Thrusting 1,915m into the crisp winter air, veiled in cloud, the lofty, rugged, snow-capped peak of Cheongwangbong (천왕봉) represents the highest elevation in peninsular South Korea; only Halla-san on Jeju-do extends further skywards. No true outdoorsman worth his salt could consider Korea conquered until they’d ticked off this tall top. Plot an out of season assault on this summit to ensure a more rewarding and intimate experience with this charming yet challenging lump of rock.
Enquire of a Korean the most beautiful bluff in all the land and “Jiri-san” will almost certainly roll from the tip of their tongue. The mountain reserves a special place in the heart of the natives – so much so that in summer and fall, great hordes are lured into Jirisan National Park, Korea’s oldest and most expansive, to bask in its beauty. Despite boasting 471km2 in which to roam, season selection can be the difference between finding oneself alone, wits pitted against the wilderness, or simply joining the line to the top. Hold out for winter’s first snow when countless would-be climbers are dissuaded from clogging up the trails. You can see weather forecasts up to six days in advance at Mountain-Forecast.com.
Jirisan National Park spans three provinces: Jeollabuk-do, Jeollanam-do, and Gyeongsangnam-do. The tallest peak in the park is most easily reached through the latter, with well linked Jinju (진주) standing out as the most obvious transport hub. Take an early bus to Jungsan-ri (중산리). Tickets are available on the day from Jinju’s Intercity Bus Terminal (₩5,500; 1 hour). Return tickets can be purchased from the convenience store in Jungsan-ri. Access to the National Park is permitted two hours before sunrise, and two hours after sundown, and so those making the journey down from Seoul are advised to arrive in Jinju the night before. Penny-pinchers will do well to stock up on sustenance prior to departing for Jungsan-ri. The store here may well be amply supplied, but by virtue of its remoteness you’ll be captive audience, and the patron has royally hiked up the prices. If expecting snow, whilst not absolutely essential, crampons and/or steel-tipped trekking poles will make the climb less arduous.
Once delivered to the southern edge of the Sobaek mountain range through misty foothills and forgotten villages, a twenty-minute uphill walk from Jungsan-ri will deposit you at the Kalbawi trailhead. At 5.4km, this strenuous hike is the most direct route to Cheonwangbong; the highest point on this legendary mountain. This rewarding, well-marked trail is incredibly steep in places and is of moderate difficulty. For ample enjoyment, budget around seven hours to make it up and down.
“You are now entering bear country!” warn signs at the roadside. The remote regions of this National Park are the last bastion of hope for the once ubiquitous Asiatic black bear. Hunted for their meat and use in traditional medicinal practice, these national treasures were presumed extinct on the peninsula until 2001, when video footage revealed a small community of six bears in the virgin forests of Jirisan. Nowadays, the Jirisan Bear Project is striving to cultivate a self-sustaining group of fifty wild bears, though pressure groups have claimed that as few as eleven currently survive, and, despite their status as a protected species, are still highly vulnerable to poaching. Sign a petition for their protection over at Moonbears.org or BearNecessityKorea.com. Bear welfare remains hot topic on the peninsula, with high hopes that farming of the animal will be outlawed (see The Korea Times for more details). The Project’s presence is less subtle than that of the shy, nocturnal moonbears; jovial wooden bear cut-outs earmark rest stops along the trail. Call into the wooden structure by the trailhead to learn more about their mission. The Park is also native to hares, roe deer, elk, wildcats, and other mammals.
