Jirisan Traversing Trail

It must’ve been an easy decision to make from the comfort of my computer chair on a sunny afternoon back in August.  Learning of a Jirisan traversing trail and deciding I’d do it both happened in a single moment.  Three days it is, 44.5km across one of Korea’s highest mountains, the “Mountain of Wisdom.” I like hiking and I like a challenge.  I could use a bit of wisdom too.  I’m going.

No detailed plans. No invitations to others.  No such efforts that are more likely to cancel a trip than improve it.  I’m going alone.  I’m going tomorrow. So I packed my bags, checked a map, and booked two nights at evenly-spaced shelters along the Jirisan traversing trail.

Meanwhile, off Korea’s southern coast, stormclouds were gathering for a journey of their own.

Day 1
9:40am - With my bus departing Daegu from Seobu Terminal, my trip begins.

12:10pm - Lock and Load.
 While waiting for my second bus in Namwon (남원), I visit the shops around the terminal for some essential supplies.  I buy two bottles of water and a Jirisan bandanna-map.  The sky is cloudy, so I buy a rain poncho and a bottle of makgeolli just in case.  The salesman at the hiking apparel store says the poncho is large enough to cover both me and my backpack.  I believe him.

I check the weather report. 100% chance of rain for the next three days, but given the accuracy of weather forecasting in Korea, I believe there's still a decent chance of sunshine.

2:20pm -  The last of a dozen passengers has gotten off, leaving me with my own private bus the rest of the way to the trailhead.  I open Thoreau's Walden in peace and quiet.

3:05pm - I arrive at Hwa-eom Temple (화엄사), a temple founded in 544 C.E. by an Indian monk and, like all things sacred in Korea, was burnt to the ground by the Japanese in 1592.  It also houses the trailhead, but first I peruse the grounds.  Jesus, how many Buddhas are there?  I count at least a dozen.  I bow to the fattest one and ask:

"Please let my path be clear and prosperous, past, present and future."

I figure a vague prayer has a higher probability of being answered.  I considered praying for clear weather as well, but didn't want to sound needy.

  • 7km to Nogodan (노고단), my shelter for the first night. 
  • 32.5km to Cheonwong Peak (천왕봉), the final height which I plan to ascend early on the third day.
4:26pm - It's raining.  Trying to wear my poncho over my pack feels like Buddha trying to squeeze into a mini-skirt.  It was certainly not as "large-ee" as the salesman may have led me to believe.  So I wrap the poncho around my pack, put on my faster-drying gym shorts, and embrace the cooling rain.  I have just enough clothes to last all three days if I ration them properly.  I have: 3 T-shirts, 1 hoodie, 2 pairs of shorts and 3 pairs of socks and boxers, and my new hiking boots.

4:51pm - "Be wary of all enterprises that require new clothes."  I guess Thoreau would have advised against this trip.  Apparently, he would've also advised against being a tree in Jirisan Park.

5:27pm - Stopped for a snack.  I'm really counting on there being food for sale at the shelters.  I'll be burning around 5,000 calories a day, which surely can't be replaced by what I'm carrying: 4 hard-boiled eggs, 2 apples, 2 ham and cheese sandwiches, 2 trail mix bars and one U.S. Department of Defense MRE.

Trails unsuitable for geophobes, those with a fear of rocks.

6:30pm - Finally, after three hours of steep, rocky climbing, I reach Nogodan Shelther (노고단 대피소).  I check in at the Ranger's desk, rent a blanket for 2,000krw and inquire about food for sale.  There is none.  I head into the sleeping lodge, bunk #14.

Day 2 
12:59am - Can't sleep. Constantly waking up, shifting around on these boards made of solid poplar.  I should've brought a mat, or forked up another 2,000krw for an extra blanket.

5:37am - Time to leave that snorefest.  Outside it's dark, cold and misty.  My flashlight only illuminates the fog directly in front of my face.  Worthless.

6:22am - As I curse through the windy Nogodan Pass, it begins to pour.  I sacrifice my second pair of clothes to the elements and wrap the poncho tightly around my pack.

7:42am - Stomping in my water-logged boots, questioning my luck, the flooded paths of Jirisan presented their first piece of wisdom.  From this rain will grow the rice that sustains me, and allows the society I live in to prosper.  In a way, by making it rain, Buddha has answered my prayers.

8:20am - I've reached my first marked peak.  Zero visibility.  Off of what seems to be a tall cliff, I piss into the clouds.  Check that off the bucket list.

Next on the list, taking a dump into a volcano.

9:35am - I find a shelter (삼도봉 대피소) but it's locked so I keep moving.  Still haven't rested or eaten today.

9:52am - I'm beginning to understand why Napoleon said "an army marches on its stomach."  Hunger motivates me to press onward and find a dry place to eat.

10:03am -  I reach the next shelter (연하전 대피소).  It's also locked but has an open "cooking room."  Finally. I eat my last sandwich, finish my bottle of makgeolli and fill my bottles with mountain spring water.  

10:15am - Now I think I understand the real meaning of Napoleon's maxim.  Food in my stomach has given me the strength to march further without collapsing.

11:48am - Walking along bare ridges the wind is relentless, blasting sharp raindrops into my face.  An intersection post says 6km down to a parking lot, to warmth, dryness, pain relief, a bus home.  Coward!  I trudge on.

12:10pm - I've reached another shelter (벽소령 대피소).  This one is larger, open, and has rangers manning the desk.  Stacks of Choco Pies, ramen noodles, Spam and insta-rice are a welcome sight.  I inquire about making purchases, but the rangers don't seem excited to have a moistened visitor dripping puddles across their floors.  "No I don't have a reservation here... sorry."  Unfortunately the rice and ramen are only edible to those carrying a gas stove, which I am not.  I buy three Choco Pies.

