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Mind the Barbed Wire


Submitted by mustachefable on 2011-06-08

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by Danielle Arsenault


On a verdantly exotic peninsula, some seventy percent of which is wrinkled into a rugged mountainous relief, turmoil stirs. For 70 years, the last real Stalinist dictatorship has tossed its threats and rhetoric across the border seeking favors and monetary compromise but their democratic neighbors to the south have adapted to living with the bully to the north.

South Koreans are now desensitized and numb no matter the escalating confrontation. Many “what if’s” surround this precarious political relationship and in recent months, this has been demonstrably so. Despite the hullabaloo surrounding the ongoing rift, local and foreigner climbers head to the hills to seize the day and take advantage of the beauty held therein. There is climbing in all corners, in every nook and cranny of this country. Nestled within the picturesque countryside laden with seven-year old Ginseng root and masses of rice husks drying in the sun are protruding smoky limestone bluffs and sleek granite slabs.

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Insubong towers over Seoul
Alec Ferguson

Being such a small country one can literally go from one end to another in only a day and back again. In extremis you’re looking at an eight-hour jaunt each way. First of all, I never would have been able to suffer through one-word intermittent communication and elementary hand signals if it weren’t for “Korea on the Rocks”, or ‘KOTR’ in the vernacular. This web based community lends itself to crag directions and detailed route descriptions, and also houses a colorful international forum boasting varied shared opinions in English with intermittent appearances of Hangeul.

Climbers from all over the world have temporarily, or even permanently, chosen this as the hub of an effervescent ex-pat climbing community populated largely by English teachers and military. Other professions, though also represented are few and far between. This well-organized website that unites the sexes, races and international faces through one common obsession also provides a chance to find new partners and indulge in laughs from lips of new acquaintances. Close camaraderie empowers us and inspires hard sends on whirlwind weekends. After the ubiquitous English teaching comes to a weekday close, my friends and I are whisked away by impeccably clean and punctual public transportation to one of the countless crags that sprout from Korea’s unique landscape. The weekday wait proves ever worth the while, as long as we bask in the glory of the pristine oriental woods. Sweat and stink will be relished familiars whilst showers seem foreign after a two day pause-from-reality binge. Oh, how could we live without it?

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Seorak Peaks in the Clouds
Greg Foote

While spending many a weekend in the punishing limestone forefronts once or twice noticing a purposely chipped hold, I have also noticed that the motivation to climb from the locals in many cases – yet not all – is rooted in the fixation to work a particular route all year long, over and over, if that is as long as it takes. With a strong on-sight infatuation myself, I personally find projecting tedious when the attempts get into the 20s. When the beast is finally red-pointed, one can graduate to “5.12 climber,” even though no other 5.12 or 5.11 for that matter have been touched. I may be exaggerating here, but the truth of the “project send” is ingrained to what it means to be a climber here in Korea and they like it this way. I wholeheartedly support pride rooted in passion even though it may be different from what I am used to.

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Viet Tran after discovering new possibilities
Greg Foote

Around the world, those who are deeply committed to rock climbing know that the act of climbing itself cannot be separated from the people and lifestyle that is intrinsically imbedded within the sport. In a culture rooted in the word “team,” locals prepare for a day of cragging by hauling overloaded rucksacks crammed with almost excessive amounts of traditional culinary masterpieces and homemade alcoholic indulgences. This curious custom is a collective effort, never an individual responsibility. The communal dining experience, while sitting on mini foam mats in the dirt, holds a ceremonious appearance and we foreigners seem to always end up being invited.
Although social conduct is still very much rooted in Neo-Confucian ideals, sharing unconditionally shines a selfless glimmer on the generosity of Korean climbers even when this means eight people sharing one anchor 200 meters above the deck on a run-out granite Tyrannosaurs tooth. Rarely will you see a twosome scaling the walls of these giant geological formations, yet a team of eight to ten is much more a common sight and rightly the more laborious and lengthy of an endeavor.

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Author at the top of "New Millennium" in Daedunsan National Park
William Newnham

On any given Sunday, the famed Insu peak, or Insubong in Hangeul, the official written language of Korea, in the north of Seoul is smattered with climbing teams, ascenders and aid slings. Boasting fifty-eight, mostly slab routes at a height just over 800 meters, Insubong is sure to be a chaotically epic outing. At the top of this balding granite zenith, one can see the ever sprawling, apartment riddled megalopolis of Seoul.

Seonunsan Provincial Park

One Saturday morning after a restless four-hour sleep in Seonunsan Provincial Park in the southwest corner of the country, we were amped to hit the rock. I was climbing harder than I had in a long time, attempting to tip the grade scales. Go hard or go home, right? By no means was I ready to go the eight hours back home, so ‘go hard’ was the only option. In limestone lock down, deep into the valley, an intricate carving of Buddha is etched on a rock outcropping. We shared our approach with hundreds (not an exaggeration) of local hiking enthusiasts decked out in full-fledged brand-named everything – those known worldwide and a hand full of spin offs such as The Red Face, The Black Face and Black Yak. These devotees with their team consciousness smiled and trucked alongside us on their visit to the sacred iconic entity.

