▲ The first summit view in the morning. Photo courtesy Andrew Elwood
“The mountains teach our insignificance as well as our agency.”
Millions of years ago, in the Plio-Pleistocene seas south of the Korean Peninsula, a massive shield volcano gradually rose from the Eurasian plate to challenge the horizon. The fallout of this battle would result in a geological formation of incomparable world natural heritage, uniquely thrice crowned by UNESCO: Jeju Island and its effusive heart, Mt. Halla.
To the adventurous, the cloud-piercing peak is an ever-present challenge, an affront almost. It represents a test of endurance and training, looking down on a windswept land of women divers and stone grandfathers. Emboldened, I endeavored to confront Halla head on, not by hiking - as is customary - but by skyrunning up its east face.
I chose the Seongpanak trail, tucked within Korea’s largest fir forest, meandering up the gentle eastern slopes. While it lacks the drama of Yeongsil’s imposing gorge and sheer cliff walls, it nonetheless retains a subtle beauty and a deep personal challenge, one that I had to steel myself for.
Pain, trepidation, and uncertainty are woven into the fibers of challenge. Anything out there that’s worth doing is, on some level, going to be a little scary, whether it’s changing careers, traveling to a new country, or learning another language. Stepping into the unknown imbues both fulfillment and fear, reverence and rejection, primal connectivity and crushing solitude, all laying us bare before the inevitable cascade of highs and lows.
I came to running later in life, looking to fill the space that BMX had vacated. Back when riding skateparks, I never had to try to do scare myself: the challenges were brazen and concrete. With running though, it’s an entirely different game. To find that place of uncertainty that a challenging BMX line would present, I’d need to run steeper grades, longer distances, and more technical trails.
▲ Attacking an ice-encrusted Mt. Halla. Photo by John Witton
On the day of the challenge, the skatepark emotions came flooding back: Fear? Check. Butterflies? Check. Pain? Double check. Most importantly, I found that sense of agency legendary ultrarunner Anthony Krupicka spoke of, the feeling of near meditative joy while running the snowy 11.45 mile course, to date the best run of my life. A strong cup of coffee, an endorphin rush, and a long run turned out to be the recipe for a brilliant morning; I was hooked, again.
A month later I attempted a double summit, feeling pulled back. The first foot falls through the quiet pre-dawn umbra were to take me well past any previously established comfort zone. It was going to be a day of hurt, but after six-and-a-half hours, 23 miles, and nearly 7,700 feet of elevation gain/loss, Halla’s twin peaks would be mine.
Running a back-to-back markedly steps up the game. In addition to doubling the distance, elevation, and wear on the body, proper nourishment becomes more essential; it was much colder, and perplexingly, the trail was much more crowded. However, far outweighing the difficulties of sharing a narrow icy trail with exhausted trekkers, each fighting their own battles, was the encouragement and excitement of those I met on the trail, some of whom I had passed four times during the day.
I wanted even more, but it wasn’t to be. Two weeks later, after a failed attempt to have the 12:00 p.m. Seongpanak winter summit cut-off waived, I reluctantly scrapped my plans for a triple summit. However, all wasn’t lost; with friends from The Jeju Run Company and perfect weather conditions, I ran the double again, this time shaving nearly 15 minutes from my overall running time.
While numbers can be nice, it’s hard to quantify the dynamics of the real experience. Heightened emotions were a catalyst for the snowy trail’s metamorphosis. From an effervescent highway through Shangri La, to an exhausting and endless false awakening, the environment waxed and waned with my own frame of mind. This led me to conclude that the Diana Nyads and the Scott Jureks of the world correctly proclaimed that endurance sports are almost entirely mental challenges.
▲ The author taking a hard earned rest. Photo by John Witton
The kiddie pool.
When compared to some other mountaineering endurance challenges, the Halla double is a freshman feat at best. The Colorado Nolan’s 14 is a 100 mile run featuring 14 different 14,000+ foot peaks, over 90,000 feet of vertical, a 15 percent finish rate, and a 60-hour cut-off time. There is the Seven Summits challenge, whereby alpinists must summit the highest peak on each of the seven continents. 348 climbers have gained admittance to this elite mountaineering club.
It’s not being in the shadow of these super-athletes that makes me feel insignificant. The mountains, nature’s great cathedrals, humble the faithful and continually engender a sense of sublimity. Could I, or anyone, ever inspire others the way such peaks have done since time immemorial?
Perhaps this is the true lesson we take away from the high slopes: our greatest challenge, as parents, sons, daughters, friends, co-workers, teachers, and students, is to be - like the mountains - a constant source of inspiration to those around us. This, and every other challenge, summit quest, and great adventure all share one thing: they each begin with that first pivotal step.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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