1:15pm - After drying out my camera, I decide to leave.  I say goodbye to the rangers, who suddenly seem friendly, and head back into the windstorm.

1:51pm - I come upon a mountain spring below a burial mound.  Story goes, the mound's occupant is an unpopular farmer named Mr. Lee.  After a lifetime of being shunned by the other townsfolk, he decided to have the last laugh and chose his burial site above the watering hole.  Thereafter, anyone needing water would appear to be bowing to his grave, showing respect to him long after his death.   I like this guy Mr. Lee, and his water is delicious.

2:37pm - I reach another peak.  Still zero view, although I imagine it's spectacular.

3:40pm - At last, through the mist I see my final destination for the day, Saeseok Shelter (세석 대피소).

3:42pm -   I check in with the ranger before collapsing on the floor.  Exhaustion smashes me like a falling boulder.  Barely able to lift my arms, I wolf down my remaining food: an egg, and apple and a Choco Pie.

4:00pm - After changing into dry clothes, I receive my bunk assignment from the ranger, bunk #1. I buy two blankets for 4,000krw and two more Choco Pies, which I devour instantly.  I'm asleep in seconds.

8:03pm - I wake up to loud vibrations in the floorboard beneath my ear.  I now have a neighbor in bunk #2 and he snores in bursts of machine-gun fire.  The rest of the 50-bunk cabin is nearly empty.  I decide to read for the time being.

9:07pm - Despite this trip being nothing but misery until now, and into the foreseeable future, I find some words of encouragement from Thoreau and write them down for later.  Then I think to myself: hikers don't hike because it's easy, and I'm not quitting because of discomfort.

Day 3
4:50am - I've given up trying to sleep on these floorboards of solid mahogany.  I should've forked up another 4,000krw for two extra blankets.  I decide to pack up and hit the trail early.  Snorlax is awake and bids me farewell.

5:49am - Visibility is still zero.  The rain may have stopped falling, but walking through a rain cloud isn't any drier than standing under one.  I protect my final pair of dry clothes-- the ones I'm wearing-- by donning the raincoat, and sacrifice my now-empty pack to the elements.

6:40am - I reach another shelter (장터목 대피소) and enter its cook house to prepare my last remaining food:  my black-market MRE.  After deciphering the painfully ambiguous directions, I manage to assemble the proper combo of pouches and packets.  I figure MRE must stand for Meal Ready to Excrete.  My "beef roast with vegetables" looked and tasted more like cardboard with diarrhea.

Those soldiers that have, according to the logo, "recommended, tested, and approved" this meal must have been ordered to do so.  Confessions from tortured POWs perhaps.  And thusly I've learned: never eat an MRE unless actually in a war.  Even then, consider surrender as a more dignifying alternative.

MREs, a force decimator 
7:05am - I've thrown everything in the trash after only a few bites, despite my extreme hunger.  Now I'm ready for the final leg of the trip, the ascent to the highest peak, Cheonwonbong (천왕봉).

8:20am - Finally, the ultimate peak! At 1.9km, it must be tall enough to poke above of the heaviest clouds.  But mists are thick, and visibility is still zero.  O well.  I have conquered the Jirisan thru hike, and now I'm in no hurry to cede the throne and start the long voyage home.  So, I'm going to sit a while.  Perhaps a small part of me is hoping for a miracle....

8:24am -  The winds seem to be picking up.  Mists are rolling between the jagged outcroppings.  Chipmunks are swarming.  Occasionally the clouds will part for a few seconds, exposing a patch of blue above or a distant sea of white below.     

8:29am - The higher clouds have parted completely.  The sun has burst through, bringing immediate warmth, joy and a display of rainbows.

9:05am - Gradually the lower clouds are being swept away as well. The surrounding mountainsides are gradually being exposed, like a giant dragon standing up out of a bubble bath.   A string of ridges and rocks to the west -- the same ones I have suffered across the past three days -- are now entirely visible.  For the first time in this journey, I have a view, and it's more spectacular than I had imagined.

9:15am - The wind has swept the skies clear and the rocks dry.  I admire the scenes a while, say thanks to Buddha, then leave the peak behind and begin the 12km trek down to Daewan Temple (대원사).

~11am - I won't bore you with the details of the arduous descent.  But in summary they involve hunger, gelatinous legs, a snake encounter, and difficult-to-identify trails that seem to disappear into streams, one of which dead-ended atop a very high waterfall.

1:15pm - Concrete and power-lines! The first signs of civilization.  I didn't realize how long and exhausting the way down would be.  At least it's over.  The farmers seem happy to see such a happy stranger strolling by.

1:36pm - I've reached the second most heavenly scene of the hike: restaurants at the bottom.  They are especially heavenly, considering my extreme hunger, not eating since the few bites of MRE almost 7 hours ago.  I find an open one and immediately order a spring-onion pancake (파전) and a bowl of rice wine (막걸리), the essential Korean mountain meal.

1:54pm -   This may be the most delicious meal ever.  The crispy jeon, the sweet milky makgeolli.  But I think it was enhanced by the long wait, the hunger.  Just as not seeing a view until the top made it more beautiful.  I guess great happiness cannot be known without suffering.  Just like a hero would never rise without a villain, and Vishnu the Preserver would be unemployed without Shiva the Destroyer.

2:35pm - And so it ends, the same way it began exactly 48 hours ago, bowing to a golden Buddha.

"If the day and night are such that you great them with joy... that is your success.  All nature is your congratulation, and you have cause momentarily to bless yourself."  -Henry David Thoreau

1 comment:

  1. I really liked this one. You have to check out Bill Bryson's "A Walk in the Woods" if you haven't already.