This week and next is the once-per-term middle school exam period, leaving me what amounts to a two-week holiday with no evening classes and Wednesdays off completely. This conveniently coincides with Ann’s visit, so we decided to use my first free Wednesday to visit Mt. Bukhansan National Park in the north part of Seoul. A relaxing day of hiking, out in the mountains followed with an evening at the sauna.
It all looked promising with good weather and buttered toast. However, things quickly soured when a certain PMS-ing person and her guest arrived at Suyu station on the other side of the city, an hour and a half subway ride later. I will not exhaust you with the details that almost sent us home without ever seeing so much as a tree, let alone a mountain. However, let it be known that by 10:30 I had already had my fifth meltdown of the day. It involved varying degrees of looking for a bus that does not exist, little-to-no clear directions, a dead cell phone battery, a map completely in Korean, 7000% humidity and not enough ibuprofen. But thanks to some research by my friend Wayne and the kindness of a man in a yellow van, we finally made it to the trail head at the Doseonsa Buddhist Temple.
We greatly underestimated this hike. I must be honest here: I was certain this was going to be a pussy trail. There was a time in my life when I did a good deal of hiking, and we’re not talking about short jaunts skipping through the forest, either. I have had my share of experiences in showing up fully clad in The North Face Spring Catalog with enough rations to survive a week only to find my “hike” is a paved trail through a park. This is a mountain in the middle of the world’s 5th largest city, I thought. It’s the most visited National Park in the world. The trail head is a Buddhist temple. How freaking difficult can it be?
Well, apparently both the Koreans and the Buddhists are all bad-asses. And frankly, so are we.
We are also lucky we made it to the top, clearly not for lack of skill or strength, but for lack of PMA, better known as Positive Mental Attitude. We nearly turned around 4.5 times within the first half-kilometer of the trail. But thankfully a combination of blissful ignorance and sheer pissed-off determination carried our asses up one of the steepest climbs I’ve ever done. Blindly thinking the peak was around every corner also helped.
Two-thirds of the way up, we were blessed to stumble upon a rest house where two women served snacks, drinks and freshly cooked Korean meals to the hikers. We ate our rations, refreshed our waters and met a 53-year old man who gave us cookies and then asked if I was a virgin. This was a first for me; usually I get the cookies after being asked if I’m a virgin.
I silently prayed the end was near for three-quarters of our hike to this vertical 835-metre peak of smooth granite. Nothing about this day was what we expected it to be when we left my apartment what seemed three days earlier. I was not prepared to be thrown back into a language labyrinth on the way to the mountain. I did not anticipate a challenging climb in a forest that smelled of dirty sex, sharing the trail with hundreds of Koreans twice my age who were kicking our mountaineering 30-ish asses. I wanted it to be over at the turn of every corner, even until the very moment I spied the peak for the first time. But then I saw it far away against the gray sky, with the Korean flag flapping in the wind and I instantly didn’t care if it was 835 kilometres more. The lead in my body evaporated and I found my rock-scrabbling feet once again. Despite a few final moments of vertigo and reconsideration, we used the steel cables to pull ourselves, hopping and skipping to the top.
And so this thing called being human:
We stood on the top of that rock in the cool moaning wind, with clouds covering most of the mountain range and all of Seoul around us, and felt like we were on the moon. Like we were the first to ever climb to the top. And clearly we weren’t, given the 10 or so people with which we shared the summit, including a woman in head-to-toe purple hiking gear and matching lipstick. But as we came bouncing back down that mountain alone, feeling like Ann Messner and Stephanie “The Wire” Habeler, we were the only people who had ever been to the top. Because that is how we humans work. It’s the very same mechanism that keeps us trapped in fear that pushes us beyond our perceived limits to the top of some tiny mountain in South Korea.
Two hours earlier, I was silently, internally churning over my non-working cell phone, our lack of proper rations, our inability to read any sign and visions of broken legs. Now, high on chocolate and being a badass, I was rapelling down the mountain along steel cables with nimble feet and stealth-like ninja precision. I was rediscovering some lost part of me that used to sit for hours pouring over trail maps, plotting out my next adventure. With visions of wings and bird’s-eye views.Our return to the subway was considerably less complicated, having learned every detail backwards. We went from mountain to jimjilbang and spent a few hours scrubbing down, baking and soaking our badass ninja muscles to views of Seoul at night.
Sometimes it pays to have no idea what lies ahead of you.