Tuesday, February 05, 2013

태백산 산행 - 상편

2013 January 4, the coldest day in Korea in decades, Taebaek city's morning was deep frozen at -20°C. I expected midday temperature at the top of Mt. Taebaek to be near a low -25°C. I was worried, very worried. I have lived my whole life at the equator, I have no idea how cold -25°C would be. Besides. I was also ill-prepared and ill-equipped. I was lacking a warm face mask, hiking poles, crampons (spiked iron attached to the bottom of boots) and luminous-colored hiking outfit from North Face or Nepa. But I have waited 6 years for today, too long a time to be turning back at the final moment.

I left my accommodation at 6:45am, grapped two gimbaps and a bottle of orange juice from a nearby convenience store and got on a taxi outside Taebaek Bus Terminal. The start point for the climb was the entrance to Yuilsa (유일사 입구, 柳一寺入口). The course I planned starts at Yuilsa Entrance and terminates at Dang-gol Square. The estimated distance about 8.4km. It took me nearly five hours (2.5 hours each for ascent and descent) to complete the full course.

While Mt. Taebaek may be 1,567m high, the start point of ascent is about 870m. So effectively, we are only looking at climbing a mere 700m, much lower than Mt. Bukhan (836m) in Seoul. But I was about to find out, climbing Mt Taebaek was not as easy as it seemed, definitely not a piece of cake, especially during winter without crampons fitted to my boots.

On my way to Yuilsa Entrance, the taxi driver warned me of the strong wind at the top of Mt. Taebaek. I have no idea how strong or cold the wind would be until much later. I arrived at my start point just before sunrise. The entrance fee to Mt. Taebaek was 2,000won. I was all ready to start my ascent after sunrise which was about 7:30am. A few people were already ahead of me. They pulled away quite fast as I was busy taking pictures of the snow scenery. Soon, I lost sight of them.

7:34am at Yuilsa Entrance - the starting point. The highest peak of Mt Taebaek, General Peak (장군봉, 將軍峰), is 3.7km away.

It was a cold freezing day. Despite four-layer of clothing, I have to keep moving to keep warm. It is known that cold has adverse effect on battery life. It did not take long for my third-party camera battery to go flat, but luckily, the original manufacturer battery saved the day. Lesson learnt: third-party battery may be cheaper but it is made with lower specifications and will likely not function under extreme conditions like under -20°C.

The initial part of the mountain track was of gentler gradient and quite easy to manoeuvre. I followed the footprints on the snow-covered path closely and was never in danger of losing my way. As I moved up the mountain, things got a lot more difficult and my "struggle" to the top began.

I like how layers of white snow piled up on a fallen trunk - so fragile and delicate.  

Virgin snow by the side of the mountain path. You wouldn't know how deep you would go if you step on it.

A stranded park ranger's jeep. It could only be retrieved after the snow has thawed.

Looking back at the jeep, I wonder if my fate would be like it if I made a wrong move along the way *gulp*

Pine cones, covered and revealed, as snow, carried by the wind, came and went.

I was mostly alone, no one was in front or behind me. The sound of squashed snow beneath my boots became particularly loud. Loneliness, fear and doubt started to creep in but I just kept walking as if I did not notice them. Once in a while, I would encounter hikers on their descent. We would exchange greeting and then move apart in opposite direction.

When I reached a flight of steps, lady who was on a her way down asked:

"아이젠 없으세요?" (You don't have crampons?)

"예, 없어요." (Yes, I don't.)

"힘들실텐데." (I guess it would be quite difficult for you.)

I realised what she meant and the importance of crampons when I tried to climb the steps. Steps are meant to faciliate climbing difficult slope but they become instant obstacles when covered in snow and when you are not wearing crampons. Snow-covered steps behave more like a slope than steps. Without the crampon spikes to give me traction, I have to hold on tight to the rope by the side of the steps to pull myself up. The climb was really tough but I learnt my lesson - I should have at least bought a pair of "아이젠" for the climb.

Morning sun rising above the ridgeline

The path to the summit is quite well defined. Just follow the footprints and the likelihood of losing your way is slim. 

There was time when the slope was so steep that I have to stop every now and then to catch my breath. I lost all mood to take pictures. All I did was to concentrate on my every step and breath. It was inevitable that I started to question myself, "Why do I have to subject myself to such suffering? Can I just give up and go back to where I came from?"

It is oxymoronic to say I want challenge but I do not want to leave my comfort zone. Emotionally, I did not want to turn back. Practically, it was also risky to turn back due to the steep slope I have to negotiate. It is easy to say "no pain, no gain", but it raises the next question - "gain what?"

What gain does hardship brings? When I think of it, it was not the scenery at the peak, but the time I spent talking to myself while pushing myself up the slope one step at a time. It was during such tough time that I looked more at the inner world than the outer and from which I drew my strength to overcome. Unless there is suffering, I guess the pitfall of leading a comfortable life would not be apparent to me, which is, without challenge, I become weaker everyday.

Despite some tough time, every encounter with a yew tree along the way always brightened me up. The shape of yew tree is so exotic that you cannot mix them up with others. Every yew tree is a photograph moment. I especially like the "snow flower" (눈꽃) on them but the "snow flower" was not as extensive and widespread as I would like. The last snowing day was two days ago and most "snow flower" has since "wilted away".

When I saw snow-covered trees, I got quite excited.

"Snow flower" on a yew tree. The last snowing day was two days ago.

After almost two and a half hours of climbing, I arrived at the "Yew Tree community ground" (주목군락지, 朱木群落地) which was a stone's throw away from the Jang-gun Peak. The main attaction of the place was the dead yew trees. They might be dead for thousand years, but they stood like masterpiece of nature, like dancers put under spell in the midst of their fateful performance. "Live for a thousand year, dead for a thousand year, fallen for a thousand year" (살아서 천년, 죽어서 천년, 쓰러져서 천년), a total of three thousand years was how long the yew trees have inhabited Mt. Taebaek. I could not look at the yew trees without contemplating worldly issues like life, death and our temporal existence. Instead of sufferings, I saw magic and beauty in them just like what I saw in the dead yew trees.

A dead yew tree (주목, 朱木) at 주목군락지 (朱木群落地)

"살아서 천년, 죽어서 천년, 쓰러져서 천년"

Dead and fallen but continues to charm those who see them

The final lap before reaching the summit, Janggun Peak or General's Peak (장군봉, 將軍峰), was a piece of cake. The toughest part of the climb was already completed way before it. It felt surreal to be standing on top of Mt. Taebaek. It may sound cliche, there were times when I thought I would not make it to the top, but I did! There was a sense of grand accomplishment and that feel-good feeling permeated every part of my body. Standing at the top of the world was fantastic, but I have to contend with the freezing cold which I was not well-insulated against and the strong gusty wind that periodically threatened to blow me off balance.

During Shilla Kingdom, Mt. Taebaek was a place where sacred rites were conducted to honour the Heaven. For that purpose, three stone altars, known collectively as Cheonje Altar (천제단, 天祭壇), were erected. The altar found on Janggun Peak is the Janggun Altar (장군단, 將軍壇). It is located about 300m north of Cheonwang Altar (천왕단, 天王壇) which is the main and the largest of the three altars. The last and the smallest,Lower Altar (하단, 下壇),  is located 300m south of Cheonwang Altar. 

10:12am: Reached Janggun Peak. Janggun Altar (장군단, 將軍壇) sits at the top.

Janggun Peak (장군봉, 將軍峰), the highest peak of Mt. Taebaek at 1,567m above sea level

View of the yew tree community and the surrounding mountains from the Janggun Altar

At 1,567m, Mt. Taebaek is Korea's seventh highest mountain. It is surpassed only by:

1. Mt. Halla (한라산, 漢拏山) - 1,950m
2. Mt. Jiri (지리산, 智異山) - 1,915m
3. Mt. Seorak (설악산, 雪岳山) – 1,708m
4. Mt. Deokyu (덕유산, 德裕山) - 1,614m
5. Mt. Gyebang (계방산, 桂芳山) - 1,577m
6. Mt. Hambaek (함백산, 咸白山) – 1,573m

Mt. Taebaek was one of the five principal mountains (오악, 五嶽) of the Shilla Dynasty. It was known as Bukak (북악, 北嶽) or the North Mountain. The other four are:

East Mountain (동악, 东嶽) - Mt. Toham (토함산, 吐含山)
West Mountain (서악, 西嶽) - Mt. Gyeryeong (계룡산, 鷄龍山)
South Mountain (남악, 南嶽) - Mt. Jiri (지리산, 智異山)
Central Mountain (중악, 中嶽) - Mt. Palgong (팔공산, 八公山)

The stone tablet which marks the highest point of Mt. Taebaek

A clear sky day without sight of "sea of cloud" (운해, 雲海)

Looking back at Janggun Peak from Cheonwang Altar

Janggun Peak may be the highest point of Mt. Taebaek but it is not the most significant. The honour belongs to Cheonwang Altar and it is also where you will find the "太白山" tablet. Cheonwang Altar was the last stop before I started my descent to Dang-gol Square.

The weather may look fine from the pictures but it was terribly cold. I felt like I was walking around naked, exposed to the elements. The Koreans looked like they were attired and equipped to climb any Himalayan mountains and I was a total noob among them. The cold might be unbearable but I could not bear to leave quickly to take refuge because it was so beautiful at the top.

On top of the world feeling

Cheonwang Altar (천왕단, 天王壇)

Mountain is the point where human and heaven connects.

"You must understand the whole of life, not just one little part of it. That is why you must read, that is why you must look at the skies, that is why you must sing and dance, and write poems and suffer and understand, for all that is life."  - Jiddu Krishnamurti


  1. I really love the mountain and the snow. Happy Lunar New Year to you. Thank you.

  2. I always love coming here - makes me feel like I'm visiting a part of Korea every time just by reading your posts.

    If you don't mind, what does "살아서 천년, 죽어서 천년, 쓰러져서 천년" mean? Me and my bad korean read it to be: Alive for a thousand years, Died for another thousand years, Fell Over for another thousand years.


    1. Hi Sheryl,

      You're right with the translation. "살아서 천년, 죽어서 천년, 쓰러져서 천년" is used to describe the fallen yew trees at Mt Taebaek.

  3. Hello there! Really love the pictures you took on Taebaeksan, the snow looks so epic! My friends and I are planning a hike up there too, so we were just wondering which dates was your hike on? Since we're going in mid December I dont think the snow is going to be as thick as yours?

    1. Thank you. My hike took place on 3 Jan. I timed my hike so that it occurred after a day of snowing. The snow wasn't as awesome as I would have wanted. Have a safe trip and take good care, it is very windy and cold at the top.