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Back to the Abyss

It didn’t take much for Sang-ok to persuade Kimberlee and me to join his hiking club. They were going to climb Geun-san, a mountain just outside of Samcheok. The trail was easy, he said: a nice, leisurely stroll up a small mountain. There was one part that was “a little steep.” 

Kim and I spent half of the two-hour climb grasping at branches and hoisting ourselves up at each step. The one little steep part involved clinging to ropes strung together between trees. 

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By comparison, this was the way down:

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No railing, no rope, and nothing to catch us but the rock-strewn valley past the edge of the cliff. Add about 50 other Korean hikers—liquored up, slipping on dead leaves, and giggling in the face of death—and you have a recipe for the most stressful day trip imaginable.

The next day, Sang-ok came to my desk. “Will you join us next weekend?” The club was going to Seoraksan National Park. It’s easily the most famous hiking park in Korea, located just outside Sokcho. The mountain for which the park is named is one of the highest in the country.

At this time of year, it was probably covered in snow. “You’ll need some cleats to make sure you don’t slip,” said Sang Ok. All the other hikers in the club, for whom Geun-san had been a bunny hill, assured us that it was fine. We’d take a cable car to the top of the mountain. The path was flat and even. We’d be very safe. No problem.

“We are doing to die,” I told Kim. 

Yet whenever we talked about that Sunday, we spoke as though we intended to make the trip. We went shopping for hiking boots. We discussed the best clothing to wear in cold weather, and what we’d pack for the picnic lunch.

The night before the hike, Kim and I went out for beer with a mutual friend and joked that it was our last supper. Nearing the end of the year as we were, we talked about the huge leap we’d made in coming to Korea. Before I received my placement, I’d been convinced I would teach elementary school. I had never heard of Donghae until I was on my way there, had no idea what my apartment or school would look like, and no clue how to even imagine the year that lay ahead of me. The summer before my departure I spent nights lying awake, worrying and wondering.

No matter what we discussed, we seemed to come back to how terrified we were of the next morning. All I could picture was Geun-san on ice, but taller. I wondered how my parents would feel, waking up in the middle of the night to a phone call from South Korea. “Maybe you should call us tomorrow,” I told our friend. “Just to make sure we’re okay.”

Still, neither of us backed out. Would we really miss out on seeing one of Gangwon Province’s—and Korea’s—most famous sites?   

The following morning, 70 people assembled to catch the charter bus to Sokcho. These other hikers were clad in the typical gear: stylishly-colored, insulated tracksuits with fancy boots from some high-scale hiking brand, like North Face or Red Face or Black Yak. Kimberlee and I were in our jackets and jeans, the closest things to hiking clothes that we’d brought to the country. We were packing heat in layers of long underwear and leggings. 

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When I saw the cliffs at the park, I started to feel uneasy. The cable car teetering up the rock face wasn’t quite enough to ease my nerves. Before we could ride to certain death, our group stopped at a temple in the valley—but not to pray for our lives, as I’d hoped. 

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At the top of the mountain was a sturdy flight of man-made wooden stairs, with tarp to cover most of the snow on the path. 

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I breathed a sigh of relief. This was a piece of cake!

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Then the railing disappeared, and we were facing the edge of a cliff. It sloped upward toward what can only be called a giant pile of rocks—and downward into a black, windy ravine.

Some of the women were wearing high heels.

Kimberlee and I stood as close to the path as possible, but our Korean cohorts spread over the face of the mountain and pulled out their cameras. Sang-ok was two feet from the edge of the cliff when he waved me over. 

“No way!” I yelled.

Sang-ok smiled. “Don’t be scary!”

Can you guess what took me to the edge of that cliff? Was it the view? My sense of adventure? The assurance that I could conquer my fears in spite of self-doubt?

Not a chance. Vanity brought me—vanity and the promise that I would never do this again. “I can’t wait to send these pictures to my friends,” I told myself as I hobbled to the edge.

I was fine until I turned my back to the abyss. Without any way to keep an eye on the precipice behind me, vertigo took over. I wondered if it was possible to fall over just from the fear that I might. It felt like summer nights back in Minnesota, waking up in the middle of the night to the realization that I was leaving my family, friends, and nearly everything I knew for a place I couldn’t imagine. 

EPIK does this on purpose. They keep your placement information under strict security until you’ve arrived in Korea and signed your contract. This is to keep people from running away once they realized they’ve been placed somewhere other than they’d hoped. Sometimes, people find themselves on Jeju Island—Korea’s romantic, paradisal getaway. In other instances, they’re put 20 kilometers south of the DMZ, where the contents of their cupboards rattle with the booms of military drills just outside of town.

“It really is a leap of faith,” Kim said the night before. We left our homes and the connections we had there to move to somewhere in the Republic of Korea and teach there for the year—all in the hope that the experience would repay the time we spent being anxious.

At Seoraksan, I posed for every picture, terrified and on the mountain anyway. I can’t tell you how my day would have been if I hadn’t gone. But I can tell you the view was worth it.

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