Fear and Tribulation on the Yeungnam Alps
A little while back when it was still warm enough to do a weekend’s worth of outdoor activities Ash, Keir, Emily, Sam and I planned two days of hiking in the Yeungnam Alps near Ulsan. Keir and Emily had done one half of the walk before, enjoyed it and recommended it.
After an early train and two bus journeys we started the trail at 9:30am. This was planned to be a two day circular hike, with the first taking us over three peaks in approximately six hours.
The views were stunning as we made our way across the route and everything was going as planned. The scenery was very different to what we’d experience on Saryangdo a few weeks before but was still breath-taking and had a bleak beauty reminiscent of the Peak District or Yorkshire moors, but obviously somewhat different because this is Korea!
We ate lunch at the second peak and continued to our final peak of the day. We would then be following a route down in to the valley to stay in a village called Jukjeon Mal and rest up to complete the second day of the circuit. We arrived at the third peak at 3pm feeling victorious, and took some obligatory victory pictures. Our next challenge was to get down in to the valley and then we could relax.
This however is when things started to go wrong. Whilst atop the third peak we noticed dark clouds had started to form and it looked like it was going to rain.
We decided to get our skates on in order to get down off the mountain as the weather took a turn for the worse. We headed down and surprisingly Ash and I saw the owner of our local chicken restaurant which was bizarre! We showed him our map in order to check the route down and he gave us some directions and told us our map was wrong. Uh oh…
A little further along we came to a fork in the path and weren’t totally sure which way to go. By this time the sky was black and it was raining. There were two separate groups of Korean hikers discussing which way to go. When we asked them how to get to Jukjeon Mal they all seemed surprised we wanted to go there but proceeded to give us instructions which we thought we understood. They then walked off in the opposite direction. We continued, feeling progressively more and more worried as mist appeared and swallowed us up so we could no longer see down in to the valley below.
Here are a few pictures to show you exactly how wet and foggy it got but they don’t do it justice.
Earlier in the day I had commented on how much I enjoyed this sloping undulating hike. There had been no real climbing and it had felt much more ambly. That was about to change. We had to climb over a small peak and lower ourselves down on a rope. Not usually a difficult task but it was slippy and the mist encircling us had put us a little on edge.
We also wondered where everyone else had gone as we hadn’t seen another Korean hiker for a while (and anyone hiking on a well-known route in Korea will know the routes are usually packed with neon clad hikers).
We came to a standstill when we realised that we needed to choose between two routes. We could continue up over another peak, which felt very much NOT like going down in to the valley, or we could follow a route downwards. This route however was cordoned off with a big closed barrier and warning signs. Luckily at that moment two Korean men appeared out of nowhere and advised us that the former route would take us a long time and the latter route would be much faster but maybe a little dangerous. We had a quick team talk and agreed that both weather and time were against us, it was now 3:40 and in a couple of hours it would be pitch black. Therefore we decided to take the closed and ‘slightly dangerous’ route.
At this point I started to freak out internally. None of us had network on our phone and I really didn’t like the thought of taking a closed off hiking route in the late afternoon all on our own with no one else around, but we didn’t really have a choice.
The closed route was extremely closed. The bushes had grown over on to what there was of the path. By the way the ‘path’ felt a lot more like carefully locating and jumping over very big unstable stepping stones covered in leaves. Most of us lost our footing at some point (Sam had a nasty fall) and as the light dimmed my recently lasered eyes found it hard to see (an initial side effect of LASIK can be reduced vision at night) so I was being a right slow coach.
The route continued down in to the valley and was exceptionally beautiful. We walked through trees with vibrant red leaves, a small rock pool and a rocky stream. Unfortunately we couldn’t appreciate them because we were wet and becoming extremely concerned about getting down off the mountain before the light was completely gone. We all trudged, jumped and slipped along in relative silence focussing on one thing – getting out of there before nightfall.
We could tell we were working our way down but it was getting darker and darker and the freak out factor was increasing significantly! By now we’d been descended for almost two hours, it was pretty blooming dark and we were still walking. Would we have to spend a night huddled together for warmth on the mountain with no food or shelter? Suddenly when we saw some lights in the distance! They were coming from a hermitage; this meant we must at least be near a road if not a village! We all gave a cheer and then realised we had to cross a big section of stream. It was now dark and the rocks were really slippy so I had to hold Ash’s hands as I blindly felt my way across the stepping stones. Once on the other side we were safe and within two minutes we were on the road, relief flooded in to our adrenaline filled bodies and we began talking again!
We hadn’t come down in to Jukjeon Mal but we weren’t far and were able to walk there in about fifteen minutes. Keir had booked us in to a youth hostel shaped like a boat but we ended up in our own little chalet. We were all starving so dropped off our stuff and headed to a duck restaurant nearby to refuel and recover from our experience. We worked out that in fact the route down in to Jukjeon Mal is now closed so hikers don’t use it anymore. This explained why everyone disappeared!
That evening we decided that we probably weren’t going to do the second half of the walk the following day because of our ordeal, but we’d see how we felt after a good night’s sleep. We slept in too late to start the walk in the morning but had heard that there was a waterfall nearby so decided to visit that instead. We ate a breakfast of kimchi jjigae (stew) and rice and walked two kilometres to the waterfall. It was still autumn down in the valley so we marveled at all the beautiful colours (and took lots of pictures of course!).
What a weekend eh!? We can look back on it now, laugh our heads off and congratulate ourselves but at the time I’m pretty sure we were all feeling scared! Still it’s a good story to tell eh?