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Story of the first recorded European to climb Mt. HallasanGenthe’s spirit of adventure saw him succeed in his goal of climbing Korea’s highest peak
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승인 2016.12.13  09:16:27
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▲ Siegfried Genthe Photo courtesy Halla Ilbo

This is article is part of a series looking at early adventurers to Jeju.

Part one in the series: Father Emile Taquet

Part two in the series: Ernest Henry Wilson

In November, the Jeju government released a press release saying they are going to implement a reservation system in order to reduce the number of visitors to Mt. Hallasan. At last count in 2015, over one million visitors entered Hallasan National park during the year.

As well as the stunning scenery and the view from the top of the mountain, these visitors enjoy the fact that the climb is a convenient, well pathed, and relatively easy hike.

However, the climb to the top of Mt. Hallasan has not always been like that.

For thousands of years, Mt. Hallasan was an inhospitable behemoth. A place where even if you could physically climb to the top, you most certainly would not want to for fear of upsetting one of the many mountain spirits that would plague the island should they be disturbed.

It is at this point, in 1901 - well before the wooden paths, clearly defined trails, and start point halfway up the mountain - that our story begins.

From the moment Siegfried Genthe, a German reporter based in Seoul, first set sights on the dramatic peak of Mt. Hallasan when passing Jeju by boat, he knew he had to climb it.

Siegfried was an adventurer at heart. During his short life he worked as a foreign correspondent for a German newspaper, and he also published personal reports on places he visited in Korea, Morocco and Samoa.

While this strong spirit of adventure may have ultimately lead to his untimely death at the age of 34, due to an assassination in Morocco, it also most certainly helped him complete his mission to climb Mt. Hallasan.

Not one for being told he couldn’t do something, he managed to overcome various physical, mental and political barriers on his journey.

His first barrier was one that had plagued many an early adventurer to Jeju, how to actually get there. While it may seem unbelievable in the days of two cruise ports and over one million passengers annually, in Genthe’s time, there were a mere two scheduled ships a year that visited Jeju.

However, after traveling to Incheon and being told by everyone just how mad he was to be even considering climbing the mountain, he gained passage to the island on a 20-year old ship run by Norwegians.

▲ The cave Genthe Stayed in Photo courtesy Halla Ilbo

Upon arrival on Jeju, everything seemed to be going smoothly. He had a letter of introduction to the Jeju governor, given to him by an American diplomat, as well as a bounty of wine, tinned fruit, and tea that seemed to smooth things over with the Jeju government and the islanders upon his arrival.

After his bags were set up in a borrowed home, and he was all settled in, the Jeju governor came to meet him. However, despite a pleasant interaction, Genthe was given news he didn’t want to hear. That he could, at no price, climb Mt. Hallasan.

The governor, of course, had some good reasons about why Genthe could not climb the mountain. As well as the aforementioned fear of upsetting the mountain spirits, there was also a significant worry for Genthe’s safety.

The governor predicted that should there be a problem with the upcoming harvest, there would not be much doubt about which spirit bothering foreigner would take the wrath of the islanders anger.

However, despite this initial firm resistance from the governor, Genthe actually didn’t seem to have much trouble persuading him to let him climb the mountain. In fact, he started his climb soon thereafter, supported by a crew of guides, porters, interpreters and bodyguards.

The plan of the first day - on Oct. 15 - was to reach the ruins of a Buddhist temple some 1000 meters up the mountain where they would spend the night. However, as the day wore on and they reached the supposed 1000-meter mark, they had still caught no sight of the temple.

It was now getting late and a pitch black darkness had fallen over the mountain. Despite the added danger that this brought, it actually helped in that they were able to spot a fire far off in the distance.

This fire, it turned out, belonged to a group of woodcutters who passed on both the upsetting news that the temple had been destroyed, as well as the much more favorable news that the crew could stay with them for the night.

After a cold smoky night in the woodcutter's hut, and after once again ignoring pleas that climbing to the top of the mountain was something that could not be done, Genthe, his interpreter, bodyguard and guide set off to the summit.

Despite the steepness of this section of the mountain, and the complete lack of a distinguished path, Genthe and his party managed to reach the summit and return all in one day.

From the top of the mountain, Genthe and his party, finally having completed their impossible mission, surveyed the magnificence of Jeju. A view of Jeju’s beautiful landscape that was no doubt very similar to the one that a million-plus climbers every year see to this day.

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