Naktchar The cry shattered the twilight and “the ropes rained down from above. Then came the bodies black, ninja-like breaking in dark waves over this final hump of stone, invis¬ible but for faint pinpricks of glowing cigarettes. They kept coming, as if spat out by some giant pitching machine on the summit, and as they grew closer I could hear the hum of nylon rushing through metal rings. At the bottom, we all shook out our tight muscles, unclipped our carabiners, clicked on our headlamps, and started down the rocky trail. More than 300m below us shone the lights of a city of 10 million souls.
Imagine a huge skillet, then imagine a series of huge lumps of granite and you have Puk’ansan National Park. These granite blocks offer eve¬rything the contemporary rock climber could want. There are pinky-sized cracks, ugly off-widths, awesome chimneys and cathedrals, bomber flakes, fea¬tureless slabs and perilous face routes. I have seen few rock-climbing areas anywhere that have such a wide variety of climbs in such concentration.
Of all the rock in this 80sqkm park, there are three very sizeable lumps of gran¬ite that seem to have been thrown down by the gods specifically for climbing. These are Insubong, Dobongsan and Kokiri Kuhrack (kuhraek means crack in Korean). Insubong, a 250m-high domewith 360 degrees of exposure, is the main climbing magnet in the entire park. There are now more than 40 recognized routes scaling Insubong, varying in height from 16m to 240m (nine pitches). About 5.6km away lies Dobongsan, also known as Suninbong (Dobongsan is the mountain, Suninbong is the actual crag). It sports about 30 different climbs. Also near Insubong is Kokiri Kuhraek, a five star crag with cracks that set the stand¬ard for Korean rock climbing in the mid-1980s.
All the rock has the con¬sistency of industrial sandpa¬per: it’s a friction climber’s para¬dise. If you like to dance on warts of silica, feldspar and quartz, if you enjoy wedging your body between two paral¬lel pillars of rough, gray gran¬ite, and doing a series of squats, upward, upward, ever upward, then this is the place for you. If you like laybacks that don’t end and cracks that go on for¬ever, if you fancy traipsing out over thin air, tracing across a big, orange moon-face of a rock, pinching a ridge of rough-cut crystals that leave your fingers feeling as if they’ve been hooked up to a car battery then hali &-ah! (Hurry up!). If you’re also interested in expe¬riencing a culture that goes ut¬terly against the Western grain, then you should definitely hop a plane to South Korea. The bad news is that the climbing in Korea is ridiculously crowded, and there’s a bit of a language Problem as few Koreans speak English. The good news is that it’s only crowded on weekends, the crags are easily accessible (you can see the granite outcroppings of Pukansan National Park
from downtown Seoul), and for 10 months of the year rain is a rare occurrence. In autumn maples burn right orange and red against clear blue skies; and in spring cherry trees and azalea bushes burst forth in a profusion of colour. On a Saturday or Sunday you might find Yourself sharing your hanging belay with happily singing and smoking Kore¬ans, inadvertently blowing tobacco and kimchi — spicy vegetable — odours your way, and doing a capella renditions of the ‘Fop Ten Countdown; but on Monday Ascending the Dove Route on Insubong. While the upper routes are extremely challenging, the apron slopes gently and is great for beginners chances are — if there’s not a major school holiday — VOL will be climbing alone. Ac¬cording to Kim Hyong-joo, a climbing equipment distributor, there are more than 400 rock climbing clubs in the Greater Seoul area and many universities have their own clubs. This is certainly due in part to the fact that Insubong has a low-angle apron that is excellent for begin¬ners. There always seems to be rush-hour traffic on the lower routes. Koreans don’t so much go climbing as lay siege to the mountains; they move over the landscape like locusts, in great droves.
