traversing tumbling rock slides at precarious angles, with only flag markers tied to trees to guide us, we wound our way down the mountain at a slow pace. A misstep meant tumbling down the slope. I was glad I purchased some hiking poles; even the slightest support made the difference between walking and falling down the mountain.
It began to get late. It was 5:30, the sun goes down around seven. We joked that at least we were prepared for the hike. Between us we had a first aid kit, flashlight, knives, a spare change of clothes, space blankets, a can of tuna, home-made bread, peanuts and a Bible. If we had to spend the night in the forest it wouldn’t be too bad.
After an hour we hit the river. Once we hit the river I knew we were home safe, because the river ran straight through the temple at the base of Gajisan. As we descended the rocks slowly became boulders, changing from unknown route into a worn path through young bamboo shoots. Finally, the natural path was replaced by concrete. A buddhist nunnery appeared on our left. Aching, knees failing, we climbed the last stairs, where a woman wearing orange robes swung a wooden rod into an enormous iron bell. The sound rang out, declaring our hike over.
Eight hours after setting out, we collapsed at the bus stop, munching on chocolate covered almonds. I’m proud we climbed Gajisan. I defied my expectations for myself by doing something I thought was too hard, too difficult to do.
The next day I got a message from Justin K.
“Hey I ran into Nico on the way back to Ulsan. Guess how long it took him to do Gajisan,” he wrote.
“How long?” I asked.
“I’m so unfit.”