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A Buddhist Monk chants into the daylight.
Danielle Arsenault

With a dense population, Koreans subsist harmoniously squished in small spaces. This is one hypothesis for the desire to grid bolt. Although within meters from each other, each route does have its own unique peculiarities. At Soksal Bawi in Seonunsan, my route of choice on the grid was an upside-down 5.11c that would prove to be my friend and foe. Within the wind tunnel, the pock-marked rock, both sides curving inwards provided constant shade. As my partner and I stepped up to the challenge, some particulars of Korean climbing tendencies had me on edge.
While the language barrier can be taxing, we foreign climbers arrive with ethics that have become the accepted international standard. Korean climbers seem to have taught themselves omnipresent habits that the international crowd finds interesting and precarious to say the least. First, if I was indeed to climb it, I would have to wait patiently after ensuring my turn with my shoes in a line amongst a myriad of crusty others. Crowded climbs have a shoe queue indicating turns. The local trick to avoid the intolerable wait: bring two pairs of shoes so I can be climbing and waiting in line at the same time.

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Andrew Nevin Readies for the Rappel
Greg Foote

When climbing with veterans, who happen to be my friends, there is an unspoken agreement upon internationally-recognized safe belay techniques. This allowed me to avoid the hands free Gri-Gri catch effortlessly engaged by the locals. This undemanding method involves walking into the wall to feed slack to the leader and once clipped, walking backwards several feet giving the rope a near 90 degree unsightly angle caused by the friction of the first clip. In case a climber should whip, all will have a good laugh as she nearly (and sometimes does) take the ground fall while her belayer is forcefully smacked into the wall.
Eventually, it was my turn. The adroitly named A Beautiful Woman’s Secret enticed me into fits of grunting and groaning. Sturdy on my feet for the first half of the climb, I tried to focus on the on-sight. After clipping the fifth bolt, the next move was a right handed dyno to a sharp but solid pocket. Feeling confident and stronger than ever, I threw and stuck it. Next, my left hand moved to a slimy pinch, parallel to the pocket. I stuck it again. Then in a moment of paradox, sweat erupted out of the pores of my fingertips, I slid off. This route’s elusive secret was a major tease because after a little whipper therapy to get the adrenaline pumping I could go no further. For now, the route would stay lurking over the aręte of the wind tunnel, aptly named for its hair-swirling, skirt-lifting authority.

Seoraksan National Park

Fast-forward to an early spring. One March day, cold enough to deter most, we, the indomitable, wrestled for the motivation to ascend as high as possible in a sea of saw-toothed sierras in Korea's most famous and often considered most beautiful, Seoraksan National Park. Guarding the entrance to the rocky beasts that engulf sky is ‘Sokcho’, a hip and salty town that boasts a laid back beach vibe and ubiquitous culinary Korean dishes to tempt a watering mouth. However, being in the province of Gangwon-do, nestled against the upper east coast of the peninsula, you come within merely 80 kilometers from the notorious border of North Korea. Mind the barbed wire! Within the park confines, a longish hike on primarily flat, paved ground leads to a little restaurant that serves as a climbers’ hostel throughout the year.

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Death Triangle;one of which is being replaced by KOTRi
Danielle Arsenault

Unfortunately when we arrived at the hostel, the kind yet unwavering owners mentioned how they and the park were closed for the season and would by no means allow us to sleep there all the while boasting genuine smiles. Rules are rules and especially in Korea, they are never to be meddled with. At least twice a year, the park closes for a month during the dry season. Unbeknownst to us, this was that month even though it had been raining sporadically for days. Oh, what would any other dirt-bag do? We weren't about to hike back with our weighty load so with no other choice, my partner, Wes suggested we slept outside – on the ice. We found a stealthy nook in between some boulders with no wind. During the night I froze, teeth chattering, until Wes and his kindness relinquished his well loved, duct-taped down jacket.

The next morning after a suffered half-sleep, we needed to find ourselves some clandestine rock to practice our obsession. Considering that the woods look very different in the summer with green leaves and well-defined destinations., the autumn gave us a run around by disguising the path ahead with leaves coating the forest floor. As Wes ran ahead, eager to ascend, Alec and I enjoyed a little "we are getting lost" hikey-poo while jumping river boulders and circumnavigating the approach to the crag. At some point Alec and I, with his blond hair and permanent smile, stopped to ponder our path and take a swig of wine. No sooner than after the passing of the corkscrew did we heard Wes give a little whistle in the distance with his harness on, carabineers jingling.

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A view from "GoRock" in Seoraksan National Park
Danielle Arsenault

As the day waxed, we were welcomed by the steady increasing heat as the weather transformed. Our faces upturned to the bluebird sky, necks cocked, we accepted the challenge to conquer solid rock. The spring seemed to have arrived in early bloom, summer tagging along with it. As we approached our route of choice, the rhythmic gong of a Buddhists' prayer echoed in the valley surrounds. Hypnotically, it called us near. High in a convex cave in one of the mountains, accessed only by a series of boulder-sized stepping-stones and metal stairs, we arrived at the mysterious hole. The trek was constant and just when our lungs were about to burst from the pulsing aerobic uphill, we reached the source of the chanting.
A lone woman sat perched on her stoop overlooking the razor-sharp, snowcapped rockery. At peace, she welcomed us with a modest head bow when she was finished.

