My first hike to Hallasan was in 2006. In my 10th grade, this uneasy hike even for a healthy high school strident was scheduled as part of the field trip to Jeju. As I recall, Hallasan had steep cliffs and endless uphill after another to the summit. It's been half a year since I came to Jeju and hiking Hallasan hasn't been an easy option to consider. With time, you tend to remember the good part, but strangely enough for Hallasan, my memory of it had been skewed to fill only the bad memories of it.
To me, Hallasan was no easy mountain to climb, or a place to endure the sufferings. I later learned that the trail I took was Yeongsil Trail. On the Internet, you'll find that this 90-minute trail doesn't lead to Baekrokdam, the summit, but to Witse. I could swear that it took us more than 3 hours on our field trip, but an hour and half? I would never understand.
A friend of mine had told me that he would be visiting Jeju on September and hiking Hallasan was on his list. He had asked me if I'd like to join. If I decline, months would pass without considering to hike. Not everyone living in Seoul hikes Bukhansan, so there was no need for me to hike Hallasan just because I live in Jeju. But, it is Hallasan, which locals would say, "Jeju Island is Hallasan, and Hallasan is Jeju." So I reluctantly said yes.
Even until the night before the hike, I prayed that it would rain so we wouldn't have to go. But it was to no avail. It was unbelievably bright and shining early fall weather. For what it's worth, it was the best weather for hiking. So the two hikers got together, jumped on a cab and headed over to Yeongsil Trail. We left from Wolpyeong-dong and the cab fare came to about 25,000won. It was the area the cabs had fixed rate to, instead of going by meter.
Upon arriving at the foot of the trail, we bought some rice balls and water and finally left. With the first step, I realized the anxiety and the fear were now gone. It was partly the a form of resignation. I knew that I was at the point of no return, a place I only can get out once I reach the summit.
But once I began, it was a lot easier than I had expected.
Early in the stage, we hiked a gentle slope and it walked on flat surfaces for a while. We were able to enjoy the scenery, have a light conversation and left me to think, "oh this is going to be easy." But it has been nothing but an absolute conceit.
This conceit barely last 10 minutes. We were suddenly at steep stairways and in the middle of uphill battle. My 11-year-old memory of this place began flashing before my eyes. I knew I was in grave trouble but it was too late. My friend already passed me and started hiking up the stairs.
It has been a while since I last hiked. I think the reason people enjoy hiking because the only two things that come to their minds are how they would climb and "f*** me, this is hard!" This means that when you are hiking, you can empty your minds and focus on your breaths and the muscles that take you to the next step. A period of raw and primitive time. It is a completely different from your daily lives which makes it a perfect downtime activity, so I thought in the beginning. Once that beautiful thoughts are gone, the only things that came to my mind was, "when will this end," "this hill must be the last one," and "do I have to go all the way there where people look like ants?"
I wanted my hike to be filled with being in awe of the nature and taking pictures of the scenery. That was barely one tenth of the entire trip. Most of the scenery watching we did was of the feet and the back of the person hiking in front of you and my feet. With my neck looking down so low, I began to wonder if I were in Hallasan or some unnamed hill in the neighborhood. But just once in a while, I'll look around to find the dramatic cliffs and unusual vegetation life formed on this high altitude. After enjoying these short moments, we soon arrived at the Seonjakjiwat Plains, a flat plain on top of the summit that stretches so endlessly.
We took maybe two breaks this far and kept moving ourselves. We knew that taking breaks would be harder for us when we start hiking again. And maybe because of that, it only took us less than an hour to finish this Yeongsil Trail which is suppose to take an hour and half. I hate any physical activities and anything active. But if I can climb, anybody can. With a little bit of effort.
Usually there are no plains on a summit of a mountain. But Hallasan, formed by volcanic activities, has these plains just underneath Baekrokdam. Not a single thing blocking the view, we were at a place where the clouds stay afloat our eye level. I thought, "This is the highest a person can climb around here" and found my inner peace, with the bigger relief that this passion of climbing is over.
Slowly cross over the Seonjakjiwat Plains to Witse Oreum Shelter, we bought some cup noodles and ate them with the rice balls we bought earlier. The highlight of that meal was the beer we brought from home. The Hallasan is a national park and a UNESCO World Heritage so make sure you bring all your trash with you. Drinking beer with my warm noodles, I wouldn't want anything else in the world.
The weather was bright the breeze blowing to Witse Oreum was cool, almost chilly. If there is absolutely unadulterated breeze, wouldn't that feel exactly like this? A 1,700m (5500ft) plain sitting above the sea level seems something surreal at times.
After finishing our snack and getting some rest, we wanted to continue hiking and headed to Nambyeok Junction. It is another one-hour hike and it is the closest we could get to Baekrokdam on the Yeongsil Trail. Hiking got much easier with time. With everything else in the world, the beginning is always the hardest part and so was hiking.
After seeing the dramatic cliff of Nambyeok Junction, we headed back down. Looking at the small piece of cloud floating up high, I thought the only way for me to inhale the clouds is to climb this mountain.
Seeing the Seonjakjiwat Plains for the last time, I realized this is the birthplace of Jeju, the magical island. This is like the mother of Jeju. I didn't get to see the heart of Hallasan, or the womb of Jeju, Baekrokdam. But I promised myself that I’d return and start to head back.
On our way back, the beautiful scenery we missed on the way up fighting for our next breaths, like he forest of Korean firs, Yeongsil Giam or panoramic rock formations or the shrubbery that evolved to be too short to protect themselves from the cold weather. All these sights that I couldn't see before had unfolded in front of me at 1,700m altitude.
At this moment, death, not life came into my mind. Impressively enough, the experience of life contrasted nicely to the bright life at Hallasan but with distinct feeling of desolation was what caught my eyes. For some unknown reasons, the forest of Korean firs was drying, the crimson red stones were lying on the ground in disarray and the sharp rock mountains at Yeongsil Giam was in absolute contrast to my heavy breaths that represented life.
Hiking requires more attention when you are going down. I know this now, because I almost fell over a few times with my tired legs. Thank goodness I was hiking in the fall, had this been a winter hiking, I would have definitely slipped.
Back out of the park, the cab driver said, no less than 30,000, which then we chose to walk to the bus stop. It was a long walk from the entrance of Yeongsil Trail. Maybe because it was after the hike, this walk seemed even more difficult. Should we have taken the cab? But we were passed that point. Once we got to the bus stop, the next bus was to come in 40 minutes. So we laid ourselves down on a resting area and watched the clouds float away. It was the time of peace when nothing else but this breeze we feel on the edge of our hair came to our minds. Like that song, As We Lie Still like Lines by Yozoh.
Dealing with the aftermath of Hallasan hike went on for a week aching my calves. But the person I was before the hike and the person I am after are different. The Hallasan I could see from my house no longer terrifies me. Now I have enough confidence to hike it again. I can repaint my 11-year-old bad memory with my new great memory. Now the easiest trail Yeongsil is finished, maybe I'll try to reach Baekrokdam. But who knows when that would be.