▲ Journalism teacher Christopher Carpenter, lower left, was one of a group of professors from Ewha Womans University to ascend Mount Halla. Photos by Christopher Carpenter
The rain began on Wednesday night, or at least at sea level it was rain. Snow was falling higher up on Halla Mountain as I left my room at the Lotte Hotel hoping to find a shop where I could buy souvenirs for my 5-year-old. I had come to Jeju that afternoon with several hundred other Ewha Womans University professors for the 2010 school year orientation.
I poked my head out the door of the deserted lobby, felt the damp cold and thought Thursday’s hike would be a wet one. I didn’t take the temperature at 1,950 meters above sea level into account.
A group of around 25 professors boarded a bus the next morning bound for Halla’s Seongpanak trailhead. As the road began climbing, the brown slopes whitened and snow swirled around the windshield. By the time we stopped, the forest was buried in a blanket of white. Our guide lined us up in pairs, counted us off and led the way up the path. It was 19.2 kilometers to the top and back. I found a senior professor who wanted to reach the peak and I had similar aspirations, so I tagged along with him.
The rise was gentle at first, and the previous night s snowfall padded the rocks. The only sounds were the crunch of boots in the snow and the sigh of the wind in the trees. The weather changed from falling snow to sun to falling snow several times before the snow won out. Smooth-barked trees gave way to pines as we hiked higher, and by the time we reached the Jindallaebat plateau, the landscape was a mountain meadow. Snow obscured views of the valley below, but transformed the trees into mazes of white branches. Each individual pine needle supported its own load of powder.
We rested at a shelter where workers sold steaming bowls of ramen noodles and hot coffee. Hikers gathered in small groups on the floor and on the benches that lined the walls, filling the room with the warmth of human bodies and hot food.
A group of five of us set out after lunch to explore the area around the shelter. Collective wisdom said the snow and wind were too hard on the peak to make the climb manageable. We all wanted to go though, so at a rendezvous 15 minutes up the trail, we weighed the distance to the top, the length of the trail back to the buses and the planned 4 p.m. departure for the airport. We decided we could do it.
Passing other hikers was complicated by the depth of the snow. Though the trail surface was only a few inches lower than the snow around it, straying more than a foot to either side meant sinking up to your knees.
As we went higher, the trees got thinner and thinner until nothing remained but the bare hillside. With nothing to block it, the wind whipped at our jackets, pants and faces. Snow stung my eyes, so I pulled the hood of my jacket over my face and kept walking. The path became a staircase of ice, and drifted snow left a narrow passage on the side of the mountain for people coming down to go by the ones going up.
By the time I reached the top, frost traced every seam in my coat. The wind blew mercilessly, and my cheeks stung. After a few minutes of pictures and exclamation at how cold it was, we set off back down the trail, our guide bringing up the rear to prevent stragglers.
Descending was harder on my legs than the ascent had been as my body weight took its toll with every step. But a couple of senior professors set the pace, taking time to appreciate the wonder of the woods in the snow.
As we walked, I hummed the melody of a Neil Young song. I’d told a couple of professors in my department the day before that I played guitar, and they had promised I would be playing for the whole group at next year’s orientation. I worry about fitting into Korean culture at work, and situations such as singing in public both terrify and thrill me at the same time.
But I felt good as I walked down the trail. The mountain’s unchanging energy reminded me to be myself, rather than try to meet other people s expectations of me. I had a song I could sing next year.
Christopher Carpenter teaches journalism at Ewha Womans University
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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