On the last weekend of March, we took a train south out of Seoul. My traveling companion and I had packs full of camping gear, clothes, and food. The train was slightly more chatty than usual — people here usually travel almost silently out of respect for their fellow travelers — but it was early enough that few people expected to sleep.
In the northern part of the country, the landscape hadn’t yet shaken off winter. Leafless trees. Barren fields. Everything gray. But after about 2 hours, as we crossed into the Jeolla region, the country showed signs of life. Rice sprouted in the patties, and white flowers bloomed on fruit trees.
Just after noon we arrived at Gurye Station in South Jeolla, the southwestern corner of the peninsula. We ate a lunch of bibimbap with fresh vegetables, rice, red pepper paste, and the good, handmade, long-fermented kimchi that’s hard to find in Seoul restaurants.
We had a little trouble getting a taxi due to a spring festival in town, but in time we caught a ride out, across the river, and into a village with a dozen or so small houses. The driver let us off at the mouth of a canyon. We hiked in past a tied-up Jindo dog and a pair of sleeping rooms, over a small creek, and down a grass path, trees overhead, and, beyond the trees, stone cliffs. Soon we could hear our friends calling to us from the rock.
Ahead, the trail opened up to a pool at the base of a waterfall. Tents set up near the water. The sound of the water gushing over the rock and splashing in the pool. The action of the waterfall had formed the cliffs on both sides that allowed for the multiple climbing routes we would try our hand at over the next two days.
I was not a climber, but in my previous experience with the demographic, I’d found them active, focused, positive, and adventuresome. This group wasn’t any different. They were eager to teach my friend and me the basics. Even though we were both novices, we felt like we were in good hands.
I tried one way. I almost fell.
According to my climber friends, South Korea is a great place for the sport. The country is over 70% mountainous, with climbing in every province. Rock gyms and artificial walls abound. Koreans are active, love to hike, so it makes sense they would also be into climbing. That day we were joined by a dozen or so locals, all friendly, most seemingly experienced.
My first climb was a 5.10a. One term I learned in the process — out of the vast lexicon of the sport — was “crux,” which in this context means the hardest part of the climb, the problem you have to solve. This particular route was simple enough at the onset, easy hand- and footholds, no dynamic moves required. Until I came to the “refrigerator.”
This was the crux.
The refrigerator hung off the face off the rock like a Maytag made of solid stone. The idea was to follow the crack that led up to it, find holds in the areas beside it and behind it, and get up past it. Once I made it over the Maytag, the climb would return to its easier difficulty.
Because my technique was poor, I relied on my upper-body strength too much and my arms quickly began to burn. I noticed how the sport requires a focus on precision, on correct placement of both feet and hands, every move either counting for you or against you.
I had climbed about 20 feet before I came to the fridge. I don’t have a fear of heights. I do have a fear of getting stuck on the side of a rock, panicking, not being able to breathe, and being too stubborn to say “let me down.”
But without the crux, the climb wouldn’t be enough of a challenge to be fun. I like to put myself in tough situations, not for the fear or pain these moments cause, but for the relief I get when I move through them. Being on the side of a mountain, far past a safe distance from the ground, and confronting a difficult stretch of rock gives you that fear.
Just like being held under when you’re surfing, the last thing you should do is panic, but that’s exactly what your body wants to do. Your heart rate elevates. You get Elvis legs. You start thinking you’re going to get too tired to continue because you’re overgripping the rock and the veins in your forearms look as if they might explode like a rolled up plastic straw if you thumped them.
I tried one way. I almost fell. Then, after a few more attempts, I finally scrambled over the Maytag. A few moves later, I was touching the anchor and had completed the climb. My good friend on the belay at the bottom reminded me to take a look around and enjoy the view before I came down.
After that moment I was in. There’s something wholly satisfying about solving a rock-climbing problem, the relief of it. The sport hones key elements we need in our lives: strength, courage, precision, persistence. I made a couple more climbs that trip, and I plan on making a lot more.