One week ago, I completed Sanirang’s beginning outdoor climbing course by summiting Insubong, the second highest peak in the Seoul area. As I’ve mentioned here, here and here, SAN’s classes have totally changed my life in Korea, so it would be an understatement to say that I was looking forward to this climb: for the 48 hours beforehand, I was a giddy, squirming embarrassment to myself and the people around me.
The graduation climb was, of course, amazing. As with all my previous weekend trips to Bukhansan, this final climb was preceded by a night of camping, drinking and 삼겹살 (samgyeopsal: grilled pork belly and kimchi with a spicy-salty-sweet dipping sauce, all wrapped in a lettuce leaf and eaten like a taco). Not being much for hung-over climbing, I only participated in the first and third activities, but the night’s general atmosphere mixed with my gnawing anticipation was intoxicating enough.
The next morning, the full group—which for graduation day had grown from eight to nearly twenty-five people—woke to a pale, early-spring sky. Behind us, in the lap of the mountains, Seoul was obscured by a thick, velveteen grayness. Those clouds, which until that morning I had only experienced from below, performed that amazing environmental alchemy that’s only visible from a distance: mountains became islands and a smoggy skyline became a becalmed ocean.
Above us, Insubong rose invitingly out of Bukhansan’s denuded tree cover. Wanting to get a jump on the horde of Koreans with whom we would be competing for route space, we managed to pack up the camp and hit the trail with a speediness I don’t generally associate with 6:30 in the morning. After a short hike, we arrived at the sweetest spot on the mountain, the point where the loamy turf of the forest gives way to solid, climbable rock. Clustered there at the base of the wall, my classmates and I became palpably alert. Some of us were jittery with impatience, others with nerves. Pressing our hands into the rock, feeling it bite into our shoes as we sat there, perched and waiting, anticipation cinched tight. Jaw muscles clenched and fingers flexed. It’s time to do this thing:
My climbing team was stacked with skilled climbers: Bossman Peter, Sanirang’s intrepid leader; Sherpa Ashley who is, according to one Korean gentleman, “strong like a big man, but pretty like a girl”; an unnamed 아저씨 (ajeoshi: older Korean guy), whom I called 형님 (hyoung nim: older brother); and Loan, a gorgeous French woman with whom I have fallen hopelessly, though platonically, in love.
[NOTE FOR NON-CLIMBERS: Skip the next four paragraphs. Go grab a snack and meet us back here in a few.]
My team began its ascent with an easy enough first pitch: a thick crack—which offered a dreamy layback for the first 10m—lead into a long but comfortable slab. After that gentle introduction, however, the team rolled into some serious climbing.
The second pitch consisted of a cushy staircase crack to some groin-straining stem work to a tight vertical ascent up a claustrophobic corner. The anchor point, which was a full rope’s length up the mountain (just shy of 60m), left us suspended over a deep nothingness that was not well-suited to a delicate consitution.
For as arresting as the second pitch was, the third pitch was another 50% more heart pounding. From the secure though anxiety-inducing anchor point, you hefted yourself—on tiny crimpers—up a nearly vertical wall to a sling, which had been placed there by the lead climber to aid us across an unmanageable bit of rock. With sling in hand, you stepped off one rock face and onto another, a very steep slabby bit that offered few footholds. With the help of a creaky flake that ran up the slab, you worked your way into a chimney and began an exhausting shimmy up the last 15m of the climb.
After that big push, the fourth pitch was a piece of cake (unless, like Ashley, you were informed by the Bossman that you would be carrying 800kg worth of gear). This leg of the climb started with a stemmy chimney/crack that was easy if you trusted your feet and, like me, have long legs and a broad wingspan. From there, it was an easy scramble up a muddy crack to a final layback and up onto solid ground. From the last pitch, our team crested the mountain and was greeted with a breathtaking view:
[Welcome back, non-climbers! What you missed: climbing is difficult and full of jargon.] After a well-earned, mountaintop lunch—which, blessedly, included homemade BIRTHDAY CAKE!—we abseiled down a 60m cliff-face. And that was it; we were done.
In a future post, I’ll talk more about the significance of this experience, but suffice it to say, climbing Insu was major. I don’t know if anyone else gets this sensation, but when I’m really—elated? content? purged?—my lungs seem to pull in more air than they could ever possibly hold. It’s like I am, to borrow a phrase, “bigger on the inside.” That feeling of impossible expansiveness didn’t fade until hours after I’d unclipped from the abseiling rope.
Yes, there were frightening moments, but it was all very manageable. When the holds were just a little too small and the ledge just a little too exposed, anxiety started scratching at the window, but thanks to a heaping helping of willful avoidance—Nope, you’re just not allowed to think about that—I was able to quell the panic before it could grow into something more oppressive. Having accomplished that minor miracle of mental discipline, the space inside me, which should have been filled with a gut-clenching terror, was instead filled with an implacable amazement: we’d done it.
I still have a long way to go before counting myself a fully competent climber, but Insubong was a big step. Although I wasn’t conscious of it, it was reported to me later that after each pitch, I could be counted on to exclaim, “That was fucking awesome,” at least four times before settling down. Not to put too fine a point on it, but even now, a week out and safely off the mountain, that seems to be just about the best way to express the thing: climbing Insubong was fucking awesome.
In the comments bellow, feel free to share climbing and non-climbing triumph. What makes you bigger on the inside? And how about triumph? And scary first times? Tell us a story, if you’re so inclined!