Monday, July 29, 2013


Jina could see that this summer break, while giving me awesome days at home with J-bear and plenty of time for my own pursuits, needed an additional injection of travel and change of venue. So she graciously (I love you, yobo) booked me a hotel for three nights in Seorak Valley. I kissed Jonah goodbye leaving him in the ever-able hands of Halmoni, fueled up the car, and came to Seoraksan armed with some running gear, a guitar, and a few good books.
Isn't it cool to know that there are places that stamp indelible impressions deep down, places that we feel an invisible pull back to time and time again? In Korea there is Seoraksan National Park. It’s a mere two hour drive from my house, yet the three or four times I get out here each year is not enough. Each and every time I come, I have a deeply personal response. Seorak has a palliative effect, certainly—once here it is easy to leave behind work or the myriad stresses that creep into our daily ventures. But it is also restorative, sending me back home reset, regenerated, and with a dose of zest that I didn't bring with me. God seems to have strategically placed these locations within reach, to periodically lift up the soul, to remember who we are, and to connect with creation with a thankful and joyous heart.

Day 1:
It was raining when I arrived, but I decided to get out anyways and do a “warm-up” run up to Ulsan-Bawi. I ran through a downpour, skipping and hopping over the rocky path, up the valley that gradually brought me to the base of this incredible collection of rock. Ulsan-bawi juts up out of the trees, a giant granite wall standing vigilant at its watch of the eastern sea. Most of the ascent is now decked out in stairs, taking a bit away from the fun and slightly sketchy scrambling that was required in past years. Gone are the old dodgy stairs and the rope sections that gave it a fatal appeal, but it has had absolutely no impact on the views from up top. This view stands up with any natural wonders that I've ever ogled. On this occasion, the white clouds pushing off the East Sea were rushing headlong into the rockwall, and pushing upwards, and rolling back on themselves like waves in the ocean.

I headed down, grabbed a shower at my room, then headed into town to pick up some famous Mansoek- Dalkkongjang. I grabbed a beer, and went up to the room and was, indeed, the luckiest man.

만석닭건장 This is Korean style Saucy chicken at its best, from the outdoor market in Seokcho. 

Day 2: Set the alarm for 4:30, but woke up just before. I jumped right into my gear, made coffee, had some cream bread ala Paris Baguette, and stepped out into the drizzling morning. On previous trips, I had learned that in order to miss foot traffic on the trails up Seoraksan, an early morning start was required. But not today-- there were no more than five cars in the parking lot as I pulled in. I ran the first 4km in the park, through the deep, wide valley surrounded by the all-seeing peaks of Seorak. The path follows a wide, rocky stream, tumultuous with the summer rains and making a percussive melody. My plan was, as in the past, to do a direct ascent up to Daecheong-bong, the highest peak at 1,701 meters, but as I crossed a bridge past the final little store before the climbing truly began, I saw that the gate for my route was closed and locked until the rangers showed up. Rather than climbing the fence, or waiting, I took this as a sign from Providence to hit a different route, one that would add 4km but take me past two Buddhist hermitages where I could fill up on yaksu, the Korean spring water found at most temples. The first section I had done years earlier, climbing this steep rock wall face on a path carefully sculpted out by the monks who traveled the path for centuries. There were moments of torrential downpour, but it lasted no longer than twenty minutes and then settled back into a lazy drizzle. I climbed, and climbed some more, finally reaching a pass that granted access through a causeway of rock shaped by a constant and mighty wind from the coast. Having crossed through this wind tunnel with my hand on my hat, I began descending again, back down through a forest following a crystal clear stream, which, running out of water, I took a risk and drank from. I came across the first hermitage (Seaoh-am), took a breather, filled up my water from the yaksu, and continued on, climbing again steadily as I crossed several ridges. The path was always next to water and the forest was lush with black soil, brilliant greens sprouting everywhere. The birds and chipmunks were playing all around me and I began to feel a bit like a trail running Francis, seeing the glowing divinity of God in the spectacle of the natural world.

Saeoh-ahm, and the yaksu station.

Beongjang-ahm nestled high in the Seorak mountains.

