By 9am it had been confirmed that everyone bar Nathanael and I had decided to stay dry. Ben was kind enough to offer us a ride in his car to the trail head. The trail head was about 6km outside of town past many military bases and farms. We exited the car into the rain and started the hike. The trail started out very promisingly, the path was easy but it quickly turned into suspicious concrete slabs and we ended up in someone’s garden with two dogs that weren’t chained up and that did not want either of us there. They barked their little faces off at us. They chased us around a bit. All of this, whilst we tried to figure out where we were supposed to be going. We had no idea. The trail just stopped beside a thunderous river and a bunch of farming fields surrounded by forest. We tried to look for a trail whilst keeping our eyes on the dogs. We even waded through the stream to see what was on the other side. We had almost given up when I suggested we walk up to the top of a small hill above the fields as it looked like you could get some more perspective from there. Low and behold the small rise turned out to be the very trail we were looking for. By the time we started hiking we were both drenched, there was no turning back.
The trail got steep pretty quickly, wet tree branches kept hitting us in the face, the ascents were slippery and both Nathanael and I had several falls which covered us in a good dose of the sticky brown stuff. Mud. It was the mud festival this weekend (a popular Korean drinking festival in which you get very muddy), it’s safe to say that Nathanael and I had our own little mud festival in the blistering rain on the side of Hwaaksan mountain. The higher we got the cloudier it became; we were clearly walking into the clouds. The sound of distant thunder echoed and reverberated through the trees. We climbed over rocks, ducked under fallen down trees and eventually came to some flat land along a ridge line where we could catch our breath.
We had been on the trail for about two hours before we reached the first sign that we might be near the top. It was a small clearing. You could see the clouds moving directly in front of your eyes, by this point we were probably at about 1,000 metres. You could just about make out a taller peak in the distance so we caught our breath and trekked on. I was cold, I was drenched from head to toe, small droplets of rain were annoyingly and constantly trickling off of my hair, I was sure that the lunch in my bag would be ruined. It was another hour before we finally made it to the peak of the mountain.
There is a military base on top so you can’t technically reach the summit, however we felt incredibly accomplished that we had made it in such conditions. We celebrated by eating our soggy lunches, we felt the cold wind splash against our faces. We were up 1,400 meters and we felt pretty good about it. I was worried about the descent though, it was bound to be slippery, the water that consumed my clothing was very cold by this point and I imagined myself getting pneumonia and being left on the mountain with nowhere to go.
A short way into the descent it became apparent that we had taken a wrong turning, we trekked on regardless certain that we were at least heading in the right direction. At some point during the descent, I slipped. I grabbed a tree branch to save myself from the fall. There was a bee sitting on the tree branch that I must have disturbed as I grabbed the tree, it stung me right on the palm of my hand. I panicked. What if I’m allergic? The good thing about getting stung by a bee was that all of the pain I had been feeling in my legs was clouded by the pain in my hand. We picked up the pace and headed southward.
“Is that a road?”
“We’re saved!” I exclaimed, as we turned and saw a concrete road in front of us. We had been hiking for four hours and we were both physically exhausted, the rain was still beating down. We slid down a mudslide and joined the road. We hiked down the road for around half an hour, each corner we turned was a mystery waiting to be solved as we had no idea where we were. I joked that we’re probably on the other side of the mountain. It was pleasant to be off of the narrow forest trail, and the road got us down to the main highway pretty quickly. We headed in the direction that we thought the town should be in, we turned and read a sign letting us know that Sachang-ri was in fact in the opposite direction. We were on the other side of the mountain. How had this happened? When I saw a sign for the Hwaak tunnel I knew that we were still very far from home. We had no choice, I don’t think I could have made it, we stuck our thumbs out and within fifteen or twenty minutes a kind Korean man en route to visit his son at the military base in town, picked us up, and saved us from at least a 10 – 12km walk along the road, back home.
Nathanael talked to the Korean man that had offered us a ride and it turns out this was his first time in Gangwon-do. We joked about this and that, and before we knew it we were back in town. We had made it. My hand stung, I was dirty, I was dripping wet, my knees ached, my head ached, I was a happy young man! I got home and spent an hour in the shower just lying under the hot water. I was tired. I was also happy about what we had accomplished. I have no idea exactly how far we hiked, but it was about five hours round trip in wind, rain and mud. Satisfied. That’s a good word.
I mean, really, it was just a little bit of rain.