Seoul Searching 2: Gasping
As a young girl, I was bullied relentlessly because of my asthma. In primary school, children would laugh at my huffs and puffs, accusing me of being fat, and in high school, the comments continued. Not to the same extent, of course, but every joke about how slow I ran, and every time someone pointed out my breathlessness, it felt like I was being ripped open. To them, it was banter, but to me, it was a personal attack.
For this reason, I was sceptical about hiking Mount Hallasan, the highest point in South Korea. I was worried everyone would stare and laugh, or that I would be stranded on the mountain without my inhaler. On the one hand, I was terrified of failing to reach the peak, but on the other, I knew I would regret it if I didn’t at least try.
Climbing Mount Hallasan had been in the back of my mind since I began planning my exchange year, every top ten list recommended it and the more I delved into the history and mythology of South Korea, the more Mount Hallasan popped up.
According to one myth, Jeju island, where Mount Hallasan is located, was created by a giant grandmother goddess. While sleeping, the grandmother passed flatulence which triggered the universe’s creation. The sky filled with flames and the newly formed universe trembled and quaked. Waking to this, the goddess shovelled mud onto the fire, extinguishing the flames, and creating Mount Hallasan in the process. The grandmother goddess was presented in such a comically human way, I knew I had to visit her supposed creation.
However, the longer I stayed in South Korea, the longer I put it off: “It’s too hot”, “It’s too rainy”, “I’m too busy”, “I’m too tired”, I had a multitude of excuses to cycle through. Then, somehow, it became May, and I realised I couldn’t keep putting off my trip.
Armed with enough water to last both my partner and me for an entire week, we set off bright and early at 8 am, taking a very expensive taxi to the starting point of the route we had chosen: Seongpanak Trail. After scouring the net for three hours the night before, I worked out that this journey was about 18.3km and would take us approximately 10 hours to complete. We would start off on Seongpanak trail and then make our way down Gwaneumsa Trail to appreciate more of the scenery. It was a simple plan. An easy one. What could go wrong?
Pulling up at the car park, the clock outside flashed 09:40 in blinding red lights. We would have to pick up our pace if we were going to reach the final checkpoint by the 1pm cut off time. The first few kilometres or so was protected by a cooling pine forest and as we made our way further up the mountains, the trees began to absorb the noise of the island. No longer could we hear cars spiralling the roads. Instead, we were left with the sound of dancing leaves twirling away from their branches.
Barely breaking a sweat in the 28 degrees C, this first length of the journey was a calming refuge from the madness of our week. We had been forced to relocate hotels within the first two days of our vacation which had put us £200 out of pocket. But, here, walking silently through the forest, none of that mattered.
After about an hour, we reached a sun scorned path. Where once stood bloom and trickling rivers was now overtaken by wilted reeds and browned grass. The harsh rays had burned away the floral sanctuary we had hoped to discover.
By now, the heat had intensified to a nauseating level. My head was light, and the trees began to spin. Pushing on through the blazing warmth, we zigzagged through the wild green, steadily trekking onward with the persistent buzz of mosquitoes ever-present. Resisting the urge to keel over and claw at the bites, I tried to focus back on the hike and my next foe: stairs.
It may sound silly to some, but one of the first things I missed about the UK was our shallow stairs. In South Korea, each step in itself is a mini hike. I lunge forward and grab onto whatever rail they have and forcefully propel my body forward, begging my legs not to buckle. In the middle of nowhere, this is fine but imagine the looks I got when bumbling around the university.
I must admit it would be a stretch to call the stairs on this hike true stairs, these stairways alternated between wooden death traps and colossal rocks placed on top of one another in a stair-like fashion. Bouldering my way up, my chest grew tight and my breathing shallow. Desperately trying to hide my exhaustion and hold back my wheezes, I pulled at my boyfriend’s arm: “I need a second”, I mumbled to my partner, who was completely unfazed by both the temperature and the incline.
Instinctively, I grasped for my inhaler and quickly pressed it to my mouth. Squeezing down, the inhaler meekly coughed signalling its last breath. Fantastic, if the stairs don’t kill me, asthma surely will, I thought to myself bitterly. How could I have been so stupid? Packing the wrong inhaler was exactly like me. Thoughts pulsated through my mind making me question every choice I had made during this trip.
At this point, I realised I had two decisions: one, I could continue with the possibility of triggering an asthma attack or two, I could turn around and go home. The mountain range reached almost 2,000m and continuing would mean inevitable issues: altitude sickness, wheezing, possible injuries, but all this could be avoided if I simply turned back. It would be so easy to just go home; this lifeless inhaler was a get out of jail for free card. I could avoid the embarrassment my breathlessness caused.
But when would I ever have the opportunity to hike this mountain again? I thought back to all the sports days I missed out on and all the forged sick notes from high school PE. I had let fear and embarrassment rule over me for so long, I couldn’t miss another opportunity because of my asthma.
Revived with a new-found sense of encouragement, I yanked my partner’s hand and continued forwards filled with purpose.
Feeling on top of the world, we cleared checkpoint after checkpoint until we reached a clearing filled with azaleas. Taking in a deep breath, my body was overcome by the sweet and spicy scent of the blooming buds. Choosing to soak in the view, we stopped for lunch: a convenience store sandwich, an off yellow banana and some crisps that tasted suspiciously like ramen. The humid air carried the smell of my meal, mingling with the floral aroma.
Within 45 minutes, we had left the field and were cradling our pot bellies as we slowly continued to climb. The damp-earth called to me, tempting me to close my eyes and rest as I further digested my meal under the blistering midday heat. Smelling my hands, the smell of the banana flesh intertwined with sweat made my stomach churn. My whole being wanted to break for longer, but reason kicked in: we had half an hour to clear the final checkpoint and two hours until they close the top of the mountain. Rest would have to wait.
Marching through the fields, the trees began to dwindle away, and the remaining few were burnt beyond recognition, their charred corpses were a sobering reminder of the dangers of dehydration. Guilt-panged, I chugged a bottle of water and then another while my partner did the same. Sweet sweat beaded on his forehead and dripped behind his ear as he dropped his head back to take a longer swig. Catching my eye, he grinned charismatically, crinkling the corners of his eyes and pulled me into a wet embrace: “Enjoy the smell”, he mocked. Chuckling, he pulled me along and cooed words of reassurance as we furthered our ascent.
Stumbling along, my breathing was deep and ragged, and audible rasps rattled from with my chest. I felt like a middle-aged smoker. In a fruitless attempt to ease my gasps, I cupped my hands together, ignoring the view around me. Each step was agonising. My lungs were on fire, the light was obscuring my vision, and now, to make matters even worse, my calves were beginning to cramp.
At 14:15 we finally reached the peak, after 4 hours of climbing we had crossed the finish line. Standing at the barrier, I looked past the mountain range and saw the speckles of houses beneath us and how they suddenly cut off as they reached the ocean. “Is this what it’s like to be in space?” I wondered audibly. Seeing the ground meet the water from this distance seemed unreal.
The sky was painfully bright and cycled through every variation of blue from Prussian to celeste. Meanwhile, the clouds hovered over the sea creating a cooling mist to revive the weary voyagers coming into the nearby ports.
Pressing my body against the barriers, the wind caught my ponytail, causing it to sway dramatically in the wind. Empty minded, I yelled into the mountain, letting the sound of my pride echo around me. The fierce breeze tickled the skin poking out the holes of my knitted jumper.
Ecstatic, I ran to the other side of the fencing and saw a single giant crater filled meekly with a small reserve of water. Dusty mud outlined the puddle exposing the troubles the landscape had recently faced. In photos, the crater is shown to be brimming with the turquoise liquid; however, the harsh heat had clearly overwhelmed this poor pocket of water.
Taking a step back, I looked around the top of the mountain to see clusters of other hikers in awe of the height. This was no longer my own personal experience but a collective euphoria. People rushed back and forth, pointing to their houses and hotels, laughing with their brand-new friends.
A line seemed to form next to a soot coloured rock. In broken Korean, we read aloud the transcription “Hallasan Natural Protection Area”. Rapidly turning their heads, the surrounding natives found our modest Korean to be both hysterical and shocking, excitedly asking about our lives. For the next few minutes, we reiterated our country of origin, job, and age, until we reached the front of the line. Striking several poses, to the local’s amusement, we laughed about our journey up the mountain as we modelled for the camera.
Words cannot describe the sense of satisfaction I felt on top of that mountain. I had spent so long evading sports, shamed by my lack of stamina, but I had somehow managed to meet this challenge. The prior anxieties I had melted away and seemed ridiculous.
Hiking Hallasan has taught me that I need to stop placing things into hard ‘can’ and ‘cannot’ boundaries. I shouldn’t let myself be defined by my fears. All I can do is persevere and take that leap of faith. I’m so glad that I didn’t turn around and go home. If I had given up at that point, then I never would have learnt to embrace myself, asthma and all.
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