One breath at a time. Mt Seorak, South Korea
From the moment we began travelling together several years ago my partner and I have encountered places, environments and people that consistently challenge us to meet them, at least halfway. Each time we rose to that challenge, some dormant part of us awoke; sometimes a part we never knew existed at other times a part we’d always suspected was there but lacked the courage or faith to acknowledge let alone embrace. Whatever the case, we’ve learned these parts, once ignited, can never be fully extinguished. And whether we choose to use the experiences to foster further travel or not, they exist now as parts of us that can be tapped into anytime, anywhere … if only as a reminder of what we’re capable of.
One such place was in South Korea’s Mount Seoraksan National Park, about a three hour car or bus drive from Seoul and a long way from Tasmania, Australia. Our goal - a hike to the ruins of Gwongeumseong Castle, above the Cheongbuldong Valley.
Korea had already challenged us in other ways … eating the traditional fermented cabbage dish kimchee (a gauntlet to my dread of getting sick from eating unfamiliar food) and accepting a military presence in Seoul as part of the political landscape.
But the Gwongeumseong climb took us further out of our comfort zone on more personal levels. My partner’s bypass heart surgery was still at the forefront of our memories and his asthma an ongoing consideration. My new hip had settled in and my fear of heights subdued to wariness over the years. While these elements could turn into obstacles if we let them, they also provided the impetus for our lifestyle choice, to spend as much time travelling where we could while we could.
In the jam-packed cable car my partner takes photographs while I concentrate on breathing my way through another testing ground; small spaces and crowds.
When we alight the car, a short walk takes us to the base of the castle ruins. Looking up we see the Korean national flag waving at an altitude of 1,200 meters.
We are initially comforted by sighting a number of elderly hikers and small children.
How hard can it be? On the park’s online tourist site the climb has a difficulty star rating of only one. But we soon remember fear is fear. Courage is courage.
Despite it being spring, one of the most temperate and prettiest times to visit the park, we were in a minority of Western tourists. We’re taller and heavier than most of the other visitors, we move more cautiously, and my partner’s shock of curly hair is a bobbing white cap in a sea of black heads. We’re fish out of water and that’s the point.
The first thing we notice before commencing our ascent is the level of steepness, then the lack of climbing aids. With the exception of a rope in some parts and a guide who appears at a particularly tricky bit to lend a helping hand if needed, we are just two more creatures in a line of creatures swarming across a rock face.
The hike turns out to be part climb, part scrabble. We use the rope when it appears and keep an eye out for hand and footholds along the rocky outcrops. A sheer drop to one side is at times unnerving. The exposed environment means a level of unavoidable wind. We occasionally get wobbly and have to steady ourselves, knowing the climb down will pose its own challenges. Our hearts thump and our fingers tingle with each reach for a handhold. Look ahead. One step, one breath at a time.
A mere thirty intense minutes later we reach the pinnacle. Some climbers whoop, share rice wine, purchase official gold medals of achievement from the mountain vendor.
We sit in silence for a few minutes taking in the view that stretches before us, across mountain peaks, the coastal cityscape of Sokcho and the coastline itself. We did it! we finally say to each other. The question of Where next? already forming another tentative chain in the link between us and the rest of the world.
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