‘I did this for you, you know,’ I say.
‘You do realise I didn’t do any research. I wouldn’t have known about this mountain if you hadn’t mentioned it.’
‘You’re right. I could have taken you to the other little one and said: look, this is the highest mountain in South Korea. Then you’d walk up a hill in Seoul and say ‘huh?’’
‘And then you could have said it’s because the island is located on a hill; the highest mountain doesn’t look that high, but it is!’
I smile. ‘Never again.’
‘Never again,’ Ute says.
14 hours earlier…
A canon fires inside my bedroom walls. Tumbling bricks and flying dust. A shelf collapses and the pages of Treasure Island burn. As my bed stops shaking, Jack Sparrow disappears into the fading smoke. Aye.
It’s 5.30 in the morning and I wonder how this idea came about. My friend and I get up and dress without emotion. Short shorts, old sneakers, a t-shirt and hoodie. We quickly pack a bag with some leftover Kimbap, muffins and two bottles of water. It takes a mile before we find a taxi that brings us to the right bus stop. I fall asleep on the bus and only wake when a streak of light softly tickles my cheek. Hills and mountains surround the area and the thought that either mountain could be the Hallasan instantly lights the sparklers inside my stomach. The bus stops and drops us off at the bottom of a large dome-shaped hill. Looking at it, I wonder how anyone can walk up there. As far as I’m concerned people can’t walk vertically, but we’re supposed to reach the top today.
Dark blue Hangeul written across a yellow banner marks the entrance to our trail. ‘Seongpanak Trail, 9.6 kilometres’ it says underneath in small letters. There’s a sign with hiking information on our right and a warning of rockslides for another trail. We glance at each other at the same time.
‘Let’s take a picture then in case we die,’ I say.
‘I’m not dying today,’ Ute says.
I raise my eyebrow at her. ‘You’re not dying today?’
She shrugs with a smile. ‘At least we have a picture if you do.’
To my surprise, the path doesn’t look all that daunting. We enter a forest on a trail mostly covered in shade by hundreds of Celtis sinensis trees. There’s grass on the sides and patches of sunlight are scattered along the path like the playful lights of a disco ball. The first 2000 meters are enjoyable. It feels as if the mountain welcomes us, while we keep on passing signs showing us the progress we’ve made. However, the stones soon start to feel more like rocks; like coarse objects that appear without warning and stab the soles of innocent passers-by. I can see them and I can’t; they’ve gathered like a pack of wolves. They seem to wait and hide behind their brothers and sisters and strike when you least expect it.
‘In Germany, we wear our normal shoes while hiking,’ I say, mimicking Ute’s earlier remark.
‘The paths are a little… different here,’ she says.
‘Like less stones,’ she says as she kicks a smaller one, ‘and more wooden boards.’
It’s now that I notice that the ‘you are here’ man on the signs looks like a proper mountain climber. Two women with matching backpacks pass us by. Their shoes look exactly like the shoes mum told me to bring.
‘It’s fine. Only 7.4 kilometres to go,’ Ute says but every time we pass a group of Koreans they give us a look and say ‘shinbal.’ It starts happening so often that she starts repeating the word the way a child does when she doesn’t want to hear. She says it can either mean shit or shoes and I’m guessing they mean to say both.
The first shelter we find isn’t much; the ground is flat and paved like a boardwalk while rocks on the side are overgrown with grass.
‘Here are the wooden boards you were after,’ I say.
She grins at me sideways as if to say: yeah, yeah, I was wrong, but my feet are hurting just like yours.
There are some benches but the only use I find at this stop is the toilets, a luxury Ute reminds me I won’t have for the next 3 hours. There’s no running water either and no way to refill our already empty bottles.
With 5.5 kilometres to go the path has started to incline further, but the stones here don’t hurt my feet as much. They have grown in size and somewhat function as stepping-stones that look like a crooked staircase. More insects have started landing on my exposed skin though and the trees seem to have distanced themselves from the path. The sun now makes the top of my head feel like the surface of beach stones during summer.
