Here are the hard facts about Hallasan:
The mountain is actually a massive shield volcano that forms the bulk of Jeju Island. The summit sits at 1,950 metres above sea level. It is the tallest mountain in the entirety of South Korea. And on the 9 June this year, along with a friend, I journeyed to the very top of it.
Here is my story.
Right, here’s a quick rundown. There are five hiking trails in and around Mount Hallasan but not all of them allow you to reach the summit. The Seongpanak and Gwaneumsa Hiking Trails are the only ones, as far as I’m aware of, that take you right to the very top. They are also considerably tougher than any of the other trails.
Eorimok is the most popular amongst tourists on a tight schedule as it allows you to reach the midway point where you can enjoy a stunning view of the mountain but it won’t take you to the top.
As you can see from the super-tactical (sarcasm, duh) map that my friend and I had drawn, we initially set our sights on Eorimok. But after some chatting with other travellers at our guesthouse who had hiked the mountain a day before, my friend and I decided to go all the way. Seongpanak was our final choice.
The start of the journey
The initial plan was to head out as early as possible, riding the very first public bus (Bus 781) to the entrance of Seongpanak at about 8.30am. That did not happen. Instead, we woke up AT 8.30am, had a mini panic attack, quickly had breakfast and rushed out. We arrived at the entrance of Seongpanak at about 10.20am. A little under two hours late but not too bad, right?
As it turned out, there was a time-limit if you wanted to make it to the summit. You had to reach the Saraoreum shelter at the midway point of the hike by 1pm. to even be permitted to attempt the hike to the summit. This is because the hike down becomes rather dangerous once it gets dark.
It was at this moment that my friend and I chose to believe that the human body can accomplish superhuman quests. With slightly bad poker faces, we set out and the path that greeted us was…not that bad actually.
It was a forested area and it was so well protected that we even bumped into a deer chewing on grass just five minutes into our hike. Soon after seeing the deer that we had to turn back. Why?
Rookie mistake 1: We wore shorts and forgot bug spray. Yes, the forest is full of insects and at specific parts, mosquitoes. Thankfully, the convenience store down at the entrance sold bug repellent and various hiking equipment such as hiking sticks. We turned back, bought the bug repellant, and continued our way.
More than an hour into the hike
We arrived at our first pit stop, about 4km away from the entrance. You can find a few toilets here and a place to sit down and rest but no water. So be sure to have enough water to stay hydrated until you reach the midway shelter!
I glanced at my watch. 11.50am. We had about an hour to reach it.
Without resting much (actually we didn’t rest at all!), we pushed on. Things were still going well and we were making great time. That was until we came to a steeper part of the path. I exhaled sharply as I stared at the rocky path ahead of me which seemed to stretch forever.
Those hiking sticks really would have come in handy right about now, I thought, as I navigated the jagged rocks, stumbling once in a while to find my balance and praying that my ankle holds out till the end.
The only thing which made the hike easier was bumping into friendly locals who occasionally will greet you with a smile and cheer you on. Despite the tiring conditions and the onset of burning thigh muscles, common courtesy still applies here. Be sure to respond to any ‘annyeonhasaeyo’ with one of your own. Or if you want to be extra polite, ‘annyeonghashimika’.
We arrive at Saraoreum shelter at last
Sweating profusely, panting and largely grunting to one another instead of exchanging audible human speech, my friend and I arrived at the midway shelter at 12.45pm, barely making it in time. Here, you can restock on drinkable water, and if you’re hungry and in need of energy, you may purchase ramyeon bowls and other snacks.
Not wanting to rest on our laurels, my friend and I took a quick toilet break, got more water and pushed ahead into the final leg of the hike.
It was another 3km to the very top and around here, the air got a lot thinner and the temperature began to drop slightly. The path became even steeper and rockier and to make matters worse, for most people, this is where the cramps and the fatigue begin to set in. Who am I? What am I doing here?
It doesn’t help that you’re only allowed to stay on the summit until 2.30pm. Yep, by that time, you MUST begin to make your way down. Ignoring the pain, we sped up. What didn’t help was my friend deciding to play Louis Armstrong’s What A Wonderful World on loop as our “fight song”. Sigh.
At the summit
At some point, the forest disappears and the trees are gradually replaced by clouds. Make sure to grab the rope as you ascend because the path becomes increasingly perilous as everything that can make for a soft landing is now gone.
After three and a half hours, we finally made it to the summit of Hallasan. And all that toiling was immediately validated because the view from the top is breathtaking. You walk among the clouds and ravens. I can’t really describe it in words, so here are some pictures instead.
Amazing, isn’t it? However, we could only spend about 20 minutes at the top because we had to begin our descent at 2.30pm. My legs nearly cried out in protest as I thought about the long road back down!
But regardless, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I’m so glad we decided to forego Eorimok and chose to climb to the very top. The experience can’t ever be replaced by anything else in the world. Also, don’t forget to take a selfie at the summit! Nope, it’s not for a vain Instagram post! If you present proof of yourself reaching the summit at the tourist information office at the entrance of Seongpanak, you get a certificate! How cool is that?
If you’re worried about the hike, don’t be. Granted, at some points it gets a little tough, but it certainly isn’t Everest. With a little perseverance and gusto, you’ll make it just fine.
To make life easier, make sure to:
- Start out as early as possible so you don’t have to rush to meet the deadlines
- Get bug repellent before hand or wear protective clothing
- Get appropriate hiking equipment. Trust me, regardless of how fit you think you are, the hiking sticks really will come in handy
And with that, my friends, you too, are ready to conquer the tallest mountain in South Korea!