Jeju island is a very popular destination to visit in South Korea. It is probably second after Seoul. The island is on the far south below the Korean Peninsula. It takes an hour flight from Seoul.
For an island, Jeju is huge. It takes more than 2 hours to get from the north to the south of the island by car. Exploring Jeju by bus is possible if you have enough time to spend waiting for buses.
Other than the stunning beaches, Jeju is popular for the natural attractions it offers from volcanos to waterfalls. In fact, Jeju is home to South Korea’s highest mountain- Mount Hallasan, a volcano shield standing at 1947m.
With a month to travel around South Korea, Jeju island was always part of my plan.
My main motivation to visit Jeju is not the beaches though, for one I’m not particularly a beach person. Don’t get me wrong, I love the sea. I love looking at it preferably from cliffs. I just don’t like lazing up on the beach. It doesn’t help that I’m not a good swimmer. Not to mention that I’m visiting during the winter months, during December.
My motivation was to summit Hallasan. I love hiking, I’d hike whenever possible. I’ve done some spectacular hikes in the past in New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Scotland and my biggest achievement so far: Mt Kilimanjaro.
It is becoming a ritual. Wherever I travel, I like to include a hike.
With the pandemic stopping me from travelling as usual the past year and the lockdowns significantly limiting movement, I didn’t do much hiking except for some small walks and micro adventures around Bristol.
I definitely wasn’t going to pass on the opportunity of not only hiking but summiting the highest mountain in the country. That would be a great achievement to end a not so great year, I told myself.
With that in mind, I boarded a flight from Seoul to Jeju.
After a few days spent in between sipping coffees overlooking the ocean, visiting museums and walking a portion of the Olle trail, it was time for Hallasan.
Getting ready for Hallasan
Although everything I found online stated that Jeju city is best as a base to head to Mt Hallasan, I was starting from the southern city of Jeju island- Seogwipo city.
I’m trying to think if I ever summited a serious mountain on my own before but I don’t think I did. Even when I set on the night climb of Sri Lanka’s Adam’s Peak, I ended up being with another two travellers I met there.
Hallasan was to be my first solo summit. This excited me and scared me all at once.
That’s why I wanted to be ready. So I read everything I could find online. One blog entry was extremely helpful. I learnt that there are four trails on the mountain, only two of them go all the way to the summit.
I also learnt that there are cut times for when to start and when to leave the summit depending on the season to make sure everyone makes it safely.
But that wasn’t enough for my peace of mind. I decided therefore to go to the tourist information centre and make sure I know everything I need to know.
I explained to the lady there what I was trying to achieve. She made a phone call. Then she told me that although it’s been snowing, the trail is safe and open all the way to the summit the next day. Apparently on that day, the trail was only partially open for safety reasons. This piece of information wasn’t particularly helping my anxiety.
She marked my starting point on the map, wrote down the bus number I should be taking to reach the starting point and finally told me that I absolutely need gaters and snow grips for my boots. She told me where I can buy them. There’s nowhere in the city or at the park entrance where to hire equipment.
As I thanked her, I asked her one last question: would there be any other hikers on the trail? She smiled at me and reassured me there will be plenty.
With the new information I gathered from the kind lady, I made my way to town for a last minute mountain shopping. I got the grips and gaters. Then I bought a pastry from a bakery and Gimbap from a street food stall.
I had my gear, food and water. I was ready but I was still anxious. In fact, I was very anxious.
For some reason, I imagined the trail to be deserted and poorly marked. What if I get lost on the mountain? What if I get injured and there’s no one around to rescue me? I checked my travel insurance to make sure I have the right cover and I sent a picture of the map to two of my closest friends, explained the plan and timeline and when they should expect to hear from me. I threatened that, in case I disappear, my ghost would come after them if they didn’t look for me.
With that, I was done planning and covering every worst case scenario possible.
The next morning,I made my way to the bus stop at 6:30 AM. Since It was winter, ideally I’d start my ascent at 8 AM to be able to descend at the cutoff time of 1PM.
The bus journey took about 45 minutes, there was another guy in hiking gear. I suspected he was heading to where I was heading. As we get closer and the bus gets up in the mountain, the view becomes whiter.
You see, I assumed the snow was only on the top of the mountain. I thought it would be a nice and easy start to the hike then I’d deal with snow later.
It was becoming very obvious that my assumption was wrong. At that moment, I could hear my heartbeat. My anxiety was having a party. There was this voice telling me how bad of an idea that was.
But then there was this other voice. A much wiser voice that was telling me that we have no obligations to make it all the way to the summit. We can assess risk as we go and decide where to stop. This voice even suggested that if we don’t feel comfortable when we step out of the bus, we can take a bus in the opposite direction, go back to town and have a feast instead.
There were four of us when the bus stopped at the park entrance: a middle aged man, a younger man and another lady. All solo hikers each of us on their own.
On the other side of the road, I can see the car park and a big building serving as a rest area for hikers.
It was packed with hikers. I almost laughed out loud at myself thinking I’d be the only one on the trail.
There were all kinds of people, couples, groups of friends, families, solo hikers. At this point in my trip, I was used to being the only foreigner wherever I went. I was indeed the only foreigner at that point. Later on, I met with a group a foreign students at the summit and a korean-american gentleman.
As I was putting my gaters and grips on, an old man helped me fix them in the right order, which immediately took away my anxiety. I might be hiking on my own but I was surrounded by kind people 🙂
I followed the nice guy and his friend and officially started my ascent to Mt Hallasan.
The trail was packed from the start. It was a narrow trail, so we had to walk in a queue. Eventually, some picked a faster pace and were miles ahead, others were slower or busy stopping for pictures and ended up being behind.
I’m not sure I can describe the trail, at least not the kind of description to go on about the lush green, beautiful views and so on because everything was white. It wasn’t dull boring white though, it was magical white. It felt like a Christmas wonderland, a magical white December.
I was walking into a deep layer of snow. The day before, the lady at the information centre mentioned 50 cm or more of snow.
The first section of the trail was in the forest, with the trees covered in snow. Occasionally, I’d cross one of those cute little wooden bridges over streams of water turned ice. It was a gentle start to the hike with moderate elevation. There were stairs on the different sections announcing it’s time to climb.
Fellow hikers on the trail weren’t particularly chatty. It was too cold anyway to waste any energy. All of us were wearing masks as it is the etiquette to keep the face mask on when there are people around. But we exchanged smiles occasionally. And when I couldn’t figure out what everyone was staring at, they made sure to point out to the little snowman someone made on a tree branch. It was cute.
The trail continued to look the same but yet different, playfully narrowing and widening, being fully under the trees at times and giving us a glimpse of the beautiful sky at others.
I, too, joined others in taking pictures but tried not to get much distracted.
My goal was to reach the Jindalaebat shelter before 12:00 otherwise I wouldn’t be allowed to continue to the summit.
I reached the shelter with enough time to stop and enjoy my Gimbap. The next section of the trail was a proper climb. I knew we were close when we were skirting the mountain with the cliffs on the side.
The final ascent was steep and slow because there was a queue of hikers. It was busy but so rewarding.
I made it to the top of Mt Hallasan! The view was breathtaking. I took a souvenir picture by the Rock indicating you’ve made it to the top. Fun fact, I actually don’t know what’s exactly written on it. I can just assume it says Summit of Mt Hallasan. I should look for the translation.
Then I made my way to the other side to see the crater. The crater wasn’t visible due to the clouds but twice while I was on the top, the clouds moved allowing me to see the crater before I started my descent.
Back in my hotel room, I felt so silly for being so anxious before the hike. It ended up being such a smooth fun experience but I guess the worries are part of the experience and memories as well.