Despite the late start in the day, our bodies exploited stowed energy from day old servings of “bibimbap”. This mixed mushroom, mountain veggie and seaweed rice bowl with red pepper paste, topped off with a raw egg sizzling in a stone hot pot is a culinary specialty– and which I might add, absolutely delicious. On my first lead, sweat from my underarms trickled down the side of my body catching on the harness that held my fear at bay while stuck in a damp chimney 60 meters above the mishmash of russet leaves and rubble. I was getting back into the bold trad leads. Bold for me anyway after a near six-month vacation from granite. On the peak of Janggunbong, one of many in the Park, about eleven routes reside on the South-West face. With two to eight pitches between 5.4 and 5.11b, this high friction granite slab has always invited us back for more. While mostly traditionally protected, the odd bolt exists where no natural protection is possible and the daredevil can risk the run out if he leaves his rack at home – but I recommend at least one set of cams and nuts. After a forty minute hike uphill, the scene is set even before you leave the ground. I was only two pitches up and already the exposure was dizzying. With the red Maple leaves below like a carpet of kindergarden finger-paint, the beauty of nature here never ceases to increase the perma-smile already lingering on my lips. My dusted off cams dotted the holes and fissures intermittently up the serrated bisection of dark-stained granite. The limestone winter hadn’t prepared me sufficiently for this day, but my enthusiasm avoided this revelation as the stainless steel biners rattled on my harness pulled tight around flexible hips suspended above by callused hands and toe tips.

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The lovely lanterns of Buddha's Birthday
Greg Foote

Battling through heartfelt smirks, we pulled necessary intermittent aid slings and hung on death triangles disguised as anchors! These two bolt webbed wonders weathered by countless seasons of dilapidating climate trends have become a ubiquitous practice on many crags and left us cautiously weighting our slender frames one at a time. Making anchors safer by replacing old webbing with trusty new chains and shiny quick links is one of the many initiatives currently underway through “KOTR initiatives”. These replacements will also ensure more confidence in those ready to rappel.

Within close proximity to the contentiously named ‘Sea of Japan’ (any and all Koreans proclaim it, "The East Sea of Korea"), the air was humid. Nationalistic pride has had its hand in the ongoing name-debate of this deep blue. As we made our way back to Sokcho, the sun was settling in an orange haze draped over the horizon like a melting creamsicle. The day couldn’t have ended better. We hiked out of the park breathing in the fresh spring air and admiring the color-shifting foliage all around us. Our aim: the beach where a crisp lager-in-can awaited our parched mouths.

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The author looks towards the City at Dusk. Seoul, the megalopolis unveiled.
Wesley Thompson

When Yvon Chouinard himself was a G.I. here he could see the potential of climbable rock and left his legacy on the mountains skirting the North of Seoul, including the omnipresent Insu peak in Bukhansan National Park. The incalculable amount of rock that covers this great nation is ever lurking above and because rock climbing is relatively new in the scope of the sports’ history, the potential of rock development is unfathomable. Already there are over 200 developed areas to climb outdoors in Korea, hundreds of indoor bouldering gyms and numerous outdoor artificial walls all over the country. Not to mention the copious amounts of quality boulders strewn all across the country that deserve an article for themselves. While new boulder problems are being opened and developed as you read this, your fingers will be satisfied, if not polished raw. On KOTR, at least 20 areas have been made public knowledge, yet the secrets are still waiting on the granite blocks speckled along riverbeds and hill tops.

With the tensions escalating between these two respectively authoritarian and democratic neighbors, some people choose to hide, afraid to take chances. But even when hazards lurk around every corner of the globe, some people choose to live life. This is an invitation to all those first ascensionists, dirt-bagging vagabond wanderers and weekend warriors disguised as English teachers to draw near and experience what Korean rock has to offer. While you are here, you’ll sure be lured into the spirit of communal charity so don’t be afraid to get involved and mind the barbed wire.

For more on Korean climbing visit Koreaontherocks


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3 Comments CommentAdd a Comment

 tkells
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 2011-06-09
Hey Danielle, Travis-the GI there a couple years ago with Dan. Great article! You really captured the spirit of the local and expat climbing community out there. I know for me personally, those weekends were life changing. I agree 100%, get out there vagabonds and weekend warriors! You can't imagine what you are missing!
 burzum
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 2011-06-10
esta de poca madre tu articulo.chido danielita date escala a muerte...
 damienclimber
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 2012-03-07
Great Photos!
Looks like a wonderful vacation almost as good as China !
obtw-Ice needs help ,any illegals means one less chance of another 9/11- unfortunately there are still 11 million in the U.S.A call their 800 number w info. Thank you.

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