Hiking in Seoul – Bukhansan

There’s a lot of talk about climbing on here lately. It probably helps that I’m actually writing this from a veritable climber’s mecca, and I’m awash in the climber’s glow right now. But more on that later.

In Korea, if you tell people you’re a climber, they immediately envision an alpinist. Hiking is practically a national pasttime, and Korean people spend millions on expensive brand name hiking gear. Considering the mountains in Korea aren’t all that steep or tall, it’s a bit funny to see everyone dressed like they’re on their way to summit Mt. Everest. Even walking up the small hill behind Drew’s apartment, the Korean hikers were decked out in North Face, Marmot and Black Yak gear.

I wasn’t going to leave Korea without climbing at least one mountain, so Drew, Jin and I headed towards Bukhansan one morning. The tallest mountain in the region, Bukhansan is a favorite for hikers in Seoul, and you could sense its popularity by the throngs of outdoor shops hugging the base of the moountain. Of course, the Korean climbers were in their tech uniforms, even sporting crampons over their expensive hiking boots. There was a bit of ice and snow on the trail, but I thought that was a little much. People looked at us like we were crazy, pointing at Drew’s jeans and white converse sneakers as we padded our way up the steps.

The view from the top of the mountain was quite impressive, considering we were still technically in the metropolitan area. I realized that one thing I really enjoyed about Seoul is its geography. As opposed to a city like LA, whose urban sprawl has bled across the flat, monotonous desert landscape, Seoul’s topography is exciting and varied, with hills and mountains jutting out between the buildings, havens for afternoon warriors looking for an escape to nature. The Korean love for hiking is only matched by their love for hiking gear.

A TV crew at the top of the mountain was filming what looked like a news anchor’s teambuilding efforts. It was a little adorable to see them huffing and puffing and shouting encouragement to each other as we strode past. Drew got to talking with an older hiker, who was there as part of an enthusiast group that summitted a peak together once a month. We returned to “base camp” and shared a few bottles of Makkoli and some Korean pancakes, quite possibly the best way to finish a day on the mountain. Hiking in Korea isn’t just an activity, it’s a ritual, from the moment you pull on your moisture-wicking stretchy pants and hiking boots, to when you put away that last bit of unfiltered rice wine, flushed with the day’s accomplishments.