Everywhere we looked, these snow covered hillsides towered above us, slanting and stretching across the horizon.
Waking before dawn, rising from sprawled out mats and blankets, we layered and bundled and shared a tired laugh over burnt coffee. Although I couldn’t see it, I could tell by the color of the sky that the sun was up somewhere as we started out; its light just hadn’t shone over the mountains. The mountains! Everywhere we looked, these snow covered hillsides towered above us, slanting and stretching across the horizon. Although not particularly warm where I live, it is clearly Spring and so while I was vaguely aware of the “threat of snow on the peak” here, I didn’t expect it to be so plentiful. The white of the snow accented each ridge line, made each naked tree trunk visible. We had stepped back in time, into an older season. We followed a river, in all of its pale crystal colored glory, as it wound down the slope. Giant stone boulders lined the bed, ripped from the craggy rocks overhead. The sun woke and rose and light was slowly filling the world.
With my breath materializing in front of me I felt fresh and invigorated with the clarity that can be gained only when the day is young and the world is still new. However it wasn’t long until our plans changed. Not more than 2 hours into our hike we came to a chain link fence barring our path, gated, shut, and locked. Daechongbong Peak (대청봉), the mile high majesty we were striving for was closed due to a combination of melting snow and inclement weather. At first we either didn’t realize or didn’t accept the finality of the sign, but we thought we could hike another trailer and meet up later down the line and it would be open which, to save the trouble of telling it, was not the case. So here we instead turned our attention to the nearest open landmark destination and hundreds of grueling stairs later we sat and caught our breath in the cliffside Geumganggul Cave (금강굴). A tiny hermetic refuge that at this early hour was vacant. We sat and watched the sunrise over the inaccessible peak, we watched as the light flooded Cheonbuldong Valley below, and it was serene. So peaceful and beautiful alone in our tiny mountain refuge, I felt like I was watching god paint, the way the sun hit the earth and the colors came to life. For me this was the highlight of the trip; a tranquil calm among the slumbering snow covered mountains watching the strength of the sun grow. In a tiny country of 50+ million people, a moment like this, spent alone, in a place like this, is an extraordinary luxury and extraordinarily therapeutic.
It was only on the descent that we first encountered others and after making a dent into our stores of protein bars and dried fruits we again sought to conquer the mountain. This time an extremely popular day hike to Ulsanbawi (울산바위). Legend has it that Ulsanbawi came from the city of Ulsan in the south east of Korea. As Kumgangsan (금강산) was being built, Ulsanbawi walked to the north as the representative of the city. Unfortunately Ulsanbawi arrived too late and there was no more room. Ulsanbawi was ashamed and slowly trudged back to the south. One evening the rock went to sleep in the Seorak area. Ulsanbawi felt it was so beautiful around there that it decided to stay for good. While I agree that it was beautiful, it didn’t match the serenity of the morning as throngs of brightly dressed and loud day hikers clogged the trails and created bottle necks by stopping and using their phones. If this was meant as an exercise in escape, I was trapped. To be fair, it was Saturday afternoon by this point, and with the main peak closed most of the park’s guests were funneled onto this trail. Still, by the time you reached the bare rocks teetering precariously atop the peak and take in the surrounding views, its hard to to feel a sense of accomplishment, no matter how many drunk and neon clad retirees surround you.