Hiking, Korea, Mountains
Comments 18

The Night and Then the Mountain

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


  1. Goat, I laughed quietly at so much of this, even though I know I should have been empathising with your icy pain. ‘The dilapidated theatre in my head.’ Great stuff!

    I liked the shock of the soldiers’ automatic weapons, but, really, the old lady’s bloomers were a tad too much…

    That snow scene — ‘fucking incredible’, indeed!

    ‘Ah well, at least I’m not married…’ Read my comment on your comment on my own blog about this!

    • Thanks again, SW. I would have taken closer pictures of the soldiers — they were very close at first — but one doesn’t point a camera at men with big weapons without severe trepidation.

      Korea is marvellously rustic around the edges and not far beneath the faux-glitzy surface of the cities. I’ve mentioned the dirt. You should see these earthy matrons squatting over their piles of squirmy sea creatures in the port areas. Old men and women with bicycle carts loaded high with scrap cardboard they presumably collect for some sort of reimbursement… Bus drivers like something from a Peruvian mountain village…

      But honestly, that woman, I thought she was going to do something interesting in that ditch — silly me — and readied my fingers near my shutter release…briefly…

      Thanks for the counselling!

    • Yeah, for some reason that town is not ranked high on my to-do list at the moment! And I’ve heard it’s wretchedly humid in summer. Perhaps a springtime visit… I know you’ve been suffering in Tokyo as well — at least you presumably have the good sense not to go camping! But remember that mountain jaunt on Ho-o-zan? Waist-deep in that delightful white stuff. Didn’t realise what a cold-hater you also were back then…

  2. You can go back there later this year and I’m sure you will be able to reach yr goal & walk up this trail to the top of this mountain. At the moment it seems to be too cold. Even we, who are used to snow and cold temperatures, are struggling with the weather at the moment; highest temperature today ( without wind) minus 10 degrees, weatherforcast for tomorrow minus 17 degrees. I suppose you can imagine what I thought after reading yr comment about not being married.

    • Yes, Sarah, the BBC news is full of winter suffering. I’ve heard Siberia and the Ukraine are particularly bad (who’d have thought?)! I know it must be bad if you are feeling it. By God, I’m glad I’m not there right now. Outside here it seems sunny and probably around zero — almost tolerable as long as the sun stays out!

      Re: the marriage quote: Ha!

  3. Great Ian
    Love the photos, the comment about marriage, not surprised the other hiker didn’t acknowledge you, he probably assumed you were a serial killer. It all sounds so much more interesting than my cambridge class.
    Keep it rolling.


    • Haha, thanks, Dave! Glad you’re reading and still employed.

      Yes, I don’t suppose I made a very welcoming impression. I try to keep reminding myself to smile even when in utter torment, but I think that just makes the impression worse!

  4. Wow! Great writing and pics!
    I was terrified for you ………altho realistically i knew you didnt get lost ..or you couldnt have posted this……dont need frostbitten fingers and toes..

    • Thanks, Barb. Hard to blog with missing fingertips. I’ll try to post something sunnier (in more ways than one) next. It’s all been a bit too Bear Grylls on here of late!

  5. I’m glad you thought twice about that hike, it looks crazy in that weather! Good pics as usual. Go the James McCann!

    • I’ve quit more trips than you’ve had cold refreshments, Carl. Thanks for the music – it’s a creeper. Amazing how it just turned up in my head like that. Now I can’t stop playing it…

  6. Wouldn’t fancy pulling down my bloomers in that weather.

    Crampon technique… Once found myself following three guys up an icy ridge in Snowdonia. I had no axe or crampons. Told myself I’d turn back if it got bad. I watched them get all their gear out (axes and crampons) and tackle the iciest, rockiest sharpest bit of the ridge. The third thrutched around, his axe dangling and jangling, crampon points sticking up in the air as he hugged the icy rocks with his knees and elbows. Oh well, I thought, if he can do it without axe and crampons, so can I…

    • I had to look up that word “thrutched”, Dominic — I believe that’s the second addition you’ve made to my vocabulary.

      Yes, I kept my own bloomers up till I hit the hotel with the real toilet. But these old Korean women, they’re a tough breed, they don’t stand on ceremony. I’ll never forget the first time I saw one spit…

  7. Oh yes! The fact that Korean and Japanesese have stolen (er, borrowed) the word for crampon from the same source. Wonder who claimed it first.

  8. Mm… You’ve convinced me that tarps and snow are a crap idea! The whole trip has made for some great photos which I’m sure you’ll appreciate later. Glad to hear you didn’t leave any frozen fingers behind on that volcano, as blogging would be tricky without them. As it’s the Korean ‘Hawaii’, is there any chance of returning for another assault in warmer weather?

    • Yeah, Greg, I have this annoying tendency to want to go back and finish most of my screw-ups (though oddly I don’t feel that about the PCT yet). And I really want to do those coastal tracks as I love coastal walking. So maybe in my summer vacation, if I can time it to avoid the honeymooners…

      I sure don’t regret that aborted trip though! As you say, some nice pictures and at least three wonderful experiences: the two temples and that morning forest. And let’s not forget the old lady dropping her pants. You don’t see that every day!

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