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Why I Climb: Bukhansan Edition

Having abstained from bloggin’ about climbin’ for ten whole days, I’m gonna let this puppy off the leash: OMG CLIMBING IS SO FUN. Ahhh. So much better. Like unbuttoning your pants after Thanksgiving dinner.

Anyway, picking up where I left off last time, let me describe the climbing I’ve been doing over the last couple weeks. Long story short, it’s been awesome:

Yes. Yes yes yes yes. (Photo courtesy of Josh Doubleu)

The past three weeks have been a study in systematic desensitization. Week one was all slab work. For the non-climbers among you (so like, everyone), when you see “slab” think “not too steep.” Whereas most artificial walls are either vertical or overhung, this wall had a gentler incline, which made it possible—with the right shoes, technique and balance—to pretty much walk right on up there. What makes this kind of climbing difficult is that the wall is essentially smooth, or at least it appears that way to the untrained eye. The key to slab climbing is learning to rest 100% of your weight on footholds that are nearly imperceptible. It takes calf strength and heaps of trust, but if you can position your body just right and plant just enough of your shoe in just the right place, the seemingly impossible becomes routine.

AD readers, meet slab climbing. Slab climbing, meet the AD readers. (Photo courtesy of Sanirang.)

From slab climbing, we moved on to abseiling, a technique which allows the climber to lower him or herself after the climb is complete. This climbing skill, like pretty much all climbing skills, requires faith in the system: the rope will not snap; the harness will hold; the knots will stay tied. If you don’t hold firmly to those facts, then when you step backward off that cliff, you’ll be in for a plague of stomach butterflies. And stomach butterflies beget stomach butterflies, so the more nervous you are the less steady you will be when it comes time to lower yourself down the mountain. Put bluntly, when abseiling, you can’t waste your mental energy on nightmare imagery. You have too many things to do.

Keep your hand on the break. Release the slack smoothly. Not to fast! Ok, that’s better. Step back. Nice and smooth. Keep your legs wide. Don’t bend your knees. Sit back in the harness. Brace yourself with your hand. Jesus Christ, not the break hand! Ok. You’ve got it. Steady. Slip your foot over the ledge. Reach down. Don’t swing. Now, lower. Lower. Lower. 

If you’re calm, none of this is very difficult. Without even thinking about it, you do the same kind of complex physical computations when walking down the street—keeping your balance, maintaining appropriate speed, not bumping into things—but in this case you’re just 30m off the ground. Forgetting those 30m allows your body to do what it’s meant to do, but if you’re freakin’ out, the messages get scrambled and you end up hanging upside down (not really [unless you screw up something MAJOR]). Despite the million little things it takes, when you do it right, abseiling is the kind of experience that makes zealous converts, especially after an exherrifying* climb. It’s what I imagine walking on the moon must feel like.

Black and white, like the Moon.

DME abseiling down into nothingness

With abseiling covered, the class began practicing multi-pitch climbing. In rock-junky jargon, multi-pitch refers to the process by which a pair or group of climbers leapfrogs its way up a rock face. When climbing indoors, the climber is belayed from below by his or her partner who stays on the ground. In multi-pitch climbing, however, the lead climber ascends the wall first and sets up an anchor point. Then with the anchor in place, the lead climber belays his or her partner from above. Once the second person is safely tied into the anchor point, the cycle begins again. By doing this, a team of climbers can use a 60m rope to climb a 1000m rock face. Because of the moving parts, multi-pitch climbing is a complex process with a complex set of rules, so the instructors had us do the sequence over and over: 1) Hook daisy chain into anchor, carabiner gate away from rock; 2) call “safe;” 3) pull in and stack trailing rope until no slack remains between you and the person following you; 4) load GriGri and attach to anchor, then test GriGri is loaded properly by pulling on climber’s rope; 5) when ready, tug three times on climber’s rope, maintaining tension; 6) belay climber until climber ties into anchor point and calls “safe;” 7) remove GriGri and unload rope.

A sport-climbing multi-pitch with three climbers

Being in the throws of a pretty major climbing obsession myself, I feel I’ve laid out a forceful proof, but I can imagine that somewhere someone is still asking, “Why do people go to all that trouble, effort, and expense? For bloodly knuckles and a little thrill?”