The longer we’re climbing, the more people I start to recognise. There are quite a few women that look sixty years old. They are equipped with shiny coats, long trousers, gloves, safari hats, backpacks and walking sticks and climb twice as fast as we do. The one with the yellow jacket keeps passing us and then waits for us to catch up as if to check that we’re okay. We met a German woman with a pixie cut and a Korean tried to talk to us in English. Mostly though, we hear ‘shinbal’ all around.
While not many people appeared to be on the mountain this morning, an entire village of them seems to have gathered here, at the Jindallaebat shelter where people can buy hot ramen. I’m just about to slurp one up when a group of teenagers, all with the same blue t-shirt, arrive.
‘I would hate my teacher if he’d take me up here; I’d hate my school for organising the trip and I’d hate my parents for letting me do this,’ I say. I’ve taken off my shoes and softly rub the soles of my feet that look like the rosy cheeks of a baby.
‘I would hate my classmates for letting this happen without protest,’ Ute adds.
‘Where was your protest when I suggested this?’
‘You didn’t protest wearing these shoes either. And I like climbing, it’s fun.’
‘So much fun,’ I say but I feel happy too.
We take the wooden steps to the final path. Around us, red banners tied to branches flutter in the wind. A sign warns us not to pass after one o’clock but we’re ahead of time. The people in front disappear and the path of rocks comes in sight. It looks like a torrential river of stones cascading down the mountain.
‘I’m gonna die,’ I say, but it’s lost on Ute who has already started climbing.
The rocks are as bad as they look. My knees have started to feel as if grit was poured inside the joints and with every step I take it rubs against my bones. Ute, on the other hand, has started jumping from rock to rock like a flying squirrel and soon disappears out of sight.
Suddenly my foot slips. My mouth opens but no sound escapes. The surrounding seems to tilt and I watch as Ute’s shoe disappears out of sight. Just before I hit the stones, my arms manage to push my body up in the air. Slowly, I move to the side and sit down. Ute didn’t see it and has gone; she’ll stop in a patch of shade later and realise I haven’t made it. I wonder if they counted how many people entered the mountain today and if they’d notice if I didn’t come back. I put my hand on my forehead to shield it from the sun. It feels like streams of water slide down past my temples. I look to the path behind and for a moment feel as if gravity is going to push me back down. There’s not a chance someone could carry me if I broke my leg. It feels like if I were to go off the path and past the trees I could find a little pond next to a Buddhist temple. A hidden bird makes soft chirping noises while a soft breeze gently lifts strands of my hair. It is so peaceful and quiet here. I’m all alone.
I’m starting to feel dizzy. Soon enough, my vision goes and is taken by colourless drops of water. I try to stay quiet by holding my breath and feel my diaphragm tighten.
‘You okay?’ a voice says on my right.
I’m unable to answer or even acknowledge that I heard the question. I feel a hand touch my shoulder. We stay like this for a few minutes until Ute asks me again.
‘Are you okay?’
I shake my head this time. I want to speak but it’s like someone’s pulling the cord of the trapdoor in my mouth. She doesn’t ask again but doesn’t take her hand off my shoulder.
‘I can’t do this,’ I say.
She nods but then the woman with the yellow jacket comes climbing down the rocks. She stops in front of us and hands me a black ball twice the size of a normal marble.
‘Meogda,’ she says while gesturing for me to eat it.
‘Chinese medicine,’ Ute whispers.
The woman motions me to get up and hands me her walking sticks. At that moment, two other Koreans appear and offer me their water.
‘Shinbal,’ they say with a grin.
‘Shinbal, shinbal,’ I say as I shake my head.
With the support of Ute and the Koreans, I trudge my way up the mountain where the few trees left look twisted and barren.
Finally, the top comes in sight. ‘Never again,’ I say.
‘Never again,’ Ute says.
Written for one of my modules at university during the first semester of my third year. This story is based on – what some of you might have already recognised – areal-life experience of my friend and I when we climbed the Halasan in Korea in 2015 (see blog post). This story has been fictionalised and the character roles reversed. Not everything in this story happened in real-life and the characters could have further developed if the assignment had allowed for more words. The assignment was to write an adventure story.