Ulsanbawi Rock, the stairmaster from hell…or so we thought – Sokcho, South Korea

Seoraksan National Park, Take 2!!

All praise to the weather forecasters, the conditions did indeed improve over the next 24 hours and Ulsanbawi Rock was back on our agenda!!

Again jumping on the local #7 bus out the front of Hadomun village, feeling like experienced pros at this sort of caper, we arrived at Seoraksan National Park, strode up the same wide pathways that we had already covered the day before and promptly decided that we needed shot of caffeine to perk us up before attempting the 873m rock face of Ulsanbawi!

Miles from ‘civilisation’, the last thing we expected was a decent espresso, but the coffee shop at the branching of the two main walking trails proved to be sensational! Offering three single blend selections from around the world and a number of other more mundane brews, these guys were producing coffee of a quality that surprised us both immensely (their teas must have been pretty good as well, because on both mornings we noticed the local monks seated at a table having a sip!).

Looking for bad coffee beans (I think?)

Feeling more suitably perky, we took the path to the right and commenced our ascent. The initial stages of this hike are quite tame, passing the Sinheung-sa Temple and following the banks of the river at only a slight incline. Slowly though, the path began to climb. Nothing too extreme, but enough for us to start building up a bit of sweat in the high humidity.

Shredding, Buddhist style!

All along the path we passed numerous spots where previous hikers had erected both small and impressively large rock cairns. Unlike the rock cairns used in Australia to guide bushwalkers through terrain where the path is not visible, these cairns have their roots in the shamanistic heritage of South Korea whereby even the rocks have spirits, and to group these spirits together in place is to bring good fortune. Now I strongly suspect that these beliefs aren’t strictly held by most Koreans these days, but the underlying belief that adding one more rock to the pile will bring good luck still seems to hold strong (and they also look pretty cool, so why not hedge your bets!).

As the morning progressed, the haze began to lift and our destination emerged in the distance…we were actually going to climb that??

About an hour into the walk and we arrived at the Gyejoam Hermitage, a Buddhist temple located at the base of Ulsanbawi, and the point at which the trail takes a sharp rise upwards. Not wanting to intrude or transgress, we didn’t enter the temple proper from which we could hear rhythmic chanting,  instead satisfying ourselves with a look from the outside in.

Gyejoam Hermitage

It’s alleged that no man can topple Heundeulbawi Rock, despite its rocking motion. I hate to see the day the NZ All-blacks decide to have a crack!

Heundeulbawi Rock

At this point the hiking got real! Steeper and steeper until we finally hit the start of the final ascent up 800 odd stairs bolted to the hard granite flanks of Ulsanbawi.

To ease the pain a little, the stairs had been fitted with matting made from old tyre tread. A brilliant idea!

An hour of sweaty, thigh burning, calf clenching climbing later and we finally stepped off the stairs and back onto solid rock at the summit of Ulsanbawi.

We did it!!

The mists that had been sitting so low in the valley yesterday had kindly lifted, to swirl around the numerous peaks and troughs of the spine-like ridge of rocks that make up Ulsanbawi’s prehistoric profile.

We could only imagine the panorama on a clear day, but the lingering haze still added a distinctly eerie atmosphere to the vistas that unfolded below and around us.

There were even a couple of flying nuns at the summit!!

It was pretty funny when one of the locals who had just gained the summit got very excited on seeing a couple of westerners already up there, asking us if we’d like to pose with her for her ‘summit photo’ with obligatory ‘V for victory’ sign.

Looking up at the summit

The little shelter at the summit where you could get a medal engraved in acknowledgement of your epic achievement!

The walk back down was a lot quicker than the ascent, but just as hard on the body. We were feeling hungry so we decided to break up the descent into two halves, taking lunch at one of the numerous stops along the way.

Another awesome mountain vegetable bibimbap (basically sticky rice mixed with various vegetables and a fried egg with runny yolk), together with a bottle of the local rice brew known as makgeolli and a number of assorted side dishes.

Four hours and 8km after finishing our espressos and we were back at the park gates stepping onto the bus to shuttle us back to Casa Seorak. It had promised so much, and delivered in a big way! We couldn’t have been happier with our hike up Ulsanbawi and were looking forward to exploring more of South Korea’s geography over the next few weeks.

It’s actually quite interesting writing this blog post a couple of weeks after completing the hike, because at the time it felt like there couldn’t possibly be another hike out there that would punish our legs as much as the steep ascent up Ulsanbawi….we couldn’t have been more mistaken!! But that’s for a future post!