“Koreans love to climb,” says Choo Kyong-hyon, importer of outdoor equip¬ment. “They have a lot of desire. That’s the future of Korean climbing: unlimited desire.” He points to Insubong. Scores of tiny, bright dots sparkle on its moon-lit face. “Those people will prob¬ably spend the night on the summit,” he says. Climbing at night is to Korean climb¬ing what eating kimchi is to Korean cui¬sine. On a trip to a crag named Hakdamahm, near Pohang, I witnessed a totally inebriated assault four Canadian-Koreans on some 5.11 routes amazingly, no one died.
Unlimited desire. If that means slid¬ing on your blue jeans for 15m down a 70-degree friction slab, then yes, they do have a lot of that. The dominant sound we heard all day was the sound of denim scraping along rock. We were also treated to the occasional, high-pitched ping of a rappel device whizzing by at 10m per sec¬ond. Koreans have a funny habit of laugh¬ing in the face of danger so, if you hear a chorus of guffaws, duck. And don’t for¬get Your helmet.
When to go
Winter is cold. July and August are hot and wet. September-November and mid¬March-June are best. Park trails are closed from mid-November to mid-December and all May. On Insubong most routes face east, some south, and a few west, so you can follow the sun throughout the day. Suninbong has east-facing routes.
The Puk’ansan National Park, just outside Seoul, includes the rugged Puk’ansan and Tobongsan mountain ranges
Major airlines fly to Seoul from the larger Asian cities and North America. Most visi¬tors can stay for up to 15 days without a visa. Canadians can stay six months with¬out a visa and citizens of many European countries, including the UK, can stay as long as 90 days.
Getting to the park
The journey from Seoul’s Kimpo International Airport to the campground in Puk’ansan National Park should take no more than four hours.
To get to Insubong from Seoul Air¬port take the underground to Chongnyangni, then bus number 6 or 6- 1 to the end of the line. Walk tip the main road for 30-40 mins, following the signs for Dosensa Temple, and keep right. At the the trail-head, pay a small entrance fee and hike up a steep trail for 20-30 mins, following the signs for Insusan jang (Insti mountain area). From the saddle it’s an¬other 15 mins to Insusan jang: a store, mountain
rescue headquarters and campground.
To get to Suninbong from Seoul Air¬port, take the number 5 underground line to Wangshimni, change to the Seoul National Railway and get off at Tobongsan yeok (Tobongsan Station). Outside, turn left and walk to a junction. Turn right, passing Tobongsa (TobongTemple). Con¬tinue for an hour, following signs to Gumgangam and Tobongsan jang (Tobong Mountain House). From Tobong Mountain House it’s 10 minutes to the campgrounds.
Kimchi — traditional spicy vegeta¬bles — comes in endless varieties. All meals include at least half-a¬dozen other side dishes. Try bulgogi (grilled beef), daejii kalbi (pork ribs) or kalguk su (noodle soup). But be warned: Korean food will put sweat on your brow at 50 paces. There is a basic store at the Insubong campground, but it sells very lim¬ited supplies, so it’s best to load tip on supplies at the trailhead on the way into the park.
The camping fee at Insubong campground — though Westerners rarely get charged — is 3000 won (about US$3) for a tent with three people. If you’d prefer not to hear all-night parties, camp near the apron of Insubong. BaekLinsan jang, which has a huge loft and a cozy, ski-lodge atmosphere, charges 3000 won a night per person. Suninbong campground charges the same fees. There are good camping sites up on a ridge; they’re closer to the climbing, but further from water and bathrooms.
Two 50m ropes are necessary, for the rappel and a full rack from thin to off-width is a good idea. There are two large outdoor markets in Seoul, both near subway stops Namdac in (South Gate) and Dongdaen (East Gate) — that large selections of climbing and camping gear.
This can be difficult. Fortunately, there is Konglish. It is basically English with a Korean phonetization. The Korean script, Hangul, can be learned in a few hours if you really concentrate, so at least you can read simple phonetic sounds. A phrase book helps, but a better solution may be to find a good guide.
The massive granite dome of Insubong (below) is possibly the most popular outdoor climbing location in Korea. Like neighbouring Suninbong and Kokiri Kuhraek, it draws hundreds of climbers from Seoul every weekend, as well as climbers from around the world
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