Even when the steep climbing began, I floated up in high spirits, and before I knew it, I crested another pass, this one even windier than the first. As I rolled through the corridor of the pass I could see the Bongjang-ahm, the second Buddhist hermitage, this one bigger and more established than the first. I quickly snapped some photos, took in the immense panorama of the landscape free-falling from the high elevation all around me, and continued my final push, which was supposed to be two kilometers to Dae Cheong-Bong, the highest peak in the Seorak mountains at 1701 meters. Here is what it was like on top:

Insane! I’ve never been anywhere with wind pushing that hard, where I literally had to brace myself on several occasions from toppling over, flying off the side of the mountain. I didn’t hang out too long.
The perfunctory summit photo. 

The descent, in the beginning, was tough. Super steep, and the path made by large rocks made it a gingerly affair of stepping down on tired, near-buckling legs. I had run out of food, and was praying that a shelter, that I rememberd from years past, might just have some food. The other shelters were closed and no one around to sell food. I was getting dangerously hungry, especially considering that a wrong step down the step rock could really do some damage, so when the path turned to staircases, and I could see the top of a building below, I got hopeful. And yes, there was one guy working at the shelter, and he sold me what I will have to consider one of the most satisfying meals of the entire trip:

The best meal ever? nah... but you couldn't have told me that then.

As I was eating these little critters kept me company.

I still had a good seven or eight kilometers to go, but most of the technical descending was done, the grade mellowed out, providing a nice downhill run through a gorge cut out by this creek, that was abounding with waterfalls and little swimming holes, a couple of which I went in, remembering to never forego what the trail offers. And by this time, the morning rain clouds had burned off and it was blazing hot.

Lots of water on the trail, and some great swimming holes!

But I made it back to the car in high spirits, 25.5km round trip, and over 2500meters of climbing. Oh, and it took me over eight hours!
I hit the beach for a little bit that evening, and settled back in the hotel room early for a good night’s rest.
I had put some things out on the balcony to dry, and had secured the lighter clothing with weights, but I ended up losing one sock and one insole for my shoe. No biggie. I had extra insoles waiting for me at home.
Day 3: Having no real plan, I slept in. But halfway in the morning, I had one of those sleep realizations that out of all my gear that was on the balcony, I don’t remember bringing in my hydration bladder. I quickly jumped up, looked around the room and the balcony, but it had flown (reminding of a brand new tent I had bought in New Zealand that had taken a similar flight off my Seoul apartment rooftop several years previous). I made a cup of coffee and went outside and had a good search around the hotel grounds, but to no avail. Alas! Now to find a replacement.
I had a couple of long cups of coffee, did a lot of reading, and got into gear around noon. I headed for the beach, swam some laps in the ocean, and then jumped in the car to head south to Gangneung to check out the Salomon store where I was told sold hydration bladders (they were 69,000 won, costing more than my Nathan bag, so I didn’t buy it), and to go visit So-Zacs, a little café run by a Mi-kookin named Zac and his wife So Jin. Zac is a climber turned trail runner and is putting on a fat-ass trail/road event in late September, so I stopped in and chatted with them, super nice folks, and I had me one of these:
Anderson Valley IPA at So-Zacs in Gangneung. 
 I decided that while I was down there, I would run some of the coarse that he had in mind for the race, so he drove me out to the trail head, and gave me the best instructions he could, and let me loose. Five or ten minutes later, I was lost. The trail was very faint and grown over in many areas, and there were several unsigned forks, and I quickly lost confidence in where I was. I decided to just follow one path out while my shins became bloodied by the thorny underbrush. I finally found a farm road, ran down that for a while, asked an elderly couple what the best way to get back to Gangneung was on foot, and after they insisted I take a bus and me telling them I was running, they finally, with some skepticism, pointed me in the right direction. I ran, made into a section of town, gave Zac a call, and he guided me back to the café. So, it ended up being a 15km road run, but I think I now pretty much know the general layout of Gangneung. As Thoreau said, "Not til we are lost, in other words, not til we have lost the world, do we begin to fin ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations."Sometimes we have to go somewhere alone, get lost, meet new people, to remember who we are. I hopped in the car, grabbed an E-Mart pizza, cranked some of this, and drove back to Seokcho, where I slept like a rock.

Final day on the beach!

Day 4: Last day of vacation. Slept in, had a couple cups of coffee, read and wrote, packed up, and went to the beach to do this. And reflect. Seorak had once again, like a long lost friend, crept in and brightened me up. What an amazing place. If you can, go there during the week, when there are less people out. I drove back refreshed, complete with energy reserves for a return into the wonderful world of the everyday, replete with diapers and baby formula, wonderful J-bear and my unsurpassable wife. 

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