Peter Jensen-Choi, owner of Sanirang Alpine Networks (SAN), leads the way through Doseunsa Temple in Bukhansan National Park. His helmet is bouncing off of a backpack full of hardware and rope. Behind him is his climbing buddy, a stocky, middle-aged Korean named Kang Sung-woo, or simply “Jack.” Peter, a native of Oregon, switches easily between my questions in English and Jack’s jokes in Korean. We find a narrow path behind a group of Buddha statues, some jovial and others menacing, that leads into the forest and towards one the ridge-lines of Bukhansan. Today, Peter and Jack are taking me – a doughy guy who needs a heavy dose of Xanax just to get onto an airplane – rock climbing for the first time.
Peter, an accomplished climber and veteran of a number of expeditions to the Himalayas and China started SAN in 2009. Providing guided climbs and a popular climbing school in English, it has become an important name in adventure recreation. Jack, despite his unassuming appearance, turned out to be the former director of the Corean Alpine Club. Later over makgeolli, I was told that Jack had once spent nearly a week stuck in a tent above 8,000 meters on Everest’s Kangshung Face, pinned down by the weather.
I was out of my league.
I had done my best to prepare for this outing. I had upped my running regimen, laid off the pork-cutlet, and even done a few push-ups on my apartment floor with the hope of being able to pull my galbi-filled body up a few rocks with dignity. I had looked at the galleries on the SAN website and made note of the exposed cliff faces and thought, “It probably won’t look that bad.”
When at last we came out of the clearing that separated the hiking from the climbing, it did look that bad. Staring up at a jumble of granite in front of me and the sharp slope all the way down to the valley, I felt crushed by the sense of open air and height. I squatted and tried in vain to not look absolutely horrified.
“I can sense from your body language,” said Peter as he and Jack fitted their harnesses and put on their helmets, “that you’re not too comfortable.”
I tried to rationalize right there if I could write this article about climbing in Korea without actually moving past the crooked branches of the tree line. I asked Peter with a shaky voice if there were maybe a smaller, less exposed bit of rock we could climb. At one point, the words “This is my nightmare,” might have come out of my mouth. Fear is a powerful thing.
Later, Peter explained that his role as a guide goes far beyond the technical aspects of safety and leading the routes on the granite tops of mountains.
“It’s about reading and dealing with the client’s technical skill sets, physical ability, and comfort zones,” he says. “Along with anticipating problematic situations and taking preventative measures to manage one’s safety systems well in advance.”
With gentle encouragement that was never shaming or pushy, Peter pulled me out of my own head. As he led the way and set the ropes up the first pitch I stepped into my harness, laced up my shoes, put on my helmet and forgot how to tie the only knot that he told me to remember. After Jack checked my gear I took my first wobbly steps. My heart was pounding and the light breeze felt like a hurricane trying to blow me off the ledge.
The view was intimidating but beautiful. To my right I could see the endless army of apartments and high-rises far away in a smoggy blur. More immediately I could see the other stony peaks, deep valleys of maples and pines waving in the breeze.
When I got to that first rock something happened. I climbed. I had little commitment at first but, as I looked for a place to put my hands and feet, the exposure and height was replaced by a kind of puzzle. More pressing than my fear, which was still there of course, was a goal: I wanted to get to the top. I remembered what Peter told me and “climbed with my legs and feet” one hold after another. It was slow but steady. I saw dots of blood on my scraped hands and would later have bruises all over my knees but as I was climbing I felt none of it. The feeling went beyond that too – I forgot about my unemployment, my dwindling finances, and my stresses about the future. There was nothing but the present.
I was, despite my near-tantrum, having fun.
From the top I climbed around the back to a small patch of flatland no larger than a small car. At one ledge was a barrier made of rebar and interlaced cable.
Climbing has risks. That barrier was not always there, Peter told me later, and was put up because that’s where people climbing without ropes tended to fall off the mountain. Climbing in Bukhansan National Park is popular because it’s accessible and rewarding, but accidents and deaths happen. Peter and his SAN associates challenge these risks through education and decades of combined experience.
“Climbing doesn’t have to be this doom and gloom situation,” says Peter. “It can be nerve-wracking for any beginner, sure, but there are many techniques and skills to keep it safe.”
From that ledge we traversed a section called Piano Bawi, which involved moving your hands sideways into and along a slabby crack and shuffling your legs around the outside of an exposed bulge. From there, we walked to the final section of our short climb. An hour before, I had nearly lost my cool. As I climbed up the final and steepest pitch I felt a very primal sense of pride. I still had no job, a dwindling bank account, and stress about the future, but I had climbed a @*!^^#g mountain.
Location/Route: Bukhansan National Park, Mangyeongdae Ridge
Cost: Pricing for a guided climb is KRW 250,000 plus VAT for the first client. KRW 200,000 plus VAT for each client after that. Family and U.S. military discount rates are KRW 220,000 plus vat. The climbing school costs KRW 880,000 plus VAT per person with U.S. military and family discounts at KRW 660,000 plus vat.
Meeting point: From Suyu Station (Line 4), catch bus 120 heading north off the island, just a few lengths and to the left as you come out Exit 3. Take the bus to the end of the line (about 15 min.), get off and walk up the quaint street less than a block and dart into an alley to the right directly across from the Redface cornershop. There’s a porch and artificial climbing wall– you can’t miss it
Contact info: For information on climbing schools and guided climbs as well as pricing go to www.sanirang.net or call 010-8407-6112