Sunday, June 19, 2011

"Hiking" doesn't mean what I thought it did

This doesn't come as a shock to most of you, but I'm from the midwest. Born and raised in Ohio, I call it pop and never soda, carry an umbrella, sunscreen, and mittens year-round, and hate the colors blue and yellow. This weekend, I learned that I also misunderstood the word "hiking."

My family used to go "hiking" when I was younger, and my friends and I went "hiking" all the time in college. "Hiking" for me meant walking along a relatively flat trail in some tree-filled location, occasionally climbing over a fallen tree branch or medium-sized rock. I loved going "hiking" out at Houston Woods when I wanted to hang out in nature in Oxford, and I frequently met friends at Winton Woods in Cinci to explore the "hiking" trails. As I understood it, "hiking" was fun, relaxing, and peaceful.

Enter Korea.

Earlier this week, my friend Jay asked if I wanted to go hiking this weekend at Bukhan Mountain. Using the definition I just described, I determined that hiking was, in fact, something I wanted to do with my friends. A few days later, Jay emailed me some details of the trip, explaining that the peak we were going to ascend was rated an "intermediate level" climb and checking to be sure we were all up for the task. Never one to overestimate my physical capabilities, I emailed Jay back to ask what exactly an "intermediate level" trail might look like. He replied that as an American girl who grew up playing sports and is in shape, I should have absolutely no trouble climbing up the mountain.

Let's all take a moment to laugh about the fact that Jay assumed I'm in shape and have ever played a sport in my life.

After an email like that, I couldn't hardly respond and say I'm too out of shape for the climb; my pride is much, much stronger than my laziness. I happily agreed to the challenge, assuming "intermediate" climbing was as challenging as "intermediate" Dance, Dance Revolution: harder than I'm used to, but still entirely doable.

Do any of you see where this is going yet?

We met at the subway station at 9:20 in the morning, and we headed out for the trail. Our group consisted of four guys and four girls, and everyone seemed pretty chipper despite it being before noon on a Saturday. The entrance to the trail was up a set of stairs, but the ground leveled out fairly quickly after we reached the top. All was well.

Our group chatted happily and enjoyed the trees for a while, but sooner than I expected, we came to a bit of a climb.

My friends and I jokingly referred to it as "level 1" and headed to the top. After each set of rocks, the ground would level out again and we'd resume our cheerful banter, sometimes stopping to be annoyingly American.

On one of our stops, someone hilariously commented that a nearby monstrosity (Baekundae Peak) was actually our planned destination.

"Sure," I said. "That's pretty and all, but you can't actually climb that part."

"Yes you can, and we are! See those little dots? Those are people climbing!"

I started to get a little nervous. And by "a little nervous", I mean, "it's a good thing I was sweating so much or else I'd have peed my pants."

Much sooner than I'd have preferred, our dainty nature hike turned into actually climbing a frickin mountain.

Every time we would get to the top of a particularly treacherous part, I'd feel a little rush of adrenaline, and an overwhelming sense of accomplishment, only to realize we had another stupid chunk of rock to climb up.

There were tons and tons of people doing the very same climb we were, and most of them were much older than our group, but they still all managed to be handling it far better than I was. In fact, they were quite amused by the fact that I always appeared one misstep from tumbling to my death.

I mean, really, look how delighted that man is by my imminent demise.

After three hours (THREE HOURS) of walking straight into the sky, we finally reached the top. The peak was beautiful, and in theory I should have been praising God for the majestic view I was witnessing. Unfortunately, all I could think about was how if I lost my balance even a little bit, I'd have fallen half a mile. Okay, I probably wouldn't have fallen the whole 2700+ feet; I bet a tree or something would have stopped me. Nonetheless, when your legs are shaking and everything around you is made of smooth rock, you're much more concerned with the placement of your feet than the pretty view.

If the way up was panic-inducing, the way down was flat out terrifying. On top of trying to maneuver across the slippery rocks at a downward angle, my legs were shaking like mad. A bunch of ajusshis (older men) snuck in between the rest of the group and me, and I had a little panic attack knowing I couldn't grab hold of any of my friends should I start to slip. Just when I realized this, my foot slid a little down the rock, and the ajusshi behind me grabbed my hand. They all used their limited English to encourage me to "take it easy" and "please be very cautious" as I tried desperately to get back to my friends. Now that I'm safely sitting on my apartment floor, I can look back and declare it precious and kind of amusing. In the moment, it wasn't much fun.

We stopped a little ways down to have lunch, and that was my favorite part of the climb. We sat on a mostly flat area that still had a great view of the mountains around us, but there wasn't really any risk of falling. Although we were all exhausted and covered with sweat, sitting on the side of that mountain eating lunch with my friends is going to be one of the best memories I have of my whole year here.

It took nearly as long to climb down as it did to climb up, and I would say it was actually harder on the way down (shaky legs and lightheadedness don't make for an easy climb). Luckily, my friend Stephen was fantastic. He made sure to place himself between me and another girl who was also terrified out of her mind, and he bounced back and forth, grabbing our hands and lifting us down off the rocks. Honestly, I wouldn't have made it up or down the mountain without his hand to hold onto. He always seemed to know exactly where we would slip and was ready to grab us when we did. At one point, he was a little ways ahead of me and I got stuck between two rocks. He realized I wasn't behind him and started climbing back down to find me; I made it out before he got there, but seriously, what a great friend.

When we finally got to the bottom, I was still feeling lightheaded, so people kept offering me water. Every time I drank more, I'd feel sicker, and I nearly passed out on the subway ride home. After I finally made it back to my apartment, I immediately fell asleep, and when I woke up, I still felt really dizzy. I ate a handful of M&M's and voila! I felt better almost instantly. I suppose if you climb a mountain for seven hours and only eat an apple, your blood sugar, um, tanks. Lesson learned: when climbing a mountain, everyone else needs to bring water. I need to bring candy.

It's been over thirty hours now since the mountain trek, and I can say with 100% certainty that my muscles - every last one of them - all hate me with a vengeance. Muscles I didn't know I had are screaming out in pain every single time I move.

And it was totally worth it.

1 comment:

  1. Nikki,
    I have been reading your blog before and since I've moved to Seoul. I just got here about a week ago, and could really use a friend to chat with, who knows the ropes. Are you still in Seoul? do you want to get together? My name is Lachelle, from Canada. Living in the Apujeong area.

    Please please email me at
    Talk to you soon!