After a long one-year wait, I finally got the chance to climb South Korea’s tallest and one of its most sacred mountains, Hallasan (한라산), in the dead of winter. It was only last year that I discovered that I enjoyed hiking on snow covered mountains while at the Taebaeksan Snow Festival. And since then, Hallasan has been in my sights.
Hallasan is a 1,950m dormant volcano, last erupting on its sides in 1002 and 1007 AD. It has a crater lake at the top called Baengnokdam (백록담), meaning “White Deer Lake”, that changes size with the seasons. According to Wikipedia, the lake could be as round as 2km and as deep as 100m. It’s a sight that draws people from far to see. In 2007, the volcano, its lava tubes, and hundreds of parasite cones were added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
If you are interested in Hallasan’s spiritual significance, I direct you to David A Mason’s San-shin.org website. It is a gold mine for information on mountain spirit culture in Korea. On his entry for Hallasan, he posted a link to an article by historian Robert Neff titled “Part one The first Westerner to climb Mt. Halla” and is a great read. Here is part two.
There are seven trails on Hallasan (see map). In order to get to the peak where it’s possible to look into the crater, you need to go up either Gwaneumsa Trail or Seongpanak Trail which both connect at the peak. Everywhere on the net, it is suggested to hike up Seongpanak as it is said to be a more gentle climb. Buses don’t go directly to the Gwaneumsa trailhead; they will drop you off about 4km away from it. Or you can take a 10 minute taxi ride from City Hall to Gwaneumsa Trail. There are many buses which go directly to Seongpanak Trail.
I started up Seongpanak Trail at 8am. The official website says the trail takes 4.5 hours one-way, but it only took me 3.25 hours. I probably was hiking a bit fast, but I think the official required time is purposely set high to ensure safety for all levels of hikers.
The trail up to the Jindallaebat Shelter was rather easy. I knew that from reading things online, but it was still a bit of a surprise. From the shelter upward, things got a little tougher.
I had brought some sandwiches and snacks to eat at the shelter, but I was too worried about getting cold if I stopped moving to eat the sandwiches. And my Gatorade was beginning to freeze, so it was hard to drink much of that. I pressed on after just 5 minutes.
During the entire ascent, the weather was cold, cloudy, and snowy. But once I got near the summit, the wind took everything to another level. I actually had to put my camera into my backpack as it was beginning to freeze. Had I not had a face mask, my face would have frozen too. I don’t ski, so I don’t usually have a need for them, but this is when I wished I had had ski goggles. The wind was blowing frozen snow pebbles into my eyes, making it difficult to look where I was walking. Even just taking a step with the wind pushing me around was tricky. One man was descending this section by scooting on his butt because the wind threatened to knock him down the side of the mountain. This is when I started to be a little concerned about my safety. I still didn’t know how much further I had to go to reach the top.
Moments later, I had summited the mountain. But I didn’t stay there long, nor did I attempt to take my frozen camera out for a photo. I wish I had had a small pocket camera hidden inside my jacket for this moment. There was no way to see into the crater because of the weather, but it would have made a nice souvenir to have a photo of myself at the top.
Right about here is when my legs began to get really tight. So tight that it hurt a little when taking a step up. I ignored the pain, inhaled two brownies for energy, and started the descent down Gwaneumsa Trail (officially a 5 hour one-way hike, but only took me 3.25 hours).
Particularly around the top, Gwaneumsa Trail was several feet below snow-level. Taking one step sometimes meant sliding a couple of feet before hitting something solid to put my feet on. That was with crampons on my boots.
It took about 45 minutes before I decided to take my frozen camera out to see if it would cooperate. Not long after, I passed Samgakbong Shelter and I really didn’t take too many more photos. I suppose the way up Seongpanak Trail was more scenic for me.
I did stop in the Tamna Valley to take photos of a male White-backed Woodpecker. There even was a second woodpecker a few trees away. I didn’t bring my long zoom lens, so this photo has been cropped at 100% to make the bird stand out better.
Once I finally got to the entrance of Gwaneumsa Trail at 2:30pm, I was so dead tired that the choice between walking 4km more to the bus stop and paying ₩ 1,500 (~$1.35) to get to City Hall or paying a taxi driver the set fee of ₩ 15,000 (~$13.50) was an easy one. Ten minutes later, I was at my motel and filling the bath tub with hot water.
Sitting at my desk and looking back, hiking Hallasan in the dead of winter was one of the most challenging hikes I’ve done in Korea and one of the most beautiful. I’d love to do it again.
Hallasan National Park (Korea Tourism Organization)
Hallasan National Park (Official)
Halla-san, the Great Mountain (San-shin.org)
Part one The first Westerner to climb Mt. Halla, by Robert Neff (The Jeju Weekly)
The first Westerner to climb Mt. Halla-Part two, by Robert Neff (The Jeju Weekly)
Jeju Volcanic Island and Lava Tubes (UNESCO)