Heady climb to the highest peak in mainland South Korea

Heady climb to the highest peak in mainland South Korea

Like the growing number of tourists thronging Busan, the second largest city in South Korea, I was impressed with the amazing variety of things to do in this eastern port city. Of the 11 must-visit places listed in the Busan tour guide handbook, we covered eight of them.

We even walked in the rain and soaked in a spa. Thumbing through the handbook again, I came across Cheonwang-bong peak in Jirisan Mountains. It is listed as one of the tourist attractions near Busan.

Jirisan is mythically known to be "a mountain that can turn a silly person into a wise person". I gleaned that piece of information from the website www.korea.net. I already felt smart then but if scaling the mountains could launch me to new heights of celestial intelligence, I had to go.

These mountains are about 120km from Busan. Jirisan lies in the southern region of the Great Baekdusan Range that runs along the spine of the Korean peninsula.

The area around Jirisan was gazetted as the Jirisan National Park in 1967, making the park the oldest in South Korea.

It is also the largest park stretching 440 sq km and has 14 of the highest peaks in the country. At 1,915m, Cheonwang-bong is the tallest peak in the range, and the second highest peak in South Korea, after Hallasan (1,950m) on Jeju Island.

The Jirisan range is criss-crossed by numerous trails which can be accessed via at least seven entry points, the majority being from the south and the east. The shortest route up to Cheonwang-bong begins at Jungsan-ri village, south-east of the park. The trek can be completed in a day.

The initial section of the trail has stone steps meandering between boulders in the forest.
Photo: The Star/Asia News Network

Strenuous trek

The Jungsan-ri - Jangteomok Trail is popular for its distance, at only 12.4km, with elevation gain/loss of about 1,300m, translating to a fairly gradual incline except for two sections - the last 2km to Cheonwang-bong summit, and the first 1km coming off Jangteomok Shelter, where both the gradients are more than 31 degrees. Which is probably why the trek is graded a 4 (local calibration), meaning strenuous.

Otherwise, it holds the promise of a delightful day out in the Korean wilderness that should see us comfortably back to Jungsan-ri village by late afternoon, weather permitting. The trekking is self-guided, and key directional signboards have simple English translations.

At 6.45am we left our lodge, after a good night's sleep on heated floor boards. The outside air was a crisp 5°C as we dragged ourselves up the 500m stretch of tarmac road to the park gate in pale dawn light.

There was not a soul in sight, not even a stray dog. We passed the ticket booth and moved quickly up a steep pebbled path between two boulders with Korean inscriptions, very much like the spot for a trail head.

The stunning view above the clouds along the highest section of Jirisan.

The stunning view above the clouds along the highest section of Jirisan.
Photo: The Star/Asia News Network

We were running slightly behind schedule, about 15 minutes, so we headed straight up into a patch of secondary jungle. Another 15 minutes uphill, the path thinned out. That's when we woke up to our senses.

Making mistakes

Too eager to set off, trying to recover lost time, we had neglected vital trekking signs. Where were the ranger station, the visitor information centre and the directional signboards? Korean trails are well regarded for their trekking protocol and park regulations. We'd overlooked the basics in Hiking 101. Not very smart.

We back-tracked and found the visitor centre, the public toilets and a parking lot filled with hikers prepping for set-off. In our haste, we had inadvertantly lost about an hour. Now, following clear signboards, we were finally on the well-trodden path on the right-hand bank of the stream leading to a junction at Kalbawi Rock.

We took the right turn at the fork to head up the trail to the summit. At the end of three hours of tramping over rocks and boulders, we arrived at Rotary Shelter, a lodge for hikers who want to stay the night. About 100m upwards, we reached Beopgyesa Temple and filled up our bottles with spring water.

From the temple onwards, the climb got more challenging as the steps grew more unrelenting. While the forest canopy depleted overhead, the wind picked up and mist started to blow in, hiding the sun. We stopped to put on our windbreakers. No scenic views to spur us, we plodded for more than an hour until we reached a steep, long and endless staircase.

Not on schedule

At the top, we abandoned our step-by-step tempo, and half-scrambled the final 200m over a rock pile to the summit of Cheonwang-bong, the highest point on mainland South Korea. It was 1pm. We were elated but also uneasy as the ascent had taken us five hours and zapped our confidence somewhat.

Experience told us that the descent would be no less brutal on such rocky terrain. Hopeful that the return trail via Jangteomok Shelter would be more forgiving, we had a quick snack and hauled ourselves up over the boulders to cross the ridge, chasing the afternoon sun to the west.

In autumn, the sun sets at 5.30pm or so. Getting back to Jungsan-ri in four hours was close to impossible. We resolved to move nimbly, careful not to make any perilous slip.

The happy hikers stop for a photograph on the summit.
Photo: The Star/Asia News Network

Spectacular views

Unknown to us, the 1.7km trail to Jangteomok traces a sharp ridge across the highest part of the range, with narrow up-and-down paths. So after one-and-a-half hours of traipsing, we were still hovering at the same elevation.

Fortunately, the views here above the clouds were spectacular. We stopped to take some selfies and wefies.

From Jangteomok, the trail descended along the gorge of the Kalbawi River, crossed the stream at several spots, passed two shallow waterfalls, and ended at a dry rocky riverbed.

We arrived at the Kalbawi Junction at 5pm and completed the remaining 1.3km in total darkness, leaving the park gates at 6.20pm. It was a full 12 hours on the Jirisan trail.

We missed the 5.30pm bus back to Busan. Thankfully, there was a last ride at 7.40pm, and a shikdang (restaurant) was still open.

We bought tickets and tucked in some bibimbap, the only dish available.

On the bus ride back, we pondered over how close we were to getting lost in the dark, being eaten by bears, and freezing in the cold, without a rescue plan in place (we hadn't registered at the ranger station that morning). That wasn't too smart.

Well, as someone said, "Stupidity isn't punishable by death". If it were, there would be fewer hikers around.


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