Mountainsides with Handrails

I was in my 3rd year of College and attending the University of Oregon.  I say 3rd rather than Junior year because sometimes in College, the year does not always equate to how far you have or have not progressed in school.  I was enrolled in an Outdoor Leadership class with Jim Blanchard.  A legend in the field of Search and Rescue and an almost mythical figure at the U of O, Blanchard made Grizzly Adams look like a City boy.  For every lesson that he taught us about safety and navigation in the wilderness, he had a story from his experience in the field of why it was crucial for our survival.  When discussing the importance of putting vents in a snow cave, Blanchard referenced being on the rescue and recovery mission in 1986 on Mt. Hood where 7 students and 2 faculty members of a school perished in a blizzard.  During one of our ‘outings’ in a Wilderness Survival course, Blanchard took us into the Oregon dunes in the middle of Winter.  In a heavy coastal downpour just above the freezing point, we solo camped with only a tarp.  Blanchard was driven to teach young adults how to guide, prepare, and endure the elements in order to prevent and survive disasters like the one he bore witness to on Mt. Hood.  

The Castle Wall at Namhansanseong

I remember one day when we were in a more typical classroom setting and discussing whether or not the outdoors should be more accessible to all.  At the time, I was at the peak of my self-centered viewpoint and struggled to see past anyone’s needs but my own.  I wanted solitude in the mountains and therefore, other people need not experience the wilderness.  As much as Blanchard loved to blame everything wrong in Oregon on Californians, he still maintained that the mountains, forests, and rivers are here for everyone to enjoy and we have the opportunity to show why it is important to respect and protect that natural beauty.  That instruction led me to work for a couple years at a Wilderness Therapy Program and lead countless other outdoor excursions for young people in residential schools and programs.  But, those lessons of creating accessibility in the Mountains have never been clearer than what I have experienced in Korea.  

Even though the City of Seoul has around 10 million inhabitants, (the greater Seoul region is 25 million), the area has been built around the landscape.  The hillsides have not been scraped off and leveled flat for a cul-de-sac full of cookie cutter houses like you might find in the States.  In Korea, they have definitely embraced the concept of building up rather than out.  Therefore, people’s personalized residences are very limited in size, but for a comparatively small area, there is a tremendous amount of shared green space.  And, they have done a incredible job of making it convenient and approachable for everyone to enjoy. From an outsider’s perspective, this has helped to create a much more inclusive hiking scene with subtle differences from what you might find in the United States.

The trails are void of switchbacks that cut into the slopes and are instead secured with steps, platforms, and handrails.  You can take a subway or bus right to the trailhead and there are no fees to enter the parks.  Due to this increased access, hiking is truly a social experience here in which friends and family members carry on at a jovial pace.  The people range in ages and ability, but all seemed equally determined to enjoy the journey rather than focusing on the destination.  I have seen old men pulled over on benches a mile into a hike watching a Korean Soap Opera.  Or, simply opera music blaring from an older woman’s phone as she dances down the hill.  There is a small possibility that some of the elation that people express while walking in the mountains is due to alcohol as Soju seems to go hand in hand with hiking.  I have chuckled at people taking a sip per step as it is clipped to the front strap on their bag and marveled when there are men passed out around the bottle at a picnic break.  The backpacks sometimes seem bigger than the people carrying them and I’m convinced they are filled only with food and booze.  If you happen to forget some of the basic necessities, capitalization is in full scheme as hilltop café’s have been resurrected at viewpoints along the trail.  There are temples carved into the sides of cliffs as well as vending machines perched on mountain tops. And, it would not be a trail in Korea if there is not an outdoor workout area as there nothing more I want to do when exercising than to get my lift on!

Some of our favorite areas that we have explored in Seoul and are pictured include Achasanseong, Gwanaksan, Namhansanseong, and Cheyenggyesan.  Because of the public transportation system and extensive trail network in these ranges, all of the hikes have been point to point.  We have found ourselves hiking until are hearts are content and then drop down from the hills to the nearest subway station or bus stop.  The notion of solitude now only exists in a shared experience and we are pleased to have time in the outdoors with others who relish in the opportunity.

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