Put on your shoes
Put on your coat
We’re going out…
James McCann, ‘Been Round Here’
A friend in Sydney, Carl, had sent me an album not long before Jeju, a gritty dark-blues collection by an Australian singer called James McCann. I’d played it a few times but didn’t realise any of it had sunk in. But out of the blue, early in the evening as I swept fresh snow from the tarp and put off crawling beneath it, this one mournful number, the lyrics at once regretful and menacing, slipped into my head, spun around three times and settled in for the night.
I was warm for the first half-hour. Then the cold penetrated the bivy and the goose down and the Darn Toughs enclosing my feet. I was turning to ice from the toes up. All night I drifted between fragments of half-sleep, periodically prodding snow from the roof with a double-gloved finger. Added socks — difficult inside a bag within a sack — which did nothing. Weird dreams, vivid epics, played in the dilapidated theatre in my head, and through them that mean guitar and those portentous lyrics…
It didn’t help that my neighbours in the nylon McMansion were having a fabulous time. Dad must’ve brought a TV; the kids cackled with laughter till late in the night. I guessed they had a heater, too, and I knew he’d stocked up on soju. For once Korean rocket fuel sounded appealing.
At 4:30 I surrendered. I put on my boots, with the Microspikes I’d attached last night; I put on my down vest and Monkey Man jacket and rain jacket and balaclava and beanie and scarf and gloves. I was going out.
It took an hour to break camp because I tried to be quiet*, and because my paralysed fingers couldn’t untie some knots in Ray Jardine‘s proprietary string, “the lightest, toughest guy rope on the market”. I tore at the knots with my teeth in the darkness; finally I grabbed my knife and cut the string.
At last I stood at the base of the Gwaneumsa Trail. That white line up the middle, photographed the afternoon before, my intended course:
But there was a problem. My toes and the fingers of my right hand burned with white-hot pain. There were tears in my eyes. I huddled behind a vending machine stocked with cold bottles of Pocari Sweat. Windmilled my arms, stomped my feet till the blood seeped to the extremities and drowned the pain. I downed my can of coffee, a caffeinated icy sludge. My water bottle was a frozen cylinder.
The wind and snow eased. I started up:
What use are words? It was so utterly beautiful, the silence and stillness so crystalline and perfect, the snow so pure it felt like walking mud across a freshly cleaned carpet.
There, I couldn’t help myself. Stupid words.
Within minutes I said out loud, “This is fucking incredible.” The snow was almost bright enough to walk headlamp-less. I gained some elevation; the lights of Jeju-shi to the north twinkled through the trees. Walkways and landings had turned into pistes and cornices. Beautiful, perfect snow.
Dawn. It resumed snowing, quite heavily, blowing onto the path at a steep angle. Now it was knee-deep, now waist-deep. I realised I was tired. 5km to go and it would only get steeper and deeper. I stopped. I thought for about a minute. Then I turned around and started walking back to camp:
Almost immediately I ran into two tall, professional-looking guys going up.
“Those were your footprints?” They had great English.
“So you had to break the trail yourself?”
“Yeah, and I’m tired. Maybe if I wasn’t alone. And if the snow would stop…”
“It’s minus 10 in Seoul today. I think you did the right thing.”
As I hurried down there were a dozen more in pairs or small groups. I paused, admonishing myself. What was I doing? Quitting — again?! Why not just follow that tough-looking pair? Let them break trail? But it would be unfair to use strangers as human snowploughs. Wouldn’t it? I kept on going.
Self-portrait of the author as a failed mountaineer:
A husband/wife team going up:
He was berating her about her shitty crampon technique: “Aizan! Aizan!” (Crampons). She was giggling and slipping and he was getting pissed.
Ah well, at least I’m not married…
Down I trotted:
Near camp, soldiers stalked through the woods brandishing automatic weapons:
A long, dark spell at the 7-11 table with map and noodles. The proprietress had shrieked in horror as I filled my paper cup with coffee (Koreans drink it in espresso-sized portions even though it’s just Maxwell House!) and then sent someone out to give me a Snickers bar.
This weather was getting worse if anything. I was bathed in cleansing sunlight for 10 seconds before the cloud and swirling snow returned. Decided. I hit the road and started walking back — past Gwaneumsa…
..finding temporary refuge within a roadside restroom:
Another hiker trudged alongside me, neither of us acknowledging the other. At the bus stop he kept walking. A small group wandered in; an old lady climbed into the ditch, turned her back to the road, and — right next to us — hoisted up her skirt and began pulling down her bloomers…
Outside, the wind and snow raged:
I entered the bus, a wall of kimchi-breath hitting me in the face. Two dozen pairs of eyes stared; nobody spoke. In Jeju City, a cab to the airport ($4!); it looked like the fall of Saigon as holiday-makers sought frantically to escape this Island of Doom. I changed my ticket; I’d flee tomorrow at 9:45, many days earlier than planned.
That night I left my warm, sheltered hotel room to walk the streets of Jeju, almost overjoyed when the snow came back to buzz and sting my un-balaclava-ed face…
James McCann, Been Round Here
* Know the noisiest thing in the world at 4:30am? A supermarket plastic bag.
~ And that’s all the Goat wrote