Four hours into the climb on a steep incline my right calf muscles began to tighten while trying to haul my body weight over knee high rocks with fast tiring legs.
“Oh no”, I thought to myself, not now when I’m so near the summit. Hoping not to aggravate it I instinctively sat down on the nearest boulder.
Bad decision. But bo pian (no choice).
With temperatures at sub 10°C, tired muscles began to seize in the cold rendering me unable to carry on. I called out to my other half few steps ahead of me, “I got leg cramps!”. She immediately administered leg massages while groups of climbers strode past. Took 10 mins before I could move both legs. Progress was slow and agonising from this point.
“One step at a time” I told myself.
The Seongpanak Trail
At 1950m Hallasan is S.Korea’s highest peak. Although there are many trails around Hallasan only two, Seongpanak and Gwaneumsa, lead to the summit. The 9.6km Seongpanak trail is the ‘easier’ of the two as it is more gradual.
I was of the impression that the Seongpanak trail is going to be relatively easy, a fact mentioned by some travel sites.
“Hallasan is relatively easy to hike. With hiking courses less than 10 km in length, it is possible to go to the peak and back in one day.” according to Visitkorea.or.kr.
I was soon to find out it wasn’t easy by any means, even for one who is relatively fit. Definitely NOT a walk in the park. You’ve been warned.
An Early Start
As all of us are pushing or just past 60, the plan was to start early to give ourselves ample time to complete the trek. We hailed two taxis from our hotel in Seogwipo at 5.45am for the 40 minute ride to Seogpanak. Fare was ₩16,500.
With a few bottles of water, two bananas and gimbap for lunch in our backpack, seven of us began the trek at 6.30am from the Seongpanak trailhead. Weather forecast was a sunny day ahead with temperature at the summit at 6°C. Positive news to perk us up on a cold October morning.
The first few kilometres were easy enough. We covered the 4.3 km briskly to the first checkpoint (Sokbat Shelter) in about 1½ hours. Time check: 8am.
Park regulations stipulate that climbers have to reach the 2nd shelter (Jindalaebat) by 12.30 pm, and descent the summit by 2pm.
I knew it’d be tougher from here as we’re constantly reminded by signboards of the distance covered and difficulty of terrain marked in various colours, red being the toughest.
With just a few sips of water and a quick toilet break we continued at the same brisk pace. Although temperatures were cool we were soaked in perspiration.
Gladfully I was still not too tired at this stage to enjoy the autumn colors among the rich and diverse foliage indigenous to Hallasan.
Parts of the trek are well-pathed with wooden boardwalks. As the climb progressed boardwalks morphed to large rocks. This is where it took a toll on my overworked limps and started to cramp.
The last 50m to Jindalaebat shelter was a struggle. Time check: 10.30am.
“Not to worry. Still in good time”, I thought to myself as I passed the next height marker that reads 1500m. Another 2.3 km to go, says the signboard. This is the last section marked “red”. I tried hard not to remind myself.
The signboard didn’t lie. It was brutal. From here I literally hauled myself up one step at a time using my hands and a trekking pole from a friend to navigate ever steeper rocks that never seem to end. The last stretch was excruciating for my legs and even tougher on the mind.
The Summit, At Last
I made it to the summit at 12.30pm, 6 hours after I started. Which seemed like a long time ago. The rest of the group arrived much earlier. The viewing platform was already crowded with weary hikers in various states of fatigue but happy faces all.
Although my legs seriously hated me for the extreme torture, the view and the immense accomplishment made up for it. The heavens seem to notice our efforts and rewarded us with a clear view of Baengnokdam (White Deer Lake) crater.
After a quick lunch and obligatory photo taking we started our descent at 1.15pm. By then my cramps had recovered somewhat and I was able to make the slow and painful descent. The ascent took its toll which made the descent that much harder. Every step down was a pain. On the way down looking at the steep rocky path I wondered how I made it to the top.
Finally, after 11 physically sapping hours, 43,000 steps and 21.2 km of unforgiving terrain, I reached the bottom of the Seongpanak trail at 5.30pm.
Our plan was for an active holiday, but this was way off the charts.
To commemorate the occasion each of us received a certificate for our feat (by showing a picture of yourself at the summit) from the Seongpanak Visitor Center for ₩1000.
- Start early to have enough time to soak in the beauty at the summit and stop for rests along the way.
- Not advisable to climb when wet. Check Hallasan’s weather forecast regularly.
- Wear proper footwear. Hiking boots highly recommended. Coming down the mountain is steep, rocky and murder on your ankles!
- Bring food, snacks and plenty of water as you’ll be up there the whole day.
- Do it when you are fit. And young. Don’t wait till 60.
Photo credits: Niam CL