The hardy and adventuresome will wish to eschew the well-trodden trail in favour of the boulder-strewn creak that cuts through the woodland, bypassing the first kilometer, and meet up with the trail further down the line. Take this opportunity to soothe the soul with the pleasant stream-side scenery and the whisper of trickling water. Better yet, the flow carves a more direct route up the gentle curvature of the mountain at this elevation, and will add variety to your ascent – there’s plenty more forest to come. Hopping from rock to rock, navigating this stream should prove little challenge, although the water is deep and the current strong in places; an element of caution should be exercised to prevent tumbling headfirst into the drink. Opt to take the left shore to effortlessly merge with the trail further ahead. Cross the bridge and take the water’s rightmost edge if you fancy a little fun with a rivulet crossing. Do your utmost to avoid getting wet; unless you’re hiking at the height of summer, the peak can become pretty chilly (winter 2012′s first snow shocked the thermometer with -13oC taking account of the windchill). As you ascend, the gentle burble of water transforms to a rush of rapids and mini-falls as the water picks up pace and crashes against the granite. Plot a prior crossing to avoid soggy complications. A rope bridge marks the point at which you should fuse back with the official trail; follow the path to the left to converge.
Enter the backwoods stage. Whilst pines and other evergreens are most prevalent in the Park, so too do hardwoods thrive. Setting off into the thicket, you’ll find it aflame with turning foliage. Through the vibrant colour-show and around great deposits of granite winds a muddy mountain trail tinged with the red of fallen maple leaves and lined with winter hazel. Push on, advancing further up this well-settled, broad beast, strolling by delicate mountain streams and catching occasional glimpses through the woods of the deep valleys below. All the while, dancing shafts of light dart through the trees as the sun ambles into midday position. The serpentine trail twines round to a natural spring and the Rotary Shelter. Those planning on hiking over two days can make a reservation at the Shelter with the Korea National Park Service here.
A stone’s throw up the bank from the Rotary Shelter lies tiny Beopgye-sa; its halls clinging to the sheer face to the rear of the complex. At an elevation of 1,450m, this 13th century Shilla temple dedicated the the Goddess of Mercy is the highest spiritual ground in South Korea. One can expect privileged views of the secondary ridges that splay out like fingers segmenting the vales below. Up the rocky path to the temple’s higher ground lies a great stone podium delicately scarred with Chinese hanja. At its bedrock rests a dainty, candlelit shrine. Mounted atop sits a three-tiered pagoda. Recharge below this monument or in the Seon (Zen) temple’s main hall. Whilst no longer part of Korea’s Temple Stay Program, it remains possible to stay in the petite chamber leant against the craggy cliff (for details, call 055-972-7771).
Make the most of your woodland wandering; beyond Beopgye-sa lies a markedly different monster. With 2km of the climb remaining, the terrain will steepen and become more rugged as the trees begin to thin and the bite of frost is evident on rigid needles of pine. You’re venturing beyond the freezing level where you’ll find life in no abundance. Bid farewell to the crunch of the winding dirt track littered with fallen foliage; you’ll find only coarse, wind-battered granite underfoot from here on in.
As you mount the ridge, you’re afforded unobstructed views to the valley floor; the gentle kiss of sunshine outlining each silhouette of the lesser mounds below. No longer dulled by distance or masked in mist, you’ll get your first glimpse of of the great, jagged, snow-capped peaks of the upper ridge jutting into the heavens like the crooked spine of some mythical dragon. Tread carefully; the combination of more dramatic rock formation and the first signs of a wintery dusting of snow promises a more precarious assault beyond this point. Less obvious paths are suggested by rusted leant rails, though at times the beaten-track will prove more perilous; as you ascend, the ground’s white blanket deepens, and staircases installed to make the ascent less arduous transform into deathtraps under inches of compacted powder. Some of these hazards are unavoidable; choose your footfalls wisely.
Hereafter, you’re charged with one final flurry; a sluggish slog through the snow to the summit. Dig deep into your reserves, and feel the burn as you near the highest point of mainland South Korea. The final hurdle is made trickier in the winter; a small precipice thrusts out of the rock, marking the mountains loftiest perch. Climb atop to admire views unparalleled on a clear day, and eerie in the mist of winter. Rejoice as the lung-busting gruel to the top has reached its climax, and recharge whilst peering into the depths you must soon descend. Allow three hours to retrace your steps to Jungsan-ri.
Legend has it that the foolish man who plots his way to the summit of this great mountain shall return with untold wisdom. My otherworldly wisdom for you: “Tackle this beast with a big heart, a will to succeed, and be sure to bring your sense of adventure… and crampons.”