Well, for me, rock climbing is the literalization of a metaphoric urge: get to the top. In the most elemental way, it’s an adult-sized game of King of the Mountain. It’s about ascension and upward motion, rather than the forward motion that so dominates the rest of the world. Whereas locker rooms and sidelines may see the image of “getting to the top” used alongside any number of other vague clichés, in climbing, it’s an actual sensory experience. The climbing body is a constellation of wakeful pieces: the tactile sharpness of hands pressed into rock; the impossible precision of fingers, gripping and weighted; the knot of exuberance tightening as the comfortable ground drops away; the cable of tension that runs from foot to core to hand. When you’re doing it right, the climbing mind is active but quiet, a lesser version of the sort of thing found in ashrams and convents. Our anxious bipedal selves have no interest in height or view or textured rock, but our monkey brains recognize something we forgot when we walked out of the forest and onto the savanna: climbing is fun.

I don’t know what I was about to say here, but I don’t think it was going to be delicate. “H-E-double hockey sticks” is not allowed on the mountain. (Photo courtesy of Josh Doubleu)


[UPDATE: This morning, after the post had a chance to ripen overnight, I added the first photo for enhanced awesomeness, which meant I had to move things around a little to make room. I mean seriously. Josh. Do you have training as a photographer? Because you totally dominated in that department. If this blog were a real thing, I would want you on staff.]

13 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ann Wilson #

    Great description of your climbing. I am sorry to say that since you have described it so well, I do not want to try it. Crazy and scary come to mind. Don’t mind me I have lived to long and done my own wild things and survived. I am sure you will to. BE CAREFUL….!

    April 11, 2012
  2. Eve #

    All I have to say is “The climbing body is a constellation of wakeful pieces: the tactile sharpness of hands pressed into rock; the impossible precision of fingers, gripping and weighted; the knot of exuberance tightening as the comfortable ground drops away; the cable of tension that runs from foot to core to hand. ” Awesome!
    I love you.

    April 11, 2012
    • Thanks, Eve! You gonna come climbing with me someday? Was I persuasive enough?

      April 11, 2012
  3. emily #

    marvelous explanation. my only climbing was when the teen group was out hiking and we missed a turn (frequently) and ended up on the wrong side of a gorge in KY. then rapell down hand over hand, tied to another rope just in case we slipped. it was, as you say, exherrifying.

    April 11, 2012
    • Oh god. Even I wouldn’t be comfortable doing an unplanned climb with the wrong gear and a group of teenagers. That’s all kinds of not-safe.

      April 13, 2012
  4. Dad #


    I’ve always wanted to be a climber. Be carefull.
    See you in Yosemite.

    Love Dad

    April 13, 2012
    • Hey Dad,

      I can’t wait to climb in Yosemite! It’s one of my major goals. And yes. I will be very careful. This Sunday is the graduation climb for my school (5 pitches to get to the top of Insadong). I am so excited I can barely handle it.


      April 13, 2012
      • LOAN #

        Insadong is a “souvenir” area at Seoul. InSUBONG is at the Bukkansan where we go ;)
        Perharps you will go to the top of Insadong before going back to the US, to bring some gift and souvenir to your love-ones.
        ;)))) Bisous, Loan

        April 23, 2012
        • Good catch! For a while I called it Insadong, then Insabong. Now, I finally have it right! But, you know I’ll totally climb Insadong if I get the chance.

          April 23, 2012
  5. Mike Wood #

    “With tentative steps I climbed around the arete from the gorge, and along a vertical face. Suddenly I noticed that I was not alone: I had split into several persons. It was as if I consisted of three beings: one that was climbing, one that watched the climber, and one that sang to everything. Yes, I incessantly hummed a melody to myself. In addition, I thought in sentences in a language unknown to anybody else. It helped me to clear my thoughts or to turn off the thinking entirely. Although I had a feeling of encompassing several people, I was still my complete self. Above me, where sky should have been, now hung rock and below me was the abyss. My world seemed to have reversed and appeared upside-down. It just was not horizontal any longer, but vertical. The song I was singing was nothing I had learned in school; I did not even know the words, but the other two sang along as if they did. As if they were as real as I. My movements had become just as natural as the song. I found myself in an infinite loop of matter-of-course that included my entire being. It was completely irrelevant which of the three of us was singing. Hands and feet moved along all by themselves as if dancing. My breath was short and loud, my heart pounding all the way to the top.” – Reinhold Messner from Rock and Ice Ascent, 2012.

    April 20, 2012

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