Winter Hiking in Jirisan and the Night at a Mountain Shelter

So far, this winter in Korea has been very generous to us. The weather was unusually warm this year with above average temperatures and only a few snowy days. Highly unlikely for this time of the year. But last weekend happened to be the days that the cold struck back and snow hit many parts of the country. So what better days than the coldest day of the year to hike the mountain 1,915m above sea level?

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Jirisan National Park(지리산 국립공원) is the first national park in South Korea which was established in 1967. It spans across the southern part of the peninsula from east to west over three different provinces. The highest peak is Cheonwang-bong(천왕봉) and it is almost 2,000m above the sea. The weather at such altitude is unpredictable especially in the middle of winter. For a leisure hiker like myself, a 3-day hiking trip in the winter mountains was definitely a challenge of lifetime.

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There is one bus in the morning leaving from Daejeon Bokhap Terminal to Baekmudong (백무동), one of many starting points of Jirisan trails. We aimed to climb up to Jangteomok Shelter on the first day, spend the night at the shelter, then head to the top the next morning. The trail from the bus terminal to the shelter was a steep one with many stairs and rocky steps. The snow started to appear once we went past 1,000m point. Then the world turned blank white.

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More snow as we ascend
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I have no hiking cloth, so I put on lots of layers and finish up with snowboarding gears

There were some sort of lumps high up on the branches of the trees. A middle-aged hiker explained to us that it’s a mistletoe plant, or gyeowusali (겨우살이), a hemiparasitic plant that attach itself to trees and absorb their nutrients. Yes, it’s the same mistletoe that we kiss under.

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Never seen mistletoes attached to trees and not doorstep

As we get closer to the shelter, it was getting bitterly cold and the wind was more fierce than ever. The snowflakes on branches bloomed into icy flowers that sparked in the freezing air. I was more than happy to spot the shelter in the midst of foggy wind. Just like finding an oasis.

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There are number of shelters in the park and they all operate under online reservation system. If you do not reserve your spot in the shelter they might ask you to climb down immediately. Because of its close distance to the peak, Jangteomok Shelter is a popular one and was fully booked for Saturday night when we first checked. This forced us to change our schedule and we got to stay there on Friday night instead.

The main building has three different sleeping rooms, all of them with two wooden floors with numbers marked on the heads of “sleeping spots”.  A separate building for cooking and dining. And another space for toilets. No shower, no faucets. There’s a drinking water station about 50m walk from the buildings. The front desk of main building sells some essentials such as portable gas, wet naps, gloves, instant rice bowls and chocolate bars. They no longer sell ramen and canned goods due to environmental reasons.

The registration opens at 5pm and that’s when they check the arrival of guests who pre-booked their spots. The spots are assigned to rooms divided by gender. Thick blankets are available for rent w2000 each. Maximum of two blankets allocated per person. After the backpack and gears were finally brought down and bedding for the night was sorted it is finally the time we had all been waiting for – it’s time to eat.

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The shelter wasn’t fully booked for the night but the cookhouse was still packed. Bringing meat and booze was for newbies like us – people brought all kinds of unimaginable goodies. Some were making Korean pancakes while the others were cooking pork intestines. Young woman and here buddies were celebrating her birthday with ice cream cake and everyone in the house cheered for them. Foods were shared as well as shots of soju. Empty rice wine bottles were on every station. It seems like this is the kind of culture that makes Korea unique. We climbed hard and suffered in the freezing weather to be rewarded with such feast in the mountain.

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