Hallasan (6,398ft) – (Almost) Highest Point in South Korea
July 9-10, 2013
Matthew Gilbertson, Jake Osterberg
Jeju Island, South Korea
I was in Osaka, Japan for the 2013 Engineering in Medicine and Biology Conference (EMBC), presenting my research into the design of a force-measuring ultrasound probe. After the conference, I had some extra time to devote to a few nearby country high points. First, we climbed Japan’s Mt Fuji, swimming through throngs of thousands of people to reach the summit by sunrise. The next day, we hopped on a flight to the South Korean island of Jeju to climb Hallasan, the highest point in South Korea.
First, I’ll give a little bit of background info about Jeju. The island is considered to be one of the premier domestic tourist destinations for Koreans. Essentually, Jeju is to South Korea as Florida is to the US. It also attracts lots of other tourists from China and Japan. In addition to nice beaches, and of course the towering Hallasan, which dominates the island, Jeju also has the spectacular Manjanggul Lava Tubes – a series of huge caves that are also a UNESCO World Heritage site.
After Jake and I landed in Jeju, we hopped in our rental car and headed right for the grocery store to stock up for the hike. Grocery stores are a great way to get introduced to the culture of a country. We found plenty of ginseng and Spam, as well as some cereal labeled in the closest Korean characters to “Oreo O’s.” Then we headed to Manjangul because we had a few hours of daylight remaining. Driving on Jeju was simple – unlike Japan, Koreans drive on the right, and the road quality and patterns are similar to those of the US. Most signs have both Korean and English characters. The roads are generously wide too.
We also had a chance to practice our Chinese. On our way to Manjangul, we stopped to ask for directions at a visitors’ center. The woman didn’t seem to understand any English, so we asked “ni shuo zhongwen ma?” [“Do you speak Chinese?”] We had seen lots of text written in Korean first, followed by Chinese, and maybe English if you were lucky.
The woman immediately brightened up and started speaking in Chinese very fast. Our Chinese was a bit rusty, but after a few minutes of back and forth, we thought we had a pretty good grasp on what she was saying, and thanked her profusely for giving us directions. “Wow, I never thought I’d have a chance to practice my Chinese in Korea,” I said to Jake. “There must be a lot of Chinese tourists that come here.”
When we arrived at the caves, we hiked through the lava tubes and took some cool photos with Jake’s SLR camera mounted to a tripod. He set the camera to take long-exposure photos, and we spelled out our names with our headlamps. The trick is that you have to use cursive, and need to flip the photos afterwards, otherwise the text will be mirrored.
After Manjangul, we headed for the Gwaneumsa trailhead, where we would camp for the night. Fearing that the summer crowds would fill up the campground, I asked my Korean friend if he would mind trying to make a reservation for us. He Skyped with the park service but it turned out they didn’t take reservations. In any case, the campground was nearly vacant, so we picked our favorite spot. Although it was dark, the temperature was pleasant and the sky was clear and windless, and we had a slight urge to start hiking it right then and there. But we decided to stick with our original plan and start hiking early the next morning. The decision would turn out to be a regrettable one.
After a few hours of sleep, we started up the Gwaneumsa trail about 45 minutes before sunrise so that we could be back in time to catch our afternoon flights. After approximately two hours of hiking, we arrived at a ranger station – I believe this is labeled as Samgakbong on the map. The ranger station is also a checkpoint of sorts. There is a sign that says (I think) that you need to reach this point before 1pm or else you can’t continue to the summit. We realized, crucially, that probably no rangers sleep there. (As we hiked down the trail later that day, we saw a man ascending to the ranger station on an interesting little motorized rail car, which suggested to us that if you hiked by Samgakbong at night, there wouldn’t be anybody there to stop you.) More on the relevance of hiking at night later.
We got to the checkpoint, passed by the apparently unoccupied ranger station, and continued up the mountain. After another hour climbing up an incredible wooden staircase and crossing an amazing suspension bridge, we reached the edge of the summit crater rim, and arrived at a critical crossroads.
Allow me to pause for a bit to explain the topography of the mountain. Jeju Island is essentially just one big volcanic mountain – Hallasan – rising out of the sea. Locals say that Hallasan is Jeju and Jeju is Hallasan. At the top of Hallasan is a giant crater, about 600m wide, with a small pond in the bottom.
As we approached the lip of the crater, we noticed that there are basically two prominent peaks – one on either side of the crater rim. According to our map, the peak on the west side of the crater rim (our right) is 1950m, and is labeled as the official summit of Hallasan. However, we also noticed on our map that the trails leading to the true summit are drawn in a different color than all of the other trails on the map, and are labeled as “Summit Restricted Areas.” While researching Hallasan, I had chosen to ignore this seemingly minor detail, thinking that perhaps this was just some seasonal closure, or maybe there was just a quota system, or perhaps the map is outdated, because I couldn’t find anything else online that said the real summit was off-limits.
As we stood on the trail and gazed towards the true summit, the map began to make more sense. From where we stood, a small trail led toward the summit, and we could see that it was quite eroded in some of the steeper sections. Unfortunately, however, there were three sets of ropes blocking access to the trail, and a fallen sign with a chunk missing. It was as if someone had whacked the sign in frustration, knocking it over. The sign was written completely in Korean except for a few numbers, including the number “50” written in red.
We couldn’t read Korean, so we wondered, “Does this ‘50’ somehow refer to the elevation, as in ‘the true summit is 50m above this point’? Or, does ‘50’ refer to the fine for passing this point?” We had a hunch that it was probably the latter. The fact that Hallasan National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site suggested to us that the park was serious about stopping erosion, even if it meant closing the trail to the true summit.
(Indeed, we later found out that the sign actually says something to the effect of “This area is off-limits due to erosion. 500,000 Won fine [~USD $430] for entering” [later translated by a Korean friend of mine]. Links to photos of the sign and view are provided at the end of this report.)
We paused at that point for a few minutes and thought long and hard about what do to. We guessed that we were the first ones up the mountain that day, so it was unlikely that anyone would see us if we hopped the rope barriers and proceeded toward the true summit, but we couldn’t be sure. With our red t-shirts, we’d be super visible.
So, we continued hiking, up the main, “legal” trail towards the eastern peak on the crater rim which, based on our map, was lower than the true summit. Getting to the top of this east peak would enable us to see if the west peak was indeed taller, and would also give us more time to think. We arrived at the east peak after another 15 minutes and the view was magnificent. We could see the entire island, the buildings in Jeju, and ships in the harbor. The summit area was highly built-up, with an expansive observation deck, boardwalks, sightseeing telescopes, and plenty of comfortable benches. There was also a small geodesic dome-style building that may have been a ranger station. At least that was what the map suggested, but it seemed that nobody was (awake) inside.
But of course, our focus was mostly directed to the other side of the crater rim, trying to ascertain which peak was taller. As we used Jake’s SLR camera to get a zoomed-in view of the west peak, probably 600 m distant, we noticed that it had none of the tourist infrastructure that was present on the east peak. The only man-made things we noticed were a rock cairn and a small pole, and notably an absence of other people.
The west peak looked ever so slightly taller, but as all mountaineers know, it’s hard to tell small height differences with the naked eye. So we whipped out our GPS’s for a quantitative analysis. Both read about 1940m – that’s 10m below the 1950m quoted on the map for the summit elevation. “I could believe that we’re 30 ft shorter,” I said to Jake.
“That’s close to the accuracy of the GPS,” Jake replied, “but you’re right that it definitely does look taller.”
Convinced that we were indeed standing on merely the second-highest point in Korea, we set about trying to determine the least conspicuous way to run over and tag the true summit. As we walked around the false summit area (we were indeed the first to arrive that morning), other hikers started to show up, ruining any chance of being able to slip into the restricted area unnoticed.
We noticed that there was actually a webcam on the false summit (photo here), which seems to be pointed towards the beautiful little pond at the bottom of the crater, but which incidentally would also capture a view of any hikers making a dash for the true summit. Perhaps this webcam is just for armchair mountaineers to get a view of the summit from the comfort of home. Perhaps it’s also for rangers to see if anyone’s sneaking off the trail.
“If the true high points if off-limits,” I said to Jake, “then I wonder why we didn’t see anything written about it online, other than our map? The handful of websites that mention Hallasan all suggest that you can hike to the very top.”
“Maybe most people think this is the top,” Jake suggested. “Or maybe most people just think this is good enough.”
That made a lot of sense. If you don’t have a GPS, don’t look at the map too carefully, and don’t look too hard at the west peak, you could be convinced that this was the true summit. Why would they build this giant observation deck if this wasn’t the highest point? And why would you even want to go over to the west peak, if the view is comparable and there aren’t any comfortable benches to sit on anyway?
The situation is very similar for the highest points on the Caribbean Islands of St. Vincent and St. Kitts. The islands are big volcanoes, with a crater rim on the summit. The crater rims have multiple summits, and in both cases the trails lead to a low point on the crater rim. Most people who reach the crater rim, where the trail stops, say that they have reached the true high point, but in fact the true high point is on the opposite side of the crater and significantly harder to get to. In the case of St. Kitts, for example, it took us an easy 1.5 hours to hike to the crater rim, and required an additional eight hours of harrowing bushwhacking through the jungle to reach the true summit.
Sitting here on the east peak of Hallasan, a non-purist highpointer would claim victory. But we could not.
After admiring the outstanding view of Jeju and almost the entire island for the better part of an hour, it was time to make a crucial decision. Do we make a dash for the true summit, and risk being caught? Or do we consider the second highest point to be good enough? We decided to descend back the intimidating sign we had seen before and meditate over the decision. We reached the sign and sat down to contemplate. Unable to translate the sign, but relatively sure what it probably said, we weighed both choices. On the one hand, if we ran for the real summit, we could probably reach it and be back to this point in less than 45 minutes. We’d get the glory of climbing the highest mountain in South Korea and achieve the primary objective for our trip. On our world map, we could triumphantly change the color of South Korea from red to blue. For better or for worse, the heavily-eroded trail was quite visible from that point and, aside from a bit of scrambling to get around a few small cliffs, it looked like it would be quite manageable.
But on the other hand, for about 90% of the climb inside the presumably “restricted area,” we would be completely visible to all of the sightseers on the false summit, probably about 20 people in all, we guessed. There would be no chance of an incognito ascent on this sunny, cloudless day. Most of the people that saw us probably wouldn’t care, but it’s likely that someone would tell the ranger back at the ranger station we had passed on the way up, and which we would also pass again during our descent. That ranger probably would care. And so would the others back at the trailhead.
Being detained by the authorities wouldn’t work particularly well with our schedule, since we had a flight to catch that afternoon. And if there is indeed a fine, how much would the fine be? What type of price would the park management charge to make people think twice about trespassing? An equally important question was: how much is a country high point worth to us? What is the maximum amount we would be willing to pay to reach the top? In that case, you could look at the “fine” as more of a “fee.” If the maximum that you were willing to pay was greater than the amount of the fine, then decision should be easy.
We were more worried about being delayed and missing our flights than we were about the fine – ahem – fee. Jake was flying to Seoul that afternoon, and I was slated to fly back to Osaka, so I could catch my flight back to the States the next morning. Missing the latter flight would probably cost much more than whatever the trespassing ticket would cost.
After more than half an hour of discussion and vacillation, we came to an agonizing decision. If we ran to the summit, we would be spotted, the rangers would most likely be notified, and we would likely face consequences that resulted in us being delayed and/or paying a significant amount of money. Although the summit was so tantalizingly close, so seemingly within reach, the risk to reward ratio was not high enough. We could picture ourselves on the summit, just 30 minutes away, basking in the glory of reaching the top. We could also picture a bunch of rangers angrily and unsympathetically awaiting our return to the trail. Alas, today Hallasan would win.
Most hikers would have considered the day to be a smashing success. The weather was phenomenal, we had had a great climb, and we had been rewarded with the most extensive and glorious view in the entire country (well, make that the second-best view). But as we turned our backs on trail to the true summit and began the two-hour hike back the trailhead, I couldn’t help but feel the agony of defeat. From my perspective, we had fallen short. The mission had not been accomplished. If only we had another day, we would simply hike it at night and reach the summit secretly, under the cover of darkness.
Jake tried to cheer me up, but my mood could not be lifted. “What had happened?” I asked myself. Despite so many setbacks on our previous highpointing expeditions, all of them had been successful, assuming that the threshold for success is reaching the highest point. Eric and I had grown accustomed to spending many hours researching mountains and planning our attacks. In some cases, our trips have been so well planned that we ended up spending more time researching certain mountains than we actually spent on the ground climbing them. Perhaps I had grown complacent over the years. Perhaps I had taken Hallasan for granted this time, and assumed that it would be a pushover. Perhaps I had spent too much time preparing my presentation for the EMBC conference in Osaka (which was the reason I was in Japan in the first place) and not enough time digging through the literature about Hallasan. Perhaps another hour to two of research would have clarified the meaning behind the “Summit Restricted Area” written next to the summit on my map?
After we got back to the trailhead, we hopped in the car and made our way back to Jeju. We stopped by the beach for some bodysurfing in the hot July sun. Although the beach was a good consolation prize, it still couldn’t take the edge off of my disappointment. Had we made the right decision? Would we actually have gotten caught? It was hard to say.
We talked about what we’d do differently next time. “I think that if you climbed it on a rainy day, when the summit is in the clouds, you could get go to the top without being seen,” Jake said.
I concurred. “You could also just climb it night,” I said. “Start hiking at midnight, when you can be sure that everyone is done hiking for the day. When you reach the Samgakbong ranger station after two or three hours, turn off your headlamp, just in case anyone is in there. Slink by the ranger station, proceed into the trees and turn your light back on. Continue hiking to the scary sign, hop over the ropes, and reach the true summit at about 4 or 5am. Take some photos, then hike over to the false summit and wait around for sunrise. It would be amazing to watch the sun come right out of the ocean.”
The only tricky part about starting at midnight is that technically you’re not supposed to hike at night. According to the park map, “for visitors’ safety and protection of the park from mountain fire, etc., hiking at night (from the sunset to 2 hours before the sunrise) is prohibited.” But we both agreed that you’d be extremely unlikely to encounter anyone else while hiking at night and most likely you’d be able to get away with it.
In any case, for us, a true ascent of Hallasan would have to wait until next time.
Feel free to contact us at matthewg [at] alum.mit.edu and egilbert [at] alum.mit.edu for more info or our GPS track.
Note: As it turns out, it appears that people do indeed become unhappy if you try to make a run for the real summit. A fellow highpointer recently reported that “I also climbed down to the crater and part of the way up the other side before someone started waving me to come back to the path.” Perhaps our decision had been the right one.
–Photos from our trip, including close-ups of the summit area
–High resolution Hallasan National Park Map, showing all of the hiking trails (59MB)
–Photo of the side trail to the true summit (click on “Full size” link in upper right corner)
–Partial summit panorama taken from east (false) peak
–Close-up of actual summit
–“Do not enter” sign