It was deep in the dark of morning when we left the hostel. There were four of us altogether, three chums from the same dorm, three from China and one from Australia. In the early hours of the day, we crowded into a taxi, our backpacks by our feet, and water by our feet, the lights of the apartment blocks of Jeju-si lighting our way.
Our taxi driver understood our destination immediately; and with their fog lights illuminating the path forwards like torches towards a gothic castle. Arriving in a secluded carpark swollen with damp air, we gathered our gear, and made our way into the dawn.
We started on a stony, muddy path into the woods, with the heavy clouds weaving through the trees like a labyrinth. The bark of dog carried through the gloom, and the snap of a twig. Something was moving in the forest, somewhere in the clouds. A shadow crept forward. Then it bound into the undergrowth. We all stopped, and looked into the murk.
In the woods, the deer turned its head and bound into the undergrowth. We all froze. The deer loped towards us, crossing the path in front of us and disappearing into the dark of the pre-dawn haze. We all looked to one another and smiled; it was a moment draped in pure excitement, magic and mysticism, the perfect start to our adventure; and the day was only just beginning.
The first section of our hike took us through ancient, volcanic forest and rocky streams oozing with melted morning frost. The path was a steady incline of uneven rocks and wooden walkways, but not too strenuous to start. Sooner than later, we began to climb up stairs and the path became steeper and steeper before levelling out again.
Backstory: Mt Halla, or Hallasan, is the tallest mountain on Jeju, an island to the south of the Korean Peninsula. It is the third-tallest mountain in South Korea, and reigns supreme over the island escape. In the morning, from the main city of Jeju-si, it is cloaked in thick cloud and a dazzling glaze. A now dormant volcano, it sits in supreme veneration, its massive silhouette darkening the island as sunset approaches. For some, it is a hiking mecca; it was my main reason for coming to Jeju. The tales told of the climb to Hallasan are always recounted with an air of wonder, a kind of fairy-tale reverence that piqued my imagination. In my hostel; at least one group of people made the climb every day. Today, on this rainy, soggy day, it was my turn.
About three hours into the hike, we reached the first hut. Groups of traveller played arrayed throughout the site, eating up a quick breakfast or energy drink, and taking a toilet break before attempting the climb to the next hut. We were a fairly fit group, but even we were keen for a rest.
We had all been hearing stories about the fabled Hallasan hike for days from within our hostel. Mark and I, my newest friend from my travels in Korea, had been looking at pictures of the hike, researching the taxi ride there, and founding our hopes and expectations on the stories of others who had come into the hostel after hiking Hallasan, and telling us tales of the natural beauty and colour of the forest.
The hike got steeper after the huts. More and more slopes and stairs carved the path forward; it was like walking a stairway into the clouds, one step at a time we tread towards the heavens, the clouds becoming more and more dense around us; our hair wet with precipitation and perspiration. We began taking more and more rest stops as we climbed; still making our way through dense woodland, with no sign of it lessening, nor could we see the peak ahead – the clouds were simply too dense. We were wandering, like adventurers, or maybe fools, through a wilderness we neither understood or recognised. Who knew how far away the summit was, and who could tell how far we had walked?
Through the mist and trees, we entered into a clearing, where we found the final hut on our climb to the summit; by now it was raining lightly down upon us, the temperature was what my father would describe as “fresh” (friggin cold). We took shelter as we prepared for the climb to the summit. The hut was crowded with climbers, and there were rangers selling hot noodles out of a stall. My friend Lee Bo graciously bought everyone a round of noodles, and we indulged in some hot carbs before fronting up for the climb to the top.
We considered waiting for the weather to clear a bit before attempting the summit, but after some time, it became obvious that the clouds were not going to lift. I was buoyed only by the hope that if we attempt the climb, we might even get above the horribly low cold system hovering around our heads. So we pulled out gloves on, tightened our backpack straps, and made our way skyward.
The steps became less even – volcanic, frosty stone of unequal footing and different shapes was our stairway now. Again, our view of the path forward was obstructed even more by the thick clouds forming around us. The wind picked up. The weather grew unruly. We were not getting above it. Cold, piercing rain drenched our waterproof jackets, my hands were being bitten by some kind of icy, wolf spirit. The trees were bare and naked against the freezing temperatures, much like it felt we were.
The higher we got, the worse the weather became. As the trees disappeared, and the boulders became larger, the wind howled into our ears and faces, spraying us with sleet and frost. The clouds enveloped us and hindered our eyesight. We were forced to pull ourselves up the last stretch, tugging on ropes beside the path to hoist ourselves up the stairs. The biting cold of the wind, and the dampness of our clothes and hair made it feel like a real battle against the elements; overcoming this mountain would be more than just a personal victory – it would be a win against nature itself.
With great excitement and pride, we ascended the summit, and stood in glory of… well, nothing. We couldn’t see a damn thing. Usually, one can look over into the dormant crater of the volcano, in the wet and cold, it might’ve been icy for us, but rather… the clouds covered everything. Which was a shame, but by that same token, our experience up there was unlike any other; we were freezing, wet, shrouded in mist. It seemed as if we had entered into a new dimension, as if we had climbed into the heavens themselves. It was surreal.
It’s funny how you can have an image in your mind about how an experience might feel or how it might progress, and then turn out completely different. I had seen pictures of the hike up Hallasan, read recounts, heard stories from fellow backpackers, and I was prepared to see all of that and soak it all in. It was autumn in Jeju, I was hoping for flowers and falling brown leaves and yellow trees amongst a forest awash with colour and sloping rivers. What I got was far different; a kind of mysterious wander through the woods like something out of Lord of the Rings or the Shannara Chronicles. I had my own little Mirkwood experience in Korea, and… I kinda didn’t mind it. So often we expect something to unfold a certain way, and if it happens any other way, we deem it disappointing. I’ll admit; even I was a tiny bit disappointed at first, but in hindsight – there was nothing to be felt let down over. My hike up Hallasan was a uniquely different experience, filled with curiosity, hardships, and good company.
Perhaps we as travellers have to learn how to leave our expectations at home. Which is hard to do! You’re on an adventure, and the excitement you gain from such a possibility-filled future is fuelled by the expectations you place on your holidays. So how can we learn to leave our hopes at the door, and adjust to a life lived in the present? It’s something I have to learn myself. I’m not sure I know the answer. I’m not sure I know how to do it in the future. Maybe we need to keep our expectations high, and perhaps its actually hindsight, and memory, that lend our disappointing experiences substance. Or, more likely, I just make no sense whatsoever. And I’m okay with that.
Because that’s all part of the journey.