It was a sudden twitch, followed by a piercing pain that had me grasping my calf. Nearby, ajjumas & ajjusshis in their bright North Face(s) and trekking poles, gave out a hearty laugh as they strided passed me, as if they were on a weekly morning walk at Hangang.
I was embarrassed. Not because I was “out-fitted” by people 30 years my senior (I have already experienced the prowess of Korea’s ajjuma hikers), but because I had always thought that I would have no problems climbing a mountain. Apparently not, as I knead into my calf, hoping to awaken it from its painful stupor.
Part of me blamed it on the mere 2 hours of sleep we had. When Michael and I rushed to the Dong Seoul Bus Terminal at 5pm, we did not expect to only reach Sokcho after midnight.
Nor did we expect that we will spend 3 hours roaming on the midnight streets, hoping to locate our sleeping quarters, which ended up being the hard wooden floors of a jjimjibang.
So when we finally found the jjimjibang, sleep was the only thing on my mind. Unfortunately, I was rudely interrupted by the blaring alarm at 4.30am, reminding me that I had to get ready to catch the first bus to Seoraksan National Park.
Needless to say, I was a wreck. Save for a breakfast of kimbap and instant coffee from G25, I could not remember how I ended up at the foot of Seoraksan to begin the climb.
At 1,708m, the peak at Seoraksan(설악산) is the third tallest in Korea. The national park is renowned for its spectacular autumn colours, often lauded as the most beautiful in Korea.
Like many other national parks, Buddhist temples can be found enroute the hiking trail, providing international hikers a peak into the cultural assets of Korea.
We were visiting at the end of Spring. While not the peak hiking season, we were still joined by throngs of avid hikers.
Michael is an experienced hiker. He was fully prepared for the hike, having researched on the routes, and the time needed for us to make it to the peak and down, in order to catch our bus back to Seoul. I on the other hand, had only tried hiking once. I was clearly not prepared for the strenuous climb, and it was evident right from the start, as I struggled to keep up with Michael.
Lucky for me, Michael was patient enough to accommodate my need to stop every 30 mins for a longer-than-necessary water break. He even offered to help carry the two 1.5 litres drinking bottles, a gesture I deeply appreciated.
But seriously, while the trail is well maintained with handrails and anti-slip stairs, the climbs were often long and steep.
It was a common sight for the seasoned Korean hikers to stop half way on the climb to catch their breathe, let alone a novice like me.
Though, I do not think any of them had to clutch their calves, and whimper like a kicked puppy, because of a humiliating muscle cramp.
I say humiliating because having done sports for my entire life, I like to think that I can at least climb a mountain without having my muscles giving way. As prepared as Michael was, he probably did not anticipate a cramp occuring, and did not pack along any counter pain.
“This is nothing” I thought to myself. It was painful, but with the semester ending in two weeks’ time, this was the last opportunity I had to climb Seoraksan. So, I acted like it was nothing, and continued walking on. If Michael could tell, he did not say anything. He continued forward, though in a significantly slower pace.
Time was ticking. I knew, and Michael knew, that if we cannot reach the last rest stop by noon, we will have to give up the climb to the summit, and descend via an alternative route, a situation neither of us wanted.
“Some counter pain will really help” I internally cursed myself for packing in moisturizing cream, but not the all- important ointment.
In the magical world of Disney, Aladdin meets a genie who grants him three wishes. I only needed one, and in that magical morning at Seoraksan National Park, an elderly Korean couple became my real-life genie.
One moment, I was gingerly moving forward, and giving a forced smile to the couple in front of me. The next moment, the couple stops me, and fired off in rapid Korean, gesturing to my calf.
Thank goodness for my early morning Korean classes. They noticed I was clutching my calves earlier, and thought they could offer some help in the form of… COUNTER PAIN.
How magical is that?!
“너무 너무 감사합니다!” I uttered my thanks, coupled with the customary bows. The couple seemed amused as I gave a big smile while squeezing the cool analgesic gel onto my sweaty palms. “Are you heading to the peak”, they asked, and I nodded earnestly. “Well, you are still a long way away”, the man exclaimed, in a teasing tone. I nodded again, this time with an air of confidence. I am certain that we will make it up to the peak.
The climb was no easier than before, but this time, I was able to stay right behind Michael, all the way till Daecheongbong. It was 1.30pm, and we had been climbing for the last 6 hours. Yet, strangely, I felt no exhaustion, but a weird sense of adrenaline as I took in the surroundings.
From where we were, I could make out the source of the stream flowing elegantly down the slopes; I could see a clear path across the smaller peaks; I could feel the pulsating excitement of every hiker queuing to take a photo.
Yet, as I closed my eyes to take in the sensation of standing atop the highest point, what comes into my mind is the elderly couple on the trail; The elderly couple who demonstrated that sometimes, the most memorable sights of a country is not the glamorous shopping streets, the delicious foods, or even the breath-taking views.
It is the people you meet.
I chomped down my white bread and cheese crackers, and look over to Michael who was sporting an equally gigantic smile.
We made it.
AN: Credits to selected photos from Michael. And seriously, without him, I would have never made it to the top. I said it so many times, but thank you.