They pitched Mount Seorak to me as a two-hour stroll through the woods crowned by a splash in a creek. I had visions of wood nymphs bathing behind glittering falls (perhaps my first mistake was to liken South Korea to the Shire). I dressed casually in a T-shirt, a bathing suit beneath a pair of jeans, and a pair of slate blue Toms.
The Toms are now split, frayed, and one has all but lost its sole.
In hindsight, we shouldn’t have lingered so long at the magnificent bronze Buddha, nestled cross-legged and impervious, at the foot of the slopes – and I think I understand now the slight smirk playing at his lips. A woodland ramble was about to become an onerous odyssey, daylight our most precious commodity.
We were a group of seven expats led by our intrepid friend Albert, who had hiked Mount Seorak before. Its flora was punched with the scarlets and golds of an approaching autumn; jutting rocks had made a puzzle of its green peaks, the sharp playthings of some primeval giant. All was bliss, it seemed, until our two hours had worn out and there was no creek in sight. Only an hour to go, Albert kept insisting. We were a ragtag bunch, trudging headlong into steep staircases, rock shelves, and iron bridges. Seasoned Koreans in their pastel jackets and walking sticks were making a mockery of us, clutching their tinfoil rolls of kimbap. This was, we discovered hour by passing hour, no pleasant jaunt through the forest.
It was at a picturesque cliff some hours into the hike that I lost my footing. The spot’s Kodak potential, with a backdrop of towering megaliths bearded in yews and pines, had been irresistible. The spot required a few jumps across rocks projecting from a pool of water, the bald head of a high waterfall, rolling like a tongue over the steep cliff face. Every jumper made it across without issue. I, wise hiker who wore Toms (nobody accused me of being adventure-savvy), bounded across with some trepidation – and in a dizzying moment felt my foothold slip, slide, my palms and stomach flat, down the smooth surface of the rock ledge at the other side. Seconds later I had plunged into the icy water, only yards away from the brow of the falls. Through the glacial glug came the nervous laughter and urging of my companions.
Hikers, be warned: “outdoor adventure” is sometimes only a stone’s throw from “drag show.” It was declared that I shouldn’t complete the hike in my sopping clothes. The jeans came off, and an extra shirt provided by a female friend led to a sorry conclusion: I was to hike Korea’s third tallest mountain in a plaid bathing suit and an ill-matching plaid blouse. A bundle of my wet clothes dangled at my side in a plastic bag. I’ve almost forgotten how to spell “dignity.”
This was not the creek we had been promised, and there was no time to stop. Albert had made it clear by now that he intended to get us up the peak and down the other side, where he had booked a pension for the night. I gazed into the sky; a cruel evening shade was creeping over the forest. The journey was blistering, and my Toms had already all but withered. The eventual triumph of reaching the peak some hours later, in the pale evening light, was checked by fatigue, even if the coastal vista over Sokcho and the distant ridges snaking into North Korea were stunning at 5,600 feet.
Darkness finally enveloped the mountain. By some act of divinity we caught up with a group of resourceful Korean hikers, equipped with flashlights and headlamps, just as the blackness was becoming total. We suffered that hellish final hour in the dark dust of bobbing lights, pierced here and there by the scream of a hiker with a rolled ankle, down an eternity of rock shelves.
The putative two-hour trek lasted almost twelve hours. I collapsed on our pension’s heated ondol flooring late that night a changed man. Any stern lectures on the ills of miscommunication would have to wait for the morning. To that hike in Korea goes a dubious honor: it was, to be sure, the richest accidental triumph I